America's population is projected to hit 300-million in October, making it the world's largest after China and India. But some analysts say America's population growth, largely fueled by immigration, could change the face of the nation.
The population gain reported by the U.S. Census Bureau - - up 20 million in the past six years - - is the result of both natural growth and an influx of immigrants. An annual birth rate of about one percent accounts for 60 percent of the population increase, while the remaining 40 percent is due to immigration.
Demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution here in Washington says the population increase is a milestone for America.
"Not only is it the large number that establishes us as one of the most populous countries in the world, but it [i.e., the population increase] also means that people who are coming here to help make this 300 million situation are people from other parts of the world - - from Latin America, from Asia. We would not have reached this goal as fast as we have were it not for all of these immigrants coming to the United States," says Frey.
About two-thirds of the nation's population is white, down from 70 percent at the start of the decade. Demographer Frey and many other experts say the percentage of non-Hispanic whites will fall further as more immigrants arrive and America's post-World War II Baby Boom generation continues to age.
A Major Demographic Shift
The average birth rate for the non-Hispanic white population is around two births per woman, compared to nearly three per woman among Hispanic whites. These trends, says demographer Mark Mather of the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau, will lead to major demographic shifts.
"I don't know of any other countries that have experienced changes in their racial ethnic composition to the extent that we are. So lots of demographers think that by 2050, racial and ethnic categories won't even be that meaningful any more because we're going to be such a melting pot society that these categories may not even appear on the census form anymore," says Mather.
Many analysts are skeptical about the benefits of current population trends. They question whether the U.S. economy can produce enough jobs and argue that unchecked immigration will cause urban sprawl and strain natural resources. Others say far too many immigrants are entering the U.S. to be assimilated into mainstream society.
Demographer William Johnson of the Population Institute, an international educational group in Washington, says immigration strengthens America - - if kept within manageable limits.
"America has evolved throughout its history and migration has been a good thing because of assimilation. We all come together to redefine ourselves every generation, and that's been the strength of our country. However," says Johnson, "If you don't have assimilation, if you have a cultural separation, if people who are migrants still first ally themselves and identify themselves with their countries of origin, then the value of that decreases. To what extent it would be a good thing or a divisive thing in the future is difficult to predict."
Ethnic Minorities and the Cultural Gap
Recent projections released by the Census Bureau show that ethnic minorities now account for one-third of America's population, and will make up 40 percent of the U.S. population in the next decade. Non-Hispanic whites are now a minority in Hawaii, New Mexico, Texas, California and the District of Columbia.
Demographer Joseph D'Agostino of the Population Research Institute in Virginia says concerns over the nation's changing demographic and cultural makeup are legitimate.
"A lot of people feel that immigrants are coming in too fast, or maybe they are not being assimilated fast enough. So many Americans have experienced large areas of cities where people cannot speak English," says D'Agostino. "And if we can't all communicate together with one language as Americans, it's very difficult to see how we are going to have a cohesive society in the long-term. That's a major problem that can result in the 'Balkanization' of the United States over the long-term."
Based on current trends, D'Agostino says one of two scenarios is possible. "If by the year 2050 you have one-third of the population with Spanish as their first language, if you have people who have not assimilated the American ideals of rule of law and democracy, etc., America could face some really huge problems," says D'Agostino. "If on the other hand we restrict immigration severely but the birth rate doesn't go up, then we'll have an even worse problem with [an] aging population and not enough workers. So we've got to figure out what the right balance is. One great step forward would be to eliminate multi-culturalism and then again put a great emphasis on the assimilation of immigrants."
But many analysts say such concerns are unjustified. They argue that America has successfully assimilated immigrants in the past and can do so again.
Planning for the Future
A key element to success, says demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution, is careful planning to ensure immigrants get the services they need and to prevent them from becoming a permanent underclass.
"One of the things we do have to worry about is maybe the social inequality that may occur. We want to make sure that when we do bring people into the United States, they have a fair chance to get a job and live a nice lifestyle here. We need to then make sure they get a good education. It's a big challenge for us," says Frey.
Today, the United States receives largely two types of immigrants: the well educated who typically end up in high-tech jobs, and those with minimal education, who largely work in low-wage, manual labor or service industries.
Demographic projections put the U.S. population at 400 million people by 2050. If current population trends continue, most analysts agree that America will be an ethnically different nation.