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Jewish World Review Jan. 19, 2000 /12 Shevat, 5760

Ben Wattenberg

Ben Wattenberg
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Are new Census data off the mark? -- THE UNFORTUNATE HEADLINE on the Department of Commerce press release asserts "Census Bureau Projects Doubling of Nation's Population by 2100." The accompanying story states that "middle-level assumptions" indicate that the number of Americans will grow from 273 million in 1999 to 571 million in the year 2100.

I bet it won't happen. It's fine if it does.

Statistics often take on a life of their own, particularly when they come with the imprimatur of the Census Bureau, a federal agency that is highly respected, and deservedly so. This one can be seen as the keystone number in the official American demographic edifice. Sooner or later it will be used by school boards, sewer districts, zoning boards, federal agencies and businesses. Most volubly, it is the statistic that will be babbled upon by leading cause group activists of right and left. In this case, alas, you may rest assured that anti-immigration megaphones will broadcast the data as "proof" that immigration should be cut back, or cut off. Environmentalists will tell you that more people cause more pollution and we're getting more people. Yuck! It's Pat Buchanan dressed as the Jolly Green Giant!

First, not to worry. In 1900, the American population was 76 million. By 2000, the population almost quadrupled. At the same time, America became the most prosperous and most influential country in the world, its people living in ever-larger (i.e., less-crowded) residential spaces, with pollution rates headed downward, in a nation still among the most sparsely populated in the world. And now there are projections of a doubling over the next full century, not a quadrupling. If the Bureau is correct, America will grow at half its recent speed.

But the projections deserve further explanation and, I think, adjustment. The new Census data are clear, well-structured and user-friendly. But projections are only as good as the assumptions that go into them. This set has at least two that warrant skeptical scrutiny: fertility and immigration.

The current total fertility rate of Americans of Hispanic origin is 2.9 children per woman. The current rate of non-Hispanic whites (so-called Anglos) is about 1.8. Under the theory of demographic convergence, the projections assume that Latino rates will be heading downward toward 2.1 children per woman by 2100, while Anglo rates will be heading upward toward 2.1.

That is likely only half-right. Latino rates will come down; they already are down among second and third generation Latino families. But there is no convincing reason to think that Anglo rates will go up 13 percent, as the projections indicate. The Bureau says survey data of "birth expectations" portend such a rise. But that's nothing more than polling data, which have been unreliable. In fact, Anglo fertility has been at about 1.8 or below for a quarter of a century. The seemingly minuscule difference of about three-tenths of a child could mean somewhere around 70 million fewer Americans than projected for 2100.

The immigration projections are also strained. From about 1.03 million per year in 2010, the numbers rise to 1.45 million in 2030 and stay there to 2100. Why so? Census demographers believe that immigration is mostly "demand-driven." Thus, as greater proportions of Americans reach age 65 and beyond in future decades, there will be a demand for more worker bees from other countries. Perhaps such a demand will develop. But where will supply come from?

Because of catastrophically low fertility rates in recent decades, Europe will hit the age-dependency problem long before America does. If taking in more immigrants is the answer, Europe will soak up immigrants first.

Meanwhile, fertility rates, from a high base, are in free-fall in the Less Developed Countries (LDCs), as those nations modernize and urbanize. Mexican rates, for example, have dropped from 6.8 to 2.5 since 1965, and they're still falling. There are already about 25 LDCs with fertility below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. The calculations are tricky, but the 0.4 million annual immigration difference between 2010 and 2030 onward could well add up to between 50 million and 100 million Americans, counting offspring.

Now, all these calculations, upside and downside, are quite speculative. In fact, as is sound Census Bureau practice, the middle-level assumptions are bracketed by "high" and "low" ones, which range from 1.2 billion and climbing in 2100, to 283 million and shrinking. With such broad ranges in play, it would seem prudent to call the fertility and immigration rates that are now prevalent "middle," or "medium," or "most likely."

On future immigration and fertility, the new Census projections do not do this.

And so, school boards, sewer commissions, corporations, boards of education, federal agencies and businesses will start planning for eventualities that likely will never eventuate.

And so, the caterwaulers of right and left will increase the volume of their caterwauls -- to what effect remains to be seen.

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank." You may comment by clicking here.

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