A Nation in Full
Within days, America will pass the 300 million mark in population. Behind the numbers, the changes are dramatic. A look at the biggest:
It took the United States 139 years to get to 100 million people, and just 52 years to add another 100 million, back in 1967. Now, one day in October-after an interval of just 39 years-America will claim more than 300 million souls. The moment will be hailed as another symbol of America's boundless energy and unique vitality. It is that, of course. But it is also true America has grown every time the Census Bureau has taken a measurement, starting in 1790, when the Founders counted fewer than 4 million of their countrymen-about half the population of New York City today.
The recent growth surge has been extraordinary. Since 2000 alone, the nation has added some 20 million people. Compared with western Europe, with birth rates plunging, or Japan, its population shrinking, America knows only growth, growth, and more growth. It now has the third-largest population in the world, after China and India. "Growth is a concern that we have to manage," says Kenneth Prewitt, former head of the Census Bureau, "but it's much easier to manage than losing your population."
Examine the numbers closely, and three broad trends emerge. The first is migration. As the industrial base of the Northeast and Midwest has declined, millions of Americans have moved to the South and the West, now home to more than half the population-and growing strong. Immigration is next. Over the past four decades, immigrants, primarily from Mexico and Latin America, have reshaped the country's ethnic makeup; of the newest 100 million Americans, according to Jeffrey Passel of the Pew Hispanic Center, 53 percent are either immigrants or their descendants. Last are the much-ballyhooed boomers, many now on the cusp of retirement. America, says the nonprofit Population Reference Bureau, "is getting bigger, older, and more diverse."
The implications are both vast and varied, affecting America's culture, politics, and economy. One obvious example is the stormy debate on immigration now roiling Congress. Another: As population shifts continue, congressional redistricting will follow, tipping the geographical balance of power. A markedly older America will also have a profound effect on government spending-all three issues giving a new Congress and, before too much longer, a new president, plenty to ponder.
THE NEW MIGRATION
BOISE, IDAHO-Sitting between the Rocky Mountain foothills to the northeast and the Great Basin desert to the south, between big sky and dusty desert, Boise has always been a pioneer town. In the early 1800s, legend has it, French-Canadian fur trappers came upon a clump of trees and exclaimed "Les Bois!"-the woods. And so Boise grew up a mining, logging, and farming hub, the capital city of one of the most rural states in America.
Those laid-back days are long gone. The 1970 census reported that Idaho had become more urban than rural; only a few years later, Micron, one of the world's largest superconductor producers and now the state's largest private employer, was founded here, and Hewlett-Packard's printer plant was on the way. The main industry now is growth and how to manage it. The Boise metro area's population has grown 79 percent just since 1990. Onion and beet farms abut subdivisions not even half finished; on Chinden Boulevard, a main artery, a sign proclaiming "Hay for Sale" stands across from a flashy placard advertising the new Paramount housing development.
The challenge for city planners is as difficult as it is stark: find enough room, housing, and jobs for more than double-or perhaps even triple-Boise's metropolitan area population, 530,000, as it charges toward 2030, when the population could reach 1.5 million people. "What we have today, we have to find room for again. ... That's daunting," says James Grunke, economic development manager at the Chamber of Commerce, looking out his eighth-floor conference room windows toward the foothills.
Daunting perhaps, but such growth is the envy of most mayors, though truth be told not all that uncommon among Grunke's regional peers. For four decades, at the expense of the Northeast and Midwest, the South and West have taken off as America's fastest-growing areas, buoyed by immigration, lower costs, and recreational opportunities. Between 1990 and 2000, all five of the fastest-growing states were out West: Nevada (66 percent), Arizona (40 percent), Colorado (31 percent), Utah (30 percent), and Idaho (29 percent). Between 2004 and 2005, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas were also among the fastest-growing states. Massachusetts, by contrast, declined in population between 2000 and 2005.
