USA Today, July 28, 2006
nation of 300 million
By Haya El Nasser
The USA is closing in on a milestone that
seemed unthinkable 25 years ago. Sometime
in mid-October, we will become a nation
of 300 million Americans.
We will then embark on a relatively quick
journey to 400 million. Target date: around
How did this young country get so big so
quickly? Immigration, longevity, a relatively
high birth rate and economic stability
all have propelled the phenomenal growth.
The nation has added 100 million people
since 1967 to become the world's third-most
populous country after China and India.
It's growing faster than any other industrialized
The biggest driver of growth is immigration
legal and illegal. About 53% of
the 100 million extra Americans are recent
immigrants or their descendants, according
to Jeffrey Passel, demographer at the
Pew Hispanic Center. Without them, the
USA would have about 250 million people
The newcomers have transformed an overwhelmingly
white population of largely European descent
into a multicultural society that reflects
every continent on the globe. Some arrived
as war refugees. Most came in search of
better opportunities in a country that
has strong civil rights and a stable economy.
Once here, they had babies, which helped
the nation maintain a birthrate that is
higher than that of Europe and Japan.
For a country that has equated growth with
prosperity throughout much of its history,
300 million is prompting soul-searching
about everything from the consumption
of natural resources and sprawl to border
control and traffic jams. The Census Bureau's
population clock will hit the momentous
number barely a month before midterm elections
in which illegal immigration is a volatile
Half of Americans say their communities
have grown a lot in the past five years,
but more than three-fourths say growth
is a minor problem or no problem where
they live, according to a USA TODAY/Gallup
Poll taken in early June. Though about
a third say growth will become a major
issue in their communities, more than
half say it will be a major problem for
the country as a whole. Almost half attribute
population growth to immigrants.
Lee Atkinson, 57, lives in Chesapeake, a
city in Virginia's fast-growing Tidewater
area near Norfolk and Virginia Beach.
"The increase in people is creating
an employment problem and increased demand
for social services, and I'm not sure
that the financial support is there,"
says Atkinson, owner of an occupational
safety consulting company.
He worries that services and infrastructure
are not keeping pace with population growth.
"Nobody wants to build new highways.
Nobody wants to maintain the ones we've
got. We don't want to spend any money
on it. More people are going to place
Oddly, most Americans don't have a clue
how many people actually live in the USA
or how many are expected to. Twenty-nine
percent guessed the population at 200
million or less, and 19% put it at 1 billion
or more. Twelve percent came within 50
million of guessing correctly.
There might be more awareness by year's
end. Hoopla is mounting around the 300
million event. Some baby-food marketers
plan to use it in their marketing campaigns.
The Census Bureau and leading demographers
are fielding calls from media worldwide.
"The world is watching," says
William Frey, demographer at the Brookings
Institution. He has gotten calls from
British broadcasters asking which hospital
the 300 millionth American will be born
in and from parenting magazines trying
to pinpoint the exact day of the event
(Frey's estimate is Oct. 17).
Several publications want to know what race
and ethnicity No. 300 million is likely
to be. There is no way to pinpoint that
person because the number is an estimate,
not an exact accounting of the population.
It could be a newborn. It could be an
immigrant entering the country. Speculation
The USA is alone among industrialized nations
in its relatively rapid population increase.
The populations in Japan and Russia are
expected to shrink almost one-fourth by
2050. Germany, Italy and most European
nations are not making enough babies to
keep their populations from sliding.
"There's a fertility malaise in (other)
industrialized countries," says Carl
Haub, senior demographer at the non-profit
Population Reference Bureau. "Europe
and Japan and South Korea and Taiwan are
Women have to give birth to an average 2.1
babies to offset deaths and keep the population
even. The birthrate in Western Europe
is 1.6. It's even lower 1.4
in Italy, Spain and other southern European
countries. France, which has done more
to accommodate the needs of working mothers,
has the highest rate at 1.9, Haub says.
Germany, where leaving children in day care
is not socially embraced, is proposing
a family allowance that would pay mothers
67% of their partner's net income up to
1,800 euros ($2,304) a month for up to
a year after childbirth.
The USA would hardly grow in the next 50
years except for Hispanic immigrants,
who have a higher birthrate than non-Hispanic
whites. White women, who give birth to
56% of the children born here, have an
average 1.85 babies. Blacks average about
two and Asians 1.9. Hispanics have 2.8.
The overall birthrate is slightly above
two just below replacement levels.
When the U.S. population was at 200 million
in 1967, women had an average of three
children and the government expected the
population to hit 300 million as early
as 1990. By the 1980s, the birthrate had
tumbled and government estimates projected
that the country wouldn't get there until
the 2020s. The flow of immigrants turned
those projections on their heads.
Why would a country want more babies? For
industrialized nations, numbers mean economic
and cultural power. To remain globally
competitive, countries need workers. In
addition to injecting innovation in the
workplace, the young help meet the needs
of the elderly through the taxes they
pay, Haub says.
The nation is getting older as the oldest
boomers turn 60 this year. People also
are living longer. Since 1970, life expectancy
at birth jumped about seven years to a
record 77.9 years. The share of the population
age 65 or older grew from 9.9% to 12.4%.
The median age is up from 28.1 to 36.2
Some experts argue that more people cause
more problems. Brian Dixon, director of
government relations for Population Connection,
a grass-roots advocacy group formerly
called Zero Population Growth, says the
challenges for nations facing little growth
or actual declines aren't as difficult
as those confronting the USA.
