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America Grays, Majority Minority Shifts and Urbanization Accelerates

Nation is in Midst of Demographic Transitions in Multiple Catagories

This article is part of the “Changing Demographics in America” Special Section in the August/September print issue of PA TIMES. Contact Editor Christine McCrehin for information on how to receive the print edition of PA TIMES.

Elizabeth S. Overman

America is in the midst of multiple demographic transitions. Fundamentally, the United States is the third most populous nation in the world with a growing population of 311,880,027. The increase, 27.3 million from 2000 to 2010, represents the third largest gain in U.S. history, making this country the most rapidly growing industrial nation in the world. However, children under age 18 make up only 24 percent of the U.S. population. This is an all time low for the United States even though the rate is higher than that of many developed countries including Japan, France, Germany and Canada.

Like other developed countries, the population of the United States is graying, but at a slower pace. Those Americans 65 and older are today 15 percent of the total population. By 2030 when the last of the baby boomers reaches age 65 they will peak at slightly more than 20 percent. Although the gap between male and female life expectancy has been decreasing in recent years, falling from 7.8 years in 1979 to 5 years in 2008, women will be the majority of the older population in the foreseeable future simply because they still, in the aggregate, outlive men.

Racial and ethnic minorities now make up 92 percent of total U.S. population growth with Hispanics accounting for over half of the increase. The Latino population, which increased 50 percent between 1990 and 2000, was up 43 percent in 2010. This means that 50 million, or one out of every six, U.S. residents is Hispanic. Nearly half of the racial and ethnic minority population are children under age 18.

The localization of the increasing racial and ethnic diversity is reflected in 341 of the nation’s 3,143 counties. This eleven percent of the country’s counties are “majority minority,” which means that less than 50 percent are non-Hispanic white. In the next decade, 225 more counties will tip with between 40 and 50 percent toward majority minority.

These new populations are dramatically rearranging themselves across the landscape. Urbanization, a trend that took hold on much of the great plains, northern and central Appalachia, parts of Arkansas, Mississippi and north Texas in the 1930s, has accelerated to the point that rural America accounts for only 16 percent of the nation’s population. Although this is a long-term trend it has accelerated. When Bill Clinton was first elected president in 1992, 35 percent of Americans were identified as rural.

Who is leaving small town America? Principally, young adults. This means that the remaining populations are among the aging. The shift from rural areas to cities further finds that older and poorer people are moving to the Sunbelt of the South and the West, while younger more highly educated people are locating in the major “superstar” cities on both coasts. They include San Francisco, Boston, Manhattan and western Los Angeles. These are places adapted to business and recreation needs of the exceedingly well healed and well educated and those who work for them. By 2050, Seattle, Portland and Austin could join their ranks. The depopulation of certain regions has been exacerbated by the worst economy since the Great Depression. Michigan, for example, experienced an out-migration resulting in a steep population decline over the last decade.

The demographic relocation to the Western sunbelt, first evident in the 1950s has quickened so that by 1990 the West overtook the Northeast and for the first time by 2010, the West also overtook the Midwest, as the second most populous census region. Areas with the fastest growth included the suburbs of western and southern metropolitan areas. Nevada experienced a population growth rate of 35 percent while Texas, at 4.3 million, had the largest numerical increase. Nearly 50 percent of the 1,104 counties that lost people during the last decade were counties that were isolated from metropolitan areas and had small or nonexistent urban populations.

More metropolitan areas are becoming sprawling megalopolises with suburbs experiencing the fastest growth, most notably in the South and the West. Suburbanization is a continuation of a trend facilitated first by the advent of street car lines that ran to the edge of the central city coupled with the advent of Ford’s cheap automobiles, the Interstate Highway System, and ultimately, mortgage insurance provided by the Federal Housing Administration. Examples of vast regional suburban growth include those areas around Orlando, Florida; the “Research Triangle” of North Carolina; the northern Virginia exurbs of Washington, DC, the four Texas cities of Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio and Austin, plus the areas surrounding such cities as Las Vegas and Atlanta.

The trend to suburbanization has been countered in the last ten years by a move back into central cities. Today 1/3 of the U.S. population lives in the core of the urban areas. This is the highest proportion since the 1950s and is attributed, in part, to the increasingly high cost of fuel and the desire to live closer to employment, cultural and recreational centers.

What are the implications of these demographic transitions?

Although the United States is an urban nation, the ethos is still that of small town America. The emerging American megalopolises only occupy 3 percent of the country’s landmass. In other advanced nation’s such as Japan, Germany, South Korea and Singapore, housing is so expensive and dense that the high cost of living, particularly for homes large enough to comfortably raise children, has lead to decisions to limit the family size. In many of these countries birthrates are falling below replacement levels. This suggests that the preservation of expanding suburbs may be critical to U.S. long term demographic vitality.

In addition, the diversity that comes with more racial and ethnic cultures adds to that nourishing mix which, despite a core of detractors, has often been a source of national pride for Americans. This growing diversity also raises issues of economic inequality. Across all sectors, the need to provide increased services for diverse populations is growing. Today nearly 15 million children, 21 percent of all children in the country, live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level while 42 percent live in low-income households. The U.S. has the largest number of children living in poverty among all industrialized nations.

The upshot is that the United States is a larger, more populous urban/suburban country with growing populations of people over 65, on one side of the equation, and racial and ethnic minorities, particularly children living in poverty, on the other. The most troublesome demographic transition is the potentially negative impact on the nation’s social fabric, including the economy, of children growing up poor.

Elizabeth Overman is with the University of Central Oklahoma. Email: [email protected]

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