Quality of Life in the 21st Century

By Leon F. Bouvier on May 1, 1996

Two items, apparently unrelated, appeared in the nation's press recently. First, the Census Bureau released its latest population projections to the year 2050; second, Congress rejected legislation lowering legal immigration. Despite appearances, however, the events are intimately connected: Congress's inaction on legal immigration will help drive the continued rapid population growth projected by the Census Bureau.

According to the medium projection (or preferred scenario), the population of the United States, now about 263 million, will reach 394 million by 2050.1 That is an increase of over 130 million, or an overall growth of almost 50 percent in just over half a century. As in the past, the media dutifully reported the projections without any comment as to the potential problems such numbers could cause to quality of life, though the coverage did note that ethnic shifts would occur. By 2050, non-Hispanic Whites would comprise just over half the population. To that one might ask, "what's new?" This was reported 15 years ago and has been repeated many times since.2

The media are not alone in glossing over the issue of population growth. Throughout the extended debate on immigration among Republicans, not once was the question of population growth discussed. Patrick Buchanan may be strongly opposed to immigration, but has never mentioned the issue in the context of population growth. It is also unlikely that population growth (or population policy) will be mentioned by President Clinton or Senator Dole between now and November.3

All this is unfortunate. When one considers that as recently as 1950 the nation's population was only 149 million, it is clear that the population juggernaut is currently running at full speed — the United States is the world's fastest-growing industrialized nation. From the Census Bureau projections, it is equally clear that the juggernaut will not slow down in the foreseeable future. Furthermore, this growth is not random. States in the Great Plains and in the Northeast will experience little growth; states like Florida, California, Texas, and Georgia, however, could see almost a doubling of their numbers over the next 50 years. What do these large numerical increases mean for all Americans? How will such growth affect quality of life in America?

In addition to the growth in numbers shifts in composition must also be examined when considering quality of life. For example, the Census Bureau reports that in the next ten years, America's 50-something population is projected to expand by 12 million persons. Between 2010 and 2030 the 65 and over population is projected to increase by 76 percent, from 39.4 million to 69.4 million. Furthermore, each year from 1997 to 2050 more than half of America's population growth will occur among the nation's Hispanic and Asian and Pacific Islander populations. Four of every 10 people added to the population through net immigration from 1995 to 2050 would be Hispanic, three in 10 would be Asian and Pacific Islander, two in 10 would be non-Hispanic White and one in 10 would be Black. Turning to fertility, the Census Bureau notes that after 2011, the number of births each year is projected to exceed the highest annual number of births ever achieved in the United States during the 20th century (including the "Baby Boom" period).

Impacts of Population Change

Discussion of the consequences of our immigration-assisted population growth in this brief report is necessarily limited to a handful of issues, beginning with perhaps the most important issue of all — education.


It is generally agreed that our schools are a mess. At the recent national summit on education, Louis Gerstner, the chairman of IBM, commented: "Our educational system is broken — we all know that. I could stand here for hours reading the grim statistics. We are behind [other industrialized nations] and in an increasingly global economy, I'm not liking our chances." He added, "This is a national priority that rises above all others."4

Earlier this year, a San Jose Mercury-News editorial expressed similar concerns: "California's university system is till respected, but it won't be for long if professors have to dumb-down reading lists and problem sets to accommodate students with marginal skills. Lower academic standards will be inevitable if so many freshmen continue to enter unprepared."5

The problems are not limited to poor quality. The physical infrastructure of public education is in shambles as well. In 1982, then-Gov. Bob Graham and a willing legislature vowed to push Florida's education system into the top 25 percent in America. Today, Gov. Lawton Chiles settles for calling on a hesitant legislature to provide every Florida schoolchild with a book and to repair leaking roofs in many of the state's schools. Such demands are being repeated in many places.

Today, slightly more than 50 million children are enrolled in grades K-12, mostly in public schools. They are taught by about 3 million teachers who earn, on average, $36,000 per year. Current school expenditures amount to about $242 billion per year.6 Teaching doesn't pay very well and it is increasingly dangerous, as teachers are physically threatened every day. Increasingly, in many parts of the country, teachers are faced with students who have little or no knowledge of English. Thus, the demand for bilingual teachers is growing rapidly and will continue to do so. And, in some areas, teachers are faced with ultraconservative school boards and parents who interfere with their academic freedom.

