For anybody who has ever complained about how difficult it is to build things in Austin or argued about how much easier it would be to “get big things done” if the city had a strong-mayor form of government, check the headlines this week about MLS:
Quite the contrast in two cities that are frequently compared to each another. Compare the two deals and I think most people would agree that Austin came out ahead there, too.
So, make that Austin 2, Nashville 0 in this first leg. Although, I’d give Nashville the edge on their kit. I still can’t get past the logo and color scheme reminding me of cedar season.
It’s a solid case study and holds important lessons for Austin and other cities. I started working for Mayor Barry in January 2017 so obviously I can’t claim to be completely objective about the report’s observations and conclusions. Nor, as a regular user of public transportation, can I be completely dispassionate about the outcome of the vote here, or what I hope transit proponents and local officials in other cities will learn from it. It’s been more than six months since I left the mayor’s office and I’m still not sure how to talk about my experience there without running into the risk of it coming across as sour grapes when it comes to things we didn’t accomplish.
As a case study, the report stops short of what you would expect from a more academic treatment in a few key areas–I would have enjoyed a more thorough discussion of how a November vote with higher turnout could have affected the outcome or what the author gleaned from exit polls (assuming access was granted)–but those are very minor quibbles and don’t detract from its value as a case study.
To be clear, while I was a senior staff member, I was not on the core planning team for transit, as it’s referred to in the report. So, what I’ve taken away from the experience reflects only the views of somebody not “in the room” for much of the decision-making process.
That said, Austin, here’s my advice as you look ahead to your next election:
Think carefully about how you apply lessons learned from earlier votes. Your postmortem of a past result or campaign might have been right on target–at the time. If you can’t set aside your biases, or, worse, refuse to recognize the fact that you could have any–and we are all guilty of it–then make sure you have people in the room who have different biases.
Welcome users of the current transit system into the decision-making circle but don’t assume that all users will be supporters. If there’s one place in the report that starts to veer into a blind spot this is it in my opinion. Get on the bus and ask a few people if they’d rather be in a car driving alone to work, even if it meant sitting in soul-crushing traffic.
Get kids involved–and not just as campaign props. Empower them to help make decisions. Yes, many will be too young to vote, but that trope is less relevant in today’s media landscape, where teenagers can command the attention of world leaders. Transit may not be as jarring as gun violence in schools; however, it is about safety. It may not lead to the cover of Time, but it is about climate change.
I’m not sure how you get there but I think it’s pretty clear by now what happens when people hear the word tax and feel that they are being asked for $5 billion or more when nothing vital is at stake.
Nearly 17,000 households representing an estimated 25,000 people (see methodology below) moved to Davidson County from other states in 2017-2018, accounting for the majority of all US-based moves to the county (61%). Davidson County’s net gain, or inflow-outflow, of an estimated 3,358 households from out of state ranked 16th among the 100 largest counties in the country. Maricopa County, AZ (Phoenix) had the largest net gain in households at 21,267, followed by Clark County, NV (Las Vegas) at 15,628, and King County, WA (Seattle) at 10,718. Denver and Wake County (Raleigh) rounded out the top five.
Since nominal change tends to favor large counties—i.e. more people, more moves—it can be helpful to normalize the data to account for differences in total population. Looking at net migration of households from out of state relative to total population, Davidson County jumps up to #7 (Denver is first). In other words, people moving to Davidson County from out of state are having a more significant impact on the size of the overall population here compared to the impact of out-of-state migration in most other large, growing counties.
Where are people coming from?
In terms of migration the top “donor” states to Davidson County ranked by inflow of households (with a minimum of 500) in 2017-2018 were:
New York 598
In net terms (inflow-outflow) Davidson County gained the most households from Illinois (446), California (367), and Florida (337).
The top ten donor counties to Davidson County were:
Rutherford County 2,183
Williamson County 2,045
Sumner County 1,239
Wilson County 1,022
Shelby County 606
Montgomery County 481
Cook County (IL) 465
Los Angeles County (CA) 437
Robertson County 364
Cheatham County 344
The top ten donor counties from out of state were:
Cook County (IL) 465
Los Angeles County (CA) 437
Fulton County (GA) 239
Harris County (TX) 201
Dallas County (TX) 197
Jefferson County (AL) 181
New York County (NY) 166
San Diego County (CA) 160
Maricopa County (AZ) 158
Kings County (NY) 158
Nearly one out of every five households moving to Tennessee from other states went to Davidson County, followed by Shelby County (13%) and Montgomery County (8%).
The IRS publishes annual data showing the number of tax returns, exemptions, and total adjusted gross income reported in each state and county and then matches addresses in consecutive years of filings to identify migrants. Analysts use these returns to estimate households and exemptions to estimate people, but they are not matched 1:1.
For example, multiple returns can be filed from the same address, and not all exemptions are people. Generally, returns are a more accurate proxy for households than exemptions are for people, which is why most analysts focus on returns when reporting the data. Time periods are expressed in hyphenated years (e.g., 2017-2018) due to tax filing deadlines. The 2017-2018 data set includes reported income earned in Tax Year 2017 only but could reflect a move in 2018 during the filing period for most returns, January-April 15, 2018. Since a move could occur at any time between when the Tax Year 2016 return was filed and when the Tax Year 2017 return was filed it must be expressed as two hyphenated calendar years.
