Price-SCAG demographic conference examines post-recovery trends

July 17, 2018

Experts convene to analyze latest trends in migration, fertility, aging — and their impact on housing and transit

USC Price Professor Dowell Myers (right), who co-organized the conference, takes part on a panel addressing demographic change and the housing shortage. (All photos by Deirdre Flanagan) See more photos on Flickr »

By Matthew Kredell

Amid a changing and uncertain world, one constant for each of the past 29 years has been the annual Demographic Workshop, produced jointly by the USC Price School of Public Policy and the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG). This year, scholars and practitioners came together June 11 at USC to address “Lasting Demographic Impacts After the Recovery.”

“This kind of scholarship reminds me of the importance of demographic data to decision making, across the sectors,” said USC Price Dean Jack H. Knott. “While some measures of poverty and certainly unemployment have finally subsided, so many other issues – especially extreme inequalities – are not returning to the old norm.”

Panel discussions throughout the day looked at recent trends in migration, fertility and aging statistics, whether recovery in the region may be overheated, and how these demographic shifts impact both housing and transportation.

Why is CA’s birthrate on the decline?

Price Ph.D. alum and Schaeffer Center postdoc Johanna Thunell

In the opening panel, which checked up on demographic statistics after a decade of recovery from the great recession, recent USC Price Ph.D. graduate Johanna Thunell presented that, for the 10th year in a row, the fertility rate and amount of births in California have decreased.

The U.S. as a whole has followed a similar path. Women today are projected to have on average 1.76 babies, a level lower than replacement. Los Angeles County has the lowest fertility rate in the SCAG region.

Thunell, a postdoctoral scholar at the USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics, provided possible reasons why people have stopped having babies as a lack of financial security, cultural shift, more working parents, delayed childbirth and workplace policy or increased demands from work. She pointed to public policy options that have had a positive effect on birthrates in some countries, including childcare subsidies, baby bonuses, parental leave and changes in school scheduling to better accommodate a work day.

“Fertility is declining across the board and, no matter what you’re looking at, it hasn’t recovered,” Thunell said. “There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but there’s a lot of possibilities if we care and want to recover fertility back to at least where we’re replacing ourselves.”

Who’s really benefiting from the recovery?

Professor Lisa Schweitzer

USC Price Professor Lisa Schweitzer moderated a panel asking if the region was experiencing an overheated recovery. Steve Levy, director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy, noted that the economy is growing and unemployment is low, but the recovery hasn’t affected everyone evenly.

High-wage earners have flourished while the middle-wage sector is struggling. Overall, wages are barely keeping pace with inflation. Mark Schniepp, director of the California Economic Forecast, added that, in Los Angeles County, there was a 1.5 percent growth in wages for Los Angeles County when taking inflation into account.

Debunking myths about millennials

Professor Dowell Myers

Price Professor Dowell Myers, an urban demographer who helped organize the conference, participated in discussion on demographic change and the housing shortage.

He debunked a common fear that millennials have given up on home ownership, that they’re all going to live in the city and be renters if they do get out of their parents’ house. The data show a national rebound in primary residence home ownership sales in the U.S. It’s just not as visible in California or Los Angeles.

“I think it reaffirms that there is a desire for home ownership, and they just can’t find it,” Myers said. “The homes aren’t there, so what would be more of an upward turn is being stifled.”

Myers noted that the great recession didn’t turn out the way he thought, in one sense, as he expected it to lead to a reset in housing prices. Instead, it slashed construction, depressed supply and, in the face of a burgeoning millennial population, the lack of supply forced prices back up. USC Price Ph.D. candidate Jungho Park spoke on the rental shortage in L.A., with 16.7 percent of all renters dislodged from the rental market.

How much has rail expansion led to displacement?

Professor Marlon Boarnet, left, and Price Ph.D. grad Seva Rodnyansky

USC Price Professor Marlon Boarnet moderated a panel on how demographic change has affected transportation, which also featured recent USC Price Ph.D. graduate Seva Rodnyansky.

Rodnyansky presented research from his dissertation looking into whether the expansion of L.A. Metro rail has increased displacement. He found that, after rail stations open, move rates for all incomes go up by about 3 to 7 percent, but surprisingly the increases are greater for higher-income households.

“That’s not necessarily the displacement story you hear,” Rodnyansky said. “People are moving out — it just might not be the lower income people that you’re expecting.”

Moreover, Rodnyansky’s research showed that other factors such as having a child, getting married or a change in income had a larger impact on decisions to move than the rail station openings. The people who did leave also didn’t go far, with nearly 40 percent moving less than two miles and another 15 to 20 percent less than five miles.

Promoting ‘generational equity’ through sound policy

Just as Myers had opined earlier in the conference that California’s system for property taxes – which penalizes new home owners to the benefit of older people – is not good policy, keynote speaker Paul Taylor from called the current social security structure a similarly bad policy, rewarding wealthy baby boomers at the cost of struggling millennials. Taylor noted that the median net worth of households under the age of 35 is $11,000, compared to $239,000 for ages 65 and over.

“Unless we modernize these programs and take account of our changing demographics, we are sticking it to the rising generation who are just getting started, finally get a job and right off the bat 6.5 to 7 percent goes to social security to pay for benefits for their grandparents’ generation,” Taylor said. “These programs, as magnificent as they are, fail the basic test of generational equity, and it really is incumbent on us as a changing society to rectify that.”

In general, the annual demographic workshop calls attention to the changing balance among all ages and race-ethnic groups. According to Professor Myers, “the population perspective focuses on the well-being of the whole and the linked fates of all its constituent subgroups, which must be monitored over time.”