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Thursday, January 13, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The changing face of America

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON - A century from now, the United States will have twice as many people, the young no longer will outnumber the old, and members of today's minority groups will be in the majority, according to new Census Bureau forecasts being released today.

Immigration still will drive population growth, but fewer new Americans will come from Central and South America, and more from Asia, the Middle East and Africa, the forecast says. And even amid this roiling racial and ethnic change, different groups will become more alike in important ways, demographers say.

The Census Bureau forecasts are the first to propose a glimpse of 100 years into the future. By midcentury, the United States will have about 404 million people, and 571 million by 2100, compared with today's 275 million. Members of today's minority groups will account for 60 percent of the population. The numbers of people under 18 and people over 65 will be roughly equal, whereas now there are twice as many children.

Census Bureau demographers say they used trends already in motion, such as immigration, the aging of society, the tendency toward smaller families and advances in longevity. But forecasting is a flawed art, especially so far into the future. Even a small change in government policy or individual behavior, not to mention a disaster, could swing the numbers dramatically.

"Our projections for 2100 will give us a population density one-quarter of the United Kingdom," said Frederick Hollmann, a Census Bureau demographer. "We'll still be a sparsely populated country among the industrialized countries of the world."

Census Bureau forecasters did not estimate which regions would see the most growth.

"It's just amazing," said Steven Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates controls on immigration. "Unless one postulates massive high-rises, you have got to have an enormous amount of rural and undeveloped land converted to suburban land."

Jeffrey Passell, a demographer at the Urban Institute, said much depends on where the new jobs are, which is especially important in attracting immigrants.

"Depending on the micro- and macro-economic conditions, we might see some new centers," he said. "That having been said, the bulk of the immigrants go to where the immigrants already are."

As in past projections, the Census Bureau says the nation's population will age quickly, especially as baby boomers reach their 60s during the next three decades. By 2100, there will be more than 5 million Americans who are at least 100 years old; today, there are about 65,000. The number of children will grow, the projections say, but not as quickly.

Census Bureau experts continue to forecast that growth of the nation's minority groups will outstrip that of its non-Hispanic white population, due to immigration, larger families among minorities and improved life expectancy. Hispanics are predicted to be the nation's largest minority group by 2005. No single minority group will outnumber non-Hispanic whites during the next century, however.

The nation's mix of immigrants will change radically, the Census Bureau predicts. The huge influx from Central America is predicted to slow within the next two decades, when current U.S. residents have brought over all the relatives the law permits.

After 2020, the Census Bureau predicts higher immigration levels, in part to supply enough workers to balance the aging baby boom. The new immigrants will come from other parts of the world than Europe, Census Bureau experts predict.

Immigrants are now 10 percent of the U.S. population but are predicted to grow to 13 percent in 2050.

Census Bureau and other demographers predict the nation's racial and ethnic groups will grow more alike in time. For one thing, intermarriage will blur identification lines, possibly making today's racial categories irrelevant.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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