According to new U.S. Census Bureau projections, the United States' population will swell fifty percent, to 420 million, by the year 2050. Analysts wonder what the long-term impact will be if there's a continuation of the current flood of 1.5 million immigrants a year. How will the nation's ethnic profile change? VOA's Ted Landphair asks a simpler question. Just where is America going to put 140 million more people?
The Census Bureau's Greg Spencer says that the boom is well under way.
"When we took the 2000 census, we found about 6.8 million more people than we were expecting," he recalled. "When we went in and looked at the sources of that growth, we found that during the late 1990s, there was more migration than we had been measuring."
That's a healthy sign, according to William Frey of the Brookings Institution think tank.
"If we're going to survive in a global economy and prosper, we're going to need to have a growing workforce, a workforce that's well educated that will be able to communicate in this kind of a high-tech, high-knowledge-valued economy," he said. "So I see it as a net plus, although there are obviously going to be some questions about resources. Is there enough water? Is there going to be enough food? And we've always been able to solve those things technologically."
But here's that question: Where are all the new people going to go? William Frey asks, "Have you ever driven across the empty prairies and wheatfields of Kansas?"
"It's not like we're going to run out of land," he said. "It's true that we have very densely crowded conditions on the coasts. But that's where people like to live. It doesn't mean they have to live there."
Roy Beck agrees, to a point. Nobody has to live in and around the big cities or in the Sun Belt, where states like Nevada are growing at three times the national rate. However, Mr. Beck, who runs a research foundation called Numbers USA, points out that people tend to cluster where the jobs are and immigrants gravitate toward places where people like them already live. With the exception of a few farming and meatpacking operations that have attracted Hispanic workers, that place is not Kansas. It's sunny Texas, California, Florida and the like, which are already struggling to absorb record numbers of newcomers.
Mr. Beck's suggestion: put the brakes on rampant immigration. It's a controversial idea in a land that likes to call itself a nation of immigrants.
"The government has never really sat down and said, 'Well, what DO we want to do with population?'" Mr. Beck asked. "What it used to be to be an American was that you could fairly quickly -- in fifteen, twenty minutes -- get to a fishing hole. In some parts of the country that's still true. But up and down the East Coast, up and down the West Coast, that's no longer true. It will be less and less true if we add another 130 million people. It changes the lifestyle, changes the quality of life, in a way that the American people don't want."
Roy Beck and others see the future in Loudoun County, Virginia, America's fastest-growing county, which also led the nation in the rate of new jobs last year.
Lying about 60 kilometers west of Washington, DC, along the Potomac River, Loudoun County was horse-breeding and apple-raising country. It still is, at least in the western part of the county, which abuts the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains.
But county-wide, population has doubled in ten years, as big corporations like America Online, MCI and thousands of people moved in, fleeing the crime and traffic nightmares of Washington and its close-in suburbs.
The result is that eastern Loudoun County looks just like the places they left, with seas of tract houses, condominiums, and strip shopping centers that are indistinguishable from other malls across America.
In the past five years alone, 55,000 people have moved into Loudoun County, spiking the population by one-third. A lot of people, like retired Air Force Colonel Jim Burton, don't like it. Mr. Burton, who lives in western Loudoun near the famous Bull Run Battlefield of the U.S. Civil War, is a political independent and a member of the county's governing council.
"The growth is occurring at such a pace that we as a community are having trouble adjusting to it. It's overwhelming us, particularly in the schools," he said. "Since 1993, when our entire school system had 32 schools in it, we are opening three, four, five schools each year. The rate of growth is too fast for us to sustain. People in western Loudoun are very, very concerned about their future. We are rapidly becoming 'Anywhere U.S.A.'"
Joe Maio, a 63 year old retired U.S. Internal Revenue Service worker, said that sprawling growth has increased Loudoun's tax base, but also taxes themselves, in order to pay for new services and roads. He says boom times have made the commute from the county seat of Leesburg to jobs in Washington so daunting that one had better start near dawn to avoid gridlock on the highway. Developers have gobbled up big spreads and carved them into subdivisions. Close to 40,000 more approved homes are just waiting to be built.
"You get an emotional argument here from people who've had farms here for 200 years and this is their retirement, you know, selling the farm for development," he noted. "There are property-rights people who just believe that people should be able to do anything they want with property. Businessmen have a right to make money on their investments. If we could just entice them to go invest somewhere else! "
The editor of the weekly Leesburg Today newspaper, Norman Styer, believes that tensions brought on by frantic growth make for a volatile political scene in Loudoun County.
"It's not the farming community that it was twenty years ago," he added. "We're getting ready to maybe close down the last Future Farmers of America chapter at the high school. Our commute into work is doubled, along with the population. The countryside is not the 200 acre, 500 acre [80-200 hectare] farms that had two hundred head of cattle on it, or acres and acres [hectares and hectares] of apple trees, but I think the growth is going to continue to be out from metropolitan areas, like we we're seeing here."
Not long ago, a novel and movie called The Perfect Storm described a collision of weather systems that devastated the Atlantic fishing fleet. Some say Loudoun County, Virginia's, plentiful land, new companies, abundant jobs and appealing location halfway between exciting Washington and the tranquil Appalachian hiking trail has been a demographic perfect storm that the nation had best keep an eye on as it absorbs half as many more people by 2050 as live in America today.