Sam Roberts
Sam Roberts
Who We Are:  A Portrait of America
ISBN: 0812921925
Who We Are: A Portrait of America
Sam Roberts discussed his book, "Who We Are: A Portrait of America," an examination of commonly-held myths about America. The book offers a view of America--where and how we live, income levels, how we're aging--based on the statistics of the 1990 census. According to Mr. Roberts, the numbers reveal that America has undergone a transformation with profound social, economic, and political consequences. He also spoke about his work on the New York Times and the impetus for this work.
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TRANSCRIPT
Who We Are: A Portrait of America
Program Air Date: June 19, 1994

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Sam Roberts, when you did your book on the census, what were some of the more interesting things that you found?
SAM ROBERTS, AUTHOR, "WHO WE ARE": Well, one of the things I tried to do, Brian, was debunk some myths, some stereotypes that Americans are kind of stuck with because we have a tendency not to look in the mirror very much. And I found myths about race, myths about class, myths about the family -- the fact that we sort of have this icon of the middle-class family that's been around for years and years. When, in fact, the family that we have made into an icon is really a 19th century contrivance of the industrial revolution and it really has applied all along mostly to white middle-class families. When we talk about race we inexorably link it to what is called the underclass, to poor people, to lazy people perhaps, when, in fact, by most accounts, if you define the underclass by any number of the regular variables, 55 percent of those people are non-Hispanic, white people. Looking at the kind of things like that -- kind of, in detail, after some research -- and distilling masses of figures that came pouring down on me into some sense and some narrative as to who we are.
LAMB: Why do we do a census?
ROBERTS: We do a census because it's required by the Constitution. That's for starters. The Constitution said count everyone every 10 years so that we can reapportion the Congress; so we can also have some influence on tax policy as well. Those were the basic Constitutional reasons but, in fact, the reason it is counted as much or, in some cases, even more over the years is for the apportionment of federal aid under any number of programs, programs that are dependent on population, dependent on poverty levels, dependent on how many people use mass transit in certain areas. And many of those statistics are gleaned from that census that we take every 10 years.
LAMB: Who does it?
ROBERTS: Who does it? A lot of people who the census hires -- people off the street sometimes, people who are less than qualified sometimes. And that's why we've got to take all of these figures with one large grain of salt. I likened it to weighing yourself on a scale that you know is a little faulty, but as long as you keep using the same scale time and time again, you can at least see a trend. I'd hesitate to use precise figures that there are 248 million, etc., Americans on any given day. But I think one of the great things we can find from the census -- and this was the bicentennial census and that's why I kind of used that to put America in some perspective -- is what those trends are: where we've come from, who we are now and, perhaps extrapolating to some extent, where it is we're going.
LAMB: Five hundred and twenty thousand workers, $2.6 billion -- it cost us -- this is your figures -- $1,040 per person?
ROBERTS: That is what it comes out to, which is a lot, and a lot more than it did -- to ask six questions back when the first census was taken in 1790. You can argue that, given the fact that so much of this is used by businesses, by private industry, that one of the measures that perhaps Vice President Gore should think about is privatizing the census; making business pay for a lot of this information that is actually distributed free and, in fact, causes information overload for many people. There is so much of it that's churned out -- unfortunately, often churned out undistilled, raw -- in ways that we really have to take it and analyze it and that's what I tried to do in this book.
LAMB: Is there someplace I can go and knock on the door and it says, "Census Bureau"?
ROBERTS: There is indeed. There is a place in Maryland and they'll be happy to provide you with lots of material, lots of books, lots of figures; some of it analyzed. There were very helpful to me on the book. But what they don't do often is provide those distilled figures, those cross tabulations. What I did, with some help, was pump a lot of these statistics into computers and try and get back much more information than the census actually presented on its face, so that when we look at something as startling -- and something which is providing us great grounds for optimism is a growing black middle class in America -- that places in the United States, Queens in New York, for instance, where blacks and whites have achieved at least statistical parody in income. First of all, that's something you discover from distilling the figures, not from the raw figures themselves. And then you have the opportunity to go back and say, "Well, who are these people? Are they married couples? Are they Caribbean immigrant blacks? Are they American-born blacks?" And these are the kind of things I tried to do as much as possible in the book.
LAMB: Out in Maryland did you knock on the door out there one day and say, "I want to write this book"?
ROBERTS: I did. Actually, I have a confession to make. I was overdue on another book that I was working on, and having lunch with the editor one day and explained one of the reasons that the other book was a little behind schedule was because I was doing a number of stories off the census for The New York Times, where I work, and found them fascinating -- found the immigration patterns fascinating -- found things about race and education and the aging of America fascinating. And he said, to his credit, "Why not make this into a book?" And it was dreamed of -- it was conceived at that very moment, and it became a project that really consumed me for a great deal of time and something I wanted to get out as quickly as possible because, obviously, even though we're looking at trends rather than figures at one, really, particular point in time, I wanted them to be as fresh as possible.
LAMB: On the back of the book: "Advance acclaim for 'Who We Are.' -- Sam Roberts is one of the few journalists in America who writes candidly about race -- Professor Lani Guinier, University of Pennsylvania Law School." Whose idea was it to get her endorsement?
ROBERTS: It was my idea. She said this at a National Conference of Black Journalists convention. It was reported to me several months after the fact by a colleague at The Times who attended it. And I thought perhaps it would be helpful to put the book in some perspective. She is a well-known figure, certainly well known for her views on race, even though many of them may be misunderstood. And I called her one day and said, "I understand you paid me a compliment." She said, "Yes, indeed, I did and I think you deserve it." And I said, "Well, great. Is that something I could use on the book?" And she said, "Well, send me a copy because I'd love to read it, and then I'd be delighted to have you use that."
