Boston in Focus: A Profile from Census 2000

November 1, 2003

Executive Summary

Census 2000 confirms that Boston is a youthful and diverse city. At the same time, its results also flag challenges that confront many of the city’s families.

As the university capital of the nation, Boston attracts a young, highly educated population. The city houses more 20-to-24 year-olds than any other age group, and possesses one of the highest rates of bachelor’s degree attainment among U.S. cities. It also remains an important gateway for international immigrants from a variety of world regions, including the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, South America, and Africa. In fact, immigrants sustained Boston’s growth in the 1990s as the city lost white residents. Newcomers in this fashion contributed to homeownership gains in many neighborhoods, and buffered the city’s loss of families with children. Today, non-white minorities make up more than half of Boston’s residents.

Census 2000 also shows that Boston’s economic profile is generally healthy, underpinned by its high levels of education, low unemployment, and specialization in education and health services. Yet on the whole, recent trends tend to mask troubling differences by race and ethnicity. Black and Hispanic residents of Boston lag whites in college degree attainment, income, and homeownership. Poverty remains high among both Asians and Hispanics, as well as the elderly. And housing costs inordinately burden a disturbingly high share of low-to-moderate income renters in Boston, many of whom are minority families. It could be that the future of Boston’s middle class, the size of which stagnated in the 1990s, hinges on the progress of these struggling groups in the coming decade.

Along these lines and others, then, Boston in Focus: A Profile from Census 2000 concludes that:

  • Most Boston neighborhoods grew in the 1990s, and the city retains a significant share of the region’s jobs. Boston’s population increased modestly in the 1990s, thanks in part to strong growth in its downtown area. While only about one in six residents of the Boston region lives in the central city, more than a third of the region’s workers are employed there, as are nearly three-fourths of city residents. At the same time, people and jobs are moving farther out in the metro area, particularly along the I-495 corridor. Yet because Boston grew in the 1990s, the pace of decentralization in the area remains modest compared to that in other Northeast regions like Philadelphia.

  • Racial and ethnic diversity is on the rise in Boston, thanks to its continued status as an immigrant gateway. As the city of Boston lost white population in the 1990s, it gained black, Asian, and Hispanic residents. By the end of the decade, less than half of Boston’s residents were white. Driving this transformation was a 37,000-person increase in the city’s foreign-born population during the decade. Arrivals from areas as varied as Haiti, China, Brazil, and West Africa have made Boston’s immigrant community one of the most diverse in the U.S. The addition of new immigrants over the decade sustained growth in many of the city’s neighborhoods and in Boston as a whole.

  • Boston’s status as a university center contributes to its youthful profile. Baby Boomers aged 35 to 54 are by far the nation’s largest age cohorts, but people in their early 20s make up Boston’s largest age group. Reflecting that, few of the city’s households contain married couples; most are people living alone or with other nonrelatives. Boston’s population is also constantly churning. Nearly one-third of all residents lived in a different city five years ago (the sixth-highest proportion among the Living Cities), and in many downtown neighborhoods, 60 to 80 percent of households had recently moved. Even as the city continued to attract young singles, it struggled to hold onto larger families; the number of married couples with children in Boston declined by nearly 2,000 in the 1990s.

  • Boston’s workforce is highly educated, although wide attainment gaps between whites and minority groups persist. Among the 23 Living Cities, Boston ranks third in the share of adults who hold at least a bachelor’s degree. These high levels of worker education are reflected in the city’s low unemployment rate (5.3 percent in 2002, below the national average), and the large number of Boston workers employed in the education and health industries. Still, racial and ethnic minorities lag far behind their white counterparts in educational attainment. Fewer than one in six blacks and Hispanics hold bachelor’s degrees, compared to nearly half of whites.

  • The distribution of income among Boston’s households became more unequal in the 1990s. As it did in most of New England, the recession of the early 1990s hit Boston hard. As a result, real median household income in the city barely grew over the decade. Yet this trend masked a “pulling apart” at the ends of the income spectrum. By 2000, there were many more high-income households in Boston, but also more low- and moderate-income households. Meanwhile, the middle-class stagnated. Minority households, in particular, lag far behind whites in income, and Boston has among the highest Hispanic and Asian poverty rates of any Living City.

  • Most groups made progress on homeownership over the decade, but rents in Boston are among the highest in the country. Overall, Boston has one of the lowest homeownership rates among large U.S. cities, reflecting the high cost of its housing, the young age profile of its residents, and its large multifamily housing stock. Still, all racial and ethnic groups—blacks, in particular—managed to make homeownership gains in the 1990s. For Boston renters looking to graduate to homeownership, though, the barriers to accumulating savings are clear. The typical monthly rent in Boston is far more expensive than in any other Living City, and more than 60 percent of moderate-income renters—those earning $20,000 to $35,000 a year—bear significant housing cost burdens.

By presenting the indicators on the following pages, Boston in Focus: A Profile from Census 2000 is intended to give readers a better sense of where Boston and its residents stand in relation to their peers, and how the 1990s shaped the cities, their neighborhoods, and the entire Boston region. Living Cities and the Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy hope that this information will prompt a fruitful dialogue among city and community leaders about the direction Boston should take in the coming decade.

Boston Data Book Series 1

Boston Data Book Series 2