A Portrait of America: The Demographic Perspective

A Portrait of America: The Demographic Perspective

by John Iceland


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Portrait of America describes our nation’s changing population and examines through a demographic lens some of our most pressing contemporary challenges, ranging from poverty and economic inequality to racial tensions and health disparities. Celebrated authorJohn Iceland covers various topics, including America's historical demographic growth; the American family today; gender inequality; economic well-being; immigration and diversity; racial and ethnic inequality; internal migration and residential segregation; and health and mortality.

The discussion of these topics is informed by several sources, including an examination of household survey data, and by syntheses of existing published material, both quantitative and qualitative. Iceland discusses the current issues and controversies around these themes, highlighting their role in everyday debates taking place in Congress, the media, and in American living rooms. Each chapter includes historical background, as well as a discussion of how patterns and trends in the United States compare to those in peer countries.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520278189
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/05/2014
Series: Sociology in the 21st Century Series , #1
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

John Iceland is Head of the Department of Sociology and Professor of Sociology and Demography at Penn State University. His research focuses on poverty, immigration, and racial and ethnic residential segregation issues. His latest books are Poverty in America: A Handbook, Third Edition and Where We Live Now: Immigration and Race in the United States, both from University of California Press.

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A Portrait of America

The Demographic Perspective

By John Iceland


Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95910-1


American Demographic Growth

The American colonies, while still sparsely populated through much of the 1700s, were nevertheless recognized as having tremendous potential for demographic growth, wealth, and power. In his 1776 book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Scottish philosopher and economist Adam Smith noted:

But though North America is not yet so rich as England, it is much more thriving, and advancing with much greater rapidity to the greater acquisition of riches. The most decisive mark of the prosperity of any country is the increase in the number of its inhabitants.... Nor in the present times is this increase principally owing to the continued importation of new inhabitants, but to the great multiplication of the species.... Labor is there so well rewarded that a numerous family of children, rather than being a burthen, is a source of opulence and prosperity to the parents.... Notwithstanding the great increase occasioned by such early marriages, there is a continual complaint of the scarcity of hands in North America.

The territorial and demographic growth of the United States has historically also been accompanied by considerable individual social and economic mobility. American culture is infused with a deep egalitarian spirit and admiration of self-made men and women. This is represented by the creed of "American exceptionalism"—first described by Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s. In this view, there is a unique American ideology based on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire that has fostered mobility.

American exceptionalism, as the term was originally conceived, meant not necessarily that the country was better than others but mainly that it was different. Seymour Martin Lipset, a well-known political scientist and sociologist, argued in a 1996 book on the topic that this rugged individualism marked a strong departure from the tradition-bound order of the Old European World. "Americans remain much more individualistic, meritocratic-oriented, and anti-statist than peoples everywhere." In his view these attributes have promoted entrepreneurship and economic growth. This is perhaps best represented in the recent past by the ascendancy of Silicon Valley. Steve Jobs was an iconoclastic figure in this respect—he saw himself as a rebel against authority and urged people to "Think Different." Many argue that this emphasis on individualism and innovation helps explain why the United States today has the world's largest economy and one of the highest GDPs per capita.

Lipset also argued, however, that this emphasis on individualism, and by extension nonconformity, has a downside if completely unchecked by social mores that promote the good of the community. An ethos centered on individualism means that inequality is more widely accepted in the United States than in other countries. This helps explain why U.S. poverty rates are higher and average life expectancies are lower than those in other rich countries, not to mention America's large prison population, litigiousness, and low levels of voter participation.

Before delving into the contemporary state of social and economic affairs in the United States, this chapter first reviews America's demographic history—its ascent from a group of sparsely settled colonies on the eastern seaboard of the continent to one of the world's superpowers today. I focus on the roles that changing patterns of fertility, mortality, and immigration played in this growth and some of America's commonalities with and differences from other Western countries. Having a grasp of this "exceptional" history—and its demographic origins—is necessary for understanding our changing population today.


The first U.S. census was taken 1790—not long after the founding of the nation. At the time, the population of the thirteen original states and the territories that would become Vermont, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Maine came to just 3.9 million people. Over the next seven decades the United States grew at a clip of over 30 percent per decade, such that by 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, there were 31.4 million people in the country. The population then more than doubled by 1900 (to 76.2 million), added another 100 million by 1960 (to 179.3 million), and by the 2010 census there were 308.7 million people living in the United States, making it the world's third largest country after China and India. Assuming a constant rate of immigration, the United States will have nearly 400 million people by 2050 (see figure 1).

