Q&A with: UNH demographer Kenneth Johnson

Kenneth Johnson is a self-professed “data junkie,” which explains his profession and passion. As the senior demographer at the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire, Johnson finds history and truth in numbers, such as those found in the 1790 New Hampshire census figures from New Hampshire which he recently studied. It’s one reason he advocates that Americans take part in the once-a-decade census – being counted can have significant political, economic, social and historical implications.

“I love data, and with the census, demographers have access to an endless supply of really high quality data,” said Johnson, adding that changes in the 2010 census will have an impact on how businesses can use the data to their advantage.

Johnson attended the University of Michigan and University of North Carolina and arrived at UNH as a professor of sociology a few years ago. Over the years, he has consulted with many corporations on understanding and using demographic data. The census matters a great deal, he said, because it has an impact on the consumer price index, decennial congressional reapportionments, how federal money is often distributed and labor statistics information. Closer to home, in his own research, he’s already found that the state’s population isn’t aging as fast or as much as conventional wisdom has it.

Q. What have you found about the ’graying’ of New Hampshire?

A. When I first arrived here I heard a lot about how old the state is becoming and how young people are leaving in droves. New Hampshire does have a large middle-aged population. What it doesn’t have is an excessively large older population. There are 31 states with a larger percentage of their population over the age of 65.

New Hampshire has the fourth highest ranking in the country of working age people (18 to 65) at 64.8 percent. From a business point of view, this is a large group of working age people. And while we have seen a slight outflow of 20- to 29-year-olds, the state is gaining far more in workers in their 30s and 40s who are bringing children with them.

Q. Is the state is danger of losing a lot of talented and educated young people?

A. It’s important that they stay, but out-migration numbers vary with time and economic conditions. One of the reasons it appears that so many young people have left is that it’s a higher percentage of a shrinking population — a lot fewer babies were born beginning in the 1970s. The reality is that compared to many parts of the country, New Hampshire is gaining children and also gaining prime earning people.

It’s nothing compared to farming-dominated counties in the plains states, where 50 percent of young people leave and never come back.

Q. How do businesses use census data?

A. It can be an important tool to measure the labor force and the business climate. Businesses are used to having access to a lot of data, especially for making site location decisions and marketing.

Companies such as Starbucks use a complex formula including census data to determine potential store locations. This is becoming more important – executives at McDonald’s told me finding the first 3,000 store locations was easy, but it got much harder for the next 9,000. The Chicago Tribune incorporated census data to create as many as 250 different marketing areas to determine what advertising inserts it would put in the daily and Sunday editions. Automobile manufacturers such as GM and Chrysler used census data to help with product planning that led to the rise of minivan era.

Q. What’s the major change in the 2010 census?

A. It will be a shorter time investment because the new census has 10 questions with basic information, such as number of people in the area, household relationships, ages and ethnic and racial make-up. It will give us close to a complete count, right down to the block area and show which areas are declining and which are growing.

Q. The downside?

A. Fewer main census questions mean fewer details — a more precise overall count in return for a more frequent release of data from the less-detailed but ongoing American Communities Survey (which is also conducted by the Census Bureau and began in 2004.) One problem with the ACS is its sample size, and it’s much smaller than the long form of the census. You won’t get the same accuracy and quality of data but the trade-off for the business community is that you get it more frequently.

Q. What are a few findings from the 2010 census that you think will tell us more about New Hampshire?

A. I think we are going to see a more diverse state with non-whites being at about 5 to 6 percent and with the Hispanic population contributing about 40 percent growth. We will also see a trend that shows a continuing demographic change in New Hampshire – while in-migration has slowed some due to the economic recession, we (Carsey Institute) saw in 2008 that only 66 percent of people who voted that year also voted in 2000. That was a 33 percent voter turnover in less than a decade, which was significant, and we found that only 46 percent were born in the state – one of the lowest percentages of native-born (residents) in the country.

Q. How much truth is there to the cliché that the census tells us who we are?

A. By studying the census, you can see how the country developed and changed – especially in 1920, because that was the first census of the 48 states and all the county lines in the country had been drawn. It tells part of the story.

For example, for the first time since 1800, New Hampshire will likely top Maine in population, and we are seeing a dramatic slowdown in state-to-state migration, which is connected to the economic downturn.

We don’t know how long that will stay in place, but the census is often an indicator of change.

I think that the term “demography is destiny” isn’t necessarily true, but what is true is that you ignore demography at your peril.