LAMB: Another statement, "'Who We Are' makes the best possible use of the US Census" treasury of information. One absorbing chapter follows another. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan."
ROBERTS: Again, Pat Moynihan, who I've known for many years, having covered in various campaigns in New York and covered in the Senate, I find an absolutely brilliant guy. He is someone you can easily disagree with. He is certainly idiosyncratic at times, but he knows an awful lot about a lot of things. And I bounced some of the ideas in the book off him at various points in the research, and he was helpful with some of those ideas.
LAMB: When's the census taken?
ROBERTS: The census is taken April 1st every 10 years. Theoretically, a one-day basis but, in fact, it stretches out much more than that, Brian. People have forms to fill out that come in the mail. They are due back by April 1st. And census takers go out and try to find all the people who've been missed; something they can't possibly do. The census clearly undercounts poor people, immigrants to a great extent -- particularly, of course, illegal immigrants -- and historically has undercounted blacks and other minorities in this country, although they have done what everyone pretty much concedes is a better and better job of doing that. This time, for the first time, they also counted the homeless. However, we define them -- "People without a usual place of residence" is sort of how the census puts it. And what they did was find about 150,000 or so, I believe, in shelters around the country -- or actually it was more than that -- and over 100,000, as the census described it, "visible in street locations." Again, that is probably, based on the means the census used to catch up with those people, a very conservative figure.
LAMB: In the back you have an appendix. And this is appendix H: "Metropolitan areas ranked by wealth and poverty." At the top of the list, Washington, DC, Maryland and Virginia -- income, $46,884 per year. Right under that it's Anchorage; under that's Poughkeepsie, New York; under that's San Francisco and on. What's your reaction to seeing Washington, DC as the top-ranked income, wealth, in the country?
ROBERTS: Well, my reaction is that it's probably yet another indication Washington, as President Reagan once said, is not a place of real people. It's a place of people who often are divorced from the rest of America and, for various reasons, it can't generalize too much; but, in fact, if you look at it statistically, because of things like that, it is not an average place, for the most part. It is not a place where, if you looked at statistics on average Americans in terms of their income and other things, Washington would fall somewhere right in the middle there. And that may, in fact, to some extent distort views of what the rest of the country is thinking.
LAMB: Right across from that is the "metropolitan area" and it's got the percentage of poverty, and the leading area of poverty in the United States, according to the census list, is McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, Texas -- 41.9 percent. What does it mean when somebody's in poverty?
ROBERTS: Well, it means, obviously, that they're poor. But the problem with describing people in poverty is that we're going by the official federal government definition, which is this contrived, outdated marketbasket of goods on which the government bases the official poverty level. If it was ever valid, when it was first conceived about a generation ago, I don't think it is anymore. So I think what it has a tendency to do, even when you throw in things like food stamps and shelter allowances, perhaps, and other benefits, it tends to understate the poverty level in this country. One of the things I found in the book is that working poor is by no means an oxymoron. There are an awful lot of people who are working poor -- working full-time in this country who simply aren't making it, for whom the American dream, however we collectively define it, remains a very elusive thing.
LAMB: Population: "largest cities." Much changed there? I'll show the list. It starts off with: New York, 7.3 million; Los Angeles, 3.4 million; and Chicago, 2.7 million.
ROBERTS: Well, Detroit almost became the first city, I think, to hit one million and then almost drop below one million. To qualify for various federal aid programs, the Census Bureau accommodated Detroit, I think, and scrounged around and dug up enough people so that it kept it at one million. But what we're finding is not only urban growth, which is a phenomenon that's been occurring over the decades, particularly suburban growth -- 1992 is the first Presidential election where suburban voters actually wielded a majority of the power. Fringe-city growth, satellite cities within the suburbs, whether it's White Plains in Westchester County in New York or other places in California, other places outside Washington for sure, and much more growth on the fringes, so that what we have for the first time in America is a majority of people living in metropolises or megalopolises of a million people or more. We have become a part of that collection of very small city-states, if you will. National states -- Germany, Japan, places with large uninhabited areas -- and places that are very tiny perhaps, like Monaco or places like that, in which the vast majority of people live in non-rural places. And to some extent, that obviously has to change the character of this country.
LAMB: In reading through the list of the states where you have the black, white population, Asian, Pacific, American Indian and all that, the state that has the fewest number of African-Americans is Vermont, with only 1,951.
ROBERTS: Well, what's remarkable, Brian is that this country is more diverse than it has ever been in its history. There are more foreign-born people in the United States now than at any point in our history. But that diversity is very isolated, to a great extent -- that you have 89 counties out of the 3,000 or so in the United States where blacks constitute a majority. You also have another 117 counties where the Census Bureau couldn't find one black at all. You also have another 1,400 counties where the percentage of blacks was below 1 percent. So you have this geographic isolation -- some of it by choice, some of it by various patterns that are formed over the years, and a lot of it by illegal segregation of housing through any number of means that occur.
LAMB: You point out that in the original census there were about four million people in the United States -- that one in five were African-Americans, but today there's only 12 percent African-Americans.
ROBERTS: I know. Fascinating. And that's, again, what I find so challenging and, to some extent, surprising in working on the book -- that we have this myth of -- a latter version of yellow peril -- we, that is, white society. Blacks increasing and minorities growing and what's going to happen to that vast majority of non-Hispanic whites who can trace their heritage to Europe, whatever. In fact, America has always been changing and we now have roughly the same proportion of blacks in this country as we had about 100 years ago. Obviously, it was higher when there was slavery. As you say, it was higher when the first census was taken.

