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Executive Summary:
A Population Perspective of the United States

World population has grown by one billion in the past 12 years, exceeding six billion in 1999. Nearly half of this population is under the age of 25 and over 90 percent of the growth is taking place in the developing world, in sharp contrast to Europe, North America and Japan, where population growth has slowed dramatically or even stopped. The United States is the only industrialized country in the world where large population increases are projected, due mainly to immigration.

The population of the United States in 1999 is estimated at 272.5 million, making it the world's third most populous nation after China and India.

The U.S. population increases by 0.6 percent annually as a consequence of more births than deaths. Legal immigration contributes another 0.3 percent to growth, or approximately 800,000 people per year.

By 2050, U.S. population is projected to grow to over 403 million people; ethnic and racial minorities will comprise more than 90 percent of those 130 million additional Americans.

Population Distribution

Over the last century, Americans have been moving to metropolitan areas with high economic activity, resulting in a population decline in the non-metropolitan U.S. Currently over 75 percent of the country lives in metropolitan areas of the country.

In 1950, more than half of all Americans (55 percent) lived in the Northeast and Midwest. Today that number has declined to 42 percent as the population has shifted to the South and West. California is the greatest gaining state in the United States.

Racial Composition and Immigration 

Projections indicate that minorities will make up one-third of the U.S. population by 2015 and nearly half of the population by 2050. The current U.S. population is 72 percent non-Hispanic white; 12 percent African-American; 11 percent Hispanic; and five percent Asian and other.

The minority share of the U.S. population has more than doubled since 1950. By 2050, whites – who were an 87 percent majority in 1950 – will comprise only 53 percent of the U.S. population.

Asians (including Pacific Islanders) are the fastest-growing minority group, having increased by 179 percent since 1980. By 2050, Asians will comprise nearly ten percent of the U.S. population.

Since 1980, the number of Hispanics in the U.S. has grown five times faster than the rest of the population, making the United States the third largest Spanish-speaking country in the world.

At 33.1 million in 1999, African-Americans remained the largest single minority group nationally, yet between 2005 and 2015, Hispanics are expected to pass African-Americans as the country’s largest minority group.

More legal immigrants (7.6 million) came to the U.S. from 1991 to 1999 than in any other decade except 1901 to 1910. Approximately 42 percent of these immigrants came from Spanish-speaking countries; 33 percent from Asia; 17 percent from Europe; and five percent from Africa. The government estimated in 1996 that an additional five million immigrants were in the U.S. illegally.

Family Structure 

The household size of the average American family has declined from 3.1 to 2.6 persons during the last 30 years. Reasons for this include the decline in fertility, changes in the living patterns of youth and fewer overall marriages, a higher median age for marriage, and increases in the divorce rate.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the U.S. lifetime divorce probability stands at 48.8 percent, a figure that has more than tripled since 1970 when it was 15 percent.

While the U.S. fertility rate has declined from 2.5 to 2.0 since 1970, out-of-wedlock births as a percentage of all births has more than tripled to 36 percent and two-parent families have declined from 87 to 70 percent of all families in 1999. Among non-Hispanic whites, the proportion of single-parent families has doubled to 21 percent, and among African-Americans this number has increased from 36 to 60 percent. Most single-parent families are headed by women.

Higher fertility has been a major source of population growth among minority groups. Hispanics have the highest fertility rate of any U.S. minority, with the average Hispanic woman giving birth to three children in her lifetime. The African-American fertility rate is 2.2 lifetime births per woman. Non-Hispanic whites have the lowest fertility rate of 1.8, about 14 percent below the "replacement rate" of 2.1.

When only considering fecund, sexually active women who do not want to become pregnant (39 million), approximately 8 in 10 U.S. women are using contraception.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the teenage birth rate dropped two percent in 1998, continuing a seven-year decline in these numbers. Although teen birth rates remain disproportionately high for Hispanics and African-Americans, these numbers dropped from 1991 to 1997 by three and 23 percent, respectively.


The country grew rapidly from 132 million in 1940 to its present size due to the post-World War II baby boom, increasing immigration, and increasing life expectancy. The baby boom, 75 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964, currently represents 30 percent of the U.S. population, and at the height of this boom in 1957, 4.3 million children were born. This number dropped to 3.1 million in 1973 and began to rise again in the late 1970s as baby boomers began having children, peaking at 4.1 in 1991.

As a result of aging baby boomers, the U.S. population ages 65 and older will grow from 13 percent today to 18 percent by2025, and the median age of the country will increase from 35.5 to 39 years of age. By 2050, more than one-fifth of all Americans are expected to be over the age of 65.

Chiefly because of higher fertility rates, minorities represent a larger share of U.S. youth, while non-Hispanic whites constitute the bulk of the nation’s elderly. About 35 percent of U.S. children under the age of 18 are minorities, while 84 percent of those over 65 are non-Hispanic whites. By 2025, nearly 47 percent of American children will be African-American, Hispanic or Asian.

