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A Nation of Singles

The most politically potent demographic trend is not the one everyone talked about after the election

Dec 10, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 13 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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For a brief moment last month​—​roughly a 72-hour span beginning at 11:00 p.m. on November 6 and concluding late in the evening of November 9​—​everyone in America was interested in demographics. That’s because, in addition to rewarding the just, punishing the wicked, and certifying that America was (for the moment) not racist, President Barack Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney pointed to two ineluctable demographic truths. The first was expected: that the growth of the Hispanic-American cohort is irresistible and will radically transform our country’s ethnic future. The second caught people by surprise: that the proportion of unmarried Americans was suddenly at an all-time high.

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Unfortunately, by the time the window closed on the public’s demographic curiosity no one really understood either of these shifts. Or where they came from. Or whether they were even particularly true. As is often the case, people tended to fixate on a relatively small, contingent part of America’s changing demographic makeup and look past the bigger, more consequential part of the story.

So let’s begin by asking the obvious question: Hispanics are America’s demographic future​—​true or false? The answer is, both. Sort of.

Start with what we know. As of the 2010 census, there were 308.7 million people in America, 50.5 million of whom (16 percent) were classified as being of “Hispanic origin.” Of that 50 million, about half are foreign-born legal immigrants. Another 11 million or so are illegal immigrants. A few other facts, just to give you some texture: 63 percent of American Hispanics trace their origins to Mexico, 9.2 percent to Puerto Rico, and 3.5 percent to Cuba. And more than half of the 50 million live in just three states, California, Texas, and Florida.

But what makes people’s heads snap to attention when they talk about Hispanic demographics isn’t any of that stuff. It’s the rate of increase. From 2000 to 2010, America’s Hispanic population jumped by 43 percent, while our total population increased by just 9.7 percent. Or, to put it another way, from 2000 to 2010, America grew by 27.3 million people. Fifteen million of those faces​—​more than half of those new Americans​—​were Hispanic.

If you extrapolate those trends the numbers get even more eye-popping. In 2008, the Pew Research Center projected that, at current rates, by 2050 there would be 128 million Hispanic Americans, making the group 29 percent of the American population. The census projection is a little higher; they guess the total will be 132.8 million, 30 percent of a projected total population of 439 million.

Where do these numbers come from? It’s not rocket science. Demographers depend mainly on two variables: net migration to the United States by people from Spanish-speaking countries and the fertility rate of Hispanic Americans.

The big 130-million projections come from assumptions based on the 2000 census. Back then, immigration from south of the border was booming, with a net of about 900,000 new people​—​both legal and illegal​—​showing up every year in America. (In 2000 alone, 770,000 people came from Mexico.) Because of that trend line, demographers assumed that we’d be netting roughly 1 million new immigrants every year between now and 2050.

But trends don’t always continue to the horizon, and we’re already going in a different direction on immigration. America’s net annual immigration numbers started declining in 2006, sliding from just over 1 million in 2005 to 855,000 in 2009. We don’t have good totals for 2010 or 2011 (because the Census Bureau rejiggered its formula in 2010, making it hard to compare to previous years), but we do have numbers for Mexican immigration alone, which show​—​amazingly​—​that in the most recent years there’s been a net flow of zero immigrants from Mexico. Since Mexico has historically made up nearly two-thirds of our Hispanic immigrant pool all by itself, this would suggest that when we do get comparable data we will see that there has been a significant drop in immigration already.

Economists who have noted this sudden shift are quick to explain it as a byproduct of the recession and the bursting housing bubble, which dried up jobs​—​particularly in the construction industry​—​causing prospective immigrants to stay put and pushing many illegal immigrants already in the country to head home. The implication of this argument is that as soon as our economy goes back to “normal,” the patterns of migration will, too.

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