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America Is Becoming Older and More Diverse Than Ever

Statistics show that U.S. white population is decreasing, with more deaths than births

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New U.S. Census Bureau estimates, released this week, indicate that America's population is aging and diversifying at a faster rate than researchers previously thought.

America is becoming older, less white and more ethnically diverse at a faster rate than predicted by the U.S. Census Bureau, according to a study released this week.

National Center for Health Statistics data from 2016 (the most current on record) shows that the deaths of whites exceeded births of people of this race in 26 states — more than at any time in U.S. history. Demographers call this a “natural decrease” in population — when the number of births is not on pace with mortality rates.

The accelerated level of demographic change was an eye-opener for study coauthor Kenneth M. Johnson, a demographer and professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire. In 2016 data showed that 17 states had more white deaths than births, and he estimated that by 2018 two or three more states would be added to the list.

“Instead, in two years it was nine more states,” says Johnson. “In fact, when we first ran the data we were so surprised, we went back and reran everything because we thought it might be a mistake. We just didn’t expect it to happen as fast as it happened.”

Some states among the 26 with more deaths than births of whites were predictable, such as Florida, since many older white retirees move there. But other states were unexpected.

“We were a little surprised to see North Carolina show up as a white-natural-decrease state,” says Johnson, “[but] North Carolina is becoming increasingly popular for retirement migration, so even though it has a lot going for it and we mostly think of it as a fast-growing state, it is receiving a lot of older whites.”

The rate of white deaths isn't the only factor contributing to a more diverse U.S. population, says Johnson, noting that the aging of the boomer population, the decreasing number of white women of child-bearing age and the overall decrease in the U.S. birth rate are also important.

“The other [factors] are more short term,” he says. “The Great Recession really reduced the birth rate in the U.S., and the rates have just not recovered … and the uptick in the number of deaths from opioids — what are being called deaths of despair” — has had a dramatic impact on the rates of white deaths.

The aging of the white boomer population has long-term implications beyond concerns about the stability of Social Security, Johnson says: For example, “Who is going to take care of all these older adults? There are just not enough nurses, aides and home health-care givers. Although this is not a direct result of this natural decrease, it underscores how the changing age structure is going to change a lot of things.”

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