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America at 300 Million

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
Updated: October 18, 2006

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At 7:46 on the morning of October 17, the U.S. Census Bureau’s population clock rolled past the 300 million mark. Though it is the world’s third-most populated nation, the United States is far behind the first two, China and India.

Still, the birth—or immigration—of the 300 millionth American comes at a time when significant demographic changes pose new domestic challenges within the United States (USNews). A burgeoning populace raises a host of questions about the environment, the economy, and energy consumption. These, coupled with the societal stresses of increased immigration, ensure that all 300 million of us will realize the old maxim of living in interesting times. 

Growing at a rate of one person every eleven seconds, the United States may avoid the fertility trough troubling many other developed nations. Yet growth presents its own set of obstacles. One is U.S. consumption of resources. Though representing only 5 percent of the world’s population, Americans consume 25 percent of the world’s energy (BosGlobe), and there’s no sign of that demand slackening. Of course, a swelling society brings with it all sorts of environmental concerns. Though the United States has adopted a number of measures, such as emissions regulations, to reduce environmental impact, these may only delay the inevitable (CSMonitor). A recent study by the Center for Environment and Population warns diminished fisheries (PDF), disappearing farmland, and climate change are byproducts of America’s growth. And then there’s the issue of trash: With each American churning out an average of five pounds of trash a day, the United States is the world’s largest per capita producer of waste. For these reasons, the San Francisco Chronicle editorializes, we need to make wise choices about where and how Americans live.

But U.S. population growth isn’t entirely portentous. Some experts think a growing population is good for the economy (CSMonitor). There’s certainly circumstantial evidence of this: In the thirty-nine years since the 200 millionth American was born, the United States has experienced unprecedented economic growth. But surely a rising population isn’t the only explanation for this; for one thing, women have become a much more vital part of the workforce.

In addition to increasing in size, the U.S. population is changing in other ways. As the Population Reference Bureau explains, Americans are “growing bigger, older, and more diverse.” At the same time, the American household, currently at an all-time low of 2.6 people per home, is shrinking (FOX). More homes means more space, but Americans won’t have to worry about running out of space for some time. With just under eighty people per square mile, the United States is among the least densely populated countries in the world.

Of course, the most obvious change is the influx of immigrants (CSMonitor), who currently account for 12 percent of the population. This has sparked a passionate debate over how to craft national immigration policy. In a recent CFR Podcast, William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, explains the United States is returning to its “melting pot roots.” In an increasingly globalized world, Frey says, a diverse population could prove advantageous. But the issue is contentious in Congress, where the House and Senate this year were unable to agree on whether to emphasize security or a path to citizenship for the country's many illegal immigrants. Rep. Thomas Tancredo (R-CO) tells CFR.org in an interview that tough measures are essential to maintaining the country's identity. In a new Foreign Affairs article, Tamar Jacoby says sound legislation is needed to fix the broken immigration system.

Two reports look back at U.S. population growth. U.S. News & World Report traces the growth of America from its first census, while the U.S. Census Bureau looks at cross sections of society at previous milestones.

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