Beachgoers gather at Coney Island Beach on the Independence Day holiday in Brooklyn. Photo by Andrew Kelly/Reuters

Who is America? A look at the nation’s demographics

In his 1796 farewell address, George Washington described his countrymen as “citizens, by birth or choice.” At the time, the nation had roughly 4 million people, including women and slaves (each of whom were counted separately in Thomas Jefferson’s 1790 Census).

The United States’ population now stands at 325 million. Amid new questions of American identity, this July Fourth seemed like a good idea to look at who exactly makes up America, whether by birth or choice. And how it is forecast to change.


  • Immigrants: Roughly 13 percent of people in the U.S. are foreign-born. That’s approaching the historic high (14.7 percent in 1910), and it’s growing fast. The number of first-generation immigrants in the U.S. has jumped 50 percent in the past 15 years, from 26 million to 40 million.
  • Second-generation: Another 11 percent of Americans have at least one parent who is foreign born.
  • Third-generation and above: The vast majority of U.S. residents, 75 percent, are at least two generations removed from their immigrant ancestors — meaning they and both of their parents were born in the U.S.
  • Who votes? The Census Bureau found that people who are farther removed from the immigration experience (third-generation and above) vote in disproportionately higher numbers. New or second-generation Americans vote in lower percentages than their share of the population.

Ancestry and heritage

  • Most common heritage groups: The top five nationalities that Americans identified with, when asked to report a single ancestry group, are all European, according to the Census Bureau: 8 percent of Americans claimed German ancestry, followed by Irish (5 percent), English (4.5 percent), Italian (3.4 percent), and Polish (3.4 percent).
  • But the fastest growing countries of origin among Americans are in the Middle East and Africa.
  • Iraq leads the pack. Though the number of residents in the U.S. from Iraq is still relatively small — .06 percent of the population — the Iraqi population in the U.S. has jumped by 214 percent since the Iraq War began.
  • Kenya is second. Roughly 68,000 Americans claim Kenyan ancestry today, a 179 percent increase over the past 10 years.