Population milestone will trigger political posturing

The population of the United States will hit 300 million sometime in mid- or late October, a milestone likely to trigger anxiety and political rancor rather than a national celebration of growth and prosperity.

Unlike the commemorations in 1967 when Americans hailed the 200 million mark, federal authorities this year won’t be building giant population clocks as props for jubilant politicians. Nor will they encourage the news media to locate the newborn who put the nation over the top.

Instead, critics of rapid growth will question anew whether America can remain prosperous while burgeoning at the unprecedented rate of 1 million new residents every 127 days. Others will angrily argue that the 300 millionth American very likely will be an illegal immigrant.

Aware of the anxieties, the Bush administration is low-key about the approaching population landmark. The only official recognition planned so far is a modest press briefing by federal demographic experts.

“We won’t style it as a celebration, particularly,” Census Director Louis Kincannon said in an interview. “I don’t think we will try to achieve much theater.”

Population experts aren’t surprised.

“The pressures associated with population growth are dominating our public discussion with issues like traffic congestion, school overcrowding, loss of open spaces and increases in municipal taxes,” said Robert Puentes, a scholar with the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “It’s not surprising no one is celebrating this.”

Foremost among the Bush administration’s fears of the coming landmark are concerns it will fuel renewed anger among conservatives over federal immigration and border-security policies. Immigrants accounted for about 40 percent of population growth in recent years, and about half of them entered the United States illegally.

That the coming milestone arrives within weeks of the Nov. 7 general elections isn’t calming White House concerns.

“I don’t think 300 million has much meaning to people. It is more likely that people who are actively involved in these issues might use this as a tool to talk about whether immigration is good or bad,” said Kincannon. “And I don’t want to be a football (placed) between them.”

But the scrimmages already have begun.

“Because of immigration, we are growing about 1 percent every year. That has impact on things like urban sprawl, the environment and congestion,” said Steven Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that seeks tighter immigration controls. “This ought to be debated. Do we really want to be a country of 500 million people? That is where we are headed.”

It was a different story when President Lyndon Johnson stood in front of a large population clock in the lobby of the Commerce Department on Nov. 20, 1967, to celebrate a population of 200 million.

The clock chimed at 11:04 a.m. announcing the happy event.

Life magazine editors dispatched two-dozen photographers and reporters to locate the infant born at the moment the clock had chimed. They decided the honor fell to Robert Ken Woo, an Asian-American born in Atlanta.

Conditions will be quite different this year. The Census Bureau will not construct a chiming clock. Federal demographers maintain a virtual “population clock” at the census Web site (www.census.gov). But those calculations are updated only every five minutes.

Anyone wishing to estimate the theoretical arrival time of the 300 millionth American will need to hit the “refresh” button several times on his Web browser as the clock passes 300 million and then use a calculator to determine the most likely minute of the population milestone.

Kincannon joked that immigration opponents this year may try to repeat Life magazine’s publicity stunt by seeking to identify someone who illegally crosses the U.S-Mexican border at about the time the milestone is reached.

“The Minutemen, if they’ve got an intellectual arm, might say: ‘Well, here’s Miguel, who is the 300 millionth American!” Kincannon said of the anti-illegal-immigration group that posts observers along the Mexican border.

That debate has already begun.

“During the last five years, we’ve been averaging about 1.5 million immigrants who settle in the United States each year, from both legal and illegal immigration,” Camarota said. “So there is an 8-in-10 chance that the 300 millionth person will either be an immigrant or the newborn child of an immigrant.”

Demographic experts say immigration isn’t quite that dominant in recent growth. But they admit most Americans would be surprised to know that the odds are very unlikely that the 300 millionth person will be a domestically born Caucasian.

“There’s a 49 percent chance that 300 millionth person will be Hispanic,” said Washington-based demographics scholar William Frey. “And the most likely scenario is that this will be someone born or who moves into Los Angeles County, since that has the nation’s biggest Hispanic population.”

Only 18 percent of recent population growth has been among non-Hispanic white people, while blacks account for 14 percent, Asians for 14 percent and American Indians for 4 percent. About 1 percent of the recent population growth has been among people of mixed racial background.

Some experts warn that the approaching milestone is much too theoretical to be taken too seriously.

“There is no way to answer this question since we don’t compile these statistics with that degree of accuracy,” said Linda Jacobson of the Population Reference Bureau. “But it is important, I think, to stop and take stock of where we are. Because change and growth of our population are occurring so rapidly and unevenly, it is important to look at how we’ve changed since we were at 200 million.”

The nation’s population profile has dramatically transformed. In Johnson’s day, only 9.7 million residents were foreign-born, or about 1 in every 20. Today there are 36 million foreign-born, or nearly 1 in every 8.

Non-Hispanic whites are now a minority in California and Texas, the nation’s two most populous states. Whites are expected to be only a plurality nationwide in less than half a century.

America has also become much more urban and crowded. An average of 84 people now live on each square mile, up from 56 people per square mile in 1967. When Johnson was president, the United States had only five cities with at least 1 million population. Today, there are 44 urban areas of this size.

This vast increase in population has a profound effect on the environment.

“There is a question of how much carbon dioxide the world can absorb without overheating. Climate change is the biggest challenge of this new century,” said Michael Replogle of the Environmental Defense advocacy group. “This kind of sprawl certainly increases the challenges.”

The day after Johnson celebrated the 200 millionth American, he signed the Air Quality Act of 1967 to fund anti-pollution research and create regional air emission goals.

“Either we stop poisoning our air, or we become a nation of gas masks groping our way through dying cities and a wilderness of ghost towns that people have evacuated,” Johnson said.

Federal standards have cut air and water pollution dramatically. But, as in Johnson’s day, automobiles are still the primary source of air pollution.

“We remain highly dependent upon driving,” Replogle said. “That’s a function of half a century of suburban sprawl and government subsidies for highway development. We still have a long way to go to turn this around.”

Others complain that such rapid growth is straining infrastructure.

“Consider all of the other aspects of having a modern society if we have a much bigger population,” said Camarota. “We’re going to have to build a lot more roads, highways and bridges.”

But Kincannon said there is no particular reason Americans should fear a general rise in the population. He pointed to China, which has been a very large nation for centuries and yet has proven it “is not of an ungovernable size.”

The Census Bureau director said it’s a “glass half-empty or half-full” kind of question whether the nation should be concerned that it grows by nearly 3 million people each year.

“It means we have more creative people of working age who are better educated than we’ve ever had before. And that means we have more people available to care for the aging baby-boom generation,” he said. “But it also means more and more land must be occupied for housing. Highways and other transportation infrastructure are also burdened.”

And there are broader questions, Kincannon said, about whether the coming larger populations will produce a sustainable society with a continued high quality of life.

“We at the Census don’t really look at questions like that,” he said. “We just count stuff.”

(Contact Thomas Hargrove at HargroveT(at)shns.com.)