America's Population Set to Top 300 Million

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 12, 2006

Clicking upward at a rate of one person every 11 seconds, the U.S. population will officially surpass 300 million in the next week or so.

The milestone is a reminder that the United States remains a remarkable demographic specimen, 230 years old (since the Declaration of Independence) and still in a growth spurt.

Behind only China and India, it is the planet's third most populous nation. For a rich, highly developed country, it is anomalously fertile, with a population that is increasing briskly, in sharp contrast to anemic growth or decline in Western Europe and Japan. Some demographers say this continued growth is essential to support an aging population in retirement and a sign of the continued allure of the United States even at a time when its image around the world has been sullied by the war in Iraq.

Yet, how will the momentous 300-million marker be celebrated in Washington?

"Those plans, believe it or not, are still being finalized," said Robert B. Bernstein, a Census Bureau spokesman. "I don't yet know what, if anything, we are going to do in the way of an event."

When the U.S. population surpassed 200 million on a census clock in 1967, cheers rang through the lobby of the Commerce Department, and applause interrupted President Lyndon B. Johnson's celebratory speech.

Four decades later, however, 300 million seems to be greeted more with hand-wringing ambivalence than chest-thumping pride.

"When we hit 100 million, it was a celebration of America's might in the world," said Dowell Myers, a professor of urban planning and demography at the University of Southern California. "When we hit 200 million, we were solidifying our position. But at 300 million, we are beginning to be crushed under the weight of our own quality-of-life degradation."

One reason for anxiety may be that U.S. population growth is fueled in large measure by immigrants and their children, a circumstance that increasingly worries native-born Americans and makes politicians jumpy, especially four weeks before an election.

Immigrants, legal and illegal, account for about 40 percent of population growth. Immigration is also an important reason the "natural increase" in the population -- excess of births over deaths -- is significantly higher in the United States compared with Europe or Japan. Hispanics from Latin America, by far the largest share of recent immigrants, are driving the natural increase here. On average, Hispanic women have one more child than non-Hispanic white women.

Three hundred million is also a discomfiting reminder of a nation that, on its east and west coasts, at least, is running noticeably low on elbow room. More humanity is stirring up more traffic, more sprawl, more rules against growth, more protests against anti-growth rules, and more of the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. A surging population in the arid Southwest is also straining the supply of water. The growth is adding to a country that represents 4 percent of the world's population but consumes 25 percent of the planet's oil.

"We are not the wide-open spaces anymore," said Martha Farnsworth Riche, who headed the Census Bureau in the mid-1990s and is now a research demographer at Cornell University. "Our choices are constrained."

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