U.S. Population Tops 300 Million and Shows Accelerating Growth

October 17, 2006

GWEN IFILL: It took almost 140 years for the U.S. population to hit the 100 million mark in 1915. The next 100 million came more quickly, in 1967, but it’s taken only 39 years to reach 300 million. That, the Census Bureau says, happened today.

But who are we, and why do the numbers matter? For that, we turn to William Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer who’s also a research professor at the University of Michigan’s Population Studies Center.


WILLIAM FREY, Brookings Institution: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: So who are these 300 million people?

WILLIAM FREY: Well, they’re a much more diverse 300 million people than we’ve had for a large part of the last part of the 20th century. I think what’s important about hitting this 300 million mark, aside from the fact that it’s a big number and it focuses people on the fact that we’re the third-most-populous country in the world, is how we’re getting there.

About 40 percent of the growth right now in the United States is from immigration. And a good part of the natural increase—the births minus the deaths—is due to children of immigrants to the United States. And so what I think this means is, as we enter this new century with this 300 millionth baby, we’re getting to be a more melting-pot nation again.

For much of the last half of the 20th century, really since 1930, the Depression, we didn’t bring a lot of immigrants into this country. Most of the adults today grew up in a time where they didn’t have a lot of day-to-day exposure to people from other countries, and this is new.


GWEN IFILL: As we just saw in Margaret’s piece, this discussion about immigration and what it brings or doesn’t bring to this nation is a big debate this year. So are you suggesting that, by immigration being such a driver in this number, that this is more of a boost to the nation, economically and culturally, than a drag?

WILLIAM FREY: I think it is. And I think, not only because of the diversity, because it also—it boosts our population growth among the younger part of the population. We, like many other developed countries, have a large elderly population and soon to become even more elderly population, as all the baby boomers start passing age 60, which they started to do at the beginning of this year.

Unlike Europe and unlike Japan, however, we’re going to be projected to grow in our labor force population, as well as in our child population, over the next three or four decades. That will put us in a much better position, not only to take care of our elderly population, but also to have a more vibrant and vital labor force than they will have.

And the fact that they’re coming from other countries to some degree means that we’re going to be able to connect more with other countries in the world. In a global economy, I think this is a plus.

GWEN IFILL: So those hundred million in the last 40 years, they are more likely to be young and old?

WILLIAM FREY: That’s right. We’re both aging and, to some degree, younging at the same time. We’re aging more than we’re younging, because there’s going to be a growth of about 3 percent a year in the 65-and-older population after about 2010, with these boomers going into these age groups.

But by having an immigration flow to helping fusing our population with new immigrants and also children, because the immigrant beefs up the child-bearing ages of our population, and some of the immigrant groups actually have higher fertility, this helps us to be much more vital and more youthful than we otherwise would have been. It decelerates our aging, in a way, I guess.

GWEN IFILL: Where are we living? Are we living in the coasts? Are we living in the center of the country? Where’s the growth occurring?

WILLIAM FREY: Well, the growth is coming in the Southeast and in the Southwest. People are moving to states like Florida, and Georgia, and Nevada, and Arizona. These are places that have more of a suburban-like feel, in a way. People are moving away from the kind of expensive coastal areas. New York, suburban New York, suburban Los Angeles is getting very pricey. And so that fuels a lot of the growth to these places.

And a lot of these states that are growing very fast are not growing mostly from immigrants. They’re mostly growing from people coming from other parts of the United States. But the immigrants are coming along because jobs are being created there. So we’re getting more of a melting-pot feel in a bigger part of the country than we had at one point in time.

The changing family

GWEN IFILL: You know, Americans think of themselves as kind of a Norman Rockwell painting. As we look at this expansion, are we seeing more of a traditional family, the kind of people who sit around the table, Mom, Dad, have some kids? Is that where it’s growing?

WILLIAM FREY: Well, you know, numbers just came out in the last week or so to show that married couple households are now in the minority in the United States, so I think Norman Rockwell is a little bit aged for what we’re doing right now.

We have many more choices among people, in terms of how they’re going to form households. And over the last 100 million people, the size of households went down fairly dramatically, from 3.3 persons a household to 2.6 persons per household.

And it means more people are co-habiting. It means more people are living alone. It means more people, both young and old, are choosing different ways of living. So it’s not easy to sort of put people in this kind of “Ozzie and Harriet” mold anymore. I think that’s also part of the new America in this 21st century.

GWEN IFILL: It sounds like there are policy implications also, if in fact we are olding and younging, to make up some words here, and if the number of people who are in the country, their first language is no longer English, there are things which government has to do to respond to that kind of growth.

WILLIAM FREY: Well, that’s true. And I think that, you know, some of the environmentalists think that maybe we’re growing too fast. I happen to disagree with that; I think that we’re maybe consuming too fast, but it’s not the population growth that’s too fast.

Also, with respect to the assimilation of immigrants in the United States, I think we’re going to experiment a lot in this new century with immigration policy, not to put the cap on immigration, but to change the preferences and the priorities of having people come in, be more strategic about making sure that they’re integrated into our labor force, and also for the children of immigrants.

A real comprehensive immigration reform policy should deal with how that second generation gets a road map into the middle class, that they have the education to be able to go into that middle class. That’s going to take some discussion among our policymakers in the future.

Population forecast

GWEN IFILL: How long before we hit 400 million? And what will be driving that number?

WILLIAM FREY: Well, if we had the current immigration levels and if fertility sort of works out the way it is right now, a little bit changing and a little bit of extension of life expectancy, it’s about 2043 when we hit 400 million people.

What will we be like then? Well, us old, white baby boomers are going to be sort of fading out into the distance, and we’re going to have young people probably where the classification of race as it is today—Hispanic, black, Asian and so forth—that will all be merged. These young people already are dating interracially; they’re mattering interracially.

And the other thing about them, they’re a very wired generation. So all these kids you see running around with iPods and BlackBerries, they’re going to be corporate presidents in the year 2043. I won’t be prepared to work in that workplace, but I think that’s the way the world is going to be going.

GWEN IFILL: OK. Bill Frey, thanks a lot.