"It's so cheap," says Patrick Sweeney, bike messenger and bartender, who left San Francisco two years ago and bought a house in Boise for $121,000. "And the traffic isn't anything like California. That's why I got out." Adds Sue Williams, 49, who used to work at AT&T but left Redmond, Wash., for Boise less than two months ago and is renting an apartment with her 10-year-old son as she looks for a house: "We wanted to buy a house, and you can't buy in Redmond for less than $500,000." Over 80 percent of Boise residents say recreational opportunities are one of the city's top draws; 125,000 people floated through the center of town on the Boise River last year.
Seattle, Portland, and California's biggest cities provide the majority of new Boise residents each year. Unemployment in Idaho's Treasure Valley region, including Boise, Meridian, Nampa, Caldwell, and surrounding towns, rests at 3 percent. And though still a relative bargain, housing prices skyrocketed 29 percent in the past year, the second-fastest rate in the country behind Bend, Ore.
At first glance, it's hard to imagine the nation's most isolated metropolitan area running out of room. Drive less than 5 miles southeast from the city on Warm Springs Avenue: Cow pastures lie to the north, a small ministorage park to the south. Yes, there is still a lot of land left. But it's being purchased at a feverish pace by developers. In Ada County, one of the two largest counties in the region, 19 planned communities are either proposed or under construction. That has led to lengthy discussion about land use and economic development.
Two years and $1 million later, the valley region has yet to finalize a comprehensive plan to manage growth. Each municipality has its own vision. It might as well be the Old West in Boise's sprawling suburbs, such as Meridian-which since 1990 has grown six times in size to 66,000 people. The suburbs, says Ada County Commissioner Fred Tilman, are in an "annexation war" to acquire more land. Economic planners are also concerned about how to ensure that Boise is attracting solid jobs. "I do have some worries that we're an economy of people building houses for people building houses," says Jeffrey Jones, Boise's head of economic development. The region is spending $5 million over the next five years to attract 5,000 highly skilled jobs and stay ahead of perennial regional threats: Albuquerque, N.M.; Reno, Nev.; Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, Colo.; and Salt Lake City. Then there is the traffic problem. Only one highway serves the region and almost no one uses public transportation; that could change with a light rail system, but only if planners are able to raise enough money to get one built.
Horace Greeley's 1850s paraphrased proverb of manifest destiny, with a bit of a southern flavor added, still rings true today: "Go West and South, young man, and grow up with the country."
A WAVE OF IMMIGRANTS
FORT WAYNE, IND.-Matthew Schiebel was born just three blocks from Northwood Middle School here in northeastern Fort Wayne, a gritty rust belt city of 220,000 formerly known as a canal and rail gateway to the West. When Schiebel, 41, attended grade school 20 years ago, "we used to think of diversity as black-white," he says. Now Northwood, where Schiebel is principal, is 13 percent Hispanic. Each year the number of students taking classes in English as a second language increases; this year, it's 90 students out of a total of 802. Thirty-two flags hang from the lobby ceiling, each representing a student's ethnicity. Among those added recently: Rwanda, Portugal, and Honduras. The United Hispanic Americans, a community organization, sends four to five tutors to the school twice a week.
The Hoosier State's second-largest city is still overwhelmingly black (16 percent) and white (74 percent). But immigration growth is rapidly transforming Fort Wayne. Since 1990, its Hispanic population has grown about four times to 16,500. With fertility rates tumbling in the 1980s and 1990s (and projected to stay low through 2050), immigration has become the main driver of population growth. Since 2000 alone, there has been a 16 percent rise in the number of immigrants living in American households.
In 1967, at the time of the 200 million mark, the biggest immigration story was about "brain drain" from western Europe to the United States. After President Johnson signed the Immigration and Naturalization Act in 1965 to stop racial and ethnic quotas for new immigrants, and once the Mexican economy tanked in the 1970s, immigration, both legal and illegal, skyrocketed. In Fort Wayne, nearly 80 percent of Hispanics are Mexican. An estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants now live in America, up from 5 million just a decade ago. Prior to the early 1990s, a third of new immigrants came to California, and a full three quarters wound up either there or in just five other states: Illinois, New Jersey, Florida, New York, and Texas. But in the past 15 years, immigrants have spread out. States like Georgia have seen massive increases. Demographers have also noticed a third wave of dispersion to the meatpacking plants in Iowa and Nebraska and to farming, manufacturing, construction, and service-sector jobs in places like Fort Wayne.
