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date: 26 September 2022

Demographicsfree

Demographicsfree

  • Pamela P. ChiangPamela P. ChiangPlymouth State University
  •  and Hsiu-Fen LinHsiu-Fen LinArizona State University

Summary

This is an overview of the latest social demographic trends in the United States that are particularly significant for social work macro practice, including population changes, projections, and compositions affected by race and ethnicity, nativity, age, and sex and gender. We examine the history of the census survey, the controversial attempt to reinstate a citizenship question in the 2020 census, and the measurement change of the race/ethnicity question in census surveys across decades. In addition, trends in marital status, family structures, socioeconomic status as well as educational attainment, poverty, and income inequality are discussed. Finally, implications about how demographic data inform and impact social work in education, practice, policy, and research are addressed.

Subjects

  • Policy and Advocacy
  • Populations and Practice Settings
  • Race, Ethnicity, and Culture

Updated in this version

Content and references updated for the Encyclopedia of Macro Social Work.

Social demography addresses the dynamics and characteristics of human populations in trends and changes (Harper, 2015). It also informs social policies for the targeted populations, thus facilitating the allocation of resources and services in the community, organizations, and practice environments (Riley & McCarthy, 2003). Clients’ demographic data are often used before and after the implementation of a program to perform needs assessments and program evaluations. Prior to implementation, the use of demographic information in needs assessment helps identify the needs and characteristics of communities and clients, such as the socioeconomic status, most pervasive needs, and unmet needs (Rubin, 2020). Demographic information is also instrumental in program evaluations to gauge if a program has effectively served the desired population over time (Grinnell et al., 2019). Unfortunately, data on minority or marginalized groups are often scarce in surveys, data sets, and clinical studies, which leads to their underrepresentation in policy implementation and their needs not being understood (Garber & Arnold, 2006).

This article provides an overview of the latest demographic trends in the United States that are particularly significant for social work macro practice and acknowledges widespread changes to family structures and socioeconomic factors. The article also summarizes the history of census surveys and the controversies associated with the decennial survey instrument. The article closes by discussing how demographic data can advance macro social work in education, practice, policy, and research.

Demographics and the Census Survey

History of the Census Survey

The U.S. Constitution mandated the national census for several purposes, including the allocation of federal funds to local communities in public assistance programs and construction projects, such as airport, hospital, water, and sewer projects (Anderson, 2015) as well as the apportionment that determines the seats for each state in the House of Representative. The Constitution specified that the census should be made within three years and then every subsequent ten years. The first census was conducted in 1790 by local marshals. Since 1880, the census has been implemented by the Census Bureau (Anderson, 2015). The decennial census survey in 2020 marked the 24th census. Due to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the census survey in 2020 was the first to utilize the internet to collect data through self-response in order to enhance the response rate as one of the methods of data collection other than phone calls, in-person follow-up, and mail (U.S. Census Bureau, 2021a).

The census results have largely reflected population change trends in the United States, such as population growth in the South and West, population decline in the Northeast, and slave distribution and emancipation. Since 1790, the U.S. population’s growth rate has been at least 10% per year, except in 2010. The population reached 100 million in 1920, doubled in 1970, and then tripled in 2010. While the population in 2019 reached more than 328 million, the natural growth rate (births minus deaths) of the U.S. population has seen a steady slowdown since 2015, and for the first time the natural growth rate dropped below one million in 2019 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2019a). According to the results in the 2020 census, about 331 million people lived in the United States as of April 1, 2020, which represents a growth of 7.4% since 2010 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2021b).

Citizenship Question Controversy

The national census has been criticized for undercounting non-Whites and people in poor urban areas as well as failing to counter the decline in voluntary participation since 1970 (Anderson, 2015). Despite these controversial practices, the census has also received notable scrutiny for its treatment of citizenship. Between 1820 and 1950, the census asked all populations for citizenship information from household members. Between 1960 and 2000, the citizenship question become a question in an alternative long-form questionnaire for only a part of the population (Department of Commerce v. New York, 2019). Beginning in 2010, the citizenship question was removed from the census entirely and is now included in the American Community Survey instead.

