The United States at 300 Million

How We Have Changed Since the United States Was a Nation of 200 Million

(September 2006) The United States is set to reach a milestone in October. It will become the third country—after China and India—to be home to at least 300 million people.

Each 100 million has been added more quickly than the last. It took the United States more than 100 years to reach its first 100 million in 1915. After another 52 years, it reached 200 million in 1967. Less than 40 years later, it is set to hit the 300-million mark. Within another 37 years, we are projected to pass 400 million.

What’s Behind This Rapid Growth?

Natural increase (the excess of births over deaths) drives most population growth (nearly 60 percent annually) in the United States. This relatively high natural increase sets the United States apart from other developed countries such as Sweden and the United Kingdom, where the excess of births over deaths accounts for less growth, respectively. Other developed countries such as Germany and Italy are seeing a natural decrease, or slightly more deaths than births. International migration accounts for about 40 percent of U.S. population growth.1

Since 1967, we Americans have seen considerable change in who we are and how we live. This article takes a look at some of the major changes, including the decline in household size, rise in women’s labor force participation, increase in education, and growth in the number of foreign-born people. All of these trends will affect our children’s future.

Geographic Shift South and West

Figure 1

The share of the U.S. population in the South rose to 36 percent by 2000.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1970 and 2000 censuses.

One of the most significant demographic trends of the 20th century has been the steady shift of the population west and south. Between 1970 and 2000, as Americans moved out of the Northeast and Midwest, the population share in the South and West rose from 48 percent to 58 percent of the national total (see Figure 1).

Rise of Suburbia

Population growth is changing the lay of the land. Once-bucolic places are teeming with new housing developments. People are moving farther from central cities and those cities’ inner suburbs, pushing into new outer-ring suburbs carved out of woodlands and farmland.2

In the past few decades, the suburbanization of America intensified as development followed interstates away from the city lights. The percent of the total population living in the suburbs of metropolitan areas grew from 38 percent to 50 percent between 1970 and 2000, while the share of population living in central cities stagnated at around 30 percent during that same time period.3

As the nation prepares for its 300-millionth person, some people are voicing concerns about crowding.

“Where do you go to be alone when there are 300 million people?” asks Carl Haub, senior demographer at the Population Reference Bureau (PRB).

For some of us, an increasingly popular answer is: home.

Fewer Large Households

Figure 2
One-person households are now more than twice as common as households of five people or more.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1970 and 2000 censuses.

In 1970, less than 18 percent of U.S. households consisted of just one person—households with five or more people were more common, accounting for just over 20 percent of households (see Figure 2). Over the next three decades, the share of such large households shrank below 11 percent, while the share of one-person households expanded to nearly 26 percent of the total.

“As men and especially women live longer and are healthier and are able to live independently, the share of households that consist of a person living alone will likely continue to increase,” says Linda Jacobsen, director of PRB’s domestic programs.

The phenomenon of people living alone is fed by both ends of the age spectrum, she says. Young adults are moving out on their own and delaying marriage. And older people who are divorced or widowed often don’t remarry and choose to live alone.

Growth in single-person households is just one of many changes in the American household since 1967. Others include the drop in the share of married-couple family households from nearly 75 percent to just 50 percent and the near doubling of the share of nonfamily households—from 17 percent to 32 percent.

Many demographic and socioeconomic forces underlie these changes. Although most Americans still get married, the age at first marriage has steadily risen from 23 to 27 for men and from 21 to 26 for women between 1967 and 2006.4 A number of trends influenced this delay. Perhaps most important, increasing levels of women’s education and the rise in women’s labor force participation are giving women more options for independence outside marriage.

In addition, some young adults are delaying moving out of their parents’ home. “Boomerang” children are moving back home after college, perhaps because they prefer to live with the amenities they grew up with rather than just those they can afford. Saddled with school loans and credit card debt, many overcome any reservations they might have had to returning to the nest.