When Zulma Prieto moved 16 years ago from Colombia to Goshen, Ind., a farming and RV-manufacturing town an hour west of Fort Wayne, there were only three Hispanic stores in the area. "It was almost a surprise to see someone speak Spanish," she says. There were some migrant farmworkers, but in the early 1990s, the Chamber of Commerce started advertising for workers. "All of a sudden a lot of people started to come," says Prieto, editor of the newspaper El Puente.
Goshen's population is now about 30 percent Hispanic. Los Galanes, a Spanish market with piñatas hanging from the ceiling, sits about 2 miles from one of the first Wal-Marts in the country to provide stables for Amish horse and buggies. Each year, the Mexican consulate in Chicago sends a "mobile consulate" to issue IDs. In Fort Wayne, Sam Hyde, who runs Hyde Brothers Booksellers, can remember the first Mexican restaurant opening 40 years ago at a truck stop. In the past six years, a Mexican restaurant and a bakery opened across from his store on Wells Street, the city's hip arts neighborhood. "The biggest business on this street is wiring money," Hyde says. Mega 102.3, the first Spanish radio station in the area, opened last month with an estimated audience of 50,000.
But the influx has brought accompanying tensions. St. Patrick's Church in Fort Wayne, the area's only church with a full Spanish service, has seen its congregation grow from a couple of hundred to standing room only on Sundays, with more than 900 people attending. When the church moved to a heavily Hispanic neighborhood, many white members left. "It was a big change, and a lot of people were really hurt," says Blanca Navarro, who works at the church. According to a survey done for Republican Rep. Mark Souder, who represents Fort Wayne and Goshen, 76 percent of his district's residents think there should be a fence along the Mexican border. "We have Ku Klux Klan here," says Goshen Mayor Allan Kauffman. "So of course everyone isn't accepting.... It's getting more integrated, but it hasn't been the smoothest transition."
THE GRAYING OF AMERICA
WILMINGTON, N.C.-It's a cliché, elderly parents telling their kids how they "don't want to be a burden" to them. Right out of Guilt Trip 101. Well, if the number crunchers are right, all those aging baby boomers-the first ones turned 60 this year-probably shouldn't waste their breath. Economist Laurence Kotlikoff of Boston University is typical. He describes the onslaught of 77 million aging boomers as a "generational storm" that will pose "a crushing burden for the country."
The United States is growing dramatically older. Back in 1900, the median age in the United States was 22.9 years. But with people having fewer babies, that number started to climb. Lower fertility rates mean older populations. The baby boom caused a brief pause in this movement during the 1950s and 1960s, but the aging trend has since resumed. The median age is up to 36.5 and is expected to rise to 39 by 2030 before leveling off. Or, to put it another way, America in 2030 will look like Florida does today. Some 12.4 percent of Americans are 65 or older today-up from 9.9 percent in 1970-but that number will rise to 19.6 percent of Americans in 2030.
But at the local level, the perspective's a little different. Seniors a burden? That sure isn't how his gray-haired residents look to Mayor Bill Saffo of Wilmington. "They're a real asset to us," he says. "The seniors retiring here are active in our community. They're involved in nonprofits, but they are also working part time or creating businesses."
Wilmington, on the Cape Fear coast, has become a magnet for retirees, thanks to its great beaches, low cost of living, and abundant golf courses. During the 1990s, a decade when the city grew 35 percent, Wilmington saw its over-65 population grow 46 percent, the eighth-fastest rate for any metro area with a population under 1 million residents, according to research by demographer William Frey. Wilmington also saw its pre-elderly population-ages 55 to 64-jump 52 percent, the seventh-fastest rate for any city in America. And there are few signs the river of older residents has abated.
