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Statistical information updated to reflect latest Census data. Bibliography expanded to include new research literature.

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date: 25 September 2020


Abstract and Keywords

This entry provides a brief overview of the field of social demography, the components of population change, projections for future population growth, and recent transformations in population composition pertaining to age, race, and ethnicity. Trends that shape family household structure (for example, marriage, divorce, cohabitation, and nonmarital child bearing) are also considered, as are trends pertaining to the distribution of income, wealth, and poverty. Population trends given particular attention include the growth of class-based disparities in marriage and nonmarital child bearing, the contributions of immigration to population growth and diversity, and a disturbing increase over recent decades in the prevalence of poverty among children of immigrants.

Keywords: demography, components of population change, population growth, population composition, population aging, old-age dependency ratio, longevity, immigration, single-parent households, marriage, divorce, cohabitation, nonmarital births, teen-aged births, income distribution, wealth distribution, poverty, child poverty, family household structure

Social demography is concerned with three core characteristics of human populations—size, territorial distribution, and composition—and the dynamic trends in these characteristics (Hauser & Duncan, 1959; Winnsborough, 2000). Social welfare policy is closely linked to the determinants of population change (fertility, mortality, migration, and social mobility), both as a cause and as a consequence. For this reason, social demographers and social welfare policy scholars share a compelling interest in how these determinants are evolving and in turn reshaping the core characteristics of populations through an array of observable trends. Trends and determinants of trends of special interest encompass population aging and human longevity, reproductive behavior, the distribution of mortality, social stratification, racial identity and ascription, family structure, immigration, the distribution of poverty, social mobility, and the spatial dynamics of disadvantage (for example, racial segregation, concentrated poverty, and urban blight). A few of the more dominant demographic trends that affect social welfare policy will be highlighted: (a) changes in the size of the population and the components of population change, (b) population aging and human longevity, (c) trends pertaining to family household structure, and (d) trends pertaining to the distribution of income, wealth, and poverty.

Population Size, Racial Composition, and the Components of Population Change

In 2012, official estimates of the U.S. population reached the figure of 314 million and the current U.S. Census Bureau national projections predict that the U.S. population will grow to a total of 420 million persons by the year 2060 (with middle series) (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012a). Moreover, around 2043, the United States will no longer be a nation composed of a majority non-Hispanic White population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012a). Changes in racial and ethnic composition are particularly relevant from a social welfare policy perspective because so much of social welfare policy is influenced by and affects the racial and ethnic stratification that has characterized American society from its colonial origins. Between 1970 and 2012, the overall share of the U.S. population comprising Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans increased from just under 13% of the population to 35% (Hirschman, 2005; U.S. Census Bureau, 2012a).

The demographic outcomes described above reflect the complex interplay among the four components of population change that determine the size and composition of human populations: births, deaths, immigration, and emigration. The balance between births and deaths determines the net rate of natural increase or decrease, whereas the balance between immigration (in-migration) and emigration (out-migration) determines the direction of net migration (Shryock & Siegal, 1976). For example, the 20-fold increase in the size of the Native American population from the 20th century to 2010 (from about 250,000 to 5.2 million persons in 2010) represents an increasingly favorable balance between births and deaths that produced a robust rate of natural increase and has led to a resurgence of Native American identity (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012e). In contrast, the increased representation of other ethnic or racial groups in the national population is largely attributable to the direct and indirect effects of net immigration (Hirschman, 2005). Thus, both the size and the racial composition of the 2060 U.S. population (as well as its age distribution) will be determined by the natural population increase or decrease occurring among different ethnic/racial groups and their net migration flows.

Averaged over all ethnic and racial groups, the current U.S. Census Bureau projects a gradual decrease in the average number of lifetime births per woman (also referred to as the total fertility rate) from 2.00 in 2012 to 1.91 in 2060. Decreased fertility, coupled with continued declines in mortality, provides the foundation for a modest rate of natural population growth. In addition, the Census Bureau projects net immigration flows (both legal and nonlegal immigration) that average about 1,088,000 persons between 2012 and 2060 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012b). As a result, by 2060 the U.S. population is predicted to add another 120 million persons over the 300-million-person landmark achieved in 2006 and be about 25% Hispanic, 13.2% African American, 8% Asian, 4.8% non-Hispanic two or more races, and about 42% non-Hispanic White (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012a). Notably, in the absence of recent and new flows of immigrants, the U.S. population of 2060 would be smaller than currently predicted, much older, and dominantly non-Hispanic White—with an array of detrimental consequences that include economic stagnation.

