An announcement from American demographers and statisticians working for the US Census Bureau – that white births are now outnumbered by all minority group births – may well come to have some profound consequences for the texture of American society in years to come. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
According to data released by the Census Bureau on 17 May, in the year ending July 2011, births among minority populations – Hispanics, blacks, Asians and those of mixed racial backgrounds – have reached 50.4% of the country’s total of new babies.
More important than the one-year figure, this trend is virtually unlikely to reverse itself and will eventually mean the country’s “minorities”, taken together, will be the country’s new “majority”. While demographers had long anticipated this demographic evolution, it was not clear until the data was released that this milestone had already happened. As a result, we’ll probably never know which baba was the special one to tip the scale.
The bureau has also issued forecasts that predict non-Hispanic whites will be less than half the country’s total population as early as 2042, as the infants being born now grow up and are then followed by other, increasingly minority-heavy cohorts in succeeding years.
Johns Hopkins University sociologist Andrew Cherlin commented, “This is a watershed moment. It shows us how multicultural we’ve become.”
Undoubtedly this trend will be reflected increasingly in television and internet advertisements and products, especially those aimed at children and young families, as well as in the contents of TV series and films.
In addition to the changing racial texture of live births, the number of American residents born abroad has also reached its highest level since 1920, when severe immigration restrictions came into force after the wide-open entry gates had allowed millions to immigrate to the US from throughout Europe.
In 2010, as many as 13% of the country’s total population was born outside the country, as about 40 million residents were born abroad, up from 31 million a decade before. A full quarter of the national total of its foreign-born residents live in California, representing about 27% of that state’s total population.
These changes in the country’s demographics will signal a major change for a country founded largely by white European immigrants. Historically, despite the majority of its inhabitants having been such white immigrants and their descendants, it has added African-Americans as a result of the legacy of slavery, gained Hispanic American populations by both conquest and economic pressures in their former homelands, and gained Asian immigrants from a wide arch of nations since the 1860s – first to help build the railroads and later to underpin the growth of Silicon Valley.
Even though white Americans will continue to be an overall majority of the population for some years to come, it is also true the new population cohorts that will make the country’s “minorities” its “majority” will certainly have huge implications for the nation’s economy, its political texture – even its sense of self and identity.
Brookings Institution demographer, William Frey, says, “This is an important tipping point… [with a] transformation from a mostly white baby boomer culture to the more globalised, multi-ethnic country that we are becoming.”
While one of the most obvious signs of this transformation comes from the nature of the family now living in the White House, in more than 10% of all counties in the country (including many of the largest in terms of population) white Americans no longer form the majority of the population. In fact, whites no longer represent the majority of the population in four states and in Washington, DC. White Americans are already below half the total population of such major metropolitan areas as New York City, Las Vegas and Memphis.
Anyone visiting a major American city – on the East or West Coasts or anywhere in between – easily notices the increasingly diversified texture of the population – and in a place like Washington this becomes even more discernible. In fact, the country is starting to look a lot more like the waiting areas of a major international airport than the population of 1960s-style Kansas, or prime-time television.
These changes may become the raw material of a major generational conflict in the making. A more diverse, young population will be looking across a generational divide at the country’s older, whiter citizens. And these older citizens, besides being predominantly white, will also have grown up in a cultural, economic and political milieu that was pre-eminently a white majoritarian one in their day.
This demographic shift will also give rise to public policy questions that can speak to the potential for racial, ethnic and generational conflict – or all three. One key area will be education. Historically, the US has had a less than stellar track record in educating black and Hispanic young people. An emerging question, therefore, may be whether or not older (and predominately whiter) Americans will resent or even reject politicians who aim to channel increased funding to educate new generations of children who look less and less like themselves.
And since this increasingly diverse population of young people will have to be a key part of the country’s engine of economic growth, will economic growth become threatened if education is neglected? Contra-wise, will this new generation of younger more multi-cultural Americans be resentful of spending for the retirement and health needs of an ageing, mostly white baby-boomer population?
As immigration studies co-director at New York University Marcelo Suarez-Orozco comments: “The question is, how do we re-imagine the social contract when the generations don’t look like one another?”
William O’Hare, a senior consultant to the Annie E Casey Foundation in Baltimore, adds: “The forces coming together here are very clear, but I don’t see our political leaders putting them together in any coherent way.”
The trend line for growing numbers of minority births has actually been heading upward for years – in part the result of the immigration bulge of the past three decades. Hispanics have been a majority of these immigrants, they have tended to be younger than the entire population, and they have also tended towards having more children than non-Hispanic whites – at least in the past. According to the Census Bureau report, out of the nation’s total number of live births in the year ending July 2011, 26% were Hispanic, 15% were black and around 4% were Asian.
