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America’s white population shrinks for the first time as nation ages

The Hill logo The Hill 6/21/2018 Reid Wilson

a group of people standing in front of a crowd posing for the camera © Provided by The Hill The number of non-Hispanic white people in the United States decreased for the first time in the nation's history between 2015 and 2016, according to new figures released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The data show the nation's white population is aging rapidly, as Americans delay their decision to have a family and as the flow of foreign immigrants from European countries ebbs. At the same time, minority populations are growing much faster, hastening a demographic shift that has been decades in the making.

The average non-Hispanic white American is 43.5 years old, according to the new data. The average Hispanic American, by contrast, is 29.3 years old.

Demographers say the decline in the white population has been coming for decades, as Americans decide to have children at later ages and as the baby-boom generation moves toward retirement. Today, there are fewer white women in prime childbearing years as a share of the overall population than ever before, and more minorities in childbearing years than ever before.

"White fertility has gone down. There's a little bit less white immigration in the last year," said William Frey, a demographer and sociologist at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "As the white population becomes older, that means that even if fertility gets up a little bit, it's not going to be what it was a long time ago."

The decrease in the overall white population is a downward revision of the 2015-2016 data released last year. Between 2016 and 2017, the non-Hispanic white population declined about 0.02 percent, to 197.8 million people.

The Census Bureau said the Hispanic population continued to grow, reaching 58.9 million in the middle of 2017, up 2.1 percent from the year before. The number of African Americans rose 1.2 percent to 47.4 million, and there are 22.2 million people of Asian heritage, up 3.1 percent over last year.

The median age of a U.S. resident crept up to 38 years in the last year, which analysts said is a reflection of larger generations like the baby boomers and millennials getting older without having as many new children as they once produced.

"Baby boomers and millennials alike are responsible for this trend in increased aging," said Molly Cromwell, a Census Bureau demographer. "Boomers continue to age and are slowly outnumbering children as the birth rate has declined steadily over the last decade."

Utah's residents are the youngest state in the nation, with a median age of 30.9. The median resident of Texas, Alaska and the District of Columbia is under age 35.

At the other end of the spectrum, Maine has the nation's oldest residents, with a median age of 44.7. New Hampshire's median age is 43.1, while residents in Florida, West Virginia and Vermont are all north of 42 years old.

On Wednesday, the Pew Charitable Trusts released new population growth figures showing Utah was the fastest-growing state between 2007 and 2017, when it grew at an average rate of 1.79 percent per year, followed by Texas, Colorado, North Dakota, Nevada and Washington.

Two states -- Michigan and West Virginia -- have lost population over the past decade. Census estimates show West Virginia's population stands at 1.815 million people, down about 18,000 compared to a decade ago. Michigan's population, north of 10 million a decade ago, is down about 40,000.

Overall, U.S. population growth has slowed every year since 1992, Pew researchers found. Two-thirds of all states grew more slowly in the second half of the past decade than during the first half.

About 531 counties have seen their median age decline since 2010, and more than half of those were in Midwestern states. Many of those counties are in areas that experienced an oil boom as fracking became a source of plentiful high-paying jobs; counties in states like North Dakota and Montana got younger, as did oil-rich regions of Oklahoma and Texas.

Appalachian counties and regions heavily dependent on coal in western Virginia and North Carolina aged significantly, as did coastal counties in North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida -- all areas popular with retirees who migrate for warmer weather. Rural Mountain West counties were also more likely to see their median age increase as younger residents moved to larger cities and towns.

Florida has the highest percentage of senior citizens, at 20.1 percent of its overall population. More than 19 percent of the populations in Maine and West Virginia were older than 65, whereas just 10.8 percent of Utah's population is over the age of 65.

More than 90 percent of the population in four states - Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and West Virginia - is made up of non-Hispanic white residents. Texas had the highest population of African Americans, at 3.8 million, while California has the largest Hispanic, Asian and Native American populations.

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