A portrait of state’s population

Census shows residents, ways of life in detail

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By Peter Schworm and Matt Carroll
Globe Staff / December 15, 2010

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Massachusetts has a greater percentage of college graduates than any state in the country. Its population is growing slowly and becoming more racially diverse. Its residents are old, compared to other states, and their homes are the oldest in the country. Commutes are long, and carpooling is rare.

That wealth of demographic information comes from new government figures rolled out yesterday, the largest single-day release of data in US Census Bureau history. The five-year survey, known as the American Community Survey, provides the fullest portrait of the nation since the 2000 Census and sheds light on myriad aspects of who we are and how we live.

The bureau sampled millions of households to generate detailed profiles of states, cities, the smallest community, and even neighborhoods, asking residents everything from how much they pay in rent to how long it takes them to get to work.

“These are very important socioeconomic characteristics of the population that hopefully will inform planners across the country,’’ said Robert Groves, director of the US Census Bureau. “The ACS represents the first time such a massive compilation of data estimates for small geographic areas is available.’’

Demographers caution that the figures are estimates based on samples and have a margin of error that can be significant, particularly in smaller towns or groups. Comparisons over time, they said, often prove tricky.

But by drilling down to the town level, the survey begins to reveal a community’s character. The numbers suggest that Carlisle, for example, has the state’s highest percentage of people over 25 with college degrees, 87 percent, as well as the highest share with advanced degrees, at 52 percent.

“It has a lot to do with the families in town and their priorities,’’ said Randy Brown of Carlisle, who holds a degree in civil engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “They’ve invested a lot in the school system.’’

Brown’s two children have followed in his footsteps, both earning degrees in engineering.

Nationally, the percentage of people with a bachelor’s degree rose to over 27 percent, up from 24.4 percent in 2000. In Massachusetts, the figure was far higher at 38 percent, trailing only the District of Columbia.

Since 2000, the percentage of Massachusetts residents without a high school degree dropped from 15 percent to an estimated 12 percent, according to an analysis of the new census data by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. At the same time, the number of people with at least a two-year degree or higher rose from around 40 percent to over 45 percent.

Holly St. Clair, the council’s director of data services, said more people may have stayed in or returned to school when confronted with a tough job market.

Using the new data, the council also found average commuting times increased slightly. While 59 percent of workers got to work in under 30 minutes, it took 31 percent between 30 and 60 minutes, and almost 10 percent had at least an hour commute.

Massachusetts commuters had, on average, the sixth-longest travel time at more than 27 minutes. Cohasset residents, in close competition with other South Shore towns, had the longest average commute in Greater Boston, at 37 minutes.

“It’s an awful commute if you don’t take the train or boat,’’ said David McMorris, 58, of Cohasset, who is a lawyer in Boston.

With a median age of 38.5, Massachusetts had an older population than all but eight states. No town in Massachusetts is older than tiny Alford, a town of 507 people close to the New York state line. Its many retirees give the town a median age of 60.

“We’re in our 60s and 70s,’’ confirmed Charles Ketchen, 66, chairman of the town Board of Selectmen. “We’re a retirement community.’’

A number of Cape Cod towns — including Orleans, Eastham, and Chatham — had similar median ages in the middle-to-late 50s.

On the other end of the age spectrum, college-rich Amherst had a median age of 21, followed by Lawrence, Somerville, and Cambridge.

The new demographic data supplement the 2010 Census, a constitutionally mandated count of everyone living in the country and from now on will be updated yearly. Next week, the Census Bureau is slated to release official state populations and the number of congressional seats for each state.

According to the latest estimates, the Massachusetts population in 2009 was just over 6.5 million, only a slight increase from the 6.3 million count in 2000. Other parts of the country, particularly Florida and Texas, have grown far more quickly, making it possible the state will lose a seat in Congress.

Kenneth M. Johnson, senior demographer at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute, said the recession effectively froze more people in place, stemming the exodus to other parts of the country. In one year in the middle of the decade, Massachusetts lost some 50,000 residents to other states. Last year, however, the state gained about 3,600 people from other states.

Reduced job opportunity, combined with falling home prices, made it harder for people to relocate, he said. Retirees who might have set their sights on Florida, for instance, realized after the mortgage crisis they no longer could afford to.

“People aren’t moving,’’ Johnson said. “They are staying put. The recession slowed everything down.’’

Minority groups appear to make up a growing share of the state’s population, the survey showed. Whites made up an estimated 83 percent of the populace, blacks comprised just over 6 percent, and Asians totaled about 5 percent. An estimated 6 percent identified themselves as another race or two or more races.

A decade ago, Massachusetts was 84.5 percent white and had smaller proportions of blacks and Asians. The Hispanic or Latino population also grew, from an estimated 6.8 percent to 8.3 percent. In surveys, most Hispanics in Massachusetts identify themselves as white.

The foreign-born population rose from 12 percent to an estimated 14 percent, or more than 920,000 people. Chelsea had the highest percentage at 38, followed by Malden.

In Boston, just under 57 percent identified themselves as white, 23 percent as black, and just under 8 percent as Asian.

In 2000, whites made up 54 percent of Boston’s population.

Johnson said the Boston area lost roughly 55,000 non-Hispanic whites between 2000 and July 2008, while the minority population grew by more three times that amount.

Other statewide findings included:

■ Women first married at a median age of approximately 29 last year, the third oldest in the country behind the District of Columbia and Rhode Island and up from about 27 in 2005.

■ Men first married at a median age of about 30, third oldest in the country, behind the District of Columbia and New York.

■ In more than 61 percent of married families, both spouses worked, the eighth highest rate in the country and up from 57 percent in 2005.

■ Just 8 percent of Massachusetts residents were veterans, 45th in the country. Alaska, at 14.1 percent, was first.

■ Just over 8 percent of workers carpool, the fourth lowest mark in the country. Nationally, 10 percent shared a ride to work.

■ Almost 36 percent of housing units in Massachusetts were built in 1939 or before, the highest mark in the country.

■ The median housing value is $338,500, the fifth highest in the country behind Hawaii, the District of Columbia, California, and New Jersey. In 2005, the median was $361,500.

■ The median age is 39, tied for the ninth oldest in the country. Maine led the nation, followed by Vermont.

Globe correspondents L. Finch, Katrina Ballard, and Constance Lindner contributed to this report.