Thus we have a situation where the quality of education is fast declining, where teachers are either unhappy or leaving the profession — or not entering it in the first place — and where the increasing multicultural background of the children presents yet another challenge to instructors. That is the situation today. What will it be like in 2020 or in 2050?

Within less than a quarter of a century, according to the medium Census Bureau projections, there would be about 55.6 million children aged 5-17 in the country. If enrollment rates remain as they are today, that would result in 57.8 million students in grades K-12, or 7.5 million more than in 1995. School expenditures, which are generally divided between state and local revenues, would rise to close to $300 billion. If a typical school (elementary or secondary) averages about 600 students, that means that 12,500 new schools would have to be constructed in addition to repairs to older schools between now and 2020. It means that 450,000 additional teachers would have to be trained, at a time when the entire profession is in disrepute. That is in addition to the replacements for the many who will either retire, die, or just give up on the profession.

Looking beyond 2020 to 2050, the nation can expect to have well over 70 million students enrolled in elementary and secondary schools. Further details are not necessary. It is obvious that the population growth envisioned under the Census Bureau's medium scenario will pose enormous challenges for our already deteriorating educational system.

Given these parameters, can our nation solve the school infrastructure growth problems while at the same time attempting to improve the quality of schools (for example, by ensuring that all classes have computers), so as to avoid another statement at a future national summit on education like the one cited earlier? One cannot be optimistic.

Financially, the problem lies more at the local and state level than at the federal. Thus, the five trillion dollar debt is not directly related to these problems, but this enormous debt has trickled down to states and cities. Furthermore, the American people, though taxed less than any other industrialized nation, rebel at the thought of increased taxation. For example, citizens in Hillsborough County, Florida (which includes the city of Tampa), recently voted down an attempt to raise taxes slightly for school improvements.

Clearly, the United States is at a crossroads in education. Conditions are worsening while numbers are increasing; furthermore, students are increasingly diverse in background and it costs substantially more to teach a child who doesn't speak English than one who does. Unless something meaningful is done, and done soon, to both reduce the growth in school enrollments and improve the quality through better training and paying of teachers, parental involvement, and increased financial support throughout the nation, the words of Louis Gerstner will be proven all too correct in the next century.


It has been said that Americans are in love with their automobiles. The data reinforce that statement. In 1993, over 194 million vehicles were registered. That amounts to .75 vehicles per persons of all ages, or about one car for each adult. However, despite the large and growing numbers of vehicles, the number of highway miles has barely grown over the past decade. In 1995, state and federal highway miles totaled 3.9 million. Ten years earlier, they totaled 3.86 million. The result of which is apparent enough: increased highway congestion. To make matters worse, according to a 1993 study, close to 30 percent of all highways were considered to be in either poor or mediocre condition. That proportion was even higher for the interstate highway system.

What happens when 60 million people are added to the population, as will happen by 2020; or 132 million by 2050? If the ratio of persons to vehicles remains as it is today, there will be 45 million more vehicles by 2020 and 100 million more by 2050. Can the highway system handle 240 million or 295 million vehicle? Will an entirely new 21st century interstate system be needed? Will we simply add on lanes after lanes on all our roads? Already-congested highways will worse perhaps to the point where, like it or not, and despite our affection for the automobile, we will increasingly have to turn to public transportation to get to work and to do our shopping. To a considerable extent, Americans' quality of life is dependent on the ability to get around when and where one likes. That may not be true in 2020 and even less so in 2050.

Can our nation afford to build the highways necessary to handle such a massive increase in vehicles? The Federal Highway Trust Fund now totals $30 billion. That money could be used to at least upgrade our interstate highway system. However, as with over so-called Trust Funds (like Social Security), that money is included in the nation's overall budget, giving the appearance that the national debt is not quite as huge as it actually is. It will take considerable political courage to loosen the purse strings on the Highway Fund to improve the highway system. Given projected population growth, even such a decision would not solve the problem of overcrowded roads.