Population Aging and Human Longevity

When the Social Security Act of 1935 was signed into law, the average life expectancy was approximately 62 years for males and 63 years for females (Greville, 1947). According to the current estimates of the National Center for Health Statistics, life expectancy at birth in 2011 was 76.3 years for males and 81.1 years for females (Hoyert & Xu, 2012). Although these phenomenal gains in life expectancy have tapered off in recent decades, The sustained incremental gains in life expectancy that are expected by most demographers are one key assumption behind U.S. Census Bureau projections that predict that the proportion of the population aged 85 years and older will increase twofold between 2015 and 2060 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012c).

Two other critical trends that affect the proportion of the population in the oldest age ranges are fertility and immigration. That is, to the extent that birth rates in the native population remain low and immigration policies are more effective at restricting flows of new immigrants, the proportion of the population in the old and very oldest age ranges will be increased well over current projections, even barring additional gains in life expectancy. That is, because the age distribution of immigrants in the United States is skewed toward the younger age ranges more than that of the native population and because the foreign-born fertility rate is higher than that of the native U.S. population, immigration retards the effects on the age distribution of population aging among native-born Americans. Indeed, different assumptions about the complex interaction between the relative birth rates of the native-born and foreign-born segments of the population, the size of the immigrant population and new immigrant flows, and improvements in longevity among the aged are reflected in different projections of the magnitude of one measure of the age distribution, the old-age dependency ratio. That ratio represents the size of the population that is aged (either 65+ or 85+) relative to the size of the population that is in the age range of the labor force, conventionally expressed as the 15–64 age range. The magnitude of the old-age dependency ratio has enormous implications for social welfare policy because this ratio represents both the relative balance between the entitlement claims of the aged and the taxes placed on the labor market earnings of the younger working-age generations. Of equal importance, the old-age dependency ratio also represents the balance between the demands for formal and informal care posed by a large aged population and the formal and informal labor resources available from younger generations.

Census Bureau “middle range” population projections predict that changes in the age distribution for the period between the years 2015 and 2035 increase the old-age dependency ratio by 53.6% in the 65+ population and 71.9% in the 85+ population. The middle series projection for old-age dependency ratio by the year 2060 predicts an increase of 62% for the 65+ population (relative to the 2012 population) and an increase of 167% for the 85+ population (relative to the 2015 population) (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012c).

The trends in aging thus affect four domains of social welfare policy: the solvency of the Social Security and Medicare social insurance trust funds that are the pillars of economic and health security for the aged, the structure and sustainability of the formal long-term care system (for example, community-based care agencies, nursing homes), the adequacy of family resources that are the core of the informal long-term care system, and the generational balance of claims and entitlements to a limited pool of social welfare resources. There are an array of social welfare policy implications tied to these trends, the most controversial being the need to revisit the financing and benefit structures of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds.

Trends Pertaining to Family Household Structure

Patterns and trends in the composition of family households are the consequences of several complex processes: marital and nonmarital child bearing, marriage and cohabitation, marital dissolution through divorce or death, and transitions in the family life cycle (for example, changes in family households when adult children leave). Such processes and their effects on trends in the composition of family households are critical to social welfare policy for several reasons. For example, trends in nonmarital child bearing have implications for the relative risk of child poverty by family household type and the structure of labor market–based social welfare provisions that favor some family household forms over others. In this brief summary, only a few of the most relevant social welfare processes and trends are considered: the prevalence of family household types that are at the highest risk of poverty, trends in the age and marital/cohabitation distribution of child bearing, and trends pertaining to the stability of two-parent households.

