By D'Vera Cohn and Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 10, 2006
Nearly half of the nation's children under 5 are racial or ethnic minorities, and the percentage is increasing mainly because the Hispanic population is growing so rapidly, according to a census report released today.
Hispanics are the nation's largest and fastest-growing minority group. They accounted for 49 percent of the country's growth from 2004 to 2005, the report shows. And the increase in young children is largely a Hispanic story, driving 70 percent of the growth in children younger than 5. Forty-five percent of U.S. children younger than 5 are minorities.
The new numbers offer a preview of demographic shifts to come, with broad implications for the nation's schools, workforce and Social Security.
One in three Americans is now a member of a minority group, a share that is bound to rise, because the non-Hispanic white population is older and growing much more slowly. The country already is engaged in a national debate about how government should respond to growing immigration, legal and illegal.
In some parts of the country, the transformation is more visible than in others. Large swaths of the upper Midwest are still mainly non-Hispanic white. But minorities are a majority of children younger than 5 in the Washington area, according to previously released census numbers. That is also true in Miami, Houston, Los Angeles and other high-immigration regions.
William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, predicted that the United States will have "a multicultural population that will probably be more tolerant, accommodating to other races and more able to succeed in a global economy."
There could be increased competition for money and power, he added: "The older, predominantly white baby-boom generations will need to accommodate younger, multiethnic young adults and child populations in civic life, political decisions and sharing of government resources" in places such as the Washington suburbs.
In some suburban communities, government officials face a cultural generation gap as they weigh demands from older white residents for senior citizen centers, transportation and other aid against requests from younger, mainly minority residents for translation assistance, preschools and other services.
Experts say immigrant families are becoming more concerned with the quality of their children's early education, aware that it can affect their future academic success. That is one reason there is a waiting list at the Child and Family Network Centers, a preschool in Alexandria.
The centers, which also operate a preschool in Arlington, provide free and subsidized preschools for about 200 children from low-income families. They serve many immigrants, including those who don't qualify for other programs. The waiting list is 150 children long. Eight out 10 speak English as a second language, and 70 percent are Latino.
"Oh, here's the chrysalis," said teacher Maria Cruz, pointing to a picture in a book as 4- and 5-year-olds crowded around her for story time yesterday. "Every day, the chrysalis looks the same -- we can't see anything happening, but inside, something is happening."
Emely Lopez, 5, raised her hand and pointed to a real butterfly cocoon in a container by the window. "Hay una alli" -- there's one there -- she said in Spanish, pointing at it. Cruz nodded encouragingly.
"Yes," she replied in English, "it's the same thing we have happening here."
In the next room, bilingual signs displayed the English and Spanish words for "computer," "rest time" and "snack." Across the hall, a group of children sang a song in Spanish.
Cruz said she has seen a huge difference in children's abilities from when they start the program and when they move on to kindergarten. She pointed at a 5-year-old girl from Mexico who was prattling about butterflies in English: Last year, Cruz said, "she came with zero English -- zero."
William O'Hare, a senior fellow at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, said he is not sure the country is prepared to provide the extra help that immigrants' children often need to become well-educated workers and the future supporters of retirement programs for a predominantly white elderly population. Some Americans, he said, will not welcome the news that minorities are nearly the majority among young children.
"Part of the people will see this and say, 'Gee, these kids are really our future parents and workers, and we need to take care of them,' " O'Hare said. "The other would say it is time to send them all home."
The census figures show that the number of Hispanic and Asian children younger than 5 grew by double-digit percentages since 2000. The number of black children grew more slowly. The number of non-Hispanic white children younger than 5 declined for two years this decade before increasing again.
The nation's Asian population growth still is dominated by immigration, the census report shows, but among Hispanics, births added more to the population growth than immigrants did this decade.
That means the growth trend among the youngest Hispanics "is only going to accelerate under almost any scenario you can think about, even without immigration," said demographer Jeffrey S. Passel of the Pew Hispanic Center. "As the children age, they are the ones who in 20 years will be having children."