Census Shows Challenge of America’s Children

Our children are our future, as the cliché goes, but the new Census 2010 results emphasize the truth in the expression.

Substantial changes are occurring in our child population, and the changes are not uniform across the country. In nearly half the states, and almost one third of our large metro areas, the child population—school age and below—has declined and could continue to shrink.

Behind the trend is our aging population, or more specifically our aging white population. Nationally, the white population below age 18 fell 10 percent and the decline is widespread across our nation’s geography (46 states, 86 of the 100 largest metro areas, and 80 percent of counties)

Negative or miniscule growth of white children is projected to occur for decades to come as our white population continues to get older.  The current median age for whites is 41, compared with 35 in 1990. Proportionately fewer white women are of childbearing age, white fertility is below replacement, and whites have contributed to only 15 percent to recent immigration to the United States. So in the whiter, slow-growing parts of the country—including much of New England, Upstate New York, Pennsylvania, and the Midwest—overall child declines are most prevalent. 

Still there is a good news side to the census results: Sizable child population gains are occurring among “new” minorities, especially Hispanics but also Asians, those of mixed race, and other smaller groups. Together these groups added 6.5 million children during the last decade. (The more established minorities, blacks and Native Americans, showed child declines.)

Among the 27 states and 64 of the large metro areas whose child populations grew, new minorities contributed to all or most of these gains, as well as mitigating larger losses in most of the rest. By adding almost one million children, Texas led the nation in child gains and 95 percent of those gains were due to Hispanics.

The infusion of Hispanics and other new minorities to our youth population is a growth tonic for all parts of the country, especially for the 21 states and 16 metro areas that would have registered losses in their absence. Yet, while these new minorities bring much needed demographic relief to an otherwise aging population they also bring challenges.   

Central to these is their preparation for 21st century workforce requirements through first rate educations specific to needed skills. Quality education should be a priority for all students but it is especially important for young Hispanics, many of whom are first and second generation Americans, and who need resources and guidance to avoid dropping out of high school and to pursue further education. This should also be complemented by social and health services for their families as well as the children themselves.

My analyses of recent census data shows that, as with blacks, Hispanic children (and their families) are more segregated residentially from whites than are all Hispanics, reinforcing the segregated school patterns that the UCLA Civil Rights project and others have been documenting.   This can lead to an uneven distribution of local resources, which will be difficult to mitigate in light of the current fiscal crises.

Though we’ve avoided a broadly shrinking child population brought about by aging whites, the mere addition of these new minorities is not sufficient to guarantee a productive labor force and more harmonious communities in an ever changing, more diverse America. Effective, farsighted leadership at all levels of government is necessary to provide these children the resources they need to fully take their place in American society.