The New York Times recently published an article titled (on the web) “Why Outer Suburbs in the East and Midwest Have Stopped Booming.” It’s a curious piece, based on data by county across the U.S., showing those counties in which deaths have exceeded births. Indeed, the article includes an animated map of the entire country showing such counties from 1991 to 2016 and notes that over 1,200 counties had more deaths than births in 2016. This map of the counties, by the way, provides absolutely no way of identifying the counties in the outer suburbs of metropolitan areas or, for that matter, metropolitan area counties in general.
But the primary focus of the article, from the first paragraph to the last, is on what the title refers to as “outlying suburbs.” The article states that “about one in four outer-ring suburbs were experiencing more deaths than births, including 18 of 30 such counties in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania,” equating the outer-ring suburbs with counties. I won’t quibble about the lack of any definition of how a county is considered to be an “outer-ring suburb.” This is, after all, a piece of journalism, not a scholarly article.
The problem with drawing the conclusion about regional variation in births and deaths in outlying counties (claimed to be an issue in the Northeast and Midwest) is that this requires the existence of such “outer-ring suburb” counties. And the reporter’s view does not go that far west of the Hudson River, as is so often the case with the New York Times. Note the reference to the counties in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
In order for a metropolitan area to have outer suburban counties, the metropolitan area must have a sufficient number of counties so that these can be distinguished from the inner suburban counties and from the urban area counties. For this to be the case, the metropolitan area must be fairly large and the counties must be quite small. And this is the problem. The Northeast and Midwest have numerous metropolitan areas that meet these criteria, for which one can draw such conclusions about “outer-ring suburbs.” Some metropolitan areas in the South also meet these criteria–the Atlanta metropolitan area would be a prime example, consisting of many counties.
But metropolitan areas in the West, where counties tend to be larger–often much larger–have few, if any counties that could be considered to be “outer-ring.” The San Diego Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) consists of one county. The Los Angeles MSA has 2 counties. San Francisco-Oakland MSA has 4 counties, but none could reasonably be considered to be “outer-ring suburbs.” If one took a more expansive view of the metropolitan areas than the MSA definition (which I would advocate), it might be plausible to identify a few counties as being outlying suburban counties. But even then, these would be few and isolated. Nowhere near the number of counties for which you could draw conclusions like the 18 of 30 counties in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
Bottom line: It may be the case that “outer-ring” suburban counties in the Northeast and Midwest are now experiencing more deaths than births (though this is necessarily a weak conclusion given the lack of a definition of those counties). But stating this conclusion implies that this is not the case in the South and West. And it is impossible to draw any conclusions about “outer-ring” suburbs in most of the West based on county-level data.
You cannot say anything meaningful about variation within metropolitan areas across the U.S. using county level data. Differences in the sizes of counties and the very large counties in the West make this impossible.