You can argue that this has always been a nation of minorities -- Native Americans, Indians, perhaps the first occupants. The Spanish came in as conquerors and ultimately took over. The English, the Dutch and others and we have gone through these successive waves of immigration and change. And I think it's healthy to sit back and reflect on that a little bit -- and that's what I try and do in the book -- that we are going through yet another change now, a major change, an upheaval in terms of the complexion of this country. But one that, unless we recognize and unless we put in some perspective, and unless we can find the right people to broker our diversity, then we're going to be in trouble.

I think these are more challenges than necessarily problems we're facing. And what we do have, as you mentioned, is this obsession with race. When I covered the mayoral campaign in New York for The Times, David Dinkins would say either directly or through his aides occasionally that I was obsessed with race. What obsessed me, if you will, was the fact that we don't talk about race; that it's something that is too touchy, too sensitive and that we don't go into it enough. And at times, in part because of the census, we go into it too much. We reflexively break ourselves down into categories, whether it's by indicational attainment, income, whatever -- here's black, white, Hispanic, which can be either race, as the census points out. But we don't face real racial issues head on. It took President Clinton to come into New York in the campaign last fall and say, somewhat obliquely, that people don't often vote for other people who look different from themselves, to make race a front page story in the mayoral election when, in fact, it was an undercurrent all along.
LAMB: You have a chart with the ancestors and -- I mean, the ancestry where people are from. Where's your family from?
ROBERTS: My family is from probably sort of the Ukraine, I guess. Both sets of grandparents came over, I guess, in the late 19th century or early 20th century. My father married the girl next door in Brooklyn. I grew up in Brooklyn. I still consider that sort of a separate place from New York City. I consider myself a Brooklyn boy. Went to public school there and have seen a city become more and more diverse and, again, it goes to that whole notion of change -- and people are afraid of change. There's an anecdote in the book about an elderly woman coming up to former Mayor Koch of New York one day while he was campaigning and said -- sort of pleading, saying, "Mayor, make it like it was." And he said he never had the heart to tell her that it never was the way she remembered it; that our views become somewhat colored by nostalgia. But, in fact, we have always been going through changes and evolutions, and some things have gotten better and some have gotten worse.
LAMB: You dedicate this book to "my mother." Is she alive?
ROBERTS: She died last fall, just before the book came out, but in time for her to see the dedication, I'm happy to say.
LAMB: "To Ethel Roberts, a source of wisdom and strength who spanned the century as a sturdy bridge between immigrant parents and two new generations of Americans." Did you have to think that one out?
ROBERTS: No. I didn't -- to tell you the truth, I didn't think much about a dedication because I wasn't sure what dedications were for in books. I write a lot of newspaper stories, I write a lot of magazine stories without dedications. I guess dedications in books are something of a tradition. And then when I sat to write this one, because the publisher called up and said, "Hey, where is the dedication?" I realized that my mother was certainly the proper one to dedicate it to, because she was that bridge. She was the daughter of immigrant parents. She was the daughter of immigrant parents who came from another country unable to speak the language-- an immigrant mother who became the president of a PTA -- parent-teachers group -- in Brooklyn when she could speak only Yiddish, not English -- and yet we have complaints today in this country about people who can only speak Spanish, not English -- and has been a bridge and a source of strength, both to me and my sister and to our children, this next generation, which obviously is poised to take over in the next millennium.
LAMB: Is your father still alive?
ROBERTS: No, he's not. He died about 10 years ago.
LAMB: What was he like?
ROBERTS: He was a great guy. He was very down-to-earth. He liked people a lot. He liked to talk to people; he liked to hear their stories. And he taught me, I hope, as well as he did, to see the best in people, to look constructively at people. And he always said that you have to build people up, that people always feel a little insecure about themselves for whatever reason. And without being phony about it, without being patronizing about it, you've got to pay them compliments when they deserve it. You have to offer them constructive criticism when it can be helpful. And you have to go out of your way to be nice and good and moral and ethical, however we define all of those things.
LAMB: How did you get to The New York Times?
ROBERTS: I got to The New York Times first as a copyboy right after college -- or during a summer at college. I hated it. It was a demeaning, boring clerical job and I said, "Whoa. You know, even though this is The New York Times, which is the greatest place one can be, perhaps, in American journalism or print journalism certainly, I don't want to go shuffle papers and deal with this." So I got an offer of a writing job right out of college at the Daily News in New York and spent 14 years there as a political correspondent, about five years as the city editor. And then I was calling The Times to recommend someone else who had asked me to help them get a job, someone who didn't really need my help, and at that point The Times editors, who I'd known over the years, said, "Well, that's fine, but what about you?" And it was the time to make a move.
LAMB: You're listed as the urban affairs columnist. What's that?
ROBERTS: It's whatever I want it to be, which is a great deal. I hope not too many Times editors are listening tonight. Urban affairs is really whatever I want it to be. It's anything going on in the urban part of this country, the part that is clearly dominant in terms of everything we care about and everything that's happening to us and, obviously, suburban as well. It is race. It is economic development. It's immigration. It's education. It's the aging of our population. It's what money we make and what jobs we're in, where poverty is. And an attempt to -- I start off always kind of wanting of solve some of these things and then realize that perhaps we can only expect, if not incremental progress, then at least perhaps I can make some contribution in illuminating them and putting them in some perspective.

I'm working on another book that absolutely fascinates me as well, and that is using Jacob Riis as a benchmark to look at poverty in America in the 1890s and the 1990s. And, again, using the same kind of perspective that I used in -- or hope that I used in "Who We Are" -- trying to put who we are today in some sort of context as to where we're coming from and perhaps some indication of where we're going.