The Elderly

Much has been written about the elderly and the anticipated growth in their numbers in future years, particularly as the baby boomers approach retirement age after 2020. By 2030, according to the medium projection from the Bureau, the nation can expect to have almost 70 million people 65 and over. Such a number, more than double that of today, is more than a projection since these people are already born! The looming problems for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are monumental.

The elderly are obviously more likely to utilize medical services than younger people; thus, a look at the data on hospital facilities is warranted. Currently there are about 5,300 community hospitals in the country, with almost one million beds. Some 3.7 million people are employed by community hospitals. With continued population growth, additional facilities will necessarily have to be built. However, recent studies have shown that we already have a 20 percent surplus of physicians — ironically, the same percent whoa re foreign-born.7 On the other hand, home health aids are predicted to be the job most in demand for the foreseeable future.8

Nothing can be done to reduce the number of elderly in the future, and thus lessen the need for construction of hospitals and nursing homes and the training of aides. However, as we shall see later, while the elderly of 2030 and even 2050 may already be born, they may not be living in the United States at that time. Reductions in fertility will not mean reductions in the number of elderly over the next 55 years — but reductions in immigration will.


For some time, crime has been a major concern of many Americans. In state after state, the public is demanding that those convicted of major crimes serve their entire sentences. But at the same time, court after court has ordered the release of some prisoners because of such poor conditions in the nation's prisons. The answer, in some cases, has been to build more prisons. But even for this purpose, many people are opposed to raising taxes and to locating new prisons near their homes.

What is the current situation? In 1995, there were about 1 million persons incarcerated in the nation's federal and state prisons.9 The latest published count was 910,080 for 1993 and it has been rising every year since at least 1970.

Although the number of prisoners keeps increasing, there has been a slight decline in the number of reported crimes since 1991, when they totaled 14,873,000. By 1993, crimes were down to 14,141,000. Similarly, the rate per 100,000 fell from 5,898 in 1991 (the highest ever recorded) to 5,483 in 1993 (the lowest since 1986).

What about the future? Hopefully crimes will keep falling, but there is no reason to believe there will be any major drop soon. Two factors are involved. On one hand, as the proportion of youth falls (as it will) that should mean lower rates since crime is predominantly committed by younger individuals. On the other hand, as the ethnic composition keeps changing, this could contribute to higher rates, since some minorities are statistically more likely to be involved in illegal activities than the majority. We will be very fortunate if we can maintain the rate around 5,000 per 100,000 population. That would match the rate for 1984.

But even with such optimistic assumptions about the crime rate, the sheer increase in population guarantee massive growth in the number of crimes and in the number of prisoners in future yeas. Another 500,000 prisoners added to the current 1 million would not be out of the question. That would require the construction of many more prisons in all parts of the country. As for acts of crime, we can expect close to 20 million per year by 2050, according to the assumption of some decline in criminal acts and according to the medium population projections from the Census Bureau.

The effect on the criminal justice infrastructure is but another example of what rapid population growth really means for America. These are not simply numbers; they represent the acts that will take place as more and more people crowd into an area that is not growing in size.


Of all the problems associated with continued rapid growth, waste disposal may be one of the most visible. Today, our cities generate twice as much solid waste as they did in 1960.10 Clearly, the problems associated with waste disposal are critical. "Because they were polluting, or simply full, the number of landfills declined from 20,000 in 1978 to 6,000 in 1990, and more than half will be closed by mid-decade [in fact, by 1994, the number was down to 1,296]. Cities have unsuccessfully tried to unload the waste on third world countries... Major eastern cities have been negotiating with rural counties as far away as New Mexico and Texas to accept the stuff. The nation is on a treadmill."11

Today, we generate more than 13 billion tons of waste each year. That amounts to about 50 tons per person. Of that, about 2 percent is considered hazardous waste. These wastes, mostly toxic, do their damage largely by polluting groundwater supplies, on which about half the U.S. population depends for its drinking water. Then there is no way of knowing exactly what toxic chemicals are already on their way from leaking chemical drums, nearly 2 million buried gas station tanks, and other miscellaneous tanks around the nation that are not even subject to regulation. "In sum, the problem of toxic wastes presents a huge but unknown bill for cleaning up past poisoning and preventing its continuation."12

The news is not encouraging. What will happen if 132 million people are added to the nations population? Recall that Americans average 50 tons of waste per person per year. Urban sludge and agriculture are the two major culprits in the degradation of surface waters and groundwater, and runoff will occur even if the sludge is put on agricultural land. A 50 percent intensification, through increased population, is a grim thought indeed.