In March 2018, the Department of Commerce announced its intent to reinstate a citizenship question in the 2020 census to enforce Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. This triggered heated public discussions on whether including the citizenship question would lead to a lower response rate among non-citizens, affect the allocation of funds, decrease political representation, and thus undermine American democracy (Brown et al., 2019; Derieux et al., 2020; Levitt, 2019). The State of New York led a coalition of states, cities, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and a collective of advocacy groups to file suit in the U.S. District Court against the Department of Commerce’s decision to add a citizenship question in the census survey. The case was eventually brought to the Supreme Court, which ruled in June 2019, rejecting the Department of Commerce’s reason for adding a citizenship question (Department of Commerce v. New York, 2019). The decision to block a citizenship question in the 2020 census may have reduced the risk of preventing certain states with more minority populations to lose electoral seats due to fear of participating in the survey.

Population Change

In the 2020s, the U.S. population is expected to undergo major population changes in terms of its size and composition due to aging and increased racial and ethnic diversity. According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2020b), the population is expected to grow from 326 million in 2017 to 404 million in 2060. Specifically, 2030 will likely mark a demographic turning point because of the following three trends (U.S. Census Bureau, 2020b). First, the youngest baby boomers will turn 65, resulting in the projection that one in every five Americans will be a senior. Second, seniors will outnumber children under 18 for the first time in U.S. history by 2034. Third, immigration is projected to become the primary source of population growth and overtake natural increase (more births over deaths). The U.S. population is projected to cross the 400 million threshold in 2058 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2020b).

Racial and Ethnic Differences

Current data on race and ethnicity in the census are gathered by self-identification, as these terms refer more to social and cultural categories than to biological or genetic ones. Since the first census in 1790, racial and ethnic categories have greatly changed, largely in response to civil rights, immigration, and interracial marriages (Pratt et al., 2015). Except for the race “White,” all other categories have changed over time. For example, Asians did not have an individual category until the 1860 census, when Chinese was listed as a category. “Mexican” was listed as an independent category in 1930, and not until 1970 were Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Central and South American individuals included in this category. Hispanic origin with a list of examples was introduced in 1990, but the word “Latino” was first introduced in the 2000 census along with the category Hispanic and Spanish. The name of the “African American” category has also been altered numerous times in U.S. history. While Hawaiians had an individual category in 1960, they have been grouped together with other Pacific Islanders since 1990. The category “Other” was first used in the 1910 census enumeration, and as of the 2020 census, “some other race” remains an option for any of the provided race categories (Pratt et al., 2015).

In the report “2017 National Population Projections,” which covers the period from 2017 to 2060, the U.S. Census Bureau projected that the non-Hispanic White population would decrease from 199 million in 2020 to 179 million in 2060 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2020b). Multiracial groups are expected to become the fastest-growing group within the next few decades, with Asians being the second fastest-growing group due to immigration and Hispanics being the third due to natural growth (U.S. Census Bureau, 2020b). While non-Hispanic White is projected to remain the largest racial group (44.3%) until 2060, about one-third (32%) of the U.S. population is projected to be non-White by 2060, including 15% Black, 9.1% Asian, 27.5% Hispanic, and 6.2% multiracial groups (Johnson, 2020).