LAMB: Where is the center of the country now?
ROBERTS: The center of the country, in terms of population -- and it's one of those sort of funny things that only a scientist could dream up or a demographer. If everyone in the country weighed the same and you put the country on a flat plain and pivoted it, it would be in Steelville, Missouri, in a national forest, actually, where some family has a summer home -- some people who live, I think, in St. Louis. And that is the center of population for the United States. It is the closest it's ever been to the geographic center of the continental United States and the farthest it's ever been from Washington, which, of course, is not far from where it began when the census started in 1790. It has been inexorably inching westward and, to some extent, southward over the past 200 years.
LAMB: Where is the actual center of the country? Do you know where -- I mean, the physical center.
ROBERTS: The geographic center of the United States I think is in Kansas, but I'm not positive.
LAMB: You say 54 percent of the American people live in counties that are on either coast.
ROBERTS: That's right. It shows, again, where concentrations of population are; that this is a historic phenomenon -- whether it began because of shipping, transportation, being close to the water, perhaps even for recreation, which certainly in Florida it counts, in part, for the growth. The majority of people live close to one of the coasts of the United States.
LAMB: Is that changing?
ROBERTS: It is changing. One of the things that's changing that I ran across in the book that was sort of startling is the country is shrinking, in part because of better measurement of just what our land mass is and part of -- because of erosion. I discovered that the land mass of the United States in 1990 was actually somewhat smaller than it was in 1980. But what changes in this country and what -- another thing that distinguishes it so much from virtually any developed country in the world is the mobility of our population. In Washington -- I think perhaps a third of the people who live in Washington were actually born in or near Washington. Pittsburgh is somewhere about 80 percent. Florida, 70 percent of the people were born in another state. There is this constant moving and mobility. A lot of it is following jobs. A lot of it is retirement. And it defies the usual stereotypes once again. There is this movement of blacks from the north to the south and this is not simply elderly blacks retiring back home, if you will. Nor is it Puerto Ricans going from New York City back to Puerto Rico to retire. It's a lot of younger people looking for jobs, looking for new opportunities in other places as well.
LAMB: I wrote down three statistics that I want to ask you what they mean and if they're changing. You list that there are about 1,900,000 Americans that are in college dormitories. Then another figure is that there are 1,700,000 that are in nursing homes. And finally that there are 1,115,000 in prisons.
ROBERTS: Yeah. The good news is that there are more in college dormitories than prisons.
LAMB: What's happening there? Is it changing?
ROBERTS: It is changing. Prisons turn out to be the fastest growing category of housing in the United States. That's a frightening prospect. It's frightening on any number of levels, in part because we're not building enough housing for law-abiding people. Also in part because we haven't found enough alternatives to incarceration and also because so many people are committing crimes. On all of those levels, it's frightening that the criminal population, if you will, has grown so enormously that there are more than a million people -- roughly one out of every 250 Americans -- in jail at any given moment. The nursing home population is also growing and what that's indicative of, as I show in the book, is the aging of America.

We are becoming an older country -- disproportionately old compared to the rest of the world, in fact. What we have now is -- not that long ago people over 85 accounted for 4 percent of the elderly population. Now they count for 10 percent. The census found 36,000 people 100 years old or older. Those are clearly exceptions, but this country is going to get older and older. Theoretically, of course, since there probably is -- or we don't know if there's any limit to medical advances, that could go on indefinitely.

But the implications of that for national policy are enormous, for national health care, for unemployment, for retirement, for this tension between groups like the American Association for Retired Persons and a more informal, more ad hoc association of baby boomers as to who is going to get that pot of retirement benefits. School budgets all over the country being voted down to some extent by more elderly populations who have less of a stake or see less of the reward from increasing those budgets. Those are things that are going to have vast implications over the years.

And something I mentioned in the book called the dependency ratio, which is the number of working-age Americans compared to the youngest Americans, who need their support as parents or whatever, and the oldest Americans, and that ratio is shifting enormously. There is a bigger and bigger burden because there's a growing proportion of older people and at the youngest levels, at least, a growing proportion of young people as well. The third statistic you mentioned was college dorms. More people are going to college than ever before. That's a great accomplishment. Three out of four Americans now has at least a high school diploma. Terrific. The problem becomes that a college degree is not buying what it used to buy; that people are getting out of college and they're not getting salaries, they're not getting incomes commensurate with that higher education. They get a lot less without it. There's no question that the difference in incomes between someone who's graduated only from high school and someone who's gone through college is enormous, but the rise in income among college-educated people, particularly in the past decade, has been, you can argue, alarmingly slow and, in some cases, has even regressed over the years.
LAMB: One out of 16 people live in a mobile home.
ROBERTS: Yeah. Now you could argue whether that's good or bad, except that traditionally or historically, mobile homes in this country have sort of been indicative of people, for whatever reasons, at the margin of society -- perhaps financially, perhaps socially as well. So the statistics seem to me fascinating on that basis. And assuming these aren't all sitting on top of concrete foundations, and they're not supposed to be, according to census guidelines, to be counted as mobile homes, they are yet another indication of this nation's mobility; that we are ready at various points to just pack up and leave and move someplace else.
LAMB: Commuters. You say that in New York, you have the longest commute -- the average commute of 30.6 minutes one way every day. And then Washington -- here -- where I live, it's 29.6.
ROBERTS: You save one minute. That's true. It's one minute less. Every minute counts.
LAMB: Are these the two most congested places in the whole country?
