Whose Happy Home? Measuring Satisfaction With Where We Live

Chosen Land
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Sommer Mathis, writing for at the Atlantic's CityLab site, frames the early results of a new Atlantic Media/Siemens State of the City Poll under the headline "Suburbs Are Still the Happiest." Her reading of the numbers has a slightly different word choice: "When it comes to overall community satisfaction, the suburbs are still king."

Measuring public happiness has become something of a fad lately. As a recent NPR piece reported, getting beyond the Gross Domestic Product to something more intimate has been the aim of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development since 2011. The OECD's Better Life Index, now with more than 4 million respondents in 180 countries, has tried to quantify what makes a nation happy and unhappy.

Is it happy or is it satisfied? They're not exactly the same. Perhaps, it's something else.

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When the State of the City poll asked 1,600 U.S. adults how they would rate their community as a place to live, 84 percent of suburban residents rated their community as either excellent or good, compared to 75 percent of urban dwellers and 78 percent of rural residents.

(The poll's categories of urban, suburban, and rural are based on Census Bureau definitions of Census Tracts, which in non-rural areas are mostly neighborhood-sized subunits of population within a locality.)

The disparities in attitudes about home are so relatively minor that I'm more interested in what's common to all three categories of place. Whatever state of mind the poll measured, it's striking that Americans, by large majorities, are (happy) (satisfied) (content) living where they do. In the prolonged sorting out of the nation since the end of World War II, most Americans live where they want to ... or at least where they believe they want to.

City on a Hill
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Not only are most Americans mostly okay with the place they call home, they generally think (by similar percentages) that their place has retained its desirability or even gotten a bit better.

That shouldn't please either the defenders of suburbs or the boosters of an urban revival. 2010-2014 population changes -- endlessly debated by place partisans to prove that their side is winning -- look to me like further progress in sorting out the 20-30 percent of Americans who can't wait to abandon the suburban bunker, downtown rat race, or rural backwater where they live.

The take-away from the poll for Sommer Mathis:

(T)hese findings are striking to the extent that they appear to reinforce decades-old notions of how American society is organized -- an overall preference for the suburbs ... (and) the classic American dream of homeownership associated so strongly with perceptions of high-quality communities.

Why Americans want the home they want is being fiercely debated, and why homeownership is large part of that longing is even more contentious. My answers to those questions are (shaped) (biased) (clueless) based on a lifetime of living in a working-class suburb of small houses on small lots.

Any claim of moral superiority based on the kind of house you live in is pretty hollow, at least to me, even with proof positive that I'm going to hell in a handcart unless I embrace your preference for a place to live.

I'm (happy) (satisfied) (content) to call my place home.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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