Non-Hispanic whites accounted for 49.6 per cent of all births in the 12-month period that ended last July, according to Census Bureau data made public on Thursday, while minorities – including Hispanics, blacks, Asians and those of mixed race – reached 50.4 per cent, representing a majority for the first time in the country’s history.
Such a turn has been long expected, but no one was certain when the moment would arrive – signalling a milestone for a nation whose government was founded by white Europeans and has wrestled mightily with issues of race, from the days of slavery, through a civil war, bitter civil rights battles and, most recently, highly charged debates over efforts to restrict immigration.
While overall, whites will remain a majority for some time, the fact that a younger generation is being born in which minorities are the majority has broad implications for the country’s economy, its political life and its identity. “This is an important tipping point,” said William H. Frey, the senior demographer at the Brookings Institution, describing the shift as a “transformation from a mostly white baby boomer culture to the more globalized multi-ethnic country that we are becoming.”
Signs that the country is evolving this way start with the Oval Office, and have swept hundreds of counties in recent years, with 348 in which whites are no longer in the majority. That number doubles when it comes to the toddler population, Mr. Frey said. Whites are no longer the majority in four states and the District of Colum-bia, and have slipped below half in many major metro areas, including New York, Las Vegas and Memphis.
A more diverse young population forms the basis of a generational divide with the country’s elderly, a group that is largely white and grew up in a world that was too.
The contrast raises important policy questions. The United States has a spotty record educating minority youth; will older Americans balk at paying to educate a younger generation that looks less like themselves? And while the increasingly diverse young population is a potential engine of growth, will it become a burden if it is not properly educated?
“The question is, how do we reimagine the social contract when the generations don’t look like one another?” said Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, co-director of Immigration studies at New York University.
The trend toward greater minority births has been building for years, the result of the large wave of immigration here over the past three decades. Hispanics make up the majority of immigrants, and they tend to be younger – and to have more children – than non-Hispanic whites. (Of the total births in the year that ended last July, about 26 per cent were Hispanic, about 15 per cent black, and about 4 per cent Asian.)
Whites still represent the single largest share of all births, at 49.6 per cent, and are an overwhelming majority in the population as a whole, at 63.4 per cent. But they are aging, causing a tectonic shift in American demographics. The median age for non-Hispanic whites is 42 – meaning the bulk of women are moving out of their prime childbearing years.
Latinos, on the other hand, are squarely within their peak fertility, with a median age of 27, said Jeffrey Passel, senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center. Between 2000 and 2010, there were more Hispanic births in the United States than there were arriving Hispanic immigrants, he said.
The result is striking: Minorities accounted for 92 per cent of the nation’s population growth in the decade that ended in 2010, Mr. Frey calculated, a surge that has created a very different looking America from the one of the 1950s, when the TV characters Ozzie and Harriet were a national archetype.
The change is playing out across states with large differences in ethnic and racial makeup between the elderly and the young. Some of the largest gaps are in Arizona, Nevada, Texas and California, states that have had flare-ups over immigration, school textbooks and priorities in spending. The non-rural county with the largest gap is Yuma County, Ariz., where just 18 per cent of people under 20 are white, compared with 73 per cent of people over 65, Mr. Frey said.
Perhaps the most urgent aspect of the change is education. A college degree has become the most important building block of success in today’s economy, but blacks and Latinos lag far behind whites in getting one. According to Mr. Frey, just 13 per cent of Hispanics and 18 per cent of blacks have a college degree, compared with 31 per cent of whites.
Those stark statistics are made more troubling by the fact that young Americans will soon be faced with caring for the bulging population of baby boomers as they age into retirement, said William O’Hare, a senior consultant to the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore, on top of inheriting trillions of dollars of government debt.
“The forces coming together here are very clear, but I don’t see our political leaders putting them together in any coherent way,” he said, adding that educating young minorities was of critical importance to the future of the country and the economy.
Immigrants took several generations to assimilate through education in the last large wave of immigration at the turn of the 20th century, Mr. Suarez-Orozco said, but mobility was less dependent on education then, and Americans today cannot afford to wait, as they struggle to compete with countries like China.
“This is a polite knock on the door to tell us to get ready,” said Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “We do a pretty lousy job of educating the younger generation of minorities. Basically, we are not ready for this.”
But there are bright spots. Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said the immigration debate of recent years has raised the political consciousness of young Latinos and he is hopeful that more will become politically active as a result. Only half of eligible Latino voters cast ballots in 2008, he said, compared with 65 per cent of eligible non-Hispanic voters. “We have an opportunity here with this current generation,” Mr. Vargas said. About 50,000 Latinos turn 18 every month, he said.
And the fact that the country is getting a burst of births from non-whites is a huge advantage, argues Dowell Myers, professor of policy, planning and demography at the University of Southern California. European societies with low levels of immigration now have young populations that are too small to support larger aging ones, exacerbating problems with the economy.
“If the U.S. depended on white births alone, we’d be dead,” Mr. Myers said. “Without the contributions from all these other groups, we would become too top-heavy with old people.”