Finally, not everybody is required to file a tax return, meaning the IRS data does not reflect the total population. Please see the user guide posted on the IRS website for a more detailed explanation of data limitations and appropriate interpretation.
Nashville’s health care industry accounted for $10.996 billion in value-added to Davidson County’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2018, according to my analysis of BEA’s data, or about $1.50 out of every $10 in total economic value. Health care is 15.3% of total GDP in Davidson County, which ranks first among the largest 100 county economies in the U.S., followed by Bronx (15.1%), Nassau (14.8%), and Kings (13.0%) in New York.
Health care’s inflation-adjusted growth rate of 2.8% in 2018 trailed the Nashville economy overall (4.6%), but the industry’s real value has more than doubled since 2001. Of counties with a health care industry valued at $10 billion or more, only Maricopa, AZ (Phoenix), and Santa Clara, CA, surpassed Davidson’s real growth rate (105%) during 2001-2018.
County-level GDP data is an important milestone for federal statistics programs, especially for counties, like Davidson, belonging to very large metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs), where parsing county-level trends is difficult. Jobs data has been available at the county level for a long time but provides only one indicator of local economic activity. Analysts have been lobbying for publicly available, county-level GDP data for quite some time.
So, on behalf of local analysts and economic developers everywhere, thanks to BEA for this important contribution to our understanding of local economies.
“The prosperity of recent years has disproportionately benefited people with higher incomes, who own property, and who have technical or higher-level skills.”
“Meanwhile, wages have stagnated or fallen for long-term lower-skilled workers who have struggled to keep up, especially people of color.”
I’ve heard different versions of those points made many times since I arrived in Nashville two years ago. Anecdotal evidence abounds about where the benefits of “New Nashville” are accruing, and how growth is exacerbating the gaps between newcomers and existing residents, the “haves” and the “have nots.” But what does the data say? Are those claims accurate? And do they tell the entire story?
To be clear, I hope that Plazas and advocates continue to push our elected leaders to keep equity front and center of debate about economic development in Nashville. When Metro and its various stakeholder groups decide they are ready to have a serious policy, and not just tinker around the edges, I hope that equity will be its cornerstone. There are many good examples from other cities to draw from, including what we adopted in Austin.
But if and when that day comes we’ll need more than testimonials and anecdotal evidence. Clearly articulating goals, developing strategies, and evaluating progress will require data and a serious commitment to open dialogue, transparency, and accountability. As with any public endeavor, everybody gets a say; all experiences are valid. But Very Serious People should not go unchallenged publicly because of what I’ve heard described as “Nashville Nice” or some distorted view of defining “politics” as one’s inalienable right to dissemble when facts are readily accessible. This was part of our motivation behind launching the resident survey and publishing the data on Metro’s open data portal. I hope the Cooper administration and new Metro Council continue down that path.
So, in that spirit, let’s take a look at Plazas’s points. We’ll combine them here since they are somewhat related and restate the issue as follows: Are the benefits of Nashville’s economic growth disproportionately accruing to people equipped with the tools (i.e. education, skills, etc.) to take advantage of it? And, if so, is that exacerbating inequality? I can’t say for sure how Plazas would define or measure “benefit[ed],” but since he used terms such as income and skills it’s probably safe to assume that he was thinking, at least in part, about workers. Which means the question becomes: Have wages “stagnated or fallen” for workers with lower levels of educational attainment compared to those with higher levels?
Here’s a table showing growth in inflation-adjusted (real) average earnings for workers age 25+ in Davidson County by educational attainment and race/ethnicity for 2011-18. The data is from the Census Bureau’s Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics program.
Average earnings for workers in Davidson County with no postsecondary education grew faster than any other cohort during that time period. In fact, average earnings for workers with no high school diploma or GED grew about three times faster than average earnings for workers with a bachelor’s or advanced degree, according to Census estimates. Clearly, Nashville’s recent period of economic growth has produced gains for workers across the spectrum of education and skills, not just at the top of it.
But I don’t think that’s what Plazas was really trying to say. I think his point was directed more toward issues of equity and affordability–and, in that context, he’s absolutely right. Housing experts tell us that we should spend no more than 30% of earnings on housing costs to be considered affordable. Do that calculation using the 2018 figures in the table above and Plazas’s argument comes into focus. For example, average earnings for Black workers in Davidson County are equivalent to about $1,000 in total monthly affordable housing costs. The average rent in Nashville now exceeds $1,400 per month.
It’s the same story for Hispanic workers in Davidson County, as well as workers with no completed postsecondary education, on average. And the gaps are growing. Inflation-adjusted average rent in Nashville increased by 40% in 2011-18, compared to average earnings growth of only 5% for Black workers in Davidson County.
As any of my former students can attest, I feel very strongly–and very likely annoyingly so–about the importance of a call to action when developing a strategy. It’s an often overlooked feature in practice. But if you don’t have a compelling call to action it can be really difficult to get people engaged and participating in a serious way.
I’ll offer this for Plazas’s next one:
In 1998, when Nashville was a much different place, Black workers in Davidson County earned, on average, about 66% that of White workers. Today, despite twenty years of economic growth and opportunity, it’s 59%.