Tuesday, September 26, 2006

"A Nation in Full": U.S. Population Nears 300 Million

This week's cover story at U.S. News and World Report looks at the implications of America's extraordinary population surge, noting that sometime this month the country will count 300 million people across the land:

It took the United States 139 years to get to 100 million people, and just 52 years to add another 100 million, back in 1967. Now, one day in October-after an interval of just 39 years-America will claim more than 300 million souls. The moment will be hailed as another symbol of America's boundless energy and unique vitality. It is that, of course. But it is also true America has grown every time the Census Bureau has taken a measurement, starting in 1790, when the Founders counted fewer than 4 million of their countrymen-about half the population of New York City today.

The recent growth surge has been extraordinary. Since 2000 alone, the nation has added some 20 million people. Compared with western Europe, with birth rates plunging, or Japan, its population shrinking, America knows only growth, growth, and more growth. It now has the third-largest population in the world, after China and India. "Growth is a concern that we have to manage," says Kenneth Prewitt, former head of the Census Bureau, "but it's much easier to manage than losing your population."

Examine the numbers closely, and three broad trends emerge. The first is migration. As the industrial base of the Northeast and Midwest has declined, millions of Americans have moved to the South and the West, now home to more than half the population-and growing strong. Immigration is next. Over the past four decades, immigrants, primarily from Mexico and Latin America, have reshaped the country's ethnic makeup; of the newest 100 million Americans, according to Jeffrey Passel of the Pew Hispanic Center, 53 percent are either immigrants or their descendants. Last are the much-ballyhooed boomers, many now on the cusp of retirement. America, says the nonprofit Population Reference Bureau, "is getting bigger, older, and more diverse."

The implications are both vast and varied, affecting America's culture, politics, and economy. One obvious example is the stormy debate on immigration now roiling Congress. Another: As population shifts continue, congressional redistricting will follow, tipping the geographical balance of power. A markedly older America will also have a profound effect on government spending-all three issues giving a new Congress and, before too much longer, a new president, plenty to ponder.
The article analyzes changing demographics in three case studies from growing urban areas: Boise, Idaho; Fort Wayne, Indiana; and Wilmington, North Carolina. Boise and Fort Wayne are dealing with robust growth and increasingly dynamic diversity, and Wilmington is known as a retirement headquarters for a host of leading-edge baby boomers.

It's an interesing piece, though I think the author's conclusions are superficial. The story notes that the country will be hitting near 400 million by mid-century, and that by then we may see a "minority-majority" emerge as the non-Hispanic white population declines below the 50 percent level. It is also noted that childbirths to Latino immigrant families will actually outstrip the number of new immigrants arrivals.

However, the story concludes with a discussion of the growth of the over-65 population cohort, and how this group -- with its increasing longevity -- will strain the nation's public benefits system.

While the piece suggests that the elderly population will total about 71.5 million by about 2035 (around 20 percent of the population), potentially straining Social Security and Medicare, there's little analysis of the whether the ratio of the country's old to young will make sustaining the social welfare state problematic.

there's some research suggesting that America's combination of high immigration and robust birthrates -- especially compared to Japan and the nations of the European Union -- will leave Social Security and Medicare with a relatively secure future, although some reforms in the benefit and revenue structure will likely be needed as well.

See also this article from The Christian Science Monitor, which looks at the increasing mix of immigrants as the country pushes the 300 million mark, and suggests that growth in the Latino population may indeed work to sustain the public retirement system over time:

On average, Hispanics in the US are considerably younger than the population as a whole: Their median age is about 27 compared with about 36 for the country generally. That means that as older non-Hispanics retire, there will be relatively more workers to pay into Social Security. It also means more Hispanics in the future. About one-third of them are under 18 - just entering the years when they'll have children of their own.

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