Trends in Family Household Types at Highest Risk of Poverty

Over the past several decades, a diminishing proportion of children are located in a family household that includes married parents, whereas the number of children in a single-parent household headed by a female has risen dramatically. For example, between 1970 and 2009, the percentage of children living with a single parent has more than doubled—from 12% to about 27% (Kreider & Ellis, 2011). In the United States, as with other developed market economies, women confront a variety of disadvantages in the labor market and thus are far less likely than men to earn a solo income sufficient to keep their families out of poverty. For family households headed by a single female parent, social welfare supports are far more critical as a buffer against poverty than for single male parents (Smeeding & Phillips, 2002). The poverty rate for family households headed by single female parents is close to three times more than that for family households headed by married parents and about twice that of single-parent households headed by males (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, & Smith, 2012; U.S. Census Bureau, 2012d).

The trend toward a higher proportion of family households that are at risk for poverty because of the disadvantaged status of a single female parent suggests four basic social policy alternatives: reducing earnings disparities between men and women, increasing the income and in-kind subsidies to economically disadvantaged single-parent families, discouraging nonmarital child bearing, and pursuing policies that might promote the formation and stability of two-parent households. Liberal and progressive social policy advocates tend to be favorably disposed toward policies that attend to gender-based labor market disadvantages and increasing income and in-kind transfer subsidies to low-income single-parent families. Centrist and conservative policy advocates focus their attention on policy solutions aimed at the control of reproductive behavior and the promotion of marriage and marital stability. Since the 1970s, the latter kinds of policies have been in clear ascendance, culminating in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 that eliminated the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program in favor of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program. Three of the TANF’s core policy goals (reducing the dependency of needy parents by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage; preventing out-of-wedlock pregnancies; and encouraging the formation and maintenance of two-parent families) directly reflect this centrist/conservative policy agenda (Office of Families Assistance, 2006). In light of the TANF core goals, it is of particular interest from a policy perspective to examine recent population trends in nonmarital child bearing, cohabitation, and marriage.

Trends in Nonmarital Child Bearing

Although a temporary pause in what had been a sustained increase in nonmarital child bearing coincided with the passage of TANF in 1996, since then a sustained increase in nonmarital child bearing has resumed. As TANF entered its first full decade of implementation, the nonmarital birth rate had risen to an unprecedented 40.7% of all births, although in the decade subsequent to the implementation of welfare reform in 1996, welfare participation had declined to its lowest level since 1962 (Hamilton, Martin, & Ventura, 2013).

This suggests that welfare participation itself has little to do with sustained trends in nonmarital child bearing, either as a cause or as an effect. Notably, most nonmarital child bearing (82%) occurs with women over the age of 20 (Hamilton et al., 2013). This implies that delayed marriage in adulthood and the choice of cohabitation as an alternative to marriage have become dominant over teenage sexual activity as the central explanation for out-of-wedlock child bearing. Indeed, the teenage birth rate has been in continuous decline since the early 1990s, whereas over the same period the general out-of-wedlock birth rate has been on the rise. Teenage child bearing has declined from the 50% share in nonmarital child bearing it held in 1970 to the 17% share in nonmarital child bearing it holds in 2012 (Hamilton et al.). Taken together, these findings suggest that the current strategy of linking the structure of welfare benefits to adolescent reproductive behavior and postbirth living arrangements is unlikely to yield the magnitude of benefits envisioned by the TANF program’s most vociferous proponents.

Trends in Cohabitation, Marriage, and Divorce

As discussed previously, children who live in households where both parents are married and present have a far lower probability of poverty than children in families headed by a single female, although the direct effects of marriage and the presence of both parents are difficult to disentangle from a variety of confounding effects (pertaining to such factors as education, stable employment, and selective psychological traits). However, progressive as well as conservative social welfare scholars broadly favor policies that support the viability of marriage as an institution and the stability of two-parent households (Haskins, 2006). Indeed, rates of marital disruption by marriage cohort and the marriage rates themselves have been moving in unfavorable directions since the 1960s (Bramlett & Mosher, 2002). To an increasing extent, cohabitation is being used both as a preliminary step toward marriage and as a substitute (Lichter, Turner, & Sassler, 2010). Although in most racial and ethnic groups three of four women enter marriage by age 30, roughly one half of women who eventually enter marriage at some point during their child-bearing years (conventionally defined as the 15–44 age range) have also cohabited at least once either before or subsequent to their first marriage (Bramlett & Mosher; Copen, Daniels, & Mosher, 2013). As noted in the most recent comprehensive report on the population dynamics of cohabitation, marriage, and divorce by the National Center for Health Statistics, increased rates of cohabitation have largely offset declines in marriage rates (see Bramlett & Mosher, p. 4). Generally speaking, longer term cohabitations (particularly those that entail children and parenting functions) eventually result in marriage. However, what is most critical from the standpoint of social welfare policy is that transitions from cohabitation to marriage are greatly influenced by such contextual factors as the local community male unemployment rate and the extent of community poverty (Bramlett & Mosher, p. 2). Conversely, high levels of unemployment and higher levels of community poverty are more conducive to higher rates of divorce (Bramlett & Mosher, p. 20). Broadly speaking, the demographic evidence from patterns of cohabitation, marriage, and marital disruption suggests that policies that favor employment opportunities and lower poverty rates are in effect promarriage as well.

