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It’s a Demographic Life: A Christmastime Look at “The Real” Bedford Falls

MONDAY, DEC 24, 2012

Producer and director Frank Capra set the Christmas classic It's a Wonderful Life in the fictional small town of Bedford Falls, NY.  The actual town of Seneca Falls, NY, claims to be Capra's inspiration.   The town hosts the annual It's a Wonderful Life Festival and visitors can explore the history at the museum dedicated to the legend.

Using Social Explorer, you can explore data on Seneca County from 1940 (around the time Capra is said to have visited the town) and today, using the 2008-10 American Community Survey (ACS) data, unless otherwise noted.

Back in 1940, Seneca County had 25,732 residents, of whom 99.5 percent were white and 0.5 percent were black.  Nearly a third of the county's foreign born population (32.0 percent) hailed from Italy, more than both statewide (one fifth) and nationwide (one seventh).  Many foreign born residents also came from Germany (10.2 percent) and England and Wales (9.1 percent).

Today, Seneca County has grown 37.1 percent to 35,285 residents, while the state grew 43.2 percent and the nation grew 133.0 percent.  Seneca County remains predominately white (92.9 percent) with a small but growing black population (4.3 percent).  According to 2006-10 ACS data, today 4.6 percent of the foreign born population comes from Italy.  Larger shares of newcomers come from other countries including Canada (17.4 percent), India (11.2 percent), Laos (6.1 percent), Ukraine (5.1 percent), and Poland (3.6 percent).

The top occupations in 1940 were:

  • Proprietors/Managers/Official (20.9 percent)
  • Craftmen/Foremen/Kindred Workers (16.4 percent)
  • Operatives/Kindred Workers (15.0 percent)
  • Laborers (13.9 percent)

Of the adult residents, 18.2 percent had completed high school (or more) and 3.0 percent had graduated from college, which were both smaller percentages than in the state (22.9 percent and 5.5 percent) and nation (24.1 percent and 4.6 percent).

Today, Seneca County outpaces the nation and state in high school graduates with 35.7 percent (compared to 27.6 percent for the state and 28.4 percent for the nation), but still lags behind in college graduates with 11.2 percent of adults having a college degree or more, compared to 18.4 percent for the state and 17.7 percent for the nation.

Map of Seneca County (1940 Census)

The unemployment rate was 6.5 percent, which was notably lower than for both the US 10.1 percent and the state 14.1 percent.  At 5.7 percent, unemployment in Seneca remains lower than elsewhere in the state (8.3 percent) and nation (9.0 percent).  So, by saving the bank, perhaps George Bailey really did save the town.

You can explore Seneca more using Social Explorer's mapping and reporting tools, and every time you click a map, an angel gets its wings.

Happy Holidays from Social Explorer!

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