Wednesday, March 1, 2017

When defining regions, there are no simple answers

By Matt DeVeau, Project Manager

Some years ago, the peace of a lazy Saturday afternoon was shattered by a seemingly simple question: “Is Missouri in the Midwest?” 

I don’t recall who asked that or why, but the memory of the “friendly but kinda heated” debate that ensued among a group of friends gathered around a pitcher of beer is indelible. As a former Missouri resident, I took the first stab at answering:

“Well, the Census Bureau puts Missouri in the ‘Midwest’ for statistical purposes, but I always thought of it as being in a different category than, say, Indiana.”

Someone added, “To me, the Midwest is basically the footprint of the Big 10 Conference.”*

To which another responded, “Penn State is in the Big 10 and Pennsylvania is not in the Midwest!”

From there, we were off. We spent the better part of the next hour partitioning the country into regions that made sense only to the person offering up the opinion. The key takeaway: people have opinions about how to define regions and virtually none of them are the same. 

I was reminded of this conversation this week when someone retweeted a set of FiveThirtyEight articles from 2014 with the titles “Which States are in the Midwest?” and “Which States are in the South?” The data journalism site partnered with SurveyMonkey to ask these questions of thousands of respondents. Each piece is a quick read, but the following maps FiveThirtyEight do a good job of summarizing the key takeaways:

In summary, there is a bit less disagreement about the South than the Midwest, but both surveys produced some amusing (at least to me) results. And interestingly enough, Missouri is apparently neither in the Midwest nor the South according to a majority of people who identify with those regions.

The question of how to define the Midwest is mostly a fun distraction, but the definitions of smaller regions – usually around a metro area – can play a role in community and economic development. For instance, one common question that pops up in communities across the country is: “Why isn’t {Insert County Name Here} in our MSA? Everyone thinks it is part of {Insert Region Name Here}!”

MSAs or Metropolitan Statistical Areas are geographic designations used by federal agencies. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is responsible for delineating these regions based on guidelines that it applies to Census Bureau data. Officially, MSAs aren’t formal political designations and they are mostly used for statistical purposes. But they can and sometimes do have an impact on how residents and outsiders perceive regions. 

According to the Census Bureau’s glossary, counties within MSAs have “a high degree of social and economic integration with the core as measured through commuting ties.” The OMB Bulletin that explained exactly what that passage means has disappeared from, but last year I recorded the following bullet points into my notes:

  • Every MSA has a “central county,” a mostly urbanized county with at least 50,000 residents
  • An MSA may also have one or more “outlying counties” that share a high degree of social and economic integration with other counties in the MSA
  • OMB measures this integration through commuting data – to qualify as “outlying” 25 percent of workers who live in the county must commute to some other MSA county for work AND 25 percent of workers who work in the county must live in some other MSA county

That’s a somewhat more rigorous approach than a survey, but the standards are, in the end, arbitrary. And as previously mentioned, this can lead to some less than satisfying outcomes. 

This is mostly unavoidable because reality is messy. Common identities are built upon various economic, political, cultural, and historical considerations that don’t lend themselves to a one-size-fits-all solution. And that’s OK! In fact, one of the things I have always found refreshing and exciting about Market Street is a research approach that allows for a great amount of flexibility in analyzing data and trends within “regions” – however we might want to define them. 

* Note that this was before the 2010-2014 NCAA conference realignments rendered farcical most references to regional coverage or membership totals in conference monikers. Never forget that for two years, the Big 12 had 10 members and the Big 10 had 12. Also, if I’m being completely honest, my own conceptualization of United States regions is influenced to an alarming degree by college football conferences as they existed at some point around 1994.