The Coming Diversity Of America

BEN WATTENBERG

December 17, 1992|By BEN WATTENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- There is some little-noted holiday good news for deficit-fighters, businesses, America and President-elect Clinton.

It can even help future presidents who may seek to avoid Mr. Clinton's current, demeaning task of ''picking a Cabinet that looks like America.''

The happy tidings come from new Census Bureau ''most likely'' projections, which show American population growing 133 million by the year 2050, and still climbing moderately.

The previous projection had shown a growth of 49 million, at a plateau, and with decline in sight.

That's an extra 84 million Americans who will be coming on stream -- an amount equal to the current population of Germany -- yielding a total population of 383 million.

The earlier study used 1986 data; the new one uses 1991 data. Modest recent changes in behavior, law and medicine account for the differences. There is a lesson: Small changes, person-by-person, extended over time, change us in big ways.

Fertility patterns have changed. Almost alone among nations, America is having more babies than previously. From 1973 to 1987 the Total Fertility Rate had stayed at about 1.8 children per woman, a rate at which a society ultimately loses population. Recently, the TFR climbed to almost 2.1, at which level a population remains stable over time, not counting immigration. (Japanese fertility has recently fallen from 1.8 to 1.5.)

So, the ''Birth Dearth,'' chronicled by this author, has apparently been avoided in America, for now. The reason is a happy one: Women and men in their 30s are deciding to give parenthood a chance.

Immigration has changed, too. A 1990 immigration law was quietly passed, allowing in more legals, from everywhere, with an extra bonus for Europeans and people with skills (good news).

However, we have been less successful in stopping illegal immigration (bad news). This means our annual net immigration rises from 600,000 to 880,000, of which almost 80 percent is legal.

In 2050, because of immigration patterns, 53 percent of the population will be whites of non-Hispanic descent, compared to 76 percent today.

Finally, life expectancy went up, from 75.2 years to 75.8 years. The new report is the first to feature the effects of the AIDS epidemic. Modern medicine, on balance, is outrunning our newest plague.

What does it mean? Among other things that it will be easier to square our financial accounts.

Why? Two major reasons. Because most of the new 84 million people will be arriving here young: They are babies and/or immigrants (median age 25). And because much of America's debt, budget deficit and due bills come from fixed costs.

For example, the interest on previous debt remains constant even though new immigrants arrive to help pay it off. (Thanks!) Military expenditures, too, stay the same.

Social Security is more complicated. It is in surplus now. It will go into deficit when Baby Boomers reach retirement age next century. But the immigrants and babies arriving in this decade will be around then to help pay the pension freight.

All this reduces the need either to cut benefits or raise taxes, making Mr. Clinton's task easier.

It's also good news for most businesses. A ''customer boom'' is coming.

Consider the ailing real estate industry. There was a spasm of ''overbuilding'' in the '80s. So we now have lots of empty office buildings.

The previous projection showed a growth of 18 million people during the 1990s. The current projection shows 25 million. The adult portion of the new 8 million people will help demonstrate that ''overbuilt'' is only another word for ''under-populated.''

So: small personal stories, driving the news. Americans are reproducing themselves, always a good idea. Americans are living longer, which is nice. People all over the world still seek a better life here, making us more diverse and more populous as our principal competitors shrink in size.

This being political silly season, it should be noted that greater diversity may provide a future bonus. It will, thankfully, be more difficult for a president-elect to choose, Clinton-style, a cabinet that ostensibly ''looks like America.''

After all, how could such a president calibrate an American of Asian-African-Latin-Muslim-European descent?

Ben Wattenberg is senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of ''The First Universal Nation.''

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