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20 September 2021

From the NS archive: Americans find a place in the sun

3 October 1980: Politics and population in the US’s sun and snow belts.

By Claudia Wright

As the United States prepared for the presidential election of November 1980, a political struggle was taking place over the results of the 1980 US census. As Claudia Wright reported, the census showed a huge shift of population to the Sun Belt states – from Alabama to Hawaii, where the summers are long and hot. A federal judge in Detroit had found a constitutional violation in the undercounting of minority groups, invalidating the census. At the same time, politicians debated grants to help low-income households with fuel bills. Should funds go to households that needed to heat their homes, or those that needed to cool them too?

Previously, Wright wrote, “the political and economic character of a people or a place appeared to depend on the physical influence of the climate. The colder it was, the more industrious and progressive the people. Sunshine and muggy weather made for a certain slovenliness.” Now the weather line was not so much a distinction between character “as the border between the old industrial economy, based on old technologies, unionised labour, and expensive land, and the new post-industrial economy”.

Late in August, the House of Representatives was debating an Appropriations Bill which included a measure to provide $1.8bn for grants to help low-income households with their fuel bills. The money was to go to the states, then be handed on to eligible recipients, so state governments had a big stake in the allocation formula. The original bill favoured states with high costs of fuel to heat homes in winter. However, Congressman Roybal of California moved an amendment that would have spread the money more widely over the country by making low-income households eligible for grants to run fans and air-conditioners as well as boilers and central heaters.

A sharp debate ensued and the amendment was narrowly defeated, by 215 votes to 199. For Roybal and air-conditioning for the poor were Representatives of 20 states from Alabama to Hawaii where summers are long and hot – in short, the Sun Belt. Voting against Roybal and for central heating were almost all the other states, known collectively as the Snow Belt. Party alignment made no difference at all. Congressman Alexander of Arkansas, noting that his state stood to gain $2.4m from the amendment, argued this wasn’t the point. Many more people died from heat wave conditions than from cold – 1,200 in 23 states this past June and July:

“The cost of cooling should be figured into the distribution formula. If the programme is simply a callous political response to the special interest pressures brought by the most densely populated of our states, which are at present in the Snow Belt, then we are… thoroughly trampling the American tradition of fair play.”

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[see also: From the NS archive: New York, New bloody York]

Alexander lost, but he knows this is likely to be one of the last hurrahs of the increasingly enfeebled Snow Belt in Congress. The fight that is brewing over the results of the 1980 census illustrates why.

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During the summer, preliminary figures from the 1980 census were issued by the Census Bureau to cities and towns across the United States. They were then given ten days to review the estimates and report back. The figures confirmed what had long been predicted. The dense concentration of population in the old cities of the Snow Belt is diminishing rapidly. In New York State, Rochester lost more than 23 per cent of its population between 1970 and 1980. New York City’s estimate was put at 6.8 million, down a million since 1970 (a loss of 13 per cent), and the first time the population had slipped below seven million since the Depression. Baltimore lost 18.6 per cent of its population, Pittsburgh 21 per cent, Boston 21 per cent, Hartford (Connecticut) between 20 and 25 per cent. In a survey taken by the US Conference of Mayors in early August, 56 out of 79 cities surveyed claimed significant undercounts by the census.

These also included many Sun Belt cities, which have disputed census returns on the number of blacks and Hispanics – groups which have always been underestimated because they are unreachable through the mail because they are illiterate or afraid to fill out the forms, or because census takers are unable to find them at home or are unwilling to enter houses or apartments to identify the occupants. According to Census Bureau figures, at least 8 per cent of the nation’s black residents were not counted in 1970.

Officially no one disputes the undercount of the urban poor, but since the Census Bureau believes the proportion of black and Hispanic uncounted has probably stayed the same over the decade, their concern is with the newer, more dramatic losses of the north-eastern and Midwestern metropolises. In contrast to their population decline, there has been rapid growth in the suburb and in the non-metropolitan or rural areas. What this pattern of population movement does, when confirmed by the census, is to compel the redrawing of Congressional district boundaries, changing Congressional strengths, tipping the balance of vote in favour of the southern and western Sun Belt region for the first time. The shift in population between states also forces a reallocation of Electoral College votes (each state is represented by a number of electors corresponding to the total number of its House Representatives, plus two corresponding to its Senate seats). By the next presidential election, it is estimated that New York will have lost four seats (down 10 per cent), Pennsylvania two, Illinois two, and Ohio two. On the other hand, Texas, California and Florida will each have gained two. In closely fought presidential races, these could easily provide the margin for victory.