American population growth has outpaced that of most other peer countries. Figure 2 compares American population growth with that of many large countries in Europe over the nearly two-hundred-year period from 1820 to 2012. All countries grew, with even the slowest-growing country of those shown—France—doubling its population. American growth, however, was much more dramatic: it grew by over 3,000 percent. The world's total population also grew rapidly over the period, from 1.04 billion to 7.06 billion, but this increase (578 percent) was still well below that of the United States. The largest countries today—China (1.35 billion) and India (1.26 billion)—were already relatively large in 1820 (381 million and 209 million, respectively), so their growth rates were also smaller than the U.S. one.

The size and composition of a country's population are determined by the interplay of three forces: fertility, mortality, and migration. Rates of all three have changed considerably through the course of American history. Many of the changes in the United States reflect those that have occurred in all developed countries, and they collectively represent its demographic transition. According to demographic transition theory, societies typically experience a change from a regime of high fertility and high mortality to one of low fertility and low mortality. During the pretransition stage, population growth is slow because of the balance between high fertility and mortality. Couples typically have many children to ensure that at least some of them will survive to adulthood. The first stage of the demographic transition involves a decline in mortality. The decline is caused by advances in public health and medicine. As mortality declines, a population's growth rate increases. In the next stage, fertility begins to fall; this occurs after the decline in mortality, because social customs, traditions, and habits centered on having many children are often slow to change. Eventually, according to demographic transition theory, low mortality is matched by low fertility, and population growth once again stabilizes. All developed countries, and indeed most countries around globe, now have relatively low levels of mortality and fertility. Fertility rates, however, are still quite high (though declining), mainly in a number of African countries today.

These days many developed countries have what is termed below replacement fertility—fertility rates that are so low that if they do not increase, the country (in the absence of immigration) will eventually face a decline in its population. For populations to remain stable, women have to have on average just over two children (essentially to replace the mother and father and to allow for some infant mortality). Fertility rates in Europe and East Asia are currently well below replacement level, as their total fertility rates (TFRs, which refer to the average number of children per woman over her lifetime) are close to 1.5. Mortality is quite low in these countries, women (and couples) are choosing to have small families, and often they invest heavily in the children they do have. Fertility in the United States today is also low, but high relative to fertility in many of these other countries; in 2012 the U.S. TFR was 1.9. The U.S. population will likely continue to grow at a significant pace for many years to come because of persistent immigration as well. I now offer a more detailed look at historical patterns of mortality, fertility, and migration in the United States.

U.S. Mortality

In 1789 life expectancy at birth was only about 35 years in the United States. Mortality remained fairly stable and perhaps even increased in the first few decades of the nineteenth century as a result of greater urbanization, exposure to diseases, and poorer nutrition than at the beginning of the century. Not until 1870 did mortality begin to decline significantly. Life expectancy in turn began to increase rapidly—to about 49 years in 1900 and 64 years in 1940. Since then, life expectancy has continued to inch up, reaching 79 in 2010. One in five Americans born in 1900 died before reaching the age of 18. In contrast, only one in five Americans born in 2000 will die by the time they reach 75, according to recent estimates. Advances in life expectancies in the late nineteenth century through the early twentieth were most affected by declines in infant and child mortality, though mortality declined across the entire age spectrum. Declines in mortality among children were achieved mainly by progress in controlling the spread of infectious diseases. In contrast, increases in life expectancy in recent decades have been driven more by extending life among the elderly, especially those who are very old.

Table 1 shows the leading causes of death in the United States in 1860, 1900, and 2012. In 1860, the leading causes of death were overwhelmingly infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and cholera (ranked first and third) and illnesses that infants and young children are particularly susceptible to, such as diarrhea (ranked second). By 1900, many of the same causes were still conspicuous, but we see a couple of prominent diseases that tend to occur later in life creep onto the list, including heart disease (ranked fourth) and cancer (ninth). By 2010, the list is dominated by causes of death that typically occur later in life, with heart disease and cancer topping the list—about 47 percent of all deaths were attributed to these two causes alone in that year.

Declines in mortality in the nineteenth century were achieved by public health measures, including garbage and waste removal, the building of community water and sewage systems, the isolation and quarantining of infected individuals, and health behavior campaigns that advocated changes in individual and institutional hygienic practices, such as hand and food washing and the boiling of milk. These practices helped reduce mortality in many relatively rich countries, such as England, Sweden, and France, at approximately the same time within about a 20-year period in the late 1800s.

