America’s Demographic Shuffle


On the CityLab website today, Tanvi Misra put together an interview with demographer William Frey that outlines his thoughts on the demographic transition taking place in this country.  By his accounting, by 2050 there will be no racial or ethnic majority in America, led by a doubling in population of what he terms our nation’s “new minorities” — Hispanics, Asians and multi-racial groups.  So-called “old minorities”, African-Americans and Native Americans, will continue to grow but not at the same pace; whites are expected to decline.  Here’s an illustration depicting the change:

Brookings Institute Press

This is good news, because without our recent immigration and the higher birth rates of immigrants, America may have found itself on the same demographic track as Japan and Russia — rapidly aging and ultimately declining:

“This is good news, demographically speaking, because as it turns out, the white population in the U.S. is aging pretty rapidly. This surge in minority births will arrive just in time to pick up the slack, Frey says. Absent any major change in immigration policy, the future of the American labor market will depend on the next generation of U.S.-born minorities.”

What I find more interesting, however, is the dispersion of immigrants throughout the rest of the nation, and the city/suburb impact.  I won’t hijack any more graphics from the CityLab story, but Frey makes clear that Hispanics and Asians are moving away from traditional ports of entry into the U.S. and are following their economic bliss to other parts of the country.  Of 222 metro areas with significant Hispanic populations analyzed by Frey, 145 were designated as “new Hispanic designations” — metros that had a Hispanic population less than 16 percent in 2010, but nonetheless grew by 86 percent or more between 2000-10.   Similarly, of 113 metros with significant Asian populations, 72 were designated as “new Asian destinations”, meaning Asian populations between 1 and 5 percent in 2010 but a growth rate of 70 percent or more between 2000-10.

Where are the new minorities going?  Frey explains:

“Back in the 1990s, people were concerned that we were going to have some kind of “balkanization” of the different demographic groups—that the new Hispanic groups that were coming to the U.S. tended to stay in the major immigrant-magnet areas like Los Angeles, Miami or New York … and the rest of the country was moving to other parts. In the last 15 years, that changed. We now have a spread of Hispanics, especially in the Southeast part of the country, which before the recession hit was a rapidly growing area—economically.

Also, [there will be migration to] the other parts of the “new Sunbelt” in the Mountain West. The fact that lots of jobs were moving there and lots of people from all over America were moving there has created opportunities in different segments of the labor force. The recession has slowed some of that movement up in the last few years. But I think that’s temporary.”

In addition to moving to Sun Belt locales, Hispanics and Asians are increasingly moving to suburbs.  The trend began in the ’90s, declined somewhat at the time of the Great Recession, and has accelerated in recent years.  Hispanics and Asians are bringing added diversity and vibrancy to formerly homogeneous suburban areas.

Meanwhile, African-Americans, one of our nation’s “old minorities”, are replicating the migration patterns of whites in previous decades — accelerating its move to the suburbs and to the Sun Belt.  More and more blacks are leaving major Northeast and Midwest cities and embarking for cities like Atlanta, Charlotte and Nashville.  As Frey says, part of the shift is rooted in the pursuit of new economic opportunities, but part of it is also has a strong historical pull.

What does it mean for America?  From my standpoint, I see our nation being in a demographic situation much like the late 19th and early 20th century Gilded Age, when millions of southern and eastern European immigrants (often Italian, Polish and Jewish immigrants) made it to our shores.  Initially they were concentrated in our major population centers, but within a generation many sought opportunities outside of major cities.  I think a similar pattern is emerging, and Frey suggests as much.

But I’d also note that, just like during the Gilded Age, there may be underlying concerns by white Americans about their place in a transitioning American society.  A hundred years ago that concern was articulated by the nativist remarks of people like Henry Ford, or by the high-profile Sacco and Vanzetti trial and conviction.  Ultimately, however, America’s vision of itself expanded to include the “new minorities” of that time, and that will likely be the case in the 21st century.  We’ll see.

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