The one sure thing about US population as it moves past 300 million—expected to happen in the next few days—is that there will be more Americans. A lot more.
Everything else is informed speculation. Still, much will turn on how big the United States becomes and how fast it grows—from its use of natural resources to its settlement patterns to shifts in political clout.
There will be 400 million Americans in 2043, climbing to 420 million by midcentury, the US Census Bureau estimates. The added numbers will change the nature of the populace, reflecting trends already begun.
Between the last official census in 2000 and the one of 2050, non-Hispanic whites will have dwindled from 69 percent to a bare majority of 50.1 percent. The share who are Hispanic will have doubled to 24 percent. Asians also will have doubled to 8 percent of the population. African-Americans will have edged up to 14 percent. In other words, the US will be on the verge of becoming a “majority of minorities.”
Wars, natural disasters, shifts in the economy, unforeseen social and political developments—any or all of these could affect the numbers, perhaps dramatically. For one thing, America could, as many voters and their elected officials now demand, clamp down on immigration. The country’s unusually high teen pregnancy rate could drop. Scientific advances could extend longevity.
In any case, Americans are expected to continue to gravitate west and south. Today, the Top 10 fastest growing states, cities, and metropolitan areas are all in those regions, mostly in the West. In general, the West and South have been growing two to three times as fast as the Northeast and Midwest.
The great American midsection, meanwhile, will continue to empty out.
When historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared the American frontier “closed” in 1893, he was using the Census Bureau definition of “frontier” as areas having no more than six people per square mile. By that same density definition, the number of such counties actually has been increasing: from 388 in 1980 to 397 in 1990 to 402 in 2000. Kansas has more “frontier” land now than it did in 1890.
If these regional shifts continue as expected, the political impact will be felt. For one thing, membership in the US House of Representatives, fixed at 435 seats, would change, producing winners and losers just as it has with recent censuses. It may shift the current alignment of “red” states and “blue” states—but other factors besides population growth in the South and West may influence that political balance.
An increasing Hispanic population—which could see 188 percent growth between 2000 and 2050, according to the Census Bureau—could affect the political balance as well.
Experts generally believe that expansion to meet the housing and other community needs of a growing population is likely to remain concentrated in suburbs and exurbs.
“Most projections show that the continued increase in the US population and the projected 50 percent increase in space devoted to the built environment by 2030 will largely take place in the sprawling cities of the South and West, areas dominated by low-density, automobile-dependent development of residential, commercial, and industrial space,” writes demographic trend-watcher Joel Kotkin in a recent issue of the magazine The Next American City.
This kind of continuing development tied to US population growth worries many environmentalists, as well as those concerned about the loss of farmland.
Annual US population growth of nearly 3 million contributes to the water shortages that are a serious concern in the West and many areas in the East, says Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute. Water tables are now falling throughout most of the Great Plains and in the Southwest, he warns. Some lakes are disappearing and rivers are running dry.
“As water supplies tighten, the competition between farmers and cities intensifies,” says Mr. Brown. “Scarcely a day goes by in the western United States without another farmer or an entire irrigation district selling their water rights to cities like Denver, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles, or San Diego.”
Concern about a growing populace and decreasing resources is likely to push governments toward conservation and more sustainable development, experts say.
This may be especially true of energy. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia now have renewable portfolio standards that require electric utilities to use more wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, and other renewable sources.
“The global context will really drive what happens in the United States,” says futurist Hazel Henderson.
Meanwhile, the US population clock keeps ticking: Every 13 seconds somebody dies. Every 31 seconds there’s another immigrant—legal or illegal. It adds up to a net gain of one person every 11 seconds, or about 8,000 every day. It took 39 years to add the most recent 100 million; the next 100 million will take a couple of years less than that.
The US population growth rate is expected to decline a bit by mid-century. Still, by then the numbers will have increased to some 420 million, according to official calculations. Critics of US immigration policy say the number could be significantly higher.
“If Congress should end up ducking the issue of immigration reform and maintaining the status quo of mass legal and illegal immigration, our population is projected to still continue its rapid growth,” warns the Federation for American Immigration Reform in a recent report. “Our projection is for a population of between 445 and 462 million residents depending on the assumptions used.”