In 1993, there were 106,611,000 housing units in the United States, or about 2. 5persons per housing unit. These were not randomly distributed across the nation. California, for example, had about 12 million housing units, New York 7.5 million. Wyoming, on the other hand, had a little over 200,000 as did Alaska.

Where will the next 132 million Americans live? Perhaps we should first ask: How many additional housing units will be needed? If the ratio of 2.5 persons per unit is maintained, as it reasonably should be, then 50 million more units will be needed in addition to all those that will be built to replace old, decaying units built many years ago.

At first glance, this may appear to be great news for builders and contractors. That is the seductiveness of population growth. More people mean more jobs, so why worry? 400 million? 500 million? No problem. But again, one needs to ask: where will they live? Our cities are full; our close-in suburbs are about full in most parts of the country. Few people will move to the colder states like the Dakotas. The end result will undoubtedly be more and more housing developments built further and further away from the urban centers, in some instances destroying our wetlands. This exurbanization will result in longer commutes to work, more highway congestion, more use of fuels, which will in turn contribute to further contamination of the atmosphere since, of course, the automobile ranks as our primary source of pollution.

We are fast covering much of our land surface with houses, shopping malls, industrial parks, and the like. Yet we wonder why so much localized flooding occurs. One reason is quite simple: concrete doesn't soak up rainfall like ground does — which suggests yet another example of why adding 132 million people is not just another piece of news for page 12 of the daily newspaper.


Water quantity and quality differ widely across the nation. In fact, the availability of water has become a source of contention between "have" and "have not" states or sections of states. Simply put, Americans each year draw 25 percent more water from groundwater resources that gets replaced by nature. "Falling water tables have already curtailed irrigation from some aquifers, and the competition for water between irrigated agriculture and urban population growth has already led to systematic diversion of water from agriculture to cities in Arizona and California."13

It would seem hard to deny that 132 million additional people will exacerbate what is already a very serious problem for the nation. Water shortages will directly affect agriculture and the prospects are dim for irrigation. Urban demand and the need to protect wetlands threaten the cheap, subsidized irrigation supplies in California, the nation's largest agricultural producer. Moreover, the groundwater aquifers are subsiding in areas where agriculture has become critically dependent on them. The Ogallala Aquifer in the Great Plains is the largest and most important example. Some experts estimate that it may be entirely depleted within the next 25 years.14

The inevitable result of taking out more water than enters the system will be the drying up of aquifers. Yet, adding more and more millions of people will have that effect. The water wars of the 19th century made famous (or infamous) by Western movies may well return to haunt us all in the 21st century if population growth continues as projected by the Census Bureau.


Being able to visit one of the nation's parks or beaches may not be as important as having breathable air and drinkable water. Yet, enjoying the natural grandeur of our beautiful country is certainly part of what is meant by "quality of life." Yet, already, even trying to visit our national parks has become a test of endurance. Reservations must be made months ahead in many cases, and when one finally arrives at the park, it is often choked with traffic.

The National Park System comprises about 75 million acres; it is not going to grow to accommodate 132 million more people. Neither will additional beaches suddenly appear. Indeed, they may diminish, as pollution claims more and more beach front. At best, parks and beaches will remain at their current size; there will simply be many more people wanting to get in. Again, quality of life will suffer because of immigrant-assistant rapid population growth.


One last point is worth mentioning, however briefly. Increasingly, we read about growing dissatisfaction with government at all levels. There is a pervasive feeling that an individual's opinion means little. Consider this population-related fact regarding the U.S. House of Representatives: it consists of 435 members, each representing about 600,000 constituents.15 In 1950, each member of the House represented 350,000 people. By 2050, according to the medium projections from the Census Bureau, each Representative will represent almost 900,000 constituents. Of course, we could always double the number of members of Congress, but that would undoubtedly be a very unpopular move. The alternative: a legislature further and further removed from the people, again because of rapid population growth.<

Projections Too Optimistic?