It will take time for the 1980 census results to shift votes on the Hill and in presidential races, but one result with almost immediate impact will be the shift of federal funds flowing out of Washington according to allocation formulae that must reflect the population count. At stake is a total of at least $50bn in federal funds, and for both potential losers and winners – cities and states – the census count is a more significant political risk right now than any other political contest.

New York, Baltimore and Chicago are already involved in law suits against the Census Bureau. This month, a judge ordered the impoundment of census records at district offices in New York, to give the city time to check preliminary counts against their own efforts. These are being pushed by the offer of a bounty on each new head that can be counted.

Manoeuvres like these may produce improved figures for the now belt cities – Rochester managed to find an additional 14,502 inhabitants after spending $80,000 in search and bounty money – but they will lead to improved totals in the sun belt cities too. New Orleans, for example, is claiming an undercount of between 50,000 and 100,000, Phoenix 99,000, San Antonio and San Juan between 100,000 and 125,000 each. The bounty hunt for the urban underclass is likely to end up showing exactly the same trend as the official count.

Like the vote on the Roybal amendment, the fight over the census divides the states and cities, but not the political parties, down a rough weatherline. In Montesquieu’s time, the political and economic character of a people or a place appeared to depend on the physical influence of the climate. The colder it was, the more industrious and progressive the people. Sunshine and muggy weather made for a certain slovenliness among the natives that ill-fitted them for modern civilisation.

In the American case, the weatherline is not so much a distinction between climates or characters –  it is hot and cold and there are uncivilised natives on both sides – as the border between the old industrial economy, based on old technologies, unionised labour, and expensive land, and the new post-industrial economy. For the latter cheap land, cheap (non-union) labour, and government-subsidised capital and technology are necessities which the political forces of the Sun Belt are attempting to protect or capture from the lagging competition north of the line.

In practice, Congress will probably compromise on the allocation formulae for grants so as to safeguard most of the big losers on the 1980 census from actual financial loss. The Sun Belt will be able to gain, but only if the budget is expanded to accommodate the extra demands for money. Pressures – largely inspired by Sun Belt Congressmen in the past four years – to cut down federal spending and balance the budget will compel a reduction of programme expenditures with least value to the Sun Belt. These include job training for youth, special unemployment benefits, rehabilitation of central cities, petrol rationing, and subsidisation of railways, undergrounds and public bus services. What the Sun Belt wants to see – and will have the power to vote in their place – are higher farm price supports, subsidised capital costs and tax write-offs for new ventures, cheap water, power and highways, and “states’ rights” – a devilishly simple demand that would reserve discretion for the allocation of federal expenditures to local state houses where power is still in the hands of a comfortable elite. At that level the black and Hispanic underclass have no organisation, and poor whites, without unions, can only turn to the Ku Klux Klan.

The predominance of the sun belt in Congress has important implications for American foreign policy. There is no longer the ethnic tie connecting the sun belt suburbanite to his old world roots. Instead, there is a highly articulate sense of how American prosperity depends on the rest of the world’s disadvantage, if not misery. Sun Belt constituents tell their representatives that oil in Saudi Arabia is as American as oil in Texas, and they are prepared to vote to have an army of northern blacks spring from bases in Egypt, Turkey, and Somalia to grab it. The same constituents’ will not trade away Spanish-speaking territory that they have come to regard as their personal property almost as much as they imagine they own their cleaning ladies and the gardeners whose recent arrival from Mexico ensures that wages remain comfortably low.

If traditional American liberalism, at home and abroad, depends on the political power of the Snow Belt’s cities, it is looking more and more like an anachronism – a historical coincidence between the numerical preponderance of the northern cities, the effectiveness of their labour movements, and the hundred-year advantage that victory in the Civil War provided. All this is now passing, almost gone.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).