"Figuring out a pension system has
to be easier than dealing with the health
crisis of polluted air or how we're going
to address increases in childhood asthma,"
he says. "Is there going to be enough
open space, enough parkland, enough housing,
enough jobs? What does it mean for our
quality of life?"
Immigration should not be viewed as a domestic
issue, Dixon says. "Immigration is
really foreign policy," he says.
"What can the U.S. do to ease problems
in the developing world that drive people
to leave?" The goal, he says, should
be to keep people in their native lands.
The United States all but shut its door
to immigrants in the 1920s after a record
wave of immigration that lasted about
30 years. The Depression and World War
II followed. Then baby boomers were born
from 1946 to 1964, arriving in a mostly
white country that had very few recent
Everything changed when President Johnson
signed the Immigration and Naturalization
Act of 1965. The policy opened U.S. shores
to the Third World. "That was probably
the single most important demographic
event of the last 50 years," Haub
The act had less to do with attracting more
immigrants than keeping immigration laws
in line with the civil rights movement.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting
Rights Act of 1965 were designed to stop
racial and ethnic discrimination
inherent in the country's past immigration
laws, which set quotas based on national
origins. After 1965, race, religion, color
and national origin were disregarded.
The end of the Vietnam War brought Asian
refugees. In 1964, the United States ended
the bracero program, which had allowed
Mexican farmworkers to come to this nation
to work and return home. By 1970, the
Mexican economy had nosedived and more
Mexicans came to stay many illegally.
Without the influx, Passel says, diversity
would never have reached current levels:
15% Hispanic and 5% Asian compared with
5% Hispanic and 1% Asian in 1970.
"Our growth, were it not for that,
would be barely enough to keep population
constant," says Joel Darmstadter,
senior fellow at Resources for the Future,
a non-partisan research group that specializes
in natural resources and the environment.
His research shows that prosperity puts
more pressure on natural resources than
sheer population growth.
"It's not immigrants who are going
to buy those expensive houses in Phoenix
or Tucson," Darmstadter says. "To
view immigration as the heavy in the problems
of water use or energy use is a copout."
It's difficult to imagine the country running
out of space when there is open desert
as far as the eye can see 30 minutes south
or west of Phoenix.
The town of Maricopa, Ariz., is a dot in
the breathtaking expanse of the Sonoran
Desert. Not long ago, farmer Kelly Anderson,
its first mayor, could rumble down state
Highway 347 in his tractor, meet a buddy
and hang out in the middle of the two-lane
road for a chat and a beer without disrupting
Now, growth is galloping toward it across
hundreds of square miles of arid soil,
cotton fields and cattle feed lots. Maricopa's
population has quadrupled since 2000 to
more than 17,000. It's expected to reach
116,000 Phoenix was that size in
the early 1950s by 2010 and top
300,000 by 2025.
Non-native palm trees appear on the horizon
in every direction, a telltale sign of
approaching subdivisions. Tanker trucks
douse construction sites with water to
dampen dust stirred up by bulldozers,
a reminder of the natural resources gobbled
up by growth.
What's happening in once-remote Maricopa
is replicated across the country. The
USA is getting more crowded 83
persons per square mile in 2004 vs. 70.3
in 1990 but it's far less dense
than other nations such as France (287),
China (361), Germany (609) and Japan (835).
Arizona is getting denser: 50.5 in 2004
vs. 32.3 in 1990. That's still far less
than other parts of the country, including
California (230), Pennsylvania (277) and
New Jersey (1,173).
Some regions haven't been touched by the
nation's population surge. Parts of states
in the Great Plains have suffered population
losses and bemoan the exodus of their
young. Nebraska's density (22.7) and North
Dakota's (9.2) have barely budged this
"We're still using a fraction of the
national space," says Robert Lang,
director of the Metropolitan Institute
at Virginia Tech. "By 2050, the settled
space will be more developed. A lot of
places are literally out of land. ...
They're having to go up rather than out,
but there'll still be the Great Plains
and vast stretches of the Intermountain
Fueled by a sunny climate, plentiful land
and cheaper housing, fast and furious
growth has been a fact of life around
Phoenix for decades.
Maricopa, Casa Grande, Goodyear, Buckeye
and other small towns on the edge of the
metro area are going through the same
kind of boom that transformed closer-in
suburbs such as Chandler and Glendale
from specks on the map in 1970 to cities
whose populations top 200,000 today.
"I've lived in northeast Pennsylvania,
and declining growth is worse than rapid
growth," says Jack Tomasik, planning
director for the Central Arizona Association
of Governments. "But rapid growth
definitely has its drawbacks."
The boomtowns hope to create the infrastructure
needed to sustain growth, something they've
seen some bigger neighbors struggle with.
That's why Buckeye, Goodyear, Litchfield
Park and Avondale joined forces and put
up money to speed the widening of I-10,
the first time Arizona communities have
done such a thing, Buckeye Mayor Bobby
Bryant says. They're drafting plans to
lure jobs and businesses, not just housing,
a delicate balance because retail and
employers won't come until enough people
"You need to accept growth," Casa
Grande Mayor Charles Walton says. "It's
coming whether you want it or not."
Yet a future of whirlwind growth nags at
him. He worries that it ultimately will
harm the quality of life of future generations.
"I think I can tolerate it in my lifetime,"
he says, "but I feel very sorry for
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