Data to be released Thursday by the Census Bureau is likely to show the U.S. is diversifying at the fastest rate in the nation’s history, even as overall population growth slows to the most sluggish pace since the country’s founding.
The new figures are almost certain to shine a spotlight on a trend that annual surveys have illustrated over the last several years: The number of white Americans is declining.
The white population in America has grown far more slowly than minority groups for decades. White people are having fewer children and starting their families at a later age than other groups, a long-term trend that demographers have called a baby bust. The opioid epidemic, too, has claimed so many lives that it measurably reduced the nation’s life expectancy, especially among white people.
Over the last four years, annual census surveys have shown the white population has declined by more than 1 million — a drop that is sufficient to wipe out the population growth among white people from 2010 to 2016.
The pace of the decrease is accelerating, too. Between 2016 and 2017, the white population fell by an estimated 129,000 people. From 2019 to 2020, that decline sped up to 482,000.
If trends from annual estimates conducted over the last decade hold, the census data released Thursday is likely to show an America that is, for the first time in the nation’s history, less than 60 percent white.
Minority groups, however, are growing.
The number of Hispanic or Latino Americans grew by at least 1 million in eight of the last 10 years, and by 10.5 million between 2010 and 2020. The number of Asian Americans grew by about half a million in seven of the last 10 years, up 4.7 million over the decade. And the number of African Americans grew by at least 300,000 in eight of the last 10 years, or an estimated 3.4 million since the 2010 census.
“All of the U.S. population growth from 2016 to 2020 comes from gains in people of color,” wrote William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution who closely tracks census data. “The statistics … imply that, as the white population ages and declines further, racial and ethnic diversity will be the hallmark demographic feature of America’s younger generations.”
Frey’s analysis shows the rising minority populations come mainly from natural growth — that is, people already living in the U.S. who are giving birth. Among Latino or Hispanic Americans, about three-quarters of the population added over the last decade came from natural increase, and the remaining quarter from immigration.
Asian Americans were the only demographic group to experience more growth from immigration, 3.3 million people, than from natural increase, 1.2 million.
But the data is also likely to show that the declines among white Americans is being mirrored in slowing growth among minority populations: All three of the nation’s largest minority groups — Latinos or Hispanic Americans, African Americans and Asian Americans — experienced their slowest growth rates of the last decade between 2019 and 2020.
The figures, taken in the middle of each year measured, do not include the vast majority of those who have died during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Census Bureau data to be released Thursday will officially kick off a scramble to redraw political boundaries that is already underway in many states. The data — which will include the first precinct-level population counts and demographic characteristic information from last year’s survey — will provide state legislators and redistricting commissions with the information they need to draw legislative and congressional district lines that will be in effect over the next decade.
The data is coming months later than initially expected, in part because of the effects of a national pandemic that forced the Bureau’s 4,200 employees to work from home and curtail some of the planned in-person count that typically follows the mail-in portion of the survey.
“The COVID-19 pandemic significantly delayed our schedule for collecting and processing the data for the 2020 Census,” acting Census Bureau Director Ron Jarmin wrote in a blog post.
The Bureau published its initial count, which showed state-level populations needed for apportioning seats in the House of Representatives, in April. Those results showed a continued shift of political power away from the Northeast and the Rust Belt and into the South and West.
California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia all saw their delegations reduced by one seat, while Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon all gained a seat. Texas will add two seats to its delegation.
The redistricting process has different rules in every state, but Republicans begin the map-making cycle with a distinct advantage: They will have complete power to draw 38 percent of congressional district lines, while Democrats will only hold total control — through majorities in state legislatures and governorships — of 16 percent of U.S. House seats.
Another third of the seats will be drawn with input from both parties, or by independent or nonpartisan commissions. Six states — Alaska, Delaware, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming — elect only a single at-large member of the House of Representatives.
Both Democrats and Republicans have set up well-funded outside groups dedicated to creating a partisan advantage, a decade after the most contentious and litigious redistricting process left Republicans with a huge advantage in controlling the House and state legislative bodies.
Those groups, and the attention that activists and party officials now pay to what was once a cartographic exercise that took place behind closed doors, means this year’s redistricting process is likely to be the most transparent in American history: Voters will be able to witness in real time their legislators remapping their states.
But at the same time, the process is likely to be governed by fewer guardrails than in previous decades. Several Supreme Court decisions in recent years have eroded the power of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the federal Justice Department’s authority to limit a state legislature’s ability to draw lines for partisan purposes.