Immigration

International migration is projected to be the primary reason for population growth from 2030 as opposed to natural growth. The foreign-born population has grown exponentially from 4.7% in 1970 to 13.7% in 2018 (Budiman, 2020), and it is projected to reach 69 million in 2060, accounting for 17% of the U.S. population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2020b). There are four admission paths to obtain legal residence in the United States, including citizenship through naturalization, being granted legal permanent residence (LPR), refugee or asylee status, and being admitted as a resident non-immigrant (e.g., students, temporary workers). About 843,000 people applied for naturalization in 2019, which was an 11% increase over 2018; the leading countries of origin were Mexico, India, the Philippines, China, and Cuba. By state residence, the top three states accounted for 40% of the naturalized citizens: California (17.6%), Texas (11.6%), and Florida (11.4%) (Teke, 2020). Legal permanent residents are foreign-born people whose family members or employers sponsor their permanent residence status in the United States. About one million LPRs resided in the United States in 2019; the leading countries of origin were Mexico (15%), China (6%), and India (5.3%) (Baugh, 2020a). Refugees and asylees must meet the eligibility requirements for refugee or asylum status, and an admission ceiling is determined by the president and Congress each year. The ceiling was 30,000 in 2019, the lowest since 1980, and the top countries of nationality were Congo, Burma, and Ukraine (Baugh, 2020b). According to the estimates of the Department of Homeland Security (Baker, 2021), there were about 11.4 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States in January 2018; by country of birth, Mexico counted for the largest share (nearly 50%), followed by El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, along with India and China. California and Texas accounted for 40% of the total unauthorized immigrants, followed by Florida, New York, Illinois, and New Jersey. Immigration will change the U.S. population significantly, leading to increased size, more racial and ethnic diversity, and a younger generation because immigrant families have high levels of marriage rates and birth rates compared with U.S.-born residents (Smock & Schwartz, 2020).

Aging Population Trends

Population change is typically examined in two ways: age and generation. A group of individuals share the same generation if they were born within a set time and thus had their mindsets, expectations, and actions impacted by similar historical and social events (Johnson & Johnson, 2010). Therefore, researchers often examine individuals based on their respective life cycles as well as their birth cohorts (Dimock, 2019). The most common generational labels include Silent (1928–1945), Baby Boomer (1946–1964), Generation X (1965–1980), Millennial (1981–1996), and Generation Z (1997–2012).

Globally, individuals aged 65 and over are expected to become the fastest-growing age group by 2100 (United Nations, 2019). In the United States, the population of adults 65 and older is expected to double in size from 56 million in 2020 to 95 million in 2060, comprising nearly a quarter of the population in 2060 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2020a). The number of people in the oldest-old group (85+) is projected to grow from 5.9 million in 2012 to 18 million in 2030 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2014a). America is graying over time for two reasons: increased longevity and the progression of a large cohort of aging baby boomers (Bloom & Luca, 2016; Cherlin, 2010; U.S. Census Bureau, 2020c). Life expectancy in the United States has risen from 69.7 years in 1960 to 79.4 years in 2015, and it is projected to reach 85.6 years by 2060 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2020c). The prolonged life expectancy can be attributed to three major factors: increases in vaccinations; declines in cardiovascular mortality, circulatory problems, and smoking-related diseases; and movements to large metropolitan areas (Hinman et al., 2011; U.S. Census Bureau, 2020c; Vierboom & Preston, 2020).

Baby boomers have changed the national age structure significantly. In 1946, there were approximately 2.4 million baby boomers, and the population reached 72.5 million by 1964 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2014b). According to census data from 1950 to 2010, the number of U.S.-born baby boomers peaked in the 1970s and then declined slightly from 1980 through 2010 due to death and international migration. In contrast, the foreign-born baby boomer population increased steadily from 1980 through 2010 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2014b). The percentage of older Americans is expected to rise sharply from 17% in 2020 to 24% in 2060, as the oldest baby boomers turned 65 in 2011 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2020b). The trend of the old-age dependency ratio, which refers to the size of the aged population compared with that of the labor force between the ages of 15 and 64 years, indicates that the number of working-age adults per older adult will decline from five in 2010 to three in 2030 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2014b). Given that baby boomers will be over the age of 65 by 2030, this aging generation has important implications for social policies (Cherlin, 2010), volunteerism (Chambré & Netting, 2018), continued contribution to the labor force (Cahill et al., 2015), and leisure industries (Otoo & Kim, 2020). However, it is important to note that among older adults, baby boomers are a diverse cohort whose needs (Chambré & Netting, 2018) and medical service use patterns vary (Canizares et al., 2016).

