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Minority Babies’ New Majority an ‘Echo’ of Immigration Waves

May 17, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
White babies account for fewer than half of newborns in the United States -- just 49.6 percent of last year's births, according to new Census data released Thursday. Margaret Warner discusses the tipping point and its implications with the Brookings Institution's William Frey and New York University's Marcelo Suarez-Orozco.
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MARGARET WARNER: For the first time ever, white babies account for fewer than half of newborns in the United States. New census data released today showed that on July 1 of last year, just 49.6 percent of babies 1-year-old or younger were of white European ancestry; 50.4 percent were minority.

Latinos are the fastest-growing minority, accounting for 26 percent of all births. African-Americans made up 15 percent, while nearly 5 percent were Asian. The remainder were American Indian, mixed race or other groups. The nation as a whole is still 62 percent white. But minorities make up the majority in four states, Hawaii, California, New Mexico and Texas, plus the District of Columbia.

We explore this tipping point and its implications with William Frey, senior demographer at the Brookings Institution and Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, professor of globalization and education at New York University. He’s done extensive research on immigrant families and their children.

Welcome, gentlemen. Thank you both for being with us.

Professor, beginning with you, what jumps out at you when you see these numbers? What’s most notable here?

MARCELO SUAREZ-OROZCO, New York University: Well, what’s most notable is that our country is a country where immigration is history and it is a country as we see today where immigration is destiny.

It’s a part of our history, and it is fundamentally the story of the remaking of our promise as an economy, as a society, as a democracy.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Mr. Frey, help us understand the numbers a little bit better. First of all, to what degree is this based on also an increase in self-identification?

WILLIAM FREY, Brookings Institution: Well, to some degree it is. But to a large degree, it’s real.

If we look at the demographic structure of the United States, our white population is getting older over time, which means a smaller share of white women are in their childbearing years, and at the same time we have a bigger increase in the minority women in those childbearing years.

MARGARET WARNER: And I want to get more into the reasons what’s driving this. But where is it most concentrated, that is the majority of births now being minority rather than white? In fact, I think we have a map that you helped us prepare — or you helped prepare from 2010.

WILLIAM FREY: Yes, they’re heavily concentrated in the Southwest, in the Southeast and in big metropolitan areas, as well as some places that have large Native American populations. You can see in the map there’s speckles of them up there in North and South Dakota and elsewhere.

So it’s not uniform across the country by any means. And in some places, we have had majority minority births for quite a while.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Professor Suarez-Orozco, what do you think is driving this? How much of it is immigration? How much of it is higher birthrate, as Mr. Frey was saying?

MARCELO SUAREZ-OROZCO: Well, the 2000 story, when the census — when the data came out was really the story of immigration. And I think now, 12 years later, we see the echo of that very large wave really two generations in the making is changing the structure of our future moving forward.

The story today is a story of the second generation. It’s the story of the U.S.-born children of immigrants and it’s a story that represents a turning point. There are a lot of good news hidden behind these numbers.

Babies of Hispanic and Asian origin, for example, and for Caribbean as well, tend to be healthier than comparable samples of non-Hispanic white babies. So it’s a turning point. There are important opportunities here. There are also huge challenges moving forward.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Bill Frey, how much of this also when we see these numbers, this shift, is due to the — you flicked at this earlier — the aging of the white population and how much of the white population is in prime childbearing years vs. non-white?

WILLIAM FREY: Well, a much smaller share of the white population is in their childbearing years.

But I can give you one statistic. And that’s between 2000 and 2010, there was an absolute net decline in white children in the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: And absolute net decline.

WILLIAM FREY: That is, more white children were moving beyond age 18 than were coming in at the bottom.

And what that tells us is all of these minority children are essential, really essential to the growth of our younger population.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, do you think if this — say all immigration stopped tomorrow just for the purpose of argument. Would this trend nonetheless continue? In other words, the differing birth rates, would that mean that this is inexorable to some degree?

WILLIAM FREY: Yes, and the fact is, I mean it’s true Hispanic birth rates are somewhat higher than the general population.

But the fact that they’re applied to a younger population makes those number of births higher. And that population is already here. If we stopped immigration tomorrow, it may affect the size of that Hispanic population 10 or 15 years from now, but in the next several years we’re still going to have all of these new minority births, as I say, who should be welcome given this fact that our white population is getting older.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Professor, what are the implications of this, say, for education, when you look at the different levels right now, certainly, of academic achievement and schooling between whites and certainly blacks or Latinos?

MARCELO SUAREZ-OROZCO: Well, that’s, I think, the biggest challenge.

So while there are optimistic contours to these numbers, there are also a number of issues that we really need to pause and rethink. I think first is the matter of are we as a society going to be able to transfer the skills, the competencies, the sensibilities to this new generation of Americans to thrive in the 21st century economy and society, an economy and society that is very, very different from what our education system in a way evolved to deal with?

And that’s where we’re falling behind. We’re not teaching kids — the kids, our new kids, immigrant-origin kids, kids of color. We need the skills they’re going to need to thrive as citizens, as workers, as members of the American family.

MARGARET WARNER: And do you see, Bill Frey, this, what you’ve described as kind of a racial generation? So what are the implications here for getting the wealthier part of the population, the older population to pay for this schooling, for example?

WILLIAM FREY: Yeah, I think this is a key challenge. And I agree with the professor that the big challenge is making sure we have resources for these young people to be able to get the kind of education they deserve and that the country deserves them to have, because they are going to be helping to make our economy much more prosperous.

But the real issue is that for people over age 50, it’s actually blacks are the biggest minority group, and it’s a fairly small part of that population. It’s a largely white older population. These are not their kids and they’re not their grandchildren. And sometimes there’s some resistance to having tax money paid for people who they feel are not quite part of their community.

And I think this is the political challenge for our political leaders, for our community leaders, for our religious leaders, to send this message to the older part of the population that your future Social Security, that your future health care, that the productivity of this country depends vitally on the ability for these young people to get good educations and be productive in the labor force.

MARGARET WARNER: And what about, Professor, the implications for American culture, when we already see our culture changing, but where do you think this is headed?

MARCELO SUAREZ-OROZCO: Well, I think American culture has been immensely plastic and elastic and able to metabolize wave after wave of new arrivals.

I think if you take a — if you look at the gold standard of integration, if you look at the movement towards English language, if you look at the ability of the new immigrant groups to connect with the labor market, and if you look out-marriage patterns, I would say these three are the key, fundamental measures of how the culture is metabolizing new arrivals.

I think that our data show very, very much a positive story, a story where, unlike our peer countries in Europe that are also dealing with large-scale immigration, immigrants to the U.S. are learning English fast, they’re connecting with the labor market, and they’re marrying outside their group over time and across generations at a very, very large rate.

So American culture has been extremely flexible and able to make its own, whether it’s food, music, dance, dress, immigrant contributions that are metabolized and remade, and they become mainstream and part of mainstream American culture.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Professor Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, and William Frey, thank you both.

MARCELO SUAREZ-OROZCO: Thank you.