What Does the 2010 Census say about America?

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The New Americans: US Commerce Secretary Gary Locke unveils the US count (Photo: Yuri Gripas/REUTERS)

For the first time in history, there are more than 300 million Americans. But two recessions, an increased wariness of immigrants and a souring of opinion of the United States abroad led to the slowest growth in US residents since 1940. “It’s still a big growth,” says Kenneth Johnson, a population expert and professor at the University of New Hampshire. “But the indications are that immigration slowed dramatically at the end of the decade.”

The census results were also potentially a boon for Republicans. The new count of Americans, which was released Tuesday, is used to determine how to distribute the 435 seats in the House of Representatives. And, based on the count, Texas will gain four U.S. Congressmen. Florida picks up two seats in the House. The voters of both of those states have regularly gone for Republicans. Meanwhile, New York and Ohio, two states won by Obama in 2008, lost two seats each. The results may also affect the 2012 US Presidential election, by redistributing the make up of the Electoral College.

Economies do tend to thrive on size. So is the slower rate of growth more bad news for the US GDP? Not necessarily. Here’s why:

For the economy, a slower increase in the population raises concerns about American competitiveness. But it could actually be a good thing. A number of economists, including the Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke are worried about the lack of inflation and income growth in the United States. Fewer workers could drive up salaries. What’s more, fewer new Americans might help slow government spending. That may curtail the rising US federal debt, which many think will soon cause interest rates to jump and hold down US GDP growth. “At a time of fewer government resources, fewer new people might not be such a bad thing,” says New Hampshire’s Johnson.

According to the Census Bureau, which counts the population every ten years, there are now 308,745,538 people living in America. That was up 9.7% from the 281 million people who were in the country in 2000. Yet, the number of Americans grew considerably slower in the past decade than at the end of the last millennium, when the population jumped over 13%. Much of the new growth came internally. Of the additional 27 million Americans, Johnson estimates that 17 million were a result of babies born in the United States. Immigrants made up the remaining 10 million of new residents.

The census also showed that the US population is increasingly shifting toward the South and West. Nevada grew the fastest in the past decade, up 35%, followed by Arizona and Utah. But had the recession not decimated the housing markets particularly in such large Western cities as Las Vegas and Phoenix, the growth in the West and South probably would have been larger. Michigan was the only state to lose residents, down 0.6%. But Puerto Rico also saw an outflow. The US territory population dropped by 2.2%.

The changes in the US population could have lasting effects on the way Americans view key issues. Terrorism and the economy have swayed popular opinion in the past few years against free trade and immigration. China is seen as a rising threat. An increasingly home-grown population, may make more Americans increasingly interested in cutting the nation off from the rest of the world. Slower population growth, particularly of younger Americans, will also make it harder to fund such programs as Social Security aimed at the elderly, and hasten the call for cuts in those programs.

But while fewer Americans came from abroad, the census may still indicate a broad cultural shift in the US. Nearly 80% of the population growth in America came from minority families, with Hispanics registering the biggest gains.  That was especially true in Texas and Arizona. Johnson estimates fewer white babies were born the past decade than in the ten years before, which might be the first time in US history that has happened. So while traditionally Republican states picked up residents, the increase in minorities offers a ray of hope for Democrats in the census data. Minorities tend to vote Democrat.