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Reading between the census lines

Why wait for the census returns? -- I will give them to you now. The Census Bureau demographers make regular annual forecasts and they are fairly accurate through they need to be checked every 10 years by actual head-count. The present census costs about $1 billion. It will probably show that the US has 222 million people, up 18.5 million from 1970 -- the smallest 10 year increase since the 1930s.

Where do they live? People are still moving southward and westward; the West and South will probably pick up 14 congressional seats at the expense of the Northeast and Midwest. These guesses are close; the census made a guess before the 1970 head-count and was off only two seats: California got five additional seats in Congress instead of four after 1970, and Florida took three rather than two.

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And 1980? The estimate now ("extrapolation" is the word we demographers use, not "guess!"): California will take another two seats, Florida an additional three; poor old New York will lose four, Pennsylvania and Ohio will lose two each, and no other state is likely to win or lose more than one.

David Kaplan, the Census Bureau's chief planner, retired last year and he and Cheryl Russell, associate editor of American Demographer have been putting together for that magazine what the new census is likely to show. Here are forecasts:

* Senior citizens are on the verge of out-numbering teenagers.

* The South added 10 million people in the '70s.

* Florida, Texas, and California got 40 percent of the nation's population growth.

* The number of households grew by 25 percent, but the number of people per household declined.

* More people are remaining single longer.

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* Median household income is approximately $16,800 (an extraordinarily small increase over 10 years ago when -- expressed in 1979 dollars -- the median income reported in the 1970 census was $16,600. There's a social revolution hidden in that bare raise of $200 per household after 10 years of struggle.)

Some of these figures are rather tricky because there have been changes in social customs in 10 years. Take that figure of "households." There are a lot of one-person households; it may include husband and wife; mother and children; marrieds or unmarrieds. In 1970 there were 63,450,000 "households"; census takers expect to find 79,300,000 this year -- up 25 percent. More households are headed by persons 65 or older: "declining mortality rates at older ages and the greater propensity for the elderly to maintain their own homes rather than live with children resulted in the 30 percent increase in households headed by the elderly."

And there's another thing:

"For only the second time in history the decennial census will show the median age of the US population to be over 30 years; the first time [was] in 1950 before the post-war surge in birth began to affect the nation's age distribution."

That was the "baby boom." It came after the war and sent an aberrant bulge through a lot of conventional statistics that upset the computers for a while. The postwar baby boom has now turned into an irregularity of those between 20 to 34. (Poignantly, there's a statistical shortage today of ages 45 to 54. Why? The 1929 crash and depression.) According to the Kaplan-Russell study, "an interesting phenomenon these changes foretell is that persons 65 and older will outnumber teen-agers (13 to 19) within just a few years."

In brief, America is aging; it's on the move; it's moving South and West; there's a surge in households and, another thing, more people are remaining single longer. Yes, there's a large increase in singles under age 35 but this doesn't mean they won't marry; according to the Kaplan-Russell article it is more likely that these singles are postponing marriage until later years.

Economics merge into demography when the writers ask, "Are we better off?" The answer is that there's been no significant increase in real income for households over the past decade in a nation that has always heretofore taken increase for granted. But this may be deceptive, too. The number of people per household has fallen greatly. If the individual members of a household are reckoned alone the per capita income for white householders has increased from $ 6,300 to $7,500; for black householders from $3,400 to $4,300 (expressed in 1979 dollars). That's a forecast, of course. Actual figures for income won't appear till early 1982.


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