ROBERTS: Just about. There's a place I think in Colorado that has about the shortest commute. I'm not exactly sure why. But in terms of metropolitan areas, New York is number one. Even Los Angeles is about four minutes less than Washington. It should be some comfort out there. At least that'll happen after the Santa Monica Freeway is rebuilt. But we spend an awful lot of time commuting. Three out of four people get to work in their own car -- or one person in a car. With all the talk about mass transit, car pooling, the vast majority of Americans -- because of that independence, because -- again this provides an insight into who we are -- will drive to work on their own, in many cases when they don't have to. One of the things I found out in the book, too, is that there are more Americans with three cars or three vehicles than there are with no cars at all.
LAMB: Where would you go in the United States if you wanted to meet the most diverse group of people?
ROBERTS: The most diverse group of people, at least ethnically, racially and probably on a number of other levels, too, would be Queens, New York. The Census Bureau has said that there is no place in the country, certainly of comparable size, where there are roughly equal numbers of what the bureau calls non-Hispanic white people, blacks, Hispanic people, Asians and other races.
LAMB: Where is the second place?
ROBERTS: The second place -- I'm not sure exactly but I'll bet it's somewhere in California. It could well be Los Angeles, San Francisco, places that are growing enormously in their diversity. And once again, it's not something by any means that's necessarily to be feared. This is a change that's been going on for decades and decades.
LAMB: You mentioned earlier there are only about 2,000 blacks in Vermont. But where would you go where it's the whitest place in the United States?
ROBERTS: The whitest place, I think you could look up in the book, I'm sure it's somewhere in the Midwest. Counties that have virtually no black, Hispanic, Asian people at all. Again, this doesn't make them bad. It's just the way the nation has developed in one way or another. There are places where counties -- cities in the country in which foreign-born people now constitute a majority and there are places in the country -- counties where foreign-born people may be one in 350 or so residents. So again, we are enormously diverse as a nation. But that diversity is kind of isolated in pockets all over.
LAMB: In the last 10 years there are more foreign-born from Asia than -- first time in history -- than there were from Europe.
ROBERTS: That's correct. There are more Asians living in New York now than there are Asians living in Hawaii, for the first time. Again, one of those sort of fascinating little facts that the census doesn't announce, but when you pour over those figures to the extent that last week I had to go for reading glasses for the first time -- a consequence of doing this book -- you find things like that that really sort of illuminate these trends perhaps more than the raw figures themselves.
LAMB: When did you start writing the book?
ROBERTS: I started writing it, I guess, about two years ago. The census was taken in 1990, but those figures don't come out that quickly. The Census Bureau does a terrific job and I think a better and better job of getting the information out, but it comes out relatively slowly and, in fact, some of it is still coming out from the 1990 census. And also, as I said, it comes out voluminously. It comes out in overwhelming detail and proportion and, for the most part, it doesn't come out massaged, distilled, put into some kind of perspective, which is really what I -- was my goal in the book.
LAMB: If we would have found you at the height of your research and involvement in this, where would we have spotted you?
ROBERTS: Well, it could very well have been at the Census Bureau, where I spent a good deal of time, at the library, at my home computer getting bleary-eyed sitting in the den in my apartment trying to pour over these statistics and look at one giant book. It was like "A Day at the Races," the Marx brothers movie, where you have to have one manual to figure out the other manual and the housing figures matched against the education figures. And now more and more, I am able to do -- and for the latter parts of the book as well -- I'm able to do that by computer, so that you can actually punch in the kind of things where you can find out how many people -- well, find out, for instance, that in Florida, the Sunshine State, more people use wood as fuel than solar energy.
LAMB: $2.6 billion on the whole effort for the census. Is that figure going up?
ROBERTS: Oh, it's got to go up I would think if, for no other reason, than because of inflation. But I would also think that because of technological advances, Brian, the same way we can, for better or for worse, file taxes electronically now, that the Census Bureau will become a lot more efficient over the years, both in the filing of information and the search for information and, I would like to think, in the dissemination of that information as well.
LAMB: Who benefits besides people like you writing books and the states that -- where you were talking about federal aid?
ROBERTS: Well, if you argue the states benefit, obviously the people who live in them do. Some of the states lose, of course, when they find that the populations have gone elsewhere. I think there was only one place in the country, a little hamlet in New Jersey, which complained that it had been overcounted. It sort of enjoyed the distinction of being the smallest place in the state. Fifty-one or so other cities or even more than that complained that they had been undercounted because that would mean substantial losses, not only in political power in terms of congressional representation, but also in terms of just vast amounts of federal aid that they could spend on their citizens.

Businesses benefit a lot. Individuals benefit a lot. I tell the story about an orthodontist who was living on the East Coast, decided he wanted to practice on the West Coast and was trying to find the place that was demographically perfect -- had enough adolescents; that was located within 10 miles of the beach, somewhere I think between Los Angeles and San Francisco -- a perfect place where he wanted to practice. The census, unfortunately for him, didn't measure the condition of people's teeth, but almost everything else and provided him with that information. I think an argument can be made that somehow private industry should foot more of the bill for it, but I think we all benefit by holding up a mirror to ourselves, pausing every once in a while and looking in that mirror and discovering who we are.
LAMB: In the back, again in the appendix, you have a list of ancestry of the population. And I want to use the European list because it's got the most on it. Were you surprised at all by how this came out -- and is it changing? If you look on here, you've got Irish, 15.6 percent ancestry; English -- I see it right there -- we have 13.1; but the largest is German, 23.3 percent.
