Social Explorer: Coles County, Illinois

Social Explorer is a premier U.S. demographics website. Our online tools help you visually analyze and understand the demography of the United States through the use of interactive maps and data reports. Our primary product is a web-based application that creates fast, intuitive, and visually appealing maps and reports. Our software gives anyone with an Internet connection access to census data that was previously the domain of social science experts.

from About Social Explorer

One of my favorite teaching websites is the American Fact Finder, which is the online portal for official U.S. census data. The AFF is an embarrassment of riches, but as such it is also intimidating for some students. I was happy to hear about the Social Explorer, then, which draws on Census data to create a much simpler, easier to navigate set of data.

The freely available information is limited– they sell data to various organizations to make money– but nevertheless extensive. You can zoom in on a map to see the demographic composition of your town or neighborhood. You can contrast 1950 data to 2000, too, and see how radically the population has aged (in 1950, 5-10% were 45-49; in 2000, the lower two thirds of the county included a population that was 25 to 35% aged 45-54). Or, in Coles County, Illinois, where I live, you can see the way the population clusters around two towns, Mattoon and Charleston, surrounded by relatively empty farmland.

Zoom in further and you can see how, according to 2000 census data, the small Black population is concentrated in two pockets: on the west side of the county (around and west of Mattoon: .5 to 5%), and then in Charleston, around Eastern Illinois University (5 to 10%). Interestingly, the small Asian population is concentrated on the east (around the university and east of Charleston: 5 to 10%); and the small Hispanic population (5 to 10%) is equally distributed around the county. The majority white population is somewhat thinner along the corridor that connects Mattoon and Charleston (75 to 90%) than in the surrounding countryside (95 to 100%).

This is a long standing pattern: it’s not until the 1990 census that the minority population registers at all in any significant way. Perhaps not surprisingly, Charleston has the wealthiest neighborhoods, largely clustered around the university ($40 to $45,000) and then farther east ($30 to $35,000). Mattoon has a pocket of relative wealth surrounding the country club ($30 to $35,000). Most of the county, though, particularly to the west, is relatively poor ($20 to $25,000). I imagine that these numbers have risen in the last seven years, although perhaps not as fast for every group.

I was listening to an interview with Michael Yates on the Progressive Magazine pod cast the other day, and he talked about how little most of us know about the ethnic and economic make up of our communities. We just don’t see poverty anymore; the rich are walled off; ethnic groups live in isolated enclaves. The Social Explorer is a great corrective tool.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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