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What the 2020 census will reveal about America's future

The Hill logo The Hill 1/22/2021 Reid Wilson
a screenshot of a computer screen: What the 2020 census will reveal about America's future © Greg Nash What the 2020 census will reveal about America's future

When the Census Bureau releases its decennial study of the American public this year, it is likely to show a population getting much older and much more diverse - and much less mobile.

Government statisticians are finalizing census counts that will be used to apportion both seats in the House of Representatives and billions of dollars in federal programs over the next 10 years. They will roll out formal census data, from state-level population estimates to block-by-block counts of residents, throughout 2021.

But many of the trends that will emerge are already evident, according to demographers. In interviews, half a dozen experts highlighted the trends they expect to see in the census figures and the concerns they have about the data currently being finalized.

Population growth is slowing

The post-war decades of explosive growth are over, and America's population is expanding at the slowest rate since the first census was conducted in 1790. The nation's population grew by just 0.35 percent between July 2019 and July 2020 - the slowest year-over-year rate since the Census Bureau began keeping track in 1900.

Population change over the last decade has been defined by reverberations from the Great Recession, which caused a sharp drop-off in birthrates, and by the Trump administration's crackdown on immigration, a source of population growth in the past. At the same time, members of the baby boom generation are starting to die.

"The entire 2010s decade was one of fewer births, more deaths and uneven immigration," wrote William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution.

What little population growth is happening is coming from older residents. The population of those over the age of 55 grew 27 percent in the last decade, compared to just 1.3 percent for everyone else.

The slowing trend is likely to continue over the next few decades. Based on current growth patterns, the U.S. population is likely to rise to 404 million by 2060 - half the growth rate that occurred over the last 40 years. If immigration continues at the pace it has for the last few years, the U.S. would have just 376 million residents by 2060.

The white population is shrinking

Year-over-year population figures show there were about 16,000 fewer non-Hispanic white Americans in 2019 than there were in 2010. That number equates to a rounding error in a country of about 328 million people - but it's the first time in U.S. history when the white population has decreased. Compare that to the decade between 1970 and 1980, when the white population increased by 11.2 million.

"In the last several years, more whites have died than been born in the U.S., and this was before the impact of the pandemic," said Kenneth Johnson, senior demographer at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire.

The average white American is 43.7 years old. The average Latino or Hispanic American is 29.8 years old, while the average Black American is 34.6 - meaning that, as a percentage of the overall population, there are more Hispanic and Black women who are at the right stage of life to have children than there are white women.

Diversity is exploding

In the last decade, the United States likely added about 19.5 million people, according to year-over-year data. Because the white population declined, all of the overall increase is attributable to minorities.

About half of that growth, 10 million, came among Hispanic or Latino Americans. Nearly a quarter, 4.3 million, came among Asian Americans. There are 3.2 million more Black Americans today than there were in 2010.

The growth among Hispanics and Latinos is especially notable, Frey said, because it is now fueled by natural growth - people who are already in the country having children - rather than by immigration. From the 1980s through the 2000s, the number of Hispanics in the United States swelled because of immigration; today, the community is large enough and young enough to grow naturally.

Trends suggest the nation is likely to become more diverse as a younger generation grows up. The as-yet-unnamed post-Z generation - those born after 2013 - is America's first majority-minority generation. Just under half of those children, who start turning 8 years old this year, are non-Hispanic white. By contrast, the aging baby boom generation is 71.6 percent white.

The baby bust is getting worse

Before the Great Recession, women were already having children at a later age. After the economic downturn, millions more delayed having children. And early signs show birthrates plunging even further during the coronavirus pandemic.

"I suspect a lot of women or couples decided nine months ago that maybe this wasn't a good time to have a baby, with hospitals jammed with COVID patients, elective procedures being limited and risks of getting the disease growing," Johnson said.

Johnson said there are 3 million more childless women in prime child-bearing years than demographers would have expected prior to the 2007-2009 recession.

Those women may have delayed having children in their 20s, but now they are in their mid-to-late 30s, a time when fewer women opt to have children at all.

Demographics are shifting from boomers to 'boomerang'

Part of the reason women are having children later is because more young adults - men and women - are living with their parents longer, rather than with a partner.

A long slow recovery after the Great Recession coupled with rising housing and education costs have created a generation of "boomerang children" who return to their parents' home during their first years in the workforce.

"So-called boomerang children have become more common over time as college debt has increased and adult children may return home after college to save on expenses," said Jennifer Van Hook, a demographer at Penn State's Population Research Institute.

Van Hook said that trend, too, has likely been exacerbated by a pandemic that canceled college classes, closed campuses or moved school online.

Americans are staying put

Blame higher housing prices for more millennials either living with their parents or renting. Blame the echoes of the housing bubble that burst in the Great Recession. Blame, in a lot of places, the lack of new construction and a dearth of affordable housing.

Whatever the cause, fewer Americans are moving than ever before. Just 9.3 percent of the population changed their official residence in the last year, the lowest figure since the Census Bureau started measuring moving trends in 1947, and about half the rate of what was typical in the 1980s and 1990s. And the 2020 figure was measured before the pandemic took hold.

"The nation is in the midst of unprecedented demographic stagnation," Frey wrote.

Young people decide the winners

Those who are moving are mainly younger, and they are largely moving to Sun Belt and Western states. Thirty-one states, most notably in the Northeast, the Rust Belt and the inland South, lost youth population in the last decade, while 19 states and the District of Columbia gained residents.

That trend, coupled with the rising number of aging seniors, means trouble for states losing younger residents. Fewer young people means a smaller workforce, and fewer workers to support older Americans who are drawing on the social safety net.

But it's good news for states adding lots of young people - places like Utah and Texas, where booming populations are likely to contribute to growing economies.

Undercounts are likely

Most demographers are concerned that the 2020 census is likely to be marred by serious undercounts, especially among what the Bureau calls hard-to-reach populations.

Undercounts happen during every census, but they are especially acute for the 2020 tally. The Trump administration's early efforts to include a question about citizenship on the census form, later struck down by the courts, sowed distrust in communities where some undocumented immigrants live. The pandemic limited the Bureau's ability to conduct in-person follow-ups. And then the Trump administration tried to end follow-up counting prematurely, another effort blocked by the courts.

"The pandemic threw a loop-de-loop curve ball at the census effort. They've been planning this for over a decade and with thousands of temporary staff being on and off again, local get-out-the-count organizations running out of money and steam, and the deadline for ending data collection kept moving," said Lloyd Potter, Texas's state demographer and a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

"Add to that the issue of the citizenship question being proposed, the effort to exclude unauthorized immigrants from the apportionment file, and the compressed time frame to conduct very complex post-enumeration processing and quality control efforts and you have the making of a demographer's nightmare come true."

States spent millions of dollars - sometimes hundreds of millions - on campaigns to convince people to participate in the Census. But at least one study of hard-to-count populations in California found that even reassuring messages were not enough to overcome skepticism, especially in Hispanic communities.

Making matters worse, the pandemic hit hard-to-count and minority communities the hardest. Anything less than a complete count puts at risk billions of dollars in federal program funding that the census itself helps allocate.

"It means that fewer financial resources are sent to your district, and so that means less money for your kid's school, less money for infrastructure. It has real negative consequences for these populations," said Melissa Michelson, a political scientist at Menlo College. "There is an overlap between communities that are hardest to count and communities that need financial resources."

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