Diversity is changing attitudes
But societal changes tied to population are more than numbers.
As the racial and ethnic mix among Americans shifts in the decades ahead, public attitudes are likely to change as well. In some ways, they already are.
For example, between 1986 and 2003, the share of adults who approved of interracial marriage rose from 70 percent to 83 percent, according to a Roper Reports study. This trend is especially true among young Americans. A 2002 Gallup survey showed that just 30 percent of adults 65 and older approved of marriage between blacks and whites. But among people between 18 and 29, 86 percent said they had no problem with interracial marriage.
“The fact that today we see young people intermarrying more, interracial dating much more common—all of that I think portends that we’re going to become much more ecumenical in the way we look at things than we were in the past,” says William Frey, a demographer at the University of Michigan and the Brookings Institution. “I think we’ll have much more tolerance for people of other backgrounds, cultures and languages, points of view, and religious and belief systems.”
What’s certain is that there will be a lot more Americans.
Americans need a more rational discussion of immigration, which is the driving force for population growth.
Nearly 30 years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson stood before the U.S. Census Bureau’s Population Clock to proclaim the arrival of the 200-millionth American.
But don’t expect President Bush to do the same when the 300-millionth American is anointed within a week or so.
Because the truth is, it is immigration that is driving the growth of the U.S. population. In fact, odds are that the 300-millionth American will be the child of immigrants or an immigrant himself—as likely as not born or residing in Los Angeles. Right now, about half of U.S. population growth in any given year or month is attributable (through migration or natural increase) to Latinos, the vast majority of whom are either first- or second-generation Americans. To celebrate this fact publicly just a few weeks before the midterm elections would be tantamount to rolling the political dice.
The volatility of this issue has much to do with the culture clash that this 300-millionth American symbolizes: He or she is arriving, after all, in a profoundly different mainstream America than 30 years ago.
At the heart of of this mainstream are the baby boomers, who now comprise most adults over age 40. This much-ballyhooed generation came to embody the image of middle America during the second half of the last century. Conceived during the prosperous post-World War II period, they brought a rebellious, progressive sensibility to the country in the 1960s and ‘70s and beyond. With the help of the programs of the Great Society, they became the most well-schooled generation to date and the epitome of America’s largely white suburban middle class with which most of today’s adults now identify.
Yet, the boomers also came of age at a moment when the U.S. was becoming more insular than it had been before; they, in fact, had less exposure to immigrants and foreign wars than their parents. From 1946 to 1964, the years of the boom, the immigrant share of the U.S. population shrunk to an all-time low (under 5%), and those who did arrive were largely whites from Europe.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise then that the once liberal baby boomers—who now constitute the core of middle-aged middle America—should be resistant to the country’s new younger generation, increasingly made up of first- and second-generation Latin Americans and Asians.
This is especially the case as these newcomers spill out to a heartland which, until recently, was strewn with modern-day “Leave It to Beaver” communities—a dispersal that has spawned about 500 largely anti-immigrant bills introduced in the first half of this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
What used to be thought of as white flight on the part of the previous generation, which flocked to the suburbs during the 1950s and ‘60s, is now taking the form of “white fright.” Indeed, a Pew Research Center survey in March shows that more than half of the population over 50 believes that immigrants are a burden because they take housing, jobs and healthcare.
Yet, there is actually little need to worry about immigration. It adds a needed youthful element to a population that would become stagnant if it had to rely on the far-below-replacement fertility of the nation’s aging native-born whites. Their infusion into the workforce will be especially useful to retiring boomers who wish to be supported in their golden years.
The low immigration years, through which most of today’s adult population grew up, were atypical in our history. The “pull yourself up by the bootstrap” attitudes of the early 20th century foreign-stock generations, who survived the Depression and World War II, created the circumstances that made way for the baby boomers.
The Same Kind of can-do attitudes are evident among early 21st century immigrants and their children, who show a willingness to work hard, learn English, move to the suburbs and achieve the American dream.
Meanwhile, let’s celebrate the arrival of the 300-millionth American, be he from across the border or born to a Latino mother here in Southern California. He may not be a boomer, but he is our future.