Wilmington also has plenty of what some urban experts call "street corner strange," a quirky, artsy atmosphere fed by the presence of the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and its role as a frequent Hollywood film location. On a recent rainy morning, not far from Saffo's office, Wilmington's main drag was narrowed by the bulky presence of large vans used in filming TV's One Tree Hill.
Among the folks now making their home here are Bill and Mary Lou Bryden, who moved to Wilmington from Britain six years ago when Bill retired from Lockheed, where he worked on air-traffic-control automation systems. In addition to the great boating opportunities, "we really loved the fact this was a college town," says Bill, 71. The Brydens hardly fit the "round of golf, dinner at 4 o'clock" stereotypes of retirees. Bill serves on the local transportation board, a railroad museum board, a charity board, and a bank board. Mary Lou, 70, still designs and sells stained-glass windows. "You move here with different talents and abilities, and the city wants you to keep using them," she says.
There's no doubt that seniors have been a boost to economic activity. Prof. William Hall, senior economist at the Center for Business and Economics Services at UNCW, estimates that retirees-often well-to-do-generate $2 in economic activity for every $1 they spend. And there are indirect benefits, too. Connie Majure-Rhett, president of the Greater Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, says it's no coincidence the area's health services are getting an upgrade. The New Hanover Regional Medical Center, based in Wilmington, is undergoing a $200 million expansion. As a matter of fact, Saffo says he's hard-pressed to think of any downside to the flood of seniors here.
A CHALLENGING FUTURE
Demographers say America's growth will only accelerate further. By around 2043, or in less than another 40 years, the nation's population is expected to reach 400 million. And many of the trends now altering the American landscape will become even more pronounced.
The South and West will be home to roughly two thirds of the country's population: The Phoenix and Tucson metropolitan areas, for instance, are projected to merge, and the population of those regions is projected to double to 10 million.
Demographers expect that the impact of births by new immigrants in coming years will be an even larger force than the impact of immigrants actually crossing the border. For the 2000-2005 period, Latino births surpassed the number of new Latino immigrants nationally for the first time since the 1960s. "I expect that over the next 50 years, we'll see more Latino births than immigrants," says Passel. "In the next 100 million [in population], the role of future immigration will be a bit less." And according to one calculation, those children will help push the country to the brink of becoming a "majority minority" nation, just as California, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Texas are now. Whites could make up just about half of the population, down from two thirds now. The black population could grow 50 percent, and the Hispanic and Asian populations could each more than double. "For the past half of the 20th century, we were more or less a suburban middle-class society," says demographer Frey, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. But now, he says, we're headed back to more of a melting pot.
Over the course of the next 25 years, the over-65 population is expected to double to 71.5 million. As a result, the Social Security and Medicare systems are headed for trouble. Each year, the overseers of Social Security and Medicare, the two largest entitlement programs, warn that they're on the cusp of bankruptcy. Why the pessimism? Starting somewhere around 2017 or 2019, the Social Security program will pay out more money in benefits than it takes in from taxes. Then by around 2041 to 2046, the Social Security trust fund will run dry. There are plans to change how Social Security works-the retirement age, for example, could be extended or future initial benefit increases could be linked to inflation rather than wages-but the fight is sure to be bruising.
Medicare starts drawing down its reserves a whole lot sooner-in 2010. If the national debt sounds staggering, at $8.5 trillion, try Medicare's projected shortfall of $32.4 trillion over 75 years. Not only does Medicare have to deal with the same demographic challenges as Social Security; it's also plagued by the complex and politically vexing problem of rising healthcare costs. "I could give you a plan to fix Social Security," says Rand Corp. economist Michael Hurd. "But nobody has a very good plan for fixing healthcare." Turns out the new America has more than its share of both opportunities and challenges. Meeting the latter may determine how quickly America reaches its next milestone.
With James M. Pethokoukis
This story appears in the October 2, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.