A new report from the United States Census Bureau shows that for the first time in American history, the population of non-Hispanic whites decreased last year — a phenomenon that occurred in no other racial group.
The measure was natural decrease, which is a simple count of deaths minus births, and showed a decline of 12,400 non-Hispanic whites, from a total population of 198 million. This had never before happened, the white population historically increasing even through the Great Depression and wartimes.
The number was then offset by the arrival of 188,000 white immigrants, most coming from Canada, Germany, Russia, and Saudi Arabia.
“We’re jumping the gun on a long, slow decline of our white population, which is going to characterize this century,” explains William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution.
Though the decline of white America has been a long-foreseen trend, which received publicity in 2012 when a report showed more minority births in the country than white births, it’s happening faster than anticipated. Many point to the economy as a reason for delayed or postponed childrearing, as well as a refocus of priorities as college-educated women put off families for careers.
“Once this recession has waned,” explains Ken Johnson, a demographer with the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire, “we’re probably going to see at least a temporary uptick in births until death rates start to rise.”
The median age of whites in America is 42, higher than any other racial group, with African Americans at 32 and Hispanics at 28. Yet many demographers still expected to see a positive population growth among whites until 2024, at which point the steady deaths of white Americans born in the 1940s and 1950s, as well as the continued decline in fertility among white women, would lead to steady population drops.
“Last year, we saw the majority of babies are minorities,” Frey continues. “Now we see more whites are dying than being born. Together, that tells us a lot about where we’re going as a country.”
This information comes at a tricky time, as Washington continues to debate complex issues related to welfare and immigration. A middle-aged America may feel disinclined to pay for the benefits and education of children who look different from them, while an aging America may feel strange about being supported through old age by the contributions of a minority workforce.
“It’s a bookend from the last century, when whites helped us grow,” Frey says. “Now it’s minorities who are going to make the contributions to our economic population growth over the next 50 years.”