Health and Mortality

Life expectancy at birth in the U.S. has increased from 71 to 77 years since 1970. While African-Americans and men experienced the largest gains in life expectancy during the last 25 years, whites and women can still expect to live five years longer than both groups. The leading cause of death for all Americans is major cardiovascular-related disease, and the second cause of death is cancer.

An estimated 44.3 million people in the United States, or 16.3 percent of the population, had no health insurance in 1998, an increase of approximately one million people since 1997. Those more likely to lack health insurance continue to include young adults in the 18- to 24-year-old age group, people with lower levels of education, Hispanics, those who work part-time, and foreign-born Americans.

AIDS-related death rates in the U.S. dropped 21 percent in 1998 to 4.6 deaths per 100,000, and for the first time since 1987, AIDS has fallen out of the nation’s top 15 causes of death. Still, AIDS remains the leading cause of death for African-American men ages 25 to 44 and the third leading cause of death for African-American women of the same age. For the population as a whole, AIDS ranks as the fifth cause of death for the same age group. Since 1995, overall AIDS mortality has declined more than 70 percent.


In 1997, approximately 82 percent of Americans ages 25 and older had obtained at least a high school diploma; 48 percent had continued their education beyond high school; and 24 percent had earned at least a bachelor’s degree. From 1970 to 1999, college completion rates for the U.S. population ages 25 and older has doubled for non-Hispanic whites and Hispanics and more than tripled for African-Americans.

Labor Force 

In 1999, the U.S. labor force consisted of 137.7 million people, including the unemployed. The unemployment rate stands at 3.9 percent, the lowest it has been in over 30 years.

By occupation, 29.6 percent of the labor force is managerial and professional; 29.3 percent technical, sales and administrative support; 13.6 percent services; 24.8 percent manufacturing, mining, transportation and crafts; and 2.7 percent farming, forestry and fishing.

In 1900, just 19 percent of women were paid for their work. Today, nearly 60 percent of U.S. women participate in the cash economy.

Socioeconomic Factors 

Growth in real median household income made 1998 the year with the highest income levels ever recorded in the U.S. The real median earnings of full time, year-round workers increased between 1994 and 1998 by 4.4 percent for men and 2.0 percent for women.

As U.S. incomes rose, the proportion of the population living below the poverty level dropped to 12.7 percent (34.5 million) in 1998, down from 15 percent in 1990. The average poverty threshold for a family of four in 1998 was $16, 600 in annual income and $13,003 for a family of three. Currently, 8.2 percent of non-Hispanic whites, 26.1 percent of African-Americans, and 25.6 percent of Hispanics are below the poverty level.

Since the 1970s, income inequality has been widening in the U.S. The income share going to the wealthiest five percent of families rose from 15.6 percent in 1970 to 20.3 percent in 1998, and the wealthiest one-half of one percent of American taxpayers now account for more than 11 percent of aggregate income. In recent years, only college graduates have seen a significant increase in wage gains. In 1980, the median male college graduate earned about a third more than the median high school graduate; by 1998, the gap had widened to over 75 percent.


The aging of the U.S. baby boom population from young adulthood to middle-age has brought shifts in both the age structure and the labor force, affecting healthcare, social security and pension stability. And high levels of immigration during the 1980s and 1990s have contributed to significant population growth and made the country more racially and ethnically diverse, creating implications for the social integration of the United States. The future size, structure and diversity of this nation are already taking shape. Aging baby-boomers and new immigrants will create germinal segments of the population that will be distributed differently across the nation. The impacts of this growing diversity will vary by region, across states, and within states, creating major policy challenges for the United States in the decades ahead.

As this nation moves into the 21st century, demographic circumstances around the world will increase the importance of global matters such as the environment, immigration and overall quality of life. Many challenges lie ahead for our world at six billion. One billion people aged 15 to 24 will reach the height of their reproductive years, and the fertility outcomes of these generations will impact the world and affect the U.S. for generations to come.

This executive summary was prepared by AnnaLisa Schmidt of the Population Resource Center in May 2000 and reviewed by Dr. Charles Westoff of Princeton University and Dr. William Frey of The Milken Institute. Sources include: Centers for Disease Control, National Center for Health Statistics, Monthly Vital Statistics Report; Gray Dawn: How the Coming Age Wave Will Transform America – and the World, by Peter G. Peterson, 1999; Population Reference Bureau: America's Racial and Ethnic Minorities, by Kelvin M. Pollard and William P. O’Hare, September 1999; Immigration to the United States, by Philip Martin and Elizabeth Midgley, June 1999; U.S. in the World, 1998; 1999 United States Population Data Sheet; and 1999 World Population Data Sheet; UN Population Division, 1999; UN Social Statistics, 1998; U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, 1999; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Demographic and Health Surveys, 1999;U.S. Department of State, 1998; and the World Health Organization (WHO), The World Health Report 1998. For further information, please contact the Center at (202) 467-5030; 1725 K Street, NW, Suite 1102, Washington, D.C. 20006; prc@prcdc.org; or (609) 452-2822; 15 Roszel Road, Princeton, NJ 08540.

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