Compared with previous generations, baby boomers are less likely to live with their parents or offspring because of urbanization, industrialization, social security, and the decline of agricultural inheritance (Ruggles, 2007; Seltzer & Bianchi, 2013; Silverstein & Giarrusso, 2010). Baby boomers also tend to live longer and have higher levels of education, more varied work histories, fewer children, and higher rates of remaining unmarried and separating or divorcing from their partners than did older age groups. As boomers age, such sociodemographic characteristics expose them to greater economic, health, and social vulnerabilities than previous generations (Brown et al., 2019; Frey, 2010; Lin & Brown, 2012).

The older population is becoming more diverse through the intersectionality lens by race/ethnicity and sexuality because aging is a complex process based on health and socioeconomic status, lifestyle, and multiple needs (National Institute on Aging, 2020). Over three quarters of the older population of 49.2 million were White, while 9% were Black, 8% were Hispanic, less than 5% were Asian, and 1% were of two or more races (U.S. Census Bureau, 2018a). Minority older adults are expected to comprise 42% of the U.S. older population in 2050 compared with 20% in 2010 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2020c). Research has shown that ethnic minority older adults are at greater risk of cognitive impairment (Luo et al., 2018; Weden et al., 2017), decreased driving function (Babulal et al., 2018), food insecurity and diabetes (Vaccaro & Huffman, 2017), and obesity and mental health outcomes (Lincoln, 2020).

It was estimated that approximately 2.7 million adults aged 50 and older self-identified as LGBTQ in the United States, including 1.1 million who are aged 65 and above, and the LGBTQ older adults aged 50 and older would account for more than five million by 2060 (Fredriksen-Goldsen & Kim, 2017). LGBTQ older adults can be divided into three age brackets: the Invisible Generation, born before the 1920s; the Silent Generation, born in the 1930s and 1940s; and the Pride Generation, born in the 1950s and 1960s (Fredriksen-Goldsen, 2016). The demographic characteristics of each cohort are compounded with historical, environmental, and psychosocial factors predicting the well-being of LGBTQ older adults. Fredriksen-Goldsen, Jen et al. (2019) further introduced the term “iridescent life course” to describe aging similarities in the life course across populations as well as the distinct factors that many older LGBTQ individuals face such as stigma and discrimination, isolation, and lack of services. Moreover, the rates of LGBTQ victimization are disproportionately more prevalent among some disadvantaged groups, such as the oldest LGBTQ adults aged 80 years and older (Fredriksen-Goldsen, Kim, et al., 2019), and older LGBTQ people of color (Kum, 2017).

Sex and Gender Differences

The total U.S. population in 2019 was more than 324 million, with a male population of 159 million and a female population of 165 million (U.S. Census Bureau, 2020d). The sex ratio of males to females was 96 males per 100 females. Although female Americans comprised 52% of the total population, the sex ratio varied across the life cycle. For children under five years, 6.3% were boys and 5.8% were girls (U.S. Census Bureau, 2020d). The gender gap diminishes as the population ages because male mortality rates are higher than female mortality rates due to natural deaths and risks such as accidents, violence, and war (World Health Organization, 2020). The numbers of American men and women were approximately equal in early adulthood and midlife, but women began to outnumber men in their late 50s. Older women continue to outlive older men, but the gap is narrowing because of health improvements and medical advancements (Bloom & Luca, 2016). The sex ratio trend suggests that effective later-life support and healthcare for both men and women are needed more than ever before.

To collect more information on sex and gender diversity, recent research has included demographic questions on gender identity and sexual orientation that are not limited to the binary measurement of male and female (Smock & Schwartz, 2020). In response to the lack of census data on sexual minorities, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention established the data set Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) and included questions on sexual and gender identity since 2014, which became the primary source of large-scale data for many sexual minority studies (CDC, 2014). Based on the data in BRFSS in 2014–2015, 0.6% of adults (1.4 million) and 0.7% of youth (150,000 aged from 13 to 17) were identified as transgender (Herman et al., 2017). Crissman et al. (2017) study found that male-to-female transgender individuals (0.28%) accounted more than female-to-male transgender individuals (0.16%). A larger population of transgender self-identified as non-White compared to the transgender population. Transgender respondents also reported to be less likely to have gone to college and more likely to live in poverty than nontransgender respondents (Crissman et al., 2017).

