`Population clock' nearing the 300 millionth American

Births, deaths and immigration converge

milestone is expected Oct. 16

October 06, 2006|By Doug Smith | Doug Smith,Los Angeles Times

It ticks along at a pace of about one new person every 10 seconds.

With only slight fluctuations, that rate has held remarkably steady for the past 100 years and is projected to continue almost unchanged for the next 50.

And in its methodical way, the U.S. Population Clock is closing in on a milestone.

Sometime around the middle of this month, the U.S. Census Bureau clock will ring in the 300 millionth American.

Like the return of a comet or the close of a century, this blip on a 150-year slope of history will have far more emotional resonance than practical effect.

We will never know the name of the person who turns the counter to eight zeroes.

The clock is an estimate based on an algorithm that takes into account births, deaths and immigration. The Census Bureau collects monthly birth and death numbers from the National Center for Health Statistics, spokesman Robert Bernstein said. Net immigration is derived from the American Community Survey, an annual polling of several million U.S. residents.

Right now, the formula is one birth per seven seconds, one death per 13 seconds and one net increase in immigrants per 30 seconds. Because the number of deaths has to be subtracted from the number of births, immigration now accounts for about 40 percent of new growth.

The Census Bureau has not forecast the day of the milestone, but the algorithm points to Oct. 16.

Demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution predicts it will be a Hispanic boy born in Los Angeles County. He notes that Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, Los Angeles is the most heavily Hispanic area, and more boys are born than girls.

Mark Mather, a demographer for the nonprofit Population Reference Bureau in Washington, D.C., thinks the child could just as well be born to a white woman in a Midwest suburb.

He points out that more babies are still being born in the U.S. to non-Hispanic white women, even though their birth rate is lower than that of Hispanic women.

There's also a 2-in-5 chance that it won't be a baby at all, but an immigrant, either arriving legally at an airport or crossing the Arizona desert.

The algorithm used to calculate population growth has taken some adjusting over the years as birthrates rose or fell.

In 1918, during which both World War I and a flu epidemic took a toll, the U.S. population registered the only one-year decline in the 20th century. After the stock market crash of 1929, population growth slowed to one new American every 25 seconds, and at the height of the Depression, the rate fell to just one new person every 43 seconds.

The year 1947 brought the postwar baby boom, nearly doubling the rate from one new American every 22 seconds to one every 12.

From then on, the clock settled into a pace that hardly varied on an annual basis, never less than one new American every 12 seconds or more than one every 10.

The Census Bureau forecasts growth to continue at that rate through 2050, though forecasts can't take into account future wars, economic upheavals or more subtle social changes. In the late 1980s, the Census Bureau underestimated the tide of coming immigration and fertility of Hispanic women, forecasting U.S. population to top out at about 302 million in 2038.

Current projections show it hitting 400 million in 2043.

Doug Smith writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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