U.S. population passes 300 million; next milestone, 2043

Tuesday, October 17th 2006, 5:40 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Maybe there will be a bigger party when the population hits 400 million. Save the date: 2043.

America's official population passed the 300 million mark Tuesday, fueled by a growing number of immigrants and their children.

The moment, recorded at 7:46 a.m. EDT, passed with little fanfare, perhaps dampened by a divisive debate over illegal immigration and the fact that many experts think the population had already hit the 300 million mark months ago.

There were no fireworks or presidential proclamations. Census Bureau employees had cake and punch.

``It's a couple of weeks before an election when illegal immigration is a high-profile issue, and they don't want to make a big deal out of it,'' said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

It's been 39 years since the U.S. population reached 200 million. Since then, about 55 percent of the growth has come from immigrants, their children and their grandchildren, according to a recent report by the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research organization.

In other words, if the U.S. had cut off all immigration since 1967, the population would be about 245 million _ and a lot less diverse, said Jeffrey Passel, a senior demographer at the center.

``We've had much more Asian and Latino immigration than white and black,'' said Passel, the study's author. ``That has led to the racial and ethnic diversity that we have today.''

When the population hit 200 million in 1967, more than 80 percent of Americans were white and less than 5 percent were Hispanic. Less than 1 percent were Asian.

Today, Hispanics make up nearly 15 percent of the population and Asians about 5 percent. White non-Hispanics account for about 67 percent, blacks a little more than 13 percent.

By 2043, white non-Hispanics are expected to be a little more than half. That's the year the population is projected to hit 400 million, though the numbers could change significantly depending on immigration and birth rates.

In 1967, President Johnson held a news conference at the Commerce Department to mark the 200 million milestone. He hailed the country's past and talked about the challenges ahead. Life magazine dispatched a cadre of photographers to find a baby born at the exact moment, anointing a boy born in Atlanta as the 200 millionth American.

This year, there's a good chance the 300 millionth American walked across the border from Mexico months ago.

Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, himself an immigrant from Cuba, said the Bush administration isn't playing down the milestone, though there were no public events scheduled.

``I would hate to think that we are going to be low key about this,'' said Gutierrez, whose department oversees the Census Bureau. ``I would hope that we make a big deal about it.''

Gutierrez said America's growing population is good for the economy. He noted that Japan and some European countries expect to lose population in the next few decades, raising concerns that there won't be enough young people entering the work force to support aging populations.

``This is one more area where we seem to have an advantage,'' Gutierrez said. ``We should all feel good about reaching this milestone.''

The U.S. adds about 2.8 million people a year, a growth rate of less than 1 percent.

The Census Bureau counts the population every 10 years. In between, it uses administrative records and surveys to estimate monthly averages for births, deaths and net immigration. The bureau has a ``population clock'' that estimates a birth every seven seconds, a death every 13 seconds and a new immigrant every 31 seconds. Add it together and you get one new American every 11 seconds.

The U.S. population trails only China and India.

It's not easy estimating the exact number of people in a country the size of the United States. Passel said the Census Bureau has improved its population estimates in the past few years, but it still undercounts illegal immigrants.

There are an estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. Experts differ on the specifics, but many estimate that more than 1 million of them don't show up in census figures.

``The census clearly misses people,'' said Passel, a former Census Bureau employee who used to help estimate the undercount. ``Having said that, when they crossed 200 million, they were missing about 5 million people. We think the 2000 census missed a lot less than 5 million people.''