Demographics
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The Topic
"Demography" is the study of human populations, using statistics to describe conditions of life. Demographers consider a range of information about the size and density of populations, the ages of their members, and how populations change. Births, deaths, disease, marriages, divorces, immigration, economic standing, occupation, race, ethnic and country of origin all are subjects for the demographer.
The Context
New York City is unique and fascinating demographically. Recently, it has had large numbers of foreign immigrants arriving, many long-standing residents leaving, an increase in the gap between the rich and the poor, and a rise in the black middle class. It is a city of unique ethnic and racial diversity; it has a large older population. It was the home of many immigrants during the turn of the 20th Century. It was a destination for many African Americans from the Southern United States. Many residents of the City's suburbs fled New York City starting after World War II. In some areas of the city there is rapid growth fueled by immigrants and their children. Some areas are undergoing racial and ethnic transition; others are gentrifying. These trends are important for understanding the Ccty and its evolution.
The Reporter
Andrew A. Beveridge has taught sociology at Queens College since 1981. Since 1993 he has done demographic analyses and consulted for the New York Times. He has provided expert testimony in districting and redistricting, housing discrimination, and numerous other civil rights cases in the metropolitan area and elsewhere. The opinions expressed in Topics are his alone.
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by Andrew Beveridge

New York's Declining Ethnics

New York City's population may be made up more and more of the foreign- born, but, according to the latest U.S. Census, there are fewer ethnic New Yorkers, and "white ethnics" have declined by almost half over the past two decades. This phenomenon, though, may have less to do with demographic shifts and more to do with changing attitudes both by New Yorkers and by the United States Census Bureau.

Part of the uncertainty is that the census bureau has changed the way it has defined and counted ethnicity over the years, just as it has done with race. Starting in 1850, the census asked Americans where their parents were born, and then fit them into one of three categories:

1. "Native Born of Native Stock" -- born in the United States and parents born in the United States

2. "Native Born of Foreign Stock" -- born in the United States, but parents (at least one) born abroad, or

3. "Foreign Born of Foreign Stock."

Thus, if a New Yorker's grandparents had immigrated from Mesopotamia, that New Yorker was put in the same category (native born of native stock) as a descendant of a voyager on the Mayflower. A third-generation American was officially considered to be American, period.

Of course what's official and what's for real are not always (seldom?) the same thing, especially in New York, the ethnic capital of the nation, if not the world.

After lobbying by various ethnic organizations, the census bureau changed its classifications. Starting with the 1980 census, it asked for "ancestry or ethnic origin." This question, not as precise as "where were your parents born?", really requires a kind of subjective self-identification. By the time of the 1990 census, the change in the official demographics of the United States based on this question was summed up in the wry title of an article in the American Sociological Review: "How 4.5 Million Irish Immigrants Became 40 Million Irish Americans."

But ten years later, things seem vastly different. In New York City, the percentage of those claiming Irish ancestry has dropped from 9.2 percent in 1980 to 7.3 percent in 1990 to 5.3 percent in 2000. For the other "white ethnic" groups one finds similar declines:

  • Italian -- 14.2 percent in 1980, 11.5 percent in 1990, 8.7 percent in 2000;
  • German -- 6.4 percent in 1980, 5.4 percent in 1990, and 3.2 percent in 2000;
  • Polish -- 4.8 percent in 1980, 4.1 percent in 1990, and 2.7 percent in 2000.
  • English -- 4.3 percent in 1980, 2.4 percent in 1990, 1.6 percent in 2000.

The census allows for up to two ancestries, so a sizable fraction (roughly about 1/6th) of these individuals reported another ancestry as well. All together, the proportion of people reporting themselves as a member of one of these white ethnic groups in New York City declined from about 39 percent in 1980 to slightly over 20 percent by 2000.

There is no question that the population has changed in the city. But how much of the decline in, say, Italian-Americans in New York is simply because fewer New Yorkers are now calling themselves Italian-American? In 1990, 157,000 New Yorkers (about 2.1 percent of the population) identified their ancestry or ethnic origin simply as "American" or "United States." In 2000, that number had grown to 238,000 (or about 3 percent.) Were these extra "Americans" newly arrived New Yorkers, or were some of them long-time New Yorkers who used to call themselves Irish-American or Polish-American?

These self-identified "un-hyphenated" Americans are clearly a growing trend. At the same time, though, other "ethnic" groups are on the rise in New York, even officially. Those New Yorkers claiming Arab ancestry now number about 71,000 (in 1990, there were 52,000.) The number of New Yorkers with African ancestry has more than doubled, from 54,000 in 1990 to 122,000 in 2000. (The largest group of Africans are the 18,000 Nigerian-Americans.) About 550,000 New Yorkers claim non-Hispanic West Indian ancestry, which is up from 392,000 in 1990. Of these about 213,000 are Jamaican-American.

But, the question: In the censuses of the future, will their children keep the hyphen? Will their grandchildren?


  • US Census Bureau -- The Census Web site is the premier site for data from the 2000 and earlier censuses, and from a variety of other sources. The site is very well indexed and has a very good search engine. You can order data, download data, make maps, download tables and publications, view publications, etc. As with any source it may have both more and less than you want for any specific use.
  • American FactFinder -- The American Fact Finder is meant to be the Census Bureau's main access point to data from the Censuses, the American Community Survey and a variety of other sources. Some criticize it for being hard to use for comparisons from one area to another. For a quick number or two it works like a charm.
  • US/NYS Departments of Labor -- Another exemplary source is the Local Area Unemployment Statistics unit of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Each month the Bureau, in a joint undertaking with the State, provides county by county estimates of the employment status of the working age population.
  • U.S. Commerce Department -- A comprehensive handle on where and how New Yorkers earn their livings. Also features information on Big Apple employers, salaries, industries and their revenues. Especially recommended is a database maintained as part of Commerce's Regional Accounts.
  • New York Metropolitan Transportation Council -- One of the more ambitious online undertakings in making regional and city statistical data. Contains data on population, employment and income, to name a few. Not always easy to use, but well worth the effort.


Other Recommendations:

  • New York City Department of Health -- Though the website of New York City's Department of Health is utterly confusing, their annual publication, "Summary of Vital Statistics for New York" is indispensable for would be students of population dynamics. And it's free. Call the Press Office at 212-788-5290 and ask for the Office of Vital Statistics and Epidemeology. Persevere.
  • New York City Department of City Planning -- The Department of City Planning has begun to update the data based upon Census 2000. Following the links and you can find discussion of changing New York City and some PDF maps.
  • New York City's Housing and Vacancy Survey -- Every three years or so the US Census Bureau provides New York City with a census-type survey of the city's households. Mandated by the rent regulation law, it contains much that is of interest to those concerned with social and economic change at the borough and neighborhood level. A compact disc containing the microdata files for the 1991, 1993 and 1996 surveys can be purchased from the Census Bureau. The 1999 survey tables and data re available for download.

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