ROBERTS: The largest is German. In fact, if we go back to the stereotypical American -- as I say in the book, Uncle Sam meet Ms. America -- she's about a 32.7 year old woman, married, white, with kids, probably working, lives in a mortgaged suburban home heated by natural gas and has some German ancestry. That is the predominant characteristic, the predominant ancestry heritage of most people in the United States, but it's still a relatively small number given the entire population.
LAMB: One in four.
ROBERTS: Yeah.
LAMB: How long has it been that way?
ROBERTS: For quite some time, but it's a number that's going down very, very, very rapidly -- very rapidly. A lot ...
LAMB: Based on what you've found in the 1990 census, what will it look like -- pick your time -- 20 years from now? How will that change?
ROBERTS: Well, I'm reluctant to make predictions because a lot of the predictions I went back and looked at in earlier years, for whatever reason, didn't happen. Texas was supposed to surpass New York as the second most populous state in the country. That didn't happen because of an oil glut that hit Texas. Other things affect life and death. The AIDS crisis, obviously, affects death rates in the country; it affects lifespans, things we can't possibly predict. But looking at the trends that I saw in the book, there are things we can point to and expect. First of all, clearly an aging of America, as baby boomers -- I guess such as myself and the President -- move up in what demographers call that age period, there is going to be a big, big bulge. There is going to be a much larger proportion of older Americans and, again, the consequences of that, for health care, for all sorts of other issues, are going to be enormous.

We're going to see a continuing trend toward a more diverse America, both in terms of foreign-born people who are still pouring in legally and illegally, for better or for worse. The English-only movements and others notwithstanding, this is something that's been happening in the country for years and years, even though it's something we've been ambivalent over. Changing family -- the only reason that Murphy Brown is, once again, the most famous single mother in America is because Marla Maples got married. This is a trend that's been going on. About one in four kids are growing up in this country with a single parent. What's happening more and more in that trend is that many more of these single parents are never-married women, for whatever reason, rather than divorced or widowed. These are all the kind of things we're seeing in the country.

And one of the phenomena I talk about is something that tries to place the United States in perspective in the world. Americans account for maybe about one in 20, one in 25 people in the entire world. And that proportion is shrinking as population rates -- birth rates -- increase elsewhere. And in about 30 years or so, Bangladesh, if things keep going the way they're going, which is a place the size of Wisconsin, will have a population equal to that of the entire United States. How are we going to feed all those people -- we, collectively, the world? How are are we going to compete in a new global economy? Even if we find the scientific means to develop the food to feed people like that, how are they going to find the jobs to afford to eat? These are all of the things that I think are challenges looming ahead; challenges we can face up to once we recognize who we are.
LAMB: Where did you get the idea for this cover?
ROBERTS: The cover came from Michael Roberts, my 12-year-old son. He said, why not an American flag made, in part, of numbers. And it turned out to be a good idea and the publisher thought so, too.
LAMB: You ...
ROBERTS: Although numbers are something I tried to avoid as much as possible in the book. I tried to get away from the jargon that demographers usually use in the census. One of the challenges I had was, "Could I get through this whole book without using the word 'cohort'"? A favorite of demographers. And I did. There are kind of things that turn me off, that I don't understand myself half the time, and I thought it would be much more beneficial, much more readable to tell this story in a more narrative way and to tell it through people.
LAMB: What's happening to the divorce rate?
ROBERTS: The divorce rate keeps going up. The ratio of divorces to marriages has hit a record high. And it's higher than it is in most other developed countries in the world. Teenage births are going down. It's, you know, sort of on the opposite end of that equation. And one reason is that the number of teenagers is decreasing. And the portion of never-married Americans is going up all the time. One of the things I found out that was startling when we talk about dependency and people worrying about having to care for their parents in future years -- there was a greater number of young Americans, roughly early 20s, living with their parents than there probably has been in decades and decades.
LAMB: I just remember one reference to Schaumburg, Illinois, as a place where a group of foreign-born live. And I don't remember whether -- is it Vietnamese or Asian?
ROBERTS: I know it's an Asian population.
LAMB: Are there other towns like that around that you found unusual where a whole group of people would reside because somebody started it?
ROBERTS: Yeah. One of the things you find, Brian, and it's typical -- and, again, it is part of a tradition. One of the reasons my family moved to a certain part of Brooklyn, and part of them actually to Kentucky and Ohio, was because other people from that same village, from that same country had come before them. The same thing happens here with Asians, with Mexicans, with immigrants from Colombia, with continuing immigrant flows from Europe, from Ireland and other places. Soviet Jews -- you find them in enclaves. You find enclaves -- ethnic enclaves like that all over the country. What's fascinating is what happens when they reach the economic or perhaps social level where they want to move out, where they want to assimilate. Are they able to do it? The answer is yes and no. Asians, for the most part, can move to the suburbs and move to suburbanlike or better neighborhoods. Hispanic people somewhat less. The group that has traditionally, historically and still has the biggest problem in doing that is blacks. Whether that's racial, class, we're not sure, but it proves to be true regardless of class distinctions, and that's a disturbing factor.
LAMB: Here's an interesting figure. The number of marriages between blacks and whites tripled to 211,000 in 1990.
ROBERTS: Still I think about 2 percent of all the people who were married or the marriages that took place, a very small number. But some would argue that the only way we're ever going to get rid of our historical obsession with race is through generations of intermarriage, perhaps. I don't think that's going to work, or I think it will take too long, if that's one means. I don't think we can afford to wait that long -- the country has got to face up to the issues of race -- issues that I try to address in the book, whether it's immigration or crime or education levels or jobs. And these are things that we can't just ignore and pretend they don't exist.
