WASHINGTON — If it weren't for Hispanic births, the U.S. could be confronting long-term population declines similar to those in Germany, Japan and other industrialized countries.
Hispanics are the only ethnic group now producing more than two children per family, according to a Census Bureau report released Monday. That's the number necessary to replace the mother and father and keep the population stable.
"The Hispanic population is growing; whites and Asians are not replacing themselves," said Jane Dye, the Census Bureau demographer who wrote the study.
The average U.S. woman produces 1.9 children, but broken down by ethnicity, the numbers are 1.7 for Asian Americans, 1.8 for non-Hispanic whites, 2.0 for blacks and 2.3 for Hispanics. American Indians and Native Americans weren't included in the report. The fertility rates are sufficient, combined with immigration, to keep the U.S. population growing.
"It's the Hispanic population that is keeping us above water in terms of growth, in terms of births," said William Frey, a demographer for The Brookings Institution, a center-left policy research organization in Washington, D.C.
The report took a closer look at women who gave birth between January 2005 and December 2006. It found that:
The high birthrates of Hispanic women should make policymakers reorder their spending, Frye said.
"We need to focus a lot more than we have before on the education opportunities for immigrant children. This makes very clear that they're a big part of our future."
To census researcher Dye's surprise, Hispanic birthrates didn't fall consistently as the ethnic group assimilated into U.S. society.
Instead, they dropped in the second generation but rose in the third.
"I wondered why that was true, and found that those second-generation Hispanic mothers did have higher education attainment than the third generation," Dye said.
Falling birth rates have one advantage, according to demographic experts: They ease pressure on scarce natural resources. But there's a downside, Cherlin said.
"It means that 25 years from now, there'll be many elderly people who are childless and who may not have anybody to care for them."
The Census Bureau used data from the American Community Survey, which has a sample size of 3 million U.S. addresses. The report also used historical fertility information from the Census's Current Population Survey.
To read the Census Bureau's fertility study, visit: http://www.census.gov/prod/2008pubs/p20-558.pdf.