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The next 100 million and the face of America

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The one sure thing about US population as it moves past 300 million – expected to happen in the next few days – is that there will be more Americans. A lot more.

Everything else is informed speculation. Still, much will turn on how big the United States becomes and how fast it grows – from its use of natural resources to its settlement patterns to shifts in political clout.

There will be 400 million Americans in 2043, climbing to 420 million by midcentury, the US Census Bureau estimates. The added numbers will change the nature of the populace, reflecting trends already begun.

Between the last official census in 2000 and the one of 2050, non-Hispanic whites will have dwindled from 69 percent to a bare majority of 50.1 percent. The share who are Hispanic will have doubled to 24 percent. Asians also will have doubled to 8 percent of the population. African-Americans will have edged up to 14 percent. In other words, the US will be on the verge of becoming a "majority of minorities."

Wars, natural disasters, shifts in the economy, unforeseen social and political developments – any or all of these could affect the numbers, perhaps dramatically. For one thing, America could, as many voters and their elected officials now demand, clamp down on immigration. The country's unusually high teen pregnancy rate could drop. Scientific advances could extend longevity.

In any case, Americans are expected to continue to gravitate west and south. Today, the Top 10 fastest growing states, cities, and metropolitan areas are all in those regions, mostly in the West. In general, the West and South have been growing two to three times as fast as the Northeast and Midwest.

The great American midsection, meanwhile, will continue to empty out.

When historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared the American frontier "closed" in 1893, he was using the Census Bureau definition of "frontier" as areas having no more than six people per square mile. By that same density definition, the number of such counties actually has been increasing: from 388 in 1980 to 397 in 1990 to 402 in 2000. Kansas has more "frontier" land now than it did in 1890.

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