However, it remains true that white Americans are still constitute the single largest share of all births nationally – almost 50% – and they represent over 63% of the total population. But this population segment is ageing and the fact that young Hispanics are at the peak of fertility, with a median age of 27 (versus 42 years for non-Hispanic whites), has been contributing significantly to this major demographic shift. The overall result is that minorities represented about 92% of the nation’s actual population growth from 2001-2010.
Of course, this growing, relatively younger national population can have positive implications for the future as well – a younger population will mostly be at work rather than in retirement. This can bolster the economy, generating revenue to support the Social Security system that would otherwise be in the intensive care ward. This may become especially important for the economic health of the country compared with Japan and much of Western Europe (and even China), where populations are likely to drop below the natural population replacement – contributing to more rapidly ageing populations than the US.
Dowell Myers, a University of southern California professor of policy, planning and demography, explains that European societies with low levels of immigration now have young populations too small to support their ageing population, heightening difficulties with their economies. Myers says bluntly: “If the US depended on white births alone, we’d be dead. Without the contributions from all these other groups, we would become too top-heavy with old people.”
Breaking down the shifts to the state level, the aging and racial make-up questions can be observed most pointedly in Arizona, Nevada, Texas and California. These states have been the locations for increasingly sharp disputes over both immigration control and the spending priorities of education and other age-sensitive programmes.
In fact, the non-rural county with the single largest racial/ethnic gap in the country is Yuma County, Arizona. In Yuma, only 18% of the population under 20 comprises white Americans. This stands in stark contrast to the population cohort over 65 years old. In that group 73% are white. Tensions over immigration policies would seem to be one logical result.
In the short term, it is not clear whether this baby boom will actually continue. Immigration from Mexico, the country of origin for the majority of Hispanic immigrants in the United States, has come to a standstill and some analysts say it is now even flowing in reverse. Brookings’ Frey explains these changes in immigration flows may actually delay the majority-minority population flip from 2042 to 2050 or even later. But it will not prevent it, only slow it down.
“Eventually, when the economy returns, we’re going to get more immigrants, maybe not from Mexico but from other parts of the world,” Frey said. Without the immigration, the country starts to look like Japan’s gerontocracy. “We were already seeing a declining youth population in large parts of the country. Without immigrants, we’d be essentially youthless. We had a perfect storm. We got them all coming – younger immigrants having children – at a time when we really needed them.”
Johns Hopkins University’s Cherlin adds, however, that this immigrant baby boom will eventually run down as the children and grandchildren of the newest immigrants begin to have birth rates that converge with those of non-Hispanic whites.
Cherlin notes “The changes to the country may not be as huge as some people think. Immigrants will change our society, but our society will change the immigrants.”
This newest Census Bureau report also comes as the US Supreme Court prepares to rule on the legality of Arizona’s stringent immigration law passed in 2010, and as a number of other states are considering adopting similar get-tough-on-immigrant measures.
Roderick Harrison, a former senior statistician at the Census Bureau now at Howard University, says: “We remain in a dangerous period where those appealing to anti-immigration elements are fuelling a divisiveness and hostility that might take decades to overcome.”
On the other hand, he observes, the report represents a major landmark, as “this generation is growing up much more accustomed to diversity than its elders.”
Other findings in the Census Bureau’s new reports are:
1. The migration of black Americans back to the South is slowing because the prolonged housing bust kept African-Americans locked in place in traditional big cities.
2. Nine counties in five states saw their minority populations across all age groups surpass 50% last year. They were Sutter and Yolo in California, Quitman in Georgia, Cumberland in New Jersey, Colfax in New Mexico, and Lynn, Mitchell, Schleicher and Swisher in Texas.
3. Maverick County, Texas, had the largest share of minorities at 96.8%, followed by Webb County, Texas, and Wade Hampton, Alaska, both at 96%.
4. Four states – Hawaii, California, New Mexico and Texas – as well as the District of Columbia – all have minority populations that exceed 50%.
Regardless of whether the great change across the nation happens in 2040, 2042, or even a few years later, the impact of the impending change is going to transform many aspects of American life. Smart investors will want to watch out as fashion, food and furnishing tastes evolve to meet – and lead – these demographic trends. The DM’s best advice? Bet the farm on any internet-based company that manages to come to the market with salsa-flavoured sushi that features authentic embellishments of Afropolitan style. DM
Photo: Members of the audience take pictures of U.S. President Barack Obama (not pictured) as he greets the crowd following his remarks on renewable energy at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, March 22, 2012. Obama is traveling to Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Ohio for events on energy independence. REUTERS/Jason Reed.
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