WASHINGTON (AP) -- Without increased immigration, whites would lose their U.S. majority in 2046, three years beyond official projections, and the nation's population would not reach 400 million until after 2060, a decade or more later than forecast, according to census estimates Wednesday.
In all, immigration will surpass natural increase — births minus deaths — as the main driver of population growth by midcentury, the Census Bureau said.
The new numbers show how projections could vary from last year's government prediction that white children will become a minority in 2018 and the overall white population will follow in 2043, based on what happens to the economy and immigration policy. As a whole, the U.S. population is projected to climb to 400 million by 2051. Those dates remain the official census projections, and they are based on the assumption that immigration continues to climb.
The 2046 estimate of a white minority is one of three new alternative projections based on rates for births and deaths and a scenario in which immigration follow its recent slower pace of adding more than 700,000 foreigners each year.
In general, demographers have said that scenario offers an instructive look at the future demographic makeup based on current conditions, in which the economy does not significantly strengthen or weaken and immigration policies are unchanged.
The actual shift in demographics will be influenced by factors that can't accurately be forecast. They include the pace of the economic recovery, cultural changes, natural or manmade disasters, as well as any overhaul of immigration laws based on legislation now being debated in Congress.
The United States has 315 million people today; less than 64 percent are non-Hispanic whites.
In a situation where immigration levels remain constant for the next half-century, the total population would climb to 392.7 million by 2060, with whites making up 44.7 percent of the population. Blacks would make up 12.7 percent, virtually unchanged from today. Hispanics, now 16 percent of the population, would rise to 29 percent by that year.
Asians would increase from 5 percent of the population to 7.5 percent.
The point when minority children become the majority would be delayed one year from the official projection, from 2018 to 2019.
The population 65 and older would grow rapidly, outnumbering the under-18 age group by 2038. Under the official prediction, that tipping point occurs much later, in 2056.
The Census Bureau's varying sets of projections show immigration's role in replenishing the population. As in many industrialized nations, the U.S. is slowly aging due to rising median age and lower birth rates.
Under the official projections released last December, immigration will become the main driver of U.S. growth by 2032. That would be the first time that natural increase from births was not the leading cause of population increase since at least 1850, putting the U.S. in the company of many other industrialized nations such as Japan and Italy that long have struggled with low growth rates.
"As a whole, the U.S. population is projected to grow more slowly, the older population is expected to grow much larger, and the minority population will grow faster," said Jennifer Ortman, a Census Bureau demographer. "Most of the immigrants coming into the U.S. population are roughly 15 to 45 years old, so we see that immigration is bolstering the working-age population and helping it to grow."
Several demographers say the current Senate immigration bill could change the U.S. race makeup by tightening border security and placing a higher priority on granting employment-based visas for high-skilled workers. Those changes are likely to result in a greater influx of Asian immigrants compared to Latinos.
The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, estimates that as a whole 150,000 fewer immigrants will enter the U.S. if the Senate bill becomes law. That is due mostly to an estimated sharp decline in illegal border crossings.
The Census Bureau says its projections should be used mostly as a guide.
The agency also released numbers showing projections based on "high" rates of immigration — more likely if government policies become more flexible and a booming U.S. economy attracts large numbers of foreigners — as well as "low" rates of increasing immigration, a possible scenario if U.S. policies don't change much while the economy improves.
—With high immigration, the minority "tipping point" is moved up to 2041, two years earlier than the previous estimate. At that time, Asians would have a much larger share, at 9 percent, because their population growth is more dependent on immigration than birth rates. The U.S. population would reach 400 million by 2044.
—With low immigration, the "tipping point" arrives by 2045.
—The share of the working-age population, age 18 to 64, is expected to decrease based on all four projection scenarios. The official projections show that group dropping from 62.7 percent in 2012 to 56.9 percent by 2060.
—In each of the four projections, the 65 and older age group would rise from 13.7 percent to more than 20 percent by 2060.
"Despite projected declines in fertility, these projections make plain that we are on the road to becoming a highly diverse nation," said William H. Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer. "Even under the lowest immigration assumptions, the nation will become minority white in 33 years. So those who believe that barring immigration will make the nation appreciably less diverse need to take heed of these projections."
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