Trends in Marital Status and Family Structure

Marriage and family trends since 2010 include decreased marriage and fertility, increased divorce and cohabitation, and multiple-partner families (Reczek, 2020; Sassler & Lichter, 2020; U.S. Census Bureau, 2018b). These changes have significantly affected family structure as well as children’s living arrangements and their risk of poverty in the 21st century.

Declines in Marriage, Remarriage, and Fertility

Fewer American adults are staying married, as the percentage of adults living with a spouse has dropped from 70% in 1967 to 52% in 2020 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2020f). Marital differences exist across groups by race/ethnicity and education levels (Cherlin, 2010; Smock & Schwartz, 2020). African Americans have lower marriage rates than Whites, with the racial gap increasing from 3% to 22% from 1970 to 2012 (Smock & Schwartz, 2020). College-educated people are more likely to marry than their less-educated peers (Allred, 2018; Cherlin, 2010). The recent tendency for Americans to delay marriage has greatly contributed to an overall decline in marriage, as the median age for a first marriage was 28.2 for men and 26.1 for women in 2010 but increased to 30.5 for men and 28.1 for women in 2020 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2020g).

Other explanations for changing marriage patterns include improved economic stability, marriage market availability, increased incarceration, and diverging social norms and attitudes toward marriage (Smock & Schwartz, 2020). In particular, the remarriage rate for both men and women decreased by more than half from 1950 to 2017. Men’s remarriage rates fell from 90.9 (per 1,000 previously married men) in 1950 to 38.8 in 2017, whereas women’s remarriage rates dropped from 42.2 in 1950 to 21.2 in 2017 (Schweizer, 2019).

The general fertility rate for U.S. births per 1,000 women aged 15–44 decreased drastically after 1964 and then remained stagnant from 1970 (Smock & Schwartz, 2020). From the mid-1990s to 2007, the birth rate increased slightly but began to decline in 2007. In 2018, it dropped to 59.1 births per 1,000 women aged 15–44 for the first time since 1970. The total fertility rate, which refers to the expected number of children per woman, was 2.12 in 2007 compared with 1.73 in 2018 (Martin et al., 2019; World Bank, 2019). The decline in fertility can be attributed to a large drop in Hispanic immigration after the advent of the Great Recession in 2007 (Smock & Schwartz, 2020) and other structural changes, such as the loss of manufacturing and goods-producing businesses (Seltzer, 2019).

Differences in Divorce Practices

Despite varying sources of data that attempted to depict divorce rates in the U.S. with different estimates, the divorce rate steadily increased from 1970 and reached a peak in 1980 (Kennedy & Ruggles, 2014; Reynolds, 2020; Seltzer, 2019). It dropped to 7.6 new divorces per 1,000 women in 2019 compared to 9.7 new divorces in 2009 (Anderson & Scherer, 2020). Furthermore, divorce rates diverge by age, race, and education level (Cherlin, 2010; Cohen, 2019). While the divorce rate has declined among younger adults, it has increased among older Americans, including baby boomers (Cohen, 2019). In 1940, only 2% of ever-married women were separated/divorced across race groups, except for Asians (0.9%). In contrast, the divorce rate noticeably diverged between racial groups in 2018. About 33% of Blacks were separated/divorced, 24% of others, 22% of Hispanics, 19% of Whites, and 11% of Asians (Schweizer, 2020). In terms of education level, about 3% of women were separated/divorced in 1940 across all education groups. In 2018, couples with a college education had the lowest separated/divorced percentage (16%), followed by those with less than a high school education (21%), only a high school education (22%), and some college education (24%) (Schweizer, 2020).