This report has relied on the "medium scenario" of the newest U.S. population projections form the Census Bureau. But will that scenario prove to be correct? No one knows for sure. Changes in fertility, mortality, and immigration could occur. But it is worth mentioning that Census Bureau medium projections have generally been on the low side. In recent years, new projections have been prepared so as to raise the count because of unforeseen shifts in demographic behavior, especially immigration. Thus, it is quite possible that this latest projection will also be conservative.

These newest projections use the official 1990 count as their base. Yet, the Bureau itself admits having missed at least 5 million people. In addition, the projections do not assume any movement toward convergence in the fertility of various racial and ethnic groups, as was done in the past. As a result, the overall fertility climbs gradually over time, since the Hispanic share increases. This has been referred to as "shifting shares."16 Yet, the overall increase is only from 2.055 to 2.245 births per woman (total fertility rate). The new report's mortality assumptions are quite similar to those in earlier publications.

However, the projected level of immigration has fallen from 880,000 in the most recent projection, to 820,000 in the current one. In a recent analysis, based on Census Bureau projections, the Center for Immigration Studies estimated annual net immigration since 1990 to be about 1.1 million.17 Furthermore, and with no explanation the number of non-Hispanic White immigrants is assumed to represent 23 percent of all the newcomers — almost as great a share as the Asians. Should this be proven correct, it would represent a marked departure from current and recent patterns of immigration.

Furthermore, by enlarging the non-Hispanic White share, which has the lowest fertility, the overall fertility is lower than would be the case should current proportions of immigration by race and ethnicity be maintained. The report has prepared one scenario with no immigration and concludes, conservatively, that 60 percent of the total population growth between 1995 and 2050 will come from immigration, directly and indirectly (i.e., immigrants and their U.S.-born children). Other studies have assumed that proportion to be considerably greater. Regarding zero immigration the Bureau's report confuses zero net immigration and zero immigration. Presumably, the latter means no one entering and no one leaving. These immigrants/emigrants would contribute to the growing population of the nation despite the fact that net immigration would be zero since most enter the country at a young age and leave at a much older age.18 This has been a perennial error in Bureau projections and should be corrected or clarified.18

In sum, the population projected for 2050 — 394 million — may be on the low side if current demographic patterns are maintained. Indeed, the high scenario projects a population of 519 million by 2050. Other respected demographers have also projected larger populations in the next century. Ahlburg and Vaupel, for example, in sharply criticizing earlier Census Bureau reports for having low fertility and immigration assumptions, have concluded that the United States could easily have a population of 811 million by 2080.19

How much larger will America's population get? No one knows. But it is clear that a population of 400 million can only result in a deterioration of the quality of life. And to aggravate the situation, according to even the medium Census Bureau projection, there is no end in sight to this growth.


Far too many people, policymakers especially, have assumed nothing can be done about population growth. We adjust everything else to that growth — build more schools, more highways, more police, more landfills, more, more, more. But something can be done about this.

Population can change through variations in fertility, mortality, and/or immigration. No one favors raising mortality; indeed, we should strive to increase the life expectancy of all Americans. Reducing fertility is an important factor when trying to lower population growth; however, even with reduced fertility, population stabilization takes a long time. Furthermore, in a democratic society, while lower fertility can be encouraged, it remains the right of each couple to have the number of children they desire.

Such is not the case with immigration, which turns the discussion back to Congress' rejection of measures that would have lowered legal immigration, albeit only modestly. While new legislation may have the effect of cutting back illegal movements, some senators are actually trying to raise legal immigration levels.20 This at a time when a new poll by the Roper Organization found that seven out of 10 Americans would prefer immigration levels to be lower than 300,000 per year.21 What is particularly striking is the complete lack of discussion about the impact of immigration on population growth during the long debates in Congress.