Class Differences

There is an ever-widening income and education gap in marriage rates and single parenthood between the lower and higher ends of the socioeconomic hierarchy. Whereas between 1960 and 2000 the likelihood of nonmarital child bearing among women in the top quarter of the educational distribution rose modestly from 4.5% to 7% of all births, for women in the lowest quarter of the educational distribution, the incidence of nonmarital child bearing increased dramatically from 14% of all births to 43% (Cherlin, 2005). As observed by McLanahan (2004), the divergent patterns in nonmarital child births by education and income suggest the emergence of a distinct class-based divide in reproductive strategies. At the bottom of the income and education distribution, the reproductive strategy increasingly entails early child bearing outside of marriage, seemingly in response to limited prospects for either a stable marriage or educational advancement. Among women with more favorable opportunities for advanced education and high income, a strategy that involves delayed marriage and child bearing subsequent to high-return investments in education and career has become prevalent (Cherlin; McLanahan). In the long run, these class-based differences in reproductive and marriage strategies both extend and further solidify the already formidable boundaries of social class.

The Distribution of Income, Wealth, and Poverty

Trends in Household Income and the Distribution of Wealth

Over the nearly four decades since 1970, the annual median household income (in constant dollars, in 2011 dollars) has increased from near $45 thousand per year to $50.05 thousand—a 10% increase (DeNavas-Walt et al., 2012). However, over this same period, income inequality (as measured by the Gini coefficient) also increased by 21.07%. Relative to income, wealth (individual or household net worth in dollars and dollar values in real estate, furnishings, and belongings) has become even more concentrated in the United States. Net worth has become more concentrated in recent decades. The share of wealth held by the top 10% of wealth owners grew from 67.2% in 1989 to 74.5% in 2010. Declines occurred in the remaining 90% of households. The share of total net worth owned by households in the 50th to 90th percentile of the wealth distribution fell from 29.9% in 1989 to 24.3% in 2010, and the share of households in the bottom half fell from 3.0% to 1.1% (Levine, 2012, p. 4).

Race and Gender Differences

Disparities in the racial distribution of wealth are also quite remarkable, in fact greater than the income gap by three times (McKernan, Ratcliffe, Steuerle, & Zhang, 2013). For example, even with dramatic gains in net worth during the 1990s, the median wealth of African American households by the end of the decade was only 16% that of non-Hispanic White households (Kennickell, 2003, p. 48). In 2009, after the Great Recession, this gap increased even more, so that the median wealth of an African American household is only 5% that of non-Hispanic White households (Taylor, Kochhar, Fry, Velasco, & Motel, 2011). According to another study, the total wealth gap between African American families and non-Hispanic White families nearly tripled from 1984 to 2009 (Shapiro, Meschede, & Osoro, 2013).

Racial and gender disparities persist despite broad progress. For example, African American households have just 58% of the median income for non-Hispanic White households, Hispanic households 70%, and Asian households 118% (DeNavas-Walt et al., 2012). In terms of gender disparities, despite a favorable trend since 1980, the earnings ratio of women by the year 20 remained only 77% that of men (DeNavas-Walt et al.).

General Poverty Trends

Poverty trends are tracked by various federal agencies primarily through one measure, the federal poverty line (FPL). This 40-year-old measure, devised by a Social Security Administration economist, is based on obsolete assumptions pertaining to the relationships among food costs, family composition, and other household expenditures. The FPL does not consider adjustments for such factors as local variations in food and housing costs, child care, transportation, or off-setting in-kind subsidies and is insensitive to fluctuations and trends in the severity of poverty. However, the FPL remains a useful measure for the general interpretation of trends in absolute poverty.

