Census shows US growth driven by minorities; white pop falls under 60 percent

The growth in the American population over the last decade was driven entirely by minority communities, according to new data released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau, as the number of white Americans declined for the first time since the nation's founding.

Non-Hispanic whites make up just under 58 percent of the American population, the first time since the census was first conducted that they have fallen under the 60 percent mark. By contrast, the 2000 census showed non-Hispanic whites made up just over 69 percent of the population, and 63.7 percent in 2010.

A part of that decrease comes as a result of a new effort by the Census Bureau to measure the number of people who identify as multiracial, a population that skyrocketed over the last decade. But much of the drop in the white population, experts and demographers said, stems from an aging demographic that is producing fewer children later in life.

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“Whites, no matter how you count them, declined since 2010,” said William Frey, a senior demographer at the Brookings Institution.

Hispanic or Latin Americans have grown steadily to 62.1 million, or 18.7 percent of the population, up from 12.6 percent in 2000 and 16.4 percent in the 2010 count. The vast majority of that increase — about three-quarters — came from people in the United States who gave birth, while only a quarter of the increase was due to new migrants entering the country, according to earlier estimates.

Asian Americans grew faster than any other minority group in the last decade, to 24 million, up about 20 percent since 2010. Most of the growth was from immigration, prior Census data has shown.

“The U.S. population is much more multiracial and much more racially and ethnically diverse than we measured in the past,” said Nicholas Jones, director of race, ethnicity and outreach in the Census Bureau’s Population Division.

Overall, the United States is growing at nearly the slowest rate in the nation’s history. The country’s population grew by 7.4 percent in the last decade, a slower rate than any decade since the 1930s.

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More people died than were born in more than half of American counties over the last decade, and while rural areas were more likely to suffer natural decreases, urban areas experienced declines too. Marc Perry, a senior demographer in the Census Bureau’s Population Division, said 52 percent of counties ended the decade with lower populations than they had in 2010. 

Counties with populations under 50,000 all lost population on average, according to the Census data. Counties with populations over 100,000 gained 9.1 percent, as more Americans flocked to metropolitan areas and their nearby suburbs.

Overall, 86.3 percent of Americans live in a metropolitan area, a city and its surroundings with populations greater than 50,000, up 2 percentage points since the 2000 survey. The share of Americans who live in rural areas that are not part of metropolitan areas dropped by 2.8 percentage points.

Those declines are troubling indicators of long-term loss, said Kenneth Johnson, a senior demographer at the Carsey School at the University of New Hampshire, because those trends rarely reverse.

“Once natural decrease begins it is almost certain to continue,” Johnson said. “Many [counties that lost population] no longer have the demographic resilience to grow again and recent data suggests that population losses in this decade will be substantial.”

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Demographers point to several reasons for the declining white population, and the slow population growth overall: Birth rates declined to their lowest rates in generations in the years after the Great Recession, and they never truly recovered. Women of child-bearing age have tended to have children later, and to have fewer children overall, than their counterparts in earlier years.

At the same time, the opioid epidemic has shortened life expectancies throughout the country. The average American’s expected lifespan dropped for the last three years, the longest streak of decline in a century.

Because the census uses counts as of April 1, 2020, the declines measured in the data released Thursday do not include the vast majority of deaths caused by the coronavirus pandemic, all but a small handful of which have occurred since then.

Slowing growth could have serious effects in decades ahead, as fewer employees in the workforce are asked to support a growing number of older, retired Americans. Immigration slowed over the last decade as well, influenced by the slow recovery from the Great Recession and the Trump administration’s crackdown on migrants. More recently, the coronavirus pandemic has slowed immigration growth.

“The best we can hope for is a slight gain or a steady state gain. We’re an aging population. Nationally, we’re having more deaths and fewer births,” Frey said. “The way we will solve that is to have more immigrants and their children.”

The data, delayed in part by the pandemic and by the Trump administration’s efforts to end the count early, is the most comprehensive look at the characteristics of the American population released to date.

It will be used by state and local governments to redraw political boundaries in the decennial redistricting process, and by governments at all levels to administer programs and distribute billions in federal, state and local funding over the next decade.

Updated at 2:51 p.m.