Size Matters: Analysis of Census Bureau's Population Projections

While the Census Bureau’s press release accompanying its new population projections emphasizes the importance of the country’s changing racial composition, this is almost certainly not the most important finding. The new report shows a U.S. population in 2050 that is 135 million larger than it is today. This could have profound implications for the environment and quality of life in the United States in the future. Immigration policy is the primary factor driving population growth.

Several observations on the new projections:

* A U.S. population of 439 million in 2050 is by far the largest ever projected by the Census Bureau. As recently as 1996, the Bureau projected a population in 2050 considerably smaller than is now projecting.

* The increase in the size of the overall U.S. population of 135 million between today and 2050 is larger than the combined populations of Great Britain and France.

* Assuming the same ratio of population to infrastructure that exists today:1

— The nation will need to build and pay for 36,000 more schools.
— Develop enough land to accommodate 52 million new housing units.
— Construct enough new roads to handle 106 million more passenger vehicles.

* Although the projections do not provide enough information to precisely determine the share of population increase due to immigration, prior research and some information in the study itself indicate that about three-fourths of this future population growth is driven by new immigration and births to immigrants.2

* One of the more interesting findings in the Census Bureau projections is that even with record levels of immigration over the next 42 years, the population of the United States will still age significantly. This is consistent with prior research showing that immigration has only a modest impact on slowing the aging of American society.

Adding 135 million more people to the nation’s population is very likely to have significant implications for many things Americans care about such as pollution, congestion, sprawl, and preservation of open spaces. It may also have implications for the size and scope of government as more densely settled societies are almost always more heavily regulated.

The new projections point to a policy choice. The United States may well decide to continue to allow the settlement of 1.5 million new immigrants (legal and illegal) each year. But legal immigration is a federal program like any other and could be reduced below the 1 million currently allowed to enter the country each year. Greater resources could also be devoted to reducing illegal immigration. The projections provide a glimpse into one possible future. We must decide as country if this is future we want.


1 These figures are based on the fact that there are about 485 children in each public school, there are .78 passenger vehicles for each U.S. resident, and that the average household size is 2.6 persons.

2 A table in the new projections entitled “Projections of the Population and Components of Change for the United States: 2010 to 2050” shows the number of births, deaths, and net immigration. The table shows that in 2008, 44 percent or 1.3 million of 3 million increase in the total U.S. population was from net immigration, the remainder due to natural increase (births minus deaths). However, vital statistics data show that there are 900,000 to 1 million births to immigrants each year. Thus, immigration and births to immigrant women account for about three-fourths of current U.S. population growth. The table also shows that net immigration will account for a growing share of population growth moving forward. It is important to understand that native-born American couples have only about two children on average, so immigration is the key determinant of U.S. population growth. For a more detailed discussion of these issues see “100 Million More: Projections the Impact of Immigration on the US Population, 2007 to 2060” at http://www.cis.org/impact_on_population.html .