As measured by the FPL, since 1970 the poverty rate for the general U.S. population has fluctuated between 11% and 15% (DeNavas-Walt et al., 2012). The general poverty rate declined during most of the 1990s to the 11.3% level in 2000, but it has gradually risen to its current 15.0% level since the recession. This translates to 46.2 million U.S. residents in poverty (DeNavas-Walt et al.). Of course, the risk of falling below the FPL is not shared equally.

Race, Class, and Gender Differences

There are large variations in poverty rate according to age, sex, marital status, race, ethnicity, nativity, and geographic location. The households that are most likely to fall into poverty are female-headed, single-parent households. In terms of race and ethnicity, the groups that share a disproportionate risk of poverty include African Americans (27.4%), American Indians and Alaska Natives (29.1%), and Hispanics (26.5%) (DeNavas-Walt et al., 2012; U.S. Census Bureau, 2013).

In the last three decades of the 20th century, the aged were at no greater risk of poverty than the working-age population. Currently, only 8.7% of persons over age 65 are below the FPL (DeNavas-Walt et al., 2012). However, child poverty trends are somewhat the opposite for the past three decades.

Trends in Child Poverty

In fact, the United States has a child poverty rate that is nearly two times higher than the average according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (21.6 vs. 12.6), measured by relative poverty rates based on the median income of the entire population (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2012). As shown in the historic child poverty trends, from the early 1990s through 2000 there was a sustained decrease in the percentage of children living in poverty, followed by a surge after 2007. Two groups that represent a large share of children in poverty, African Americans and Hispanics, both benefited from a robust decline in the child poverty rate during most of the 1990s. Other groups with a historically large share of children in poverty also benefited from reductions in child poverty during the 1990s: Native Americans (from 38.0% to 30.7%), Southeast Asians (from 37.4% to 26.8%), and Puerto Ricans (from 41.0% to 32.7%) (Lichter, Qian, & Crowley, 2005).

In contrast to other groups, since 2000 poverty among African American children in particular has resurged. In part, this may be a reflection of recent research findings showing that states with high proportions of African Americans also have more punitive TANF sanction policies (Soss, 2006). Taken as a whole, however, the general trends in child poverty since 1996 that mark the pre- and post-TANF periods provide little compelling evidence to support early fears that TANF would plunge millions more children into poverty or the claims of TANF’s most ardent proponents that decreasing welfare participation in favor of low-wage employment functions as an antipoverty policy.

Beneath the historic trends, child poverty is a worrisome variation with significant social welfare policy implications. In 1970, both the children of native-born Americans and the children of immigrants shared a similar risk of poverty, with the children of immigrants at a 12% poverty rate relative to an overall child poverty rate of 14.9% (U.S. Census Bureau, 2006; Van Hook, Brown, & Kwenda, 2004). As the proportion of the foreign-born U.S. population increased over the last decades of the 20th century from under 5% of the population in 1970 to 12.9% in 2010 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2013), so did the poverty rate of the children of immigrants, peaking in the 1990s at a 33% child poverty rate (Van Hook et al., 2004) and then ending at 30% in 2010 (Borjas, 2011). Immigrant children have a higher poverty rate than U.S. children of U.S-born parents, at 19% (Borjas), and overall child poverty, at 21.4%, in 2011 (DeNavas-Walt et al., 2012).

In general, the increased share of child poverty among children of immigrants can be attributed to such factors as structural changes in the U.S. economy and differences in the human capital resources of more recent waves of immigrants compared to earlier waves (Van Hook et al., 2004). However, it is also the case that social welfare policy has evolved to become restrictive (and even punitive) toward immigrant families at a historical point when the structure of the U.S. economy offers ever more daunting obstacles for the upward mobility of low-wage workers. As we are warned by immigration sociologist Alejandro Portes, in the absence of significant compensatory investments in the children of immigrants from the more economically disadvantaged groups, we are on the path to replicating the tragic national legacy of racial and ethnic stratification in the generations to come (Portes, Fernández-Kelly, & Haller, 2005).


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