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Mark Bennett Opinion

April 3, 2010

MARK BENNETT: The typical Terre Haute resident can be assembled like a computerized avatar

TERRE HAUTE — The typical Hautean … Hmmm …

A sixtysomething woman, waiting in traffic at the Walmart exit, on her way to a Saturday-morning yard sale. Good guess, but no.

A 19-year-old guy, buying lottery tickets, Red Bull and doughnuts at the gas station before college class starts. Nice try, but, again, no.

Census Day arrived Thursday, the peak moment of the most publicized headcount in U.S. history. That federal bureau crunches our numbers more than just once every 10 years. Sure, the current decennial is the crucial, official assessment of the size of every American community, determining our congressional representation and the size of our slice of the government funding pie. Ten quick, easy questions — just like the ads say.

In past censuses, one of every six households received a longer, more detailed form. But six years ago, the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey hit high gear. It is mailed to 250,000 homes around the nation every month of every year. Thanks to the ACS, this year’s decennial census requires no long forms. (Nonetheless, the ACS routine never ceases, so 3 million folks across the country will get both the short census form and the longer American Community Survey in 2010.)

The goal of that perpetual survey, totaled up once a year, is to tell us who we are as a community and a country.

“If you get the ACS form, you’re basically the baseline for the nation,” said Tom O’Toole, supervisory survey statistician for the Census Bureau in Oak Brook, Ill.

So, who are we, Terre Haute?

The average Hautean can be assembled kind of like a computerized avatar or a Mr. Potato Head, using the Census Bureau’s ACS stats. They include our education level, marital status, number of children, grandparents raising children, income, jobs, commutes to work, the size and cost of homes, gender, age and race.

Piecing all of those results together, using the highest percentage results in each category, a typical Hautean can be created. As in real life, though, common sense is required to interpret cold numbers. The average Terre Haute household, for example, contains 2.2 people, but outside of a Monty Python film, nobody is 2/10s of a human.

The picture might surprise you.

Terre Haute is younger and more male than most of the country. Yes, according to the ACS numbers from 2006 to 2008, 50.9 percent of the city’s population was male. Nationally, women dominate; 50.7 percent of Americans are female. The median age for a Terre Haute resident is 33.3 years, compared to 36.7 nationally.

This 33-year-old guy — we’ll call him Joe Hautean — also is probably married. (This is where the common sense part comes in.) Of all the local households, the majority (56.7 percent) contain various types of families, and the most common family situation involves a married couple (36.8). On the flipside, the number of never-married males over the age of 15 (9,983) slightly exceeds the married guys (9,408). But few 15- and 16-year-olds have taken vows anyway, so, logically, our avatar wears a wedding band.

He’s also likely to be a native Hoosier (72 percent of the local population), white (84 percent), and employed in either education, health care or social services (29 percent).

Now, things get even trickier. The median annual household income in Terre Haute was $29,340 in the 2006-08 ACS stats. And, the highest educational attainment for local folks was a high school diploma (33 percent), while 21 percent had some college experience, and 19 percent had at least a bachelor’s degree. But, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average yearly salary in Terre Haute for education jobs was $40,200, health care ($57,400 for practitioners and techs; $24,760 for support staff), and social services ($34,400). Also, many positions in those fields require associate degrees or higher. Thus, we’ll use the mean annual household income (which is an average, rather than the median, which is middle of the pack) for our Joe Hautean, which is $42,214. And we’ll say he’s completed some college.

Joe also drives alone to work (80 percent), and he and his wife own at least two vehicles (46.7 percent). They’re homeowners (57 percent) and pay a monthly mortgage of $851. Their house, where they’ve lived for at least a year, has five rooms (30.3 percent) and two bedrooms (38.8 percent), and is worth $50,000 to $99,000. They heat it with gas (66.8 percent).

Odds are, you know somebody who fits this demographic.

Of course, our community isn’t one-size-fits-all. We’re people, not numbers. That’s why these statistics are so hard to plug together into one uniform profile; we’re a blend of many backgrounds, faiths, races, occupations, families, single folks, renters, homeowners, civilians and inmates. Prospective businesses look at the full package of details in the American Community Survey, when considering a move to a city. The towns, themselves, can use those numbers, too, to customize local services and facilities in response to housing and employment trends, said Derick Moore, public affairs specialist for the Census Bureau.

“If you have to plan where to build a hospital and plan how many beds you’ll need, you have to have some demographic numbers to know that,” Moore said by telephone last week. “The same goes for schools, same for roads.”

The snapshot shows a community where change is needed, and we shouldn’t fear that. It’s important to take a good look in the mirror every once in a while. So fill out those census and ACS forms.



Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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