LAMB: Where would you find the most integrated neighborhood? I'm not sure I know what I mean by integrated, but I would assume it would be -- we asked earlier about Queens being the most different from an immigrant standpoint. How about integrated from black-white or Hispanic-white, or Hispanic-black-white -- that kind of a neighborhood?
ROBERTS: Yeah. It's hard to tell because, again, we're dealing with sort of artificial political boundaries. So, again, Queens, as a borough of New York City, as a county, is very integrated. But when you look much more closely at it -- again, one of the things I tried to do in the book -- you find blacks, Hispanic people to a lesser extent, Asians, particularly first generation immigrant Asians to a greater extent, in enclaves all over the borough. So that while the borough itself is reasonably diverse, people still live in isolation to a great extent, either because of segregation or another reason.
LAMB: Here's a map that shows where the Hispanic population is concentrated.
ROBERTS: Not surprising but, sure enough, it's there. It's in Florida. It's in Texas. It's in the Southwest in general. And you look along in south Florida and along the Texas border and you find a totally different America than you do along the Canadian border or in the Northeast. So we've got to remember that who we are is a group portrait. It's holding up a mirror to a population that is now well beyond 250 million, a population that changes every day, and we better remember that who we are includes a lot of different people, as it always has in this country, and that we've got to adapt to rather than fear change.
LAMB: Here's the concentration of African-Americans. Has this changed much in the last 10 years?
ROBERTS: It sure has, even though it looks like it is so heavily concentrated in the South -- which it is. It's a lot less concentrated in the South than that map would have shown a number of decades ago -- 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago for sure. Anne Cronin of The Times did these charts and maps, which I think were enormously helpful rather than just throwing up raw numbers. And what they show is, to some extent, movement. They show things as much as we possibly could on a comparative basis, so we didn't just say, "here's everything the way it looks today as best we can tell," but really much more “here’s how it's been changing over 10, 20 or even more years.”
LAMB: Here's another chart. And this one shows the lighter states are where basically people haven't moved. They were born in a state and stayed there. And the darker ones are where they have the highest percentage of people move from out of state. What's happening here?
ROBERTS: Well, exactly. You find that in the Midwest in particular, in sort of the Rust Belt states, Pennsylvania and New York, much less mobility, and you find it predictably along the coast, in Florida, which has enormous, enormous growth; California. And one of the things I found somewhat surprising in the book is that those states, while they haven't become really saturated, have reached a certain level where the growth has slowed, perhaps even stopped in some cases. And what's happening is the growth is spilling over into the neighboring states, so that places like Nevada and places in Georgia are growing at an even faster rate than places in Florida and California.
LAMB: As books go, this is only $18.
ROBERTS: That's for you to say.
LAMB: Well, I -- no, but, I mean, I see a lot of prices and they're usually over $20.
ROBERTS: I don't understand how they cook up these prices frankly.
LAMB: Who's going to buy this book?
ROBERTS: I hope a lot of people. I don't know who. A number of the reviews said that it should be on every school reading list in the country, every high school and college student. Another described the writing as Whitmanesque, which I thought was very generous. It's not meant to be scholarly. It's not meant to be just for a crowd of demographers or social scientists. It's meant to be for policy-makers, to some extent. It's meant to be for people who want to be informed about who they are growing up with in this country, where this country is going and -- and it's for people who, I think, would like to be able to make intelligent choices about their own lives, where they want to live, what they want to do and how this country is changing around them and how to adapt best to that change.
LAMB: What questions do they not ask you on your census form that you think they should?
ROBERTS: Well, I'd be curious about a couple of things. Religion is one that obviously changes views and changes people's attitudes politically and otherwise. The census used to ask about religion -- stopped because it became too sensitive an issue over the years. Stopped, I think, early in this century, in fact. And there are sort of other things of a much more specific nature, almost a technical nature, that I wish they ask because I can find a question that I find fascinating and I can find maybe 80 percent of the answer by measuring one set of statistics against the other and doing cross-tabulations. And then I'm still missing a little piece because I'm not sure whether co-ops -- co-op apartments -- are being properly defined by people who fill out the form as places they own or places they rent. Little things like that that I would love to be able to nail down better. But I think for what is clearly a flawed system, this provides probably the best portrait of the country we can possibly get.
LAMB: Can you remember getting a form and filling it out yourself?
ROBERTS: I can. I'm happy to say that I got a form and I did fill it out. I did my duty as a citizen. Certainly not everyone does. I'm not going to make a value judgment on that. But I did get one and filled it out, yes indeed.
LAMB: Do you have to fill them out?
ROBERTS: By law you are supposed to fill them out, yes.
LAMB: What's the fine?
ROBERTS: The fine is something relatively minimal, and there may even be a jail sentence that accompanies it, but I checked the Census Bureau and no one had been fined or sent to jail for not filling out a form. There's similarly a fine for filling out a form falsely; this is an official government document. But again, it is part of the American nature to rely a great deal on trust; perhaps too much in some cases, but we do that. We rely in the census on self-identification. No one comes up to you and says, "Well, what do you mean you're black or white or whatever?" You are identifying yourself. You are answering how much your income is and, again, there is an element of trust in all of that on the assumption that once we accumulate all of that material, we're going to get pretty accurate answers.
LAMB: How about the number of people living in each dwelling -- going up or down?
ROBERTS: It is going down, I believe. We are becoming sort of a more crowded society. The problem, though, is not so much the density, which varies around the country in terms of how crowded different apartments or houses are, as the fact that more and more Americans can't afford to buy their own homes -- that the American Dream is not being realized because gains in income are simply not up to what it costs to provide housing. And this occurs at a time when, as I said, the major growth in any housing category has been prisons rather than single-family homes or apartments for first-time home buyers.
