A rapidly aging white population and fast-growing younger minority groups are speeding demographic changes across the nation, hastening a political divide likely to have long-term ramifications.
The percentage of the U.S. population that is white has decreased from 79.6 percent in 1980 to 61.9 percent in 2014. The percentage of Latino-Americans has increased from 6.4 percent to 17.3 percent over the same time period, while both the African-American and Asian-American populations have grown, too.
There are growing signs that the rate of change is increasing. The number of non-Hispanic whites who died in 2014 outpaced the number of white births in 17 states, according to a new analysis from the University of New Hampshire. That’s the largest number of states to experience a natural decrease in the white population in American history.
Only two states, Maine and West Virginia, experienced more deaths than births — an indication that Latino and African-American populations are growing at a fast clip in most states.
Both Maine and West Virginia are among the whitest states in the nation. In 12 of the 17 states where white deaths outpaced births, naturally increasing populations among Latino voters was sufficient to offset the declining white population.
Whites experienced natural declines mostly in Northeastern, Western and Southern states, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. White populations grew in most Mountain West states and Great Plains states and by smaller margins in most Rust Belt and Mid-South states.
Natural decline among white populations has been happening for decades in mostly rural areas, especially in states like West Virginia, Pennsylvania, California and Florida. Researchers found more recent natural decreases occurring in more urban areas in states like New Jersey, Arizona and Massachusetts.
And there is little chance that the decreases will reverse: Studies routinely find that once a natural decrease begins, it is unlikely to reverse itself. More states are likely to join the list of white natural decrease in future years, including Vermont, South Carolina, Tennessee and Oregon, where the ratios of white births to deaths have declined precipitously.
Researchers at UNH’s Carsey School of Public Policy point to an aging white populace and a decline in births slowed by the Great Recession and by fewer women of childbearing age.
“Natural decrease is the ultimate demographic consequence of population aging, low fertility, and a diminishing proportion of the childbearing-age population,” researchers Rogelio Saenz and Kenneth Johnson wrote. “The rapid rise in the number of U.S. states experiencing white natural decrease reflects the demographic changes underway.”
Nationally, the number of whites born in 2014 is only slightly higher, 2.15 million, than the number of whites who died, 2.06 million. A decade ago, white births outpaced deaths by nearly 400,000 each year. The ratio of white births to deaths fell 79 percent between 1999 and 2014.
Members of the baby boom generation, a generation with a greater percentage of whites than younger generations, are beginning to reach retirement age, and mortality rates are rising. Today, the median age of a white American is 43, four years higher than it was in 2000. The number of white Americans over the age of 65 has jumped from 15 percent to 18 percent of the overall white population.
By contrast, the average American Latino is just 28 years old. Latino birth rates exceeded death rates in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, the researchers found.
At the same time, the number of white women of childbearing age, 15–44, declined by 12 percent, or nearly 5 million people.
Nationally, the number of white Americans is expected to begin declining in absolute numbers between 2030 and 2040, according to projections from the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2050, whites are expected to make up less than half the U.S. population.
The growing ranks of aging baby boomers will weigh heavily on the nation’s healthcare costs, as older residents tend to use more health services. The tug and pull between an aging population that is mostly white and a growing, younger population that is more diverse is likely to set off years of political fights over spending priorities across the country.
Those fights are already underway, as Republicans and Democrats pull increasing shares of votes from more defined demographic groups.
Republicans have done better among white voters in recent years: Exit polls suggest President-elect Donald TrumpDonald TrumpPredictions of disaster for Democrats aren't guarantees of midterm failure A review of President Biden's first year on border policy Hannity after Jan. 6 texted McEnany 'no more stolen election talk' in five-point plan for Trump MORE scored 57 percent of the white vote, a margin almost equal to Mitt Romney’s 59 percent in 2012.
But the UNH study shows that pool is a decreasing subset of the American population and the electorate. At the same time, the Republican Party has struggled to gain traction among African-Americans and Hispanic voters; after Romney’s loss in 2012, the Republican National Committee conducted a post-election autopsy that recommended reaching out more to minority communities.
Democrats, meanwhile, have been pulling a growing share of their votes from the growing pool of minority voters. Presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe dangerous erosion of Democratic Party foundations The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Democrats see victory in a voting rights defeat Left laughs off floated changes to 2024 ticket MORE won 74 percent of non-white voters in 2016, while President Obama relied on a huge boost in turnout among African-Americans and Hispanics to win his two terms in office.