WASHINGTON -- For the first time, America's racial and ethnic minorities now make up about half of the under-5 age group, the government said Thursday. It's a historic shift that shows how young people are at the forefront of sweeping changes by race and class.
The new census estimates, a snapshot of the U.S. population as of July 2012, comes a year after the Census Bureau reported that whites had fallen to a minority among babies. Fueled by immigration and high rates of birth, particularly among Hispanics, racial and ethnic minorities are now growing more rapidly in numbers than whites.
Based on current rates of growth, whites in the under-5 group are expected to tip to a minority this year or next, Thomas Mesenbourg, the Census Bureau's acting director, said.
The government also projects that in five years, minorities will make up more than half of children under 18. Not long after, the total U.S. white population will begin an inexorable decline in absolute numbers, due to aging baby boomers.
The imminent tip to a white minority among young children adds a racial dimension to government spending on early-childhood education, such as President Barack Obama's proposal to significantly expand pre-kindergarten for lower-income families. The nation's demographic changes are already stirring discussion as to whether some civil rights-era programs, such as affirmative action in college admissions, should be retooled to focus more on income rather than race and ethnicity. The Supreme Court will rule on the issue this month.
Studies show that gaps in achievement by both race and class begin long before college, suggesting that U.S. remedies to foster equal opportunity will need to reach earlier into a child's life.
"The educational system is likely to be the most widely used and most acceptable policy tool we have for equalizing life chances. But it does not seem so far to achieve this goal," said Timothy Smeeding, an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who specializes in income inequality. "This specter of unequal opportunity may be the biggest negative social outcome of the continuing American inequality boom."
The gap between rich and poor in the U.S. has now stretched to its widest since 1970, making opportunities to reach the middle class increasingly difficult.
Longer-term changes in family structure, such as a decline in marriage, have led to a rise in single-mother households across all racial groups, with the fastest growth now occurring among whites. More than 40 percent of newborns are now born out of wedlock, in families more likely to be low income.
The latest census numbers show:
"More so than ever, we need to recognize the importance of young minorities for the growth and vitality of our labor force and economy," said William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution who analyzed the census data.