Cholera, for example, killed tens of millions of people across the globe in the nineteenth century and about 150,000 Americans in one pandemic alone from 1827 to 1835. Conventional wisdom of the time had it that cholera was caused by "miasma"—a form of "bad air"; this was the time before the germ theory of disease had been developed. Eventually, the cause of cholera and other infectious diseases became better understood. The physician John Snow, for example, tracked down the source of the 1854 cholera outbreak in London by talking to local residents of the Soho neighborhood. He found a cluster of cholera cases right around a public water pump on Broad Street. People later discovered that the water pump had been dug only three feet from an old sewage pit that had leaked fecal bacteria. Knowledge about the sources of disease eventually led to effective public action. The first water filtration was introduced in the United States in 1872 (in Poughkeepsie, New York), though the largest cities did not build filtration plants until the early 1900s. Chlorine treatment of water also became the norm during this period, and the pasteurization of milk and other dairy products became standard practice everywhere. The last decades of the nineteenth century also saw the development of a number of vaccines for rabies, typhoid, cholera, diphtheria, and the plague.

While public health measures and sanitation practices were the most important triggers of the decline in mortality through the early twentieth century, nutritional improvements also allowed people to avoid contracting disease and better withstand it once it was contracted. Even with the decline in mortality from infectious diseases, such illnesses were still prominent causes of death through the middle of the twentieth century. During 1918 through 1920, for example, somewhere between 50 and 130 million people died during a global flu pandemic, including about 500,000 to 675,000 in the United States. The high death toll was caused by both a very high infection rate and the severity of the symptoms.

The continued decline in infectious diseases in the middle decades of the twentieth century was driven by the growing importance of medical care in the form of the widespread diffusion of medicines, including sulfa drugs and penicillin. These drugs were used extensively in treating pneumonia but were used for other diseases as well. Pneumonia and flu deaths declined at an annual rate of 3.9 percent per year between 1940 and 1960, faster than the 2.4 percent annual decline over the forty years previous. This eventually led to the more recent mortality regime in which chronic and degenerative diseases mentioned above are the leading causes of death rather than infectious ones.

While the decline in mortality and the lengthening of life expectancy played some role in the growth in the U.S. population over the past two hundred years, other factors were also clearly at work. After all, most European countries depicted in figure 2 experienced the same kind of mortality transition and increasing life expectancy that the United Statesdid over a similar period of time but did not grow as quickly as the United States. Does fertility, then, explain exceptional U.S. growth rates?

U.S. Fertility

The United States initially had very high fertility rates. In 1800, the total fertility rate was 7.0, indicating that women were having, on average, about seven children in their lifetime. This figure might have been even higher in the preceding decades, though the data for this period are sparse. Writing in 1798, Thomas Malthus believed that the growth rate of the American colonies was "probably without parallel in history." Benjamin Franklin also weighed in on rapid U.S. population growth fueled by high fertility:

Land being thus plenty in America, and so cheap as that a laboring man that understands husbandry can, in a short time, save money enough to purchase a piece of new land sufficient for a plantation, wheron he may subsist a family; such are not afraid to marry.... Hence marriages in America are more general, and more generally early, than in Europe. And if it is reckoned there that there is but one marriage per annum among 100 persons, perhaps we may here reckon two; and if in Europe they have but four births to a Marriage (many of their marriages being late), we may here reckon eight, of which if one half grow up, and our Marriages are made, reckoning one with another twenty years of age, our people must at lest be doubled every twenty years.

U.S. fertility was thus very high by the standards of the European countries from which much of the U.S. population had emigrated. England and France, for example, had total fertility rates closer to 5. As also recognized by Franklin, U.S. fertility rates were also much higher than the country's death rates, such that the population was on pace to double every 20 to 25 years from natural increase alone. It has thus been estimated that about three-quarters of the growth in the U.S. population from the founding of the nation until the Civil War was due to natural increase (an excess of births over deaths), with the remaining quarter due to immigration. While there is some debate on the exact timing of the beginning of the fertility decline in the United States, it is clear that fertility rates fell substantially in the nineteenth century to 3.6 in 1900. By the late 1800s the U.S. fertility rate matched those of western European countries, where fertility declines were only just beginning. U.S. fertility continued its descent to the near replacement level of 2.2 in 1940 (see figure 3).

The post–World War II period saw a remarkable spike in fertility, popularly known as the baby boom, which peaked with a TFR of 3.8 in 1957—a level not seen in the United States since the late 1890s. Thereafter, fertility resumed its decline, though it has been nearly stable in the vicinity of 1.8 to 2.1 since 1980. It is important to note that these TFRs represent averages, and variability has always occurred among the experiences of women and couples. For example, while women were having on average 3.6 children in 1900, about 20 percent of them had 7 or more children and another 20 percent had 1 or none at all.


Excerpted from A Portrait of America by John Iceland. Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1. American Demographic Growth
2. The American Family
3. Gender
4. Economic Well-Being
5. Immigration and Growing Diversity
6. Racial and Ethnic
7. Migration and Residential Segregation
8. Health and Mortality


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