“Not only have household living arrangements changed overall,” says Jacobsen, “they’ve greatly shifted in complexity. Classifying them isn’t as easy as it used to be.” For instance, a household that contains a mother, her child, and her boyfriend might or might not be categorized as a family household, depending on who serves as head of household.

More Women in the Workforce

In 2005, the U.S. gross domestic product reached $12 trillion, up from around $1 trillion in 1970.5 The U.S. economy grew faster than usual, in part because the labor force grew at a faster rate than in the past, thanks to an influx of women and baby boomers, says Marlene Lee, senior policy analyst at PRB.

Figure 3
Married women with children under age 18 are more likely to join the work force than they were 30 years ago.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bulletin 2340.

Between 1970 and 2004, the share of women in the labor force rose from 43 percent to 59 percent.6 But now that women’s work force participation rates are stabilizing and boomers are on their way out, don’t expect the economy to grow as fast, says Lee. “Demographically speaking, there is no reason to expect the workforce to grow as quickly as it has over the last four decades,” says Lee.

The big increase in women in the work force started in the 1970s as they spent more time in school and delayed marriage. The array of occupations open to them widened to include far more than the traditional teacher or nurse options. Rising rates of divorce also pushed women into the work force after they had married and had children. Economic forces exerted pressure on families through hyperinflation and stagnating wages. Under such conditions, it was hard for one-income families to get by. Even married women with dependent children entered the work force in growing numbers (see Figure 3).

With baby boomers reaching retirement and economic growth likely to slow down, many experts believe the current Social Security system will not be able to cover the payments promised to retirees after 2030. Supplemental funds will have to come from someplace else. But an equally convinced “other side” claims that the Social Security Trust fund will remain solvent until at least 2054.

More Education

Overall, a snapshot of Americans ages 25 and older shows that the share who finished high school soared from 55 percent to 85 percent between 1970 and 2004. Among 18-to-21-year-olds, significantly more were in college in 2003 than in 1975 (45 percent vs. 34 percent).7

“The bar is set higher by employers,” says Lee. A high school degree used to be enough for an entry-level position, but now more applicants are expected to have a college degree. The higher educational requirements evolved during the shift from a manufacturing-based economy to an information-based economy. Higher educational attainment reflects the educational reforms since the 1960s along with the civil rights movement, which increased disadvantaged populations’ access to education.

Despite policy changes, some groups of Americans have been left behind, notes Lee. For example, the share of Hispanic male 18-to-21-year-olds who had not graduated from high school stagnated at around 27 percent between 1975 and 2003 (see Figure 4). But for all people in that age group, the share of non-high-school graduates dropped from 16 percent to 12 percent over the same time period.8

Figure 4

Hispanic males have made less progress than black males in graduating from high school.

Note: Hispanics may be of any race. Rates for blacks and whites refer to non-Hispanic blacks and non-Hispanic whites.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports.

More Immigrants

The number of foreign-born people in the United States has reached an all-time high of more than 35 million. But at 12 percent of the total population, the share of foreign-born is lower than it was between 1860 and 1920, when it ranged from 13 percent to 15 percent.

The largest share of immigrants to the United States still comes from Latin America, and from Mexico in particular. And the share from Asia has grown substantially since the 1960s—from 13 percent in the 1960s to 32 percent in the early 2000s (see Figure 5).

Figure 5

The percentage of immigrants who moved from Asia to the United States more than doubled between 1961 and 2004.

Note: Bars may not total 100 due to rounding.
Source: U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics, 2004 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics (2005).

Many of the 35 million immigrants who reside in the United States are not authorized to be here. Recent estimates peg the number of unauthorized migrants at 11.5 million, with more than one-half (6.2 million) hailing from Mexico.9

Immigrants helped power the growth in the U.S. labor force, by extension propelling the economy forward. And immigrants are fueling the growth in the number of children who are members of racial and ethnic minorities. One-fifth of all children under age 18 are either foreign-born or in a family where at least one parent was foreign-born.10

More Geographic Dispersion of the Foreign-Born

Immigrants have traditionally concentrated in a handful of states. But they increasingly live in states and communities where people were unaccustomed to foreigners. The U.S. foreign-born population has dispersed geographically even over the last decade. In 1990, only 10 percent of all U.S. counties contained 5 percent or greater foreign-born populations. By 2000, 20 percent of U.S. counties contained such populations (Figure 6).

