New U.S. Census Bureau numbers show a stark change in immigration and birth patterns has moved up by eight years the date at which whites will no longer be the majority of the U.S. population, to 2042 - and demographers said those numbers will push immigration to the forefront of this year's political debates.
The Census Bureau says the U.S. population will rise to 439 million by 2050, or 135 million more than today. But with falling birthrates among white non-Hispanic women, the white non-Hispanic population will begin shrinking in 2031, even as the number of Hispanics triples in the next four decades.
"It really is a demographic divide in what's happening with the white population in this country and what's happening with minorities, and it's mostly due to immigration," said Mark Mather at the Population Reference Bureau, a demographics research group.
"It'll feed into the immigration debate, first of all, and probably the election," he said. "Congress has been kind of slow to make decisions about immigration ... but these numbers I think will probably put this back on a lot of people's minds."
Combined with an aging population - those 65 and older will more than double from 38.7 million to 88.5 million - the numbers define the boundaries for some of the most pressing problems of the next four decades, including infrastructure, race relations and an aging society.
"This accelerates everything - it accelerates the diversity of the younger ages, the middle ages and even the senior ages," said William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution and professor of population studies at the University of Michigan.
"We need to spend much more time dealing with the issue of diversity in the United States," he said. "Right now, we have diverse parts of our country, and it's spreading out. You see it's causing a lot of social confrontations in some places. I think part of that is we've not yet anticipated these demographic shifts."
Immigration is the driving factor, said Mr. Mather and other demographers, who said it's not just the foreign-born but the children they're having who account for so much growth.
"It's immigrants coming in, but it's the fact they tend to be younger, they're starting families, and they're creating population momentum," Mr. Mather said.
A Pew Hispanic Center report released last week said 19 percent of U.S. residents will be immigrants in 2050, topping the 15 percent record set during the last major wave of immigration, from 1870 to 1910. Today, the foreign-born account for 12 percent.
The Census Bureau predicted net immigration, which has averaged 1.1 million people from 2001 to 2007, will reach more than 2 million a year in 2050.
Steven A. Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates stricter limits on immigration, said the issue isn't the racial makeup of the population growth as much as it is the overall increase of 135 million people, which he said should raise questions about the country's ability to build the schools, roads and housing units required.
"This is the equivalent of the entire population of Great Britain and France together. It's as if those two countries entirely moved to the United States," he said. "It means like 80 million more cars on the road.
"The point here is what does it mean for the quality of life, the quality of the environment - profound questions," he said. "It's not the weather - this isn't happening because Americans are choosing to have large families. It's happened primarily, not entirely, but largely because of a federal program, immigration - that is, the toleration of illegal immigration and very generous legal immigration."
Among other findings from the numbers:
• In 2050, there will be 600,909 people 100 or older, or nearly 10 times today's number of centenarians.
• The children of 2050 will be 62 percent minority, including 39 percent Hispanic. Today, 44 percent of children are members of racial or ethnic minorities.
• Even though the "working age" population - those 18 through 64 - will increase in total numbers, as a percentage of the population it will fall from 63 percent today to 57 percent in 2050.
That suggests that despite immigration, the country will not grow its way out of stresses on programs for the elderly funded by today's taxpayers, such as Social Security and Medicare.
But Mr. Frey said the growing population also means the U.S. is likely to escape some of the problems experienced by other countries in the developed world, some of whom already are seeing an absolute decline in their working-age populations, raising even more acute questions of how to handle pensions and health care plans.
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