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Are We at a Demographic Turning Point?
America is starting to look more like Texas.


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Michael Barone

Demographic forecasts generally take the form of predicting more of the same.

Old people have been moving to Florida for the past several years, and old people will move there for the next few years. Immigrants have been streaming in from Mexico, and they will continue to do so. You get the idea.

Most of the time these forecasts prove right. But sometimes there are turning points, times when some trends stop and others begin. My read of recent demographic data suggests that we may be at such a point right now.

People usually don’t recognize these turning points at the time. For 25 years during and after World War II, there was a vast flow of blacks from the South to the big cities of the North. People assumed it would go on and on. But it stopped abruptly in 1965, right after passage of federal civil-rights acts and at the beginning of a period of urban ghetto riots in the North. There has been no mass movement of blacks from South to North ever since, but rather a slight net move in the other direction.

Or consider the migration of millions to sunny California that started during World War II and accelerated in the post-war decades. It came to a halt in the middle 1980s, just as President Ronald Reagan, longtime resident of southern California, was opening the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

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Since 1990, Americans have been moving out of California to other states in large numbers. The Golden State’s population growth in the last two decades has reached the national average only as a result of Latin and Asian immigration.

That immigration, to California and elsewhere, is one of the two big demographic trends that has reshaped the country over the last 40 years. The other is the movement of vast numbers of people from high-tax states in the Northeast and industrial Midwest to lower-tax and more economically vibrant states elsewhere.

Both these movements have halted, at least temporarily. American mobility is near an all-time low. As in the Depression of the 1930s, people tend to stay put in hard times. You don’t want to sell your house if you’re underwater on your mortgage.

And immigration has plunged. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that from 2005 to 2010, more people have moved from the United States to Mexico than the other way around. I suspect that reverse migration is still going on.

The question is whether those trends will resume when — if? — good times return.



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