Figure 6

By 2000, significant concentrations of foreign-born people could be found in counties outside the traditional immigrant magnet states.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2000 Census.

Traditional gateway states of New York, New Jersey, California, Texas, and Florida are still often the first stop for immigrants. “But increasingly, immigrants don’t go to traditional gateway states at all,” says Jacobsen. Because migration laws favor bringing family members, some go directly to their relatives. New destinations include North Carolina, Nevada, and Georgia.

Challenges and Prospects

As the U.S. population heads toward 400 million, it will continue to age. Yet, children under age 18 will still make up a larger share of the total population in 2050 than the elderly. Today, almost half of all children under age 5 are members of a racial or ethnic minority. And if current fertility and immigration trends persist, says Jacobsen, that share will increase.

These trends could have an impact on overall well-being in the United States. Since 1974, the young—under age 18—have been much more likely to live below the poverty line than other age groups (see Figure 7). In 2005, 18 percent of the young lived in poverty, compared with 10 percent of people ages 65 and over and 11 percent of people ages 18 to 64. And among the young, members of racial or ethnic minorities are more likely to live in poverty, with blacks the most likely to live in poverty (34 percent) followed by Hispanics (28 percent) and whites (14 percent).11

Figure 7

Since 1974, poverty rates for children exceeded those for older Americans.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Surveys.

If current poverty rates for minority children continue unabated in the future, then the health and well-being of substantial numbers of children may be seriously compromised, says Jacobsen.

“We really have to think about these children as our future workers and parents,” says Jacobsen. “And if we don’t address these age and race differences in poverty and well-being, today’s children may be less able or willing to support the predominantly white, non-Hispanic elderly when they reach adulthood.”

Sandra Yin is associate editor at the Population Reference Bureau.


  1. Carl Haub and Linda Jacobsen, International Migration Is Reshaping United States, Global Economy (presentation at the National Press Club, Washington, DC, Aug. 17, 2006), accessed online at www. 2006, on Aug. 25, 2006.
  2. Robert Lalasz, “Americans Flocking to Outer Suburbs in Record Numbers,” accessed online at, on Aug. 29, 2006.
  3. U.S. Census Bureau, Census 2000 Special Reports: Demographic Trends in the 20th Century (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2002): figure 1-15.
  4. U.S. Census Bureau, “Special Edition: 300 Million,” accessed online at, on Aug. 9, 2006.
  5. U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, “News Release (Aug. 30, 2006): Gross Domestic Product and Corporate Profits,” accessed online at, on Sept. 15, 2006; and U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2006 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2006): table 650.
  6. Howard N. Fullerton, “Labor Force Participation: 75 Years of Change, 1950-98 and 1998-2025,” Monthly Labor Review 122, no. 12 (1999): table 1; and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Women in the Labor Force: A Databook, accessed online at, on Aug. 29, 2006.
  7. U.S. Census Bureau, “Educational Attainment,” Current Population Reports, P-20, no. 207 (1970): table 2; U.S. Census Bureau, Educational Attainment in the U.S.: 2004: table 10, accessed online at, on Aug. 29, 2006; and U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2006: table 260.
  8. U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2006: table 260.
  9. Jeffrey S. Passel, The Size and Characteristics of the Unauthorized Migrant Population in the U.S.: Estimates Based on the March 2005 Current Population Survey, accessed online at, on Aug. 29, 2006.
  10. Laura Beavers and Jean D’Amico, Children in Immigrant Families: U.S. and State-Level Findings From the 2000 Census (Washington, DC: The Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Population Reference Bureau, 2005).
  11. U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, 2006 Annual Social and Economic Supplement, accessed online at, on Sept. 15, 2006.