The Longer Americans Live Somewhere, the Less They Like It

The reasons for citizens' dissatisfaction vary from place to place -- but age isn't one of them.
by | October 2015
Downtown Minneapolis (Flickr/m01229)

Longtime residents of any community tend to be diligent watchdogs of local change. They notice when a broken streetlight isn’t fixed. They follow the ways a new housing development alters familiar surroundings. They remember the good times -- and the bad. For many, though, it’s the bad ones that stand out.

Citizen survey data support the notion that those who have resided in their communities longest tend to have more negative feelings about them. The National Research Center (NRC), a research firm that conducts citizen satisfaction surveys, provided Governing with data measuring citizens’ attitudes in roughly 300 localities nationwide. About two-thirds of those with residency of less than five years in a community rated the overall direction of their jurisdictions as “excellent” or “good,” compared to only 48 percent among those who had lived in an area for more than 20 years. Results for other questions yielded similar differences.

So what’s behind longtime residents’ feelings? It’s hard to gauge from the survey data, and reasons are likely different in each community. Tom Miller, NRC’s president, suspects some residents gradually develop a lower tolerance for change, even in cities experiencing a transformation generally perceived as positive.

Consider Minneapolis, which has enjoyed a resurgence of both its economy and its downtown. The most recent citizen survey reported high marks for most measures, with 80 percent of those living there less than five years rating the city’s overall direction as “good” or “very good.” Those with 20 or more years of residency, though, weren’t quite as positive: 64 percent felt the same way.

Those numbers could be related to changes in the physical face of the city. “The redevelopment has been very rapid and prominent,” says Larry Jacobs, a University of Minnesota political science professor. “There’s a sense that the city is losing its traditional look as it’s being renovated.” Some longtime residents who aren’t as affluent may also feel left behind, Jacobs says, if they haven’t benefited from the area’s more recent economic gains.

In this way, the very characteristics of a community that attract new residents may serve as a source of frustration for some who’ve been around a while. Results for survey questions on confidence in government and treating all citizens fairly also show a drop off among longtime residents. It doesn’t appear to be a function of age, as there’s not as much variation in NRC survey data across age groups.

Ashley Kirzinger, who conducts citizen surveys at the University of Illinois at Springfield, says she’s found the same link in her research on local governments in Illinois: The longer people live in a community, the lower the ratings they’ll give a jurisdiction after controlling for age, education, income and race. Longtime residents are more aware of their surroundings than newer residents, Kirzinger says, so they’re likely to spot cracks in sidewalks, buildings falling into disrepair and other problems that some residents don’t notice or would classify as minor. “The factors most likely to affect your attitudes are things you encounter on a daily basis,” she says.

Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., says some longtime residents may be holding onto negative experiences built up over time. “In politics, there’s the old saying of, ‘What have you done for me lately?’” he says. “They tend to remember the slights and disappointments.”

One way to attempt to alleviate their concerns, Littlefield says, is to drill down further in the survey data or conduct focus groups to detect any common denominators underpinning their frustrations. Kirzinger’s research also shows that more civically engaged longtime residents tend to report more positive perceptions than those who are not as involved.

Not every city surveyed showed this decline in satisfaction among longtime residents. Boulder, Colo., for example, found in its latest survey that citizens across all lengths of residency reported similar attitudes about the city’s direction.

In the end, though, no jurisdiction will be able to please everyone. Forming more downbeat opinions over time isn’t a phenomenon that’s unique to local governments -- attitudes toward jobs or other aspects of life evolve in a similar way. “The new eventually wears off,” Littlefield says, “and people start to see things and be less starry eyed with their place in life.”

Citizen Survey Data

Longtime residents generally harbor somewhat more negative feelings about local governments and the direction of their communities than others. The National Research Center conducts citizen surveys for jurisdictions throughout the country to measure citizens’ attitudes. These charts represent aggregate survey results measuring how citizens residing in about 300 jurisdictions responded when asked about their local governments:

Excellent, Good, Fair, Poor
Excellent, Good, Fair, Poor
Excellent, Good, Fair, Poor
Excellent, Good, Fair, Poor