Increase in Same-Sex Households

The number of same-sex households increased between 2005 and 2020 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2019b). Between 2008 and 2015, cohabitation was the predominant form of lesbian and gay relationships as opposed to same-sex marriages (Cherlin, 2010), which were legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 (Obergefell v. Hodges, 2015). Since 2016, the number of same-sex married couples has increased, and they represent more than half of all same-sex households (including cohabiting and married couples); in 2019, there were 568,110 same-sex married couples, with 53% lesbian and 47% gay male couples (U.S. Census Bureau, 2019b). According to the 2019 American Community Survey, the racial composition and household income of married same-sex couples were similar to those of different-sex couples. Married same-sex couples tend to be more socioeconomically advantaged than their different-sex counterparts, as they generally are younger, bear fewer children, and have higher householder and partner employment rates, higher median household incomes, and higher education levels (Smock & Schwartz, 2020; U.S. Census Bureau, 2019b).

Diverse Trends in Children’s Living Arrangements

Because of changing marital and family structures, American children nowadays are much more likely to grow up in a nontraditional and diverse family than those in the past (Cherlin, 2010). Crucially, family transitions can change children’s living arrangements over time. For example, the percentage of children living with both biological parents dropped drastically from 88% in 1960 to 70% in 2020 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2020e). In 1960, about 9% of all children lived in single-parent families, whereas the percentage nearly tripled to 25% in 2020 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2020e).

Children’s living arrangements are substantially impacted by increased cohabitation among American adults. Only 0.4% of adults lived with an unmarried partner in 1967, compared with almost to 7.34% of adults (18 million) in 2020, indicating the prevalence and normalization of cohabitation (U.S. Census Bureau, 2020f). Moreover, cohabiting unions have increasingly raised children together. From 1990 to 1995, 38% of nonmarital births were to cohabiting couples. This rose to roughly 63% from 2006 to 2013 (Lamidi, 2016). As a result, children more commonly experience multiple partnerships in the household with their parents as well as more instability and disadvantages (Sassler & Lichter, 2020).

Distribution of Socioeconomic Status

Education Across Race and Ethnicity

The overall educational attainment in the United States has gradually risen since 1940. The percentage of people at least 25 years of age who have completed high school peaked at 90.1% in 2019, compared with 84.1% in 2000 and only 24.5% in 1940. The percentage of those with a bachelor’s degree or higher reached 36% in 2020, a stark increase from only 4.6% in 1940 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2020h). The percentage of each racial or ethnic group with a college degree or higher has exponentially grown from 2000 to 2019. The percentage of individuals at least 25 years of age, of Hispanic origin, and with a bachelor’s degree or higher grew from 10.6% to 18.8%. Likewise, it grew from 16.5% to 26.1% for Blacks, 28.1% to 40.1% non-Hispanic Whites, and 49.8% (2003) to 58.1% for Asians (U.S. Census Bureau, 2020e). During the same period, the percentage of individuals who completed high school or higher also incrementally increased for each group: 90.5% for non-Hispanics, 87.9% for Blacks, 71.8% for those of Hispanic origin, and 91.2% for Asians. Despite the relatively low percentage of Hispanic-origin individuals with a bachelor’s degree or higher, the percentage of recently arrived Hispanic immigrants with a college degree or higher has grown from 10% in 1990 to 26% in 2018 (Noe-Bustamante, 2020). Rates of college education attainment also vary by nativity status. Following the Current Population Survey Annual Social Economic Supplement in 2019, around 47.7% of the foreign-born population in 2010–2019 had a college degree or higher, compared with 36.3% of their U.S.-born counterparts and 39.4% of naturalized citizens (U.S. Census Bureau, 2020f).

Income Inequality

Wealth is defined as “the value of assets owned minus the debts” (Eggleston et al., 2020, p. 1). Assets consist of savings in accounts, vehicles, real estate, investments, and other holdings, while debts include credit card and store bills, student loans, medical debts, and so on (Eggleston et al., 2020).

Although the median household income in 2019 was $68,703, the highest since 1976 (Semega et al., 2020), income inequality persists among households. While the measures of income inequality vary, the top quintile (20%) and the bottom quintile of household income remain dispersed. Based on the 2019 Current Population Survey, household income in the lowest quintile (20% of all households in each group) received 3.1% of the aggregate household income ($28,084), whereas households in the highest quintile received 51.9% of the aggregate household income ($142,501). The top 5% of households in terms of wealth received 23% of the aggregate house income, which was $270,003 or more (Semega et al., 2020). Median household wealth is strongly associated with higher education level, higher annual income, and marital status (Eggleston et al., 2020).

