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Census Bureau Forecasts U.S. Population Decline

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The size of the U.S. population will most likely peak at 302 million over the next 50 years and then shrink to about 292 million by the year 2080, the U.S. Bureau of the Census predicted last week.

The projections were the first by the bureau since the pre-World War II era to show either a leveling or a decline in the size of the future American population, an official said.

In 1983, when the bureau for the first time issued a 100-year set of projections, it foresaw population growth continuing to the year 2080--for a total at that point of 311 million Americans.

But the new report's "middle" scenario--its most commonly used calculations, and the mean between its "high" and "low" projections--shows the population growing by 56 million between now and the year 2038--up 25 percent from its current level of 246 million--and then beginning to shrink.

The new, lower projections reflect primarily the bureau's revision of the fertility rate over the next century, from 1.9 births per woman to 1.8.

If the middle scenario--which also takes into account immigration, fertility among subgroups, and mortality--proves accurate, the nation's population will grow at its slowest rate since the Great Depression over the next six years, and at its slowest rate ever between 1995 and 2038.

Among the bureau's new projections for school-age populations are these:

For the next 50 years, the elementary-school population will remain above its 1987 level of 30.8 million.

By 1995, that population (ages 5 to 13) will have grown by about 3 million, reaching 33.9 million. It will shrink again, by 2 million, between 1995 and 2005, but will not dip below the 1987 level until the year 2038. Over the subsequent four decades, it will decline to 28.3 million.

(Only in the bureau's "highest" series of projections would the elementary population again reach, around the year 2010, its 1970 record level of 36.7 million. In that series, the numbers would then continue to rise, to 58.2 million in 2080.)

The population of children under age 5 will grow slightly by 1990--to 18.4 million from the 1987 level of 18.3 million--and then shrink to 16.8 million by the year 2000. It will hover at between 16 and 17 million until the year 2050, and then drop slowly to 15 million by 2080, according to the mean projections.

The high-school population (ages 14 to 17) is expected to decline from 14.5 million in 1987 to 13.2 million in 1990, but will rebound to the 1987 level by 1995. It will remain at or slightly above that level, according to the projections, until at least the year 2010. It will then drop slowly, to 13.1 million in 2080.

(The highest series projects growth in the high-school population after the year 2000, up to 25.6 million in 2080; the lowest series envisions declines from the 1987 level after the year 2005--to 7.2 million in 2080.)

In the Census Bureau's middle projections, the college-age population (ages 18 to 24) will never again achieve its 1987 level of 27.3 million.

That age group, which shrank by 3 million between 1980 and 1987, is projected to decline by another 3 million by 1995--to 24.3 million. It will then rebound, according to the bureau, to 25 million in the year 2000 and 27.1 million by 2010. But the group will shrink again, by 4 million, over the next seven decades.

One of the biggest uncertainties in their latest long-range forecast, Census officials acknowledged, is assessing future levels of immigration. An upward drift in actual immigration rates could affect school-related projections in particular, as well as overall population-growth rates, their report suggests, because immigrants tend to be of child-bearing age.

Such unanticipated effects of immigration are already causing serious problems in many districts.

But the Census Bureau's middle population projections are based on a steady net immigration rate after 1997 of 500,000 annually, far below current estimates of illegal immigration alone. The net-immigration figure, the report notes, assumes that various immigration-control efforts now under way will be effective.

If the annual net immigration rate averages 800,000, the bureau estimates, the U.S. population could reach 333 million by the year 2080--14 percent above the total that year under the middle projections.

The bureau also notes that:

The proportion of the population under age 35--now 55 percent of all Americans--will not be that large again over the next 100 years. It is expected to shrink to 48 percent in the year 2000, and to 41 percent by 2040.

The proportion that is white will drop from 85 percent to 77 percent in 2040. The white population will grow from 206.1 million in 1987 to 235.2 million in 2030, and then decline to 212.3 million in 2080.

Black Americans, who now constitute 12 percent of the population, will represent 15 percent by 2040. The population will grow from 29.9 million to 46.2 million over the period.

Other minority populations--including Asians, Pacific Islanders, and American Indians--will triple in size by the year 2040, rising from 8 million to 24 million and from 3 percent of total population to 8 percent.

By 2000, the U.S. population will include 9 million immigrants who entered the country after 1986; by 2030, it will include 32 million such immigrants and their families, or 12 percent of the total population that year.

The high, middle, and low population projections all show declining rates of teenage childbearing for all races.

After rising slowly for the next 20 years, the number of Americans over 65 will jump from 39.4 million in 2010 to 65.6 million in 2030; that group will represent 22 percent of the 2030 population.

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