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27 million reasons to cheer: more babies and immigrants keep population rising

Guest Post by Alex Standish


In 2010 there were 27 million more Americans than in 2000. This is a good sign. It shows that America is still a vibrant, dynamic society, even if the rate of growth (9.7 percent) is slower than the rate in the 1990s (13.2 percent).

Any country that is adding to its population, either through immigration or natural growth, is a country that is going somewhere: it is a country that attracts newcomers and whose people are confident about having children. Population growth also implies that the country is able to expand its schools, health care, housing, transportation network, resource base and economy. After all, people are the ultimate resource, as the economist Julian Simon noted. While things have undoubtedly taken a turn for the worse since the end of 2007, the release of the Census Bureau’s statistics for the decade show that there is still good news for America.

Comparison with some other countries shows that there is still life in the old American dog. In the 2000s, the population growth was 6 percent in China, 5 percent in the UK and France, zero in Japan and negative in Germany and Russia. Over a longer period, the second half of the twentieth century, population in the US grew by 85 per cent, compared with 22 percent in Italy and 20 percent in the UK and Germany.

The more rapid population growth in the US is a consequence of both higher rates of fertility and immigration. The projected average number of children per American woman for the past decade is 2.06, while in the EU the fertility rate is less than 1.5 per woman (well below the replacement level of 2.1 per woman). Immigration in America grew rapidly after the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which removed restrictive quotas introduced in the 1920s. Subsequently, the number of first-generation immigrants rose from 9.6 million in 1970 to 38 million in 2007, many of whom arrived from Asia and Latin America. By contrast, Europe has been relatively less open towards immigration from developing countries, especially in recent years. However, there has been significant migration from Eastern to Western countries with the creation of the European Union.

In fact, it turns out that new immigration and minorities are responsible for most of the population gains over the past decade: about 40 percent of the 27 million new Americans were new immigrants, while more than three-quarters are minorities. A very significant fact is that Americans with Hispanic origins tend to have more children than other Americans. A 2006 American Community Survey found that the fertility rate was 2.3 for Hispanic women, in comparison to 1.8 for non-Hispanic white Americans, 1.7 for Asians and 2.0 for African Americans. In developing countries family sizes are larger for social and economic reasons. When people migrate from these countries to more child-shy developed countries, attitudes to fertility are slow to adjust. So it turns out the fertility rate of American-born citizens is only slightly higher than that of many European countries.

There is another caveat to the story of American population growth. While an expanding number of citizens suggests that people still see the country as a land of opportunity, it does not tell us about the character of these opportunities. Indeed, immigrants’ experiences have changed compared with previous generations. Earlier waves of immigrants arrived at America’s borders for the opportunity of better livelihoods, but also they wanted to be a part of an American nation. In other words, while many were of course seeking personal well-being they were also signing up to a part of a dynamic collective or society. Today, America is rarely viewed as the same beacon of freedom and political leadership for which it stood in the past. It may still be a land of opportunity, for existing and new Americans, but these are individuated and personal opportunities that are being sought. The problem with this approach is that when we act as individuals there is little we can do to recreate a politically vibrant America or transform its ailing economy.

Finally, the economic downturn since the end of 2007 may well be a contributing factor to the slower rate of population growth in the past few years of the decade, but I don’t buy that this is the main cause. Rather, there is a longer term trend of declining birth rates (down from 16.9 percent in 1990 to 13.5 percent in 2009) as well as a growing hostility towards immigrants. In the 2000s we saw immigrants chased out of communities by Americans who have forgotten the history of their nation, chased out of their jobs by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and a steady rise in the number of deportations. Today, America is looking much less like an immigration nation and immigrants know it. In comparison to China and India, America has plenty of room for more people. It is high time we were more willing to share it.

Alex Standish is Assistant Professor of Geography at Western Connecticut State University.

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