Poverty

Although the poverty rate has declined dramatically since 1959, the trend has also fluctuated prior to 2019. For instance, the poverty rate declined to 11.3% in 2000 but gradually rose to 15% after the recession until 2015. Since then, it has steadily declined and hit the lowest level of 10.5% in 2019 (Semega et al., 2020). Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, 14% of children (10.5 million) lived in poverty in the United States in 2019, a decrease from 22% in 2010 (Thomas & Fry, 2020). Poverty rates also vary by race, ethnicity, sex, family structure, nativity, and educational attainment. Poverty rates declined during 2018–2019 for all race groups and for those of Hispanic origin (Semega et al., 2020), reaching 9.1% for Whites, 18.8% for Blacks, 15.7% for Hispanics, and 7.3% for Asians. The male poverty rate was low at 9.4% compared with 11.5% for women. Female-headed households continued to have the highest poverty rate (22.2%) compared with other family structures (4% for married couples, 11.5% for male-headed households). The poverty rate was higher among foreign-born non-citizens (16.3%) compared with naturalized (9.0%) and native-born citizens (10.1%). The poverty rates for different educational attainment groups vary greatly with the length of education. The poverty rate for people without a high school diploma was 23.7%, significantly higher than that for people with some college education (7.8%) or with a college degree (3.9%) (Semega et al., 2020).

Implications for Social Work

Demographic change has important implications for social work in education, practice, policy, and research. Rapid growth in the aging population and among immigrants highlights the need for more trainings and practicum opportunities in these fields in the social work curriculum (Bhuyan et al., 2012; Snyder et al., 2008). Research method courses should emphasize the translation of findings into development and implementation of social policies (Hoefer & Jordan, 2008). In practice, it is important for macro practitioners to be aware of and adapt to demographic trends in order to influence, implement, and advocate for policies and services that address clients’ needs and rights in macro settings (Negi et al., 2018; Teater, 2008). The Standards and Indicators for Cultural Competence in Social Work Practice developed by the National Association of Social Workers also speaks volumes about the significance of responding to demographic changes in terms of social work practice, social work education, research, and public service (NASW, 2015). In addition, demographic data provide critical information for program evaluations for stakeholders, including funders and program administrators, and thus bolster the support for services (Grinnell et al., 2019). Policies that can mitigate the effects of population aging include modified retirement policies, women-friendly work policies, changes in healthcare systems, increased investments in education, and increased private savings (Bloom & Luca, 2016).

In terms of research, there is a lack of inclusion of demographic diversity in research. For example, racial/ethnic minority older adults were underrepresented in cognitive training studies (Tzuang et al., 2018). With the rapid growth of Asian American and Pacific Islander populations and multiracial groups, researchers should make efforts to enhance the visibility of these racial and ethnic groups in the data collection on all levels. The application of evidence-based practice in the macro social work domain will substantially improve the quality of policy practice and advocacy in pursuit of diversity, inclusion, and equity (Allen et al., 2018; Hoefer & Jordan, 2008). Future census survey instruments should reflect the varying sexual orientations and gender identities as well as family structures now present in the United States following the legalization of same-sex marriage (Baumle & Compton, 2014; Gates, 2010).

To capture more timely and accurate demographic statistics, the United States can learn from some European countries that use alternative census methodologies, such as register-based census, five-year interval, and advanced technology by e-census (Kukutai et al., 2015), and the Australia framework to generate estimates of temporary population mobility (Charles-Edwards et al., 2020). In order to make international comparisons possible, the United Nations (2021) provides principles and recommendations for population and housing censuses in response to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on conducting censuses. Ultimately, addressing demographic changes in macro practice will greatly improve its effectiveness and in turn will meet the changing and complex demands of the social work practice environment (Reisch, 2016).

Further Reading

References