Fortunately, the new Census Bureau report also prepared a low scenario. Under it, overall fertility is projected to fall slightly from 2.055 to 1.910 by 2010 and remain constant thereafter, while net immigration is limited to 300,000 annually.22

The results demonstrate what could be achieved simply by lowering net immigrating (whether legal or illegal) and reducing fertility slightly (and much of that would be accomplished by lower immigration). Instead of 394 Americans in 2050, the number would be 283 million — a difference of 111 million. Even is 2020, less than 25 years from now, the difference would amount to 34 million. The size of the school-age population (ages 5-17) would be 44 million in 2050 under the low scenario, compared to 69 million under the medium scenario. In fact, that age-group would not grow numerically after 2020. Consider the advantages for the nation's school systems. Even the elderly population, 65 and over, would be smaller under the low-immigration scenario, despite the fact that most of them are already born. In 2030, the difference would amount to 10 million (58,869,000 vs. 69,379,000). By 2050, the difference would reach 23 million (53,930,000 vs. 78,859,000). This reflects the impact of continued immigration. As we noted earlier, not all the elderly of the future presently live in the United States; and of course, even young immigrants grow old over time.

The difference the low-immigration projection makes on other quality of life indicators is obvious: less highway congestion; less crime; fewer problems with waste disposal; greater access to parks and beaches; less dilution of access to our political representatives. Yet, our lawmakers refuse to face the fact that population is the issue facing us as we prepare to enter the next millennium. Rather than address it by reducing immigration, most ignore the problem or actually seek increased immigration, relying on poetry and nostalgia, rather than facts, to guide their policymaking.


End Notes

1 Jennifer Cheeseman Day, Population Projections of the United States by Age, Sex, Race and Hispanic Origin: 1995 to 2050, U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, P25-1130, Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1996.

2 See, for example, Leon F. Bouvier and Cary B. Davis, The Future Racial Composition of the United States, Washington: Population Reference Bureau, August 1982.

3 Interestingly, the President's Council on Sustainable Development, a little-known commission which came into being June 14, 1993 by order of President Clinton, has published a number of goals including one that states: "Move towards stabilization of U.S. population." To date, no comments have come from the President.

4 The Washington Post, "U.S. Schools Lagging, Business Leaders Warn," March 27, 1996.

5 San Jose Mercury-News, "Not Ready for CSU," January 25, 1996.

6 These are many other statistics that follow are derived from the Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1995-1996.

7 See, for example, Institute of Medicine, The Nation's Physician Workforce, Washington: National Academy Press, 1996.

8 George T. Silvestri, "Occupational Employment to 2005," Monthly Labor Review, November 1995, pp. 60-84.

9 These data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics do not include persons serving less than a year, usually in city or county jails.

10 Environmental Protection Agency, National Priorities List Fact Book, February 1991.

11 Leon F. Bouvier and Lindsey Grant, How Many Americans? Population, Immigration, and the Environment, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1994: p. 15-16.

12 Bouvier and Grant, p. 17.

13 Bouvier and Grant, p. 15.

14 M. Falkenmark and Carl Widstrand, "Population and Water Resources: A Delicate Balance," Population Bulletin 47, No. 3 (November 1992), p. 13.

15 This, of course, is not the case for states with less than 600,000 population, which are guaranteed at least one representative.

16 Leon F. Bouvier, "Shifting Shares of the Population and U.S. Fertility," Population and Environment, Fall 1991, pp. 45-55.

17 Leon F. Bouvier and Mark Krikorian, "Is Immigration Falling?", Center for Immigration Studies, January 1996.

18 Leon F. Bouvier, Dudley L. Poston, Jr., Nanbin Benjamin Zhai, "Zero Net International Migration: What Does it Really Mean?" Center for Immigration Studies Backgrounder, No 1-95, July 1995.

19 Dennis A. Ahlburg and J.W. Vaupel, "Alternative Projections of the U.S. Population," Demography 27 (December 1990), p. 648.

20 See "Legal Immigration Projections: Will S. 1394 Reduce Legal Immigration?", Center for Immigration Studies, April 8, 1996.

21 Poll commissioned by Negative Population Growth, Inc. and released February 19, 1996.

22 This scenario also assumes that life expectancy will drop very slightly. As we assume that such an eventuality will not happen, the projected numbers in this scenario are undoubtedly a little low.


Leon F. Bouvier is a senior fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies and is director of its Program on Immigration and Population Change in America.