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US Census Bureau updates its 50-year population projections

Published: 1/30/2013
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The Census Bureau has updated its 50-year population projections for the first time since 2008. The changes were sizable, given that the projections were last updated only four years earlier.

On 12 December, the Census Bureau released new 50-year population projections for 2012–62. This was the first update in four years, and the first that incorporates the Census 2010 count.

The changes were sizable, given that the projections were last updated only four years earlier. To compare these projections with those made in 2008 (which went through 2050), the Census Bureau projects that the US resident population will increase by 85.8 million from 2012 to 2050, to 399.8 million. This is 39.2 million lower than it projected in 2008. The 2023 projected level is 9.6 million lower than it was in 2008.

The Census Bureau cited three reasons for the lowered projections. The key one is that international net migration has slowed and the Bureau does not expect much of a rebound once the US economy returns to full employment. Through 2050, the Bureau projects that net migration will add 41.2 million to the population—this is 24.4 million lower than it projected in 2008. Over the next 10 years, the Bureau expects 5.7 million fewer immigrants than it did in 2008.

The second reason for the lowered projections is lower projected births—175.4 million through 2050, compared with 193.2 million projected in 2008. The Census Bureau’s model for projecting births was more detailed and included more history than the model used in 2008, accounting for the downgrade.

The third reason is a lower starting point. In 2008, the Census Bureau projected that the US resident population would reach 313.2 million by July 2011. The actual number was 1.6 million lower.

The Census Bureau also projected 4.6 million fewer deaths over 2012–50. This mitigated the drop in the total projected number.

The changes in projections can be added up to arrive at a total: 24.4 million fewer immigrants plus 17.8 million fewer births plus 1.6 million due to a lower starting point minus 4.6 million fewer deaths adds up to 39.2 million fewer Americans in 2050 than were projected in 2008.

Why did the Census Bureau’s net-migration assumptions change so much in just four years? It was a combination of four years of additional data and a better understanding of demographic changes taking place across the planet. International migration began declining after 2001. It is clear now, but was not in 2008, that this decline was permanent because of declining fertility rates across the world. Mexico’s fertility rate, for example, has dropped from over 7.0 in 1960 to about 2.3 today. A lower fertility rate is associated not only with a slowdown in population growth, but also with more women entering the workforce, children getting a better education, and better economic opportunities. Combined, these add up to fewer people leaving a country to find jobs elsewhere.

How will the new projections affect the US forecast? Some concepts will be noticeably lower, including housing starts, households formed, light-vehicle sales, jobs, and the level of GDP. But on a per-capita basis, the changes should be small. Productivity, arguably the best barometer of long-term success, should not be unaffected.

We will incorporate these projections into the February forecast.

by Patrick Newport

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