LAMB: You have a lot a talk about what's happening to the shift in population in and out of states. Four states which lost population during the 1980s shared a common denominator: they were either victims of the bust in energy production or had a high proportion of rural residence or both. West Virginia suffered the largest loss, 7.6 percent; followed by Iowa, 4.3 percent; Wyoming, 2.9 percent; and North Dakota, 1.7 percent.
ROBERTS: That probably has kept up to a great extent into the '90s. And what it shows, again, is the shift sort of from the middle of the country toward the coasts, which are doing better, to a great extent, financially, in terms of the economy at this point, having weathered the recession to one extent or another.
LAMB: Except that the three states you focus on that get the biggest gain in population are Nevada, Alaska and Idaho.
ROBERTS: Well, that's the biggest percentage gain, of course, although Nevada shows very big with numbers as well. And, again, that is that enormous spillover from California. When you look at the proportion of people in Nevada who were not born in the state, I believe it's something like seven in 10 or maybe even eight in 10; it's absolutely enormous.
LAMB: Why are they moving there?
ROBERTS: They're moving there because they are finding cheaper housing. They are finding jobs in various industries. They are finding jobs that are close to work. They're finding living conditions that obviously, they seem to think, are better than the ones they're leaving. They're finding opportunity, which is presumably the reason people always have moved.
LAMB: One in 10 Americans, one in nine Americans now live in California?
ROBERTS: Yep. California ...
LAMB: Growing?
ROBERTS: Growing, although growing at a slower rate. But California has now gone beyond the political and population dominance that New York had a century or more ago. Fifty-two congressional representatives from California. It's just an enormous clout and you can see it in the way the Clinton administration is paying attention to that state in a way it hasn't to any other.
LAMB: Another interesting statistic, since 1960 nine in 10 American households packed up for another home.
ROBERTS: Remarkable. As I said, there is no other developed industrialized society that is as mobile as ours. And that may be another reflection on our diversity. You ...
LAMB: Does that mean they just moved from another house within ...
ROBERTS: Either one. Could have moved across the street, could have moved across the country. But people have kind of shallow roots in many places. They are Americans, but they are hyphenated Americans in many cases. They are not necessarily just New Yorkers or people from California. They move around a lot, and they especially move around a lot when they are lured or desperate for job opportunities.
LAMB: Any other country in the world that comes close to having this many different kinds of people in it?
ROBERTS: No. There really isn't. Certainly no large country at all. There are places you can look at that are much smaller that are diverse for whatever reasons -- places that have different tribes in them. But when you look at those lists of ancestry, of heritage, of sources of foreign-born population in this country, when you look at the numbers of foreign-born people that have come in to this country just in the past decade alone, there's nothing that comes close.
LAMB: You say collectively that Americans spend 18 percent of their income on housing. Is that going up or down?
ROBERTS: It seems to be going up as housing costs are going up. And one of the frightening things in the book, again, that relates to people being able to afford their own homes is the percentage of income that people spend on housing. There are an awful lot of people who spend more than 35 percent of their monthly or annual income just on a place to live. The government guideline, which, of course, is an average and only a guideline, is roughly supposed to be about 25 percent. A lot of people spending much more than that.
LAMB: This sentence, "Jobs, such as bicycle messengers, surged as entry-level vehicles for employment until they were doomed by the recession, the fax machine and by the mania for cellular telephones, which were being activated at the rate of more than 11,000 a day."
ROBERTS: I think that figure, as it turns out, was probably conservative. The number probably keeps going up every day. And one of the things I found fascinating, Brian, in looking at jobs is how technology and social conditions change employment. We now have more people working in private security -- not the police forces, private security -- than we have in providing recreation and leisure activities for this country. We have more people selling goods, retail and wholesale, than we have manufacturing goods. All of this, again, says more about who we are.
LAMB: What are people most surprised about when they read your book?
ROBERTS: I think they're surprised at some of the myths that have been so enduring that, if I don't shatter in the book, I at least call into question. Myths about race -- when you look, again, at the underclass it is really a majority white -- non-Hispanic white underclass; the myths about the traditional family in America -- it has never really been the Ozzie and Harriet, "Leave It To Beaver" type families. Those were always idealized versions. Things were a lot tougher, a lot less stable in many cases. Sure, they have changed, and, in some cases, gotten worse, but they have never been as ideal as we'd like to remember them. And I think what I'd like people to realize is the challenges we face as we look ahead. Here is a country that, at the end of another century, calls itself the most civilized in the world and yet we have the highest homicide rate in the world. We kind of look smugly and congratulate ourselves at how we treat immigrants, and some of the proposed legislation aside, looking at Germany or other European countries and how they treat immigrants, and yet we have had this hundreds and hundreds of years obsession with race. These are the kinds of things that I'd like people to wake up to a little bit.
LAMB: Near the end, you write, "Despite its use of precise numbers, the Census Bureau is circumspect about its own projections. Nearly as many pages in its volume of forecasts are devoted to the caveats as to the projections themselves."
ROBERTS: Well, that's Census Bureau conservatism and I think it's healthy. I think it's important to realize that these are all the reasons the numbers cannot be taken totally at face value and that's why I relied not that much on the numbers themselves, tried to look more at trends.
LAMB: Can anybody have access to the census numbers?
ROBERTS: Theoretically, yes, if they know what they're looking for and if they know how to do it. And the census, as I said, puts out vast amounts of material, but undistilled for the most part.
LAMB: This is what the book looks like. It's called "Who We Are: A Portrait of America Based On The 1990 Census." Sam Roberts is the author. And thank you for joining us.
ROBERTS: Thank you, Brian.


Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1994. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.