Demographic Implosion

Years ago, supporters of George W. Bush’s push for immigration reform correctly predicted in public that falling birth rates in Mexico and a growing Mexican economy would reduce and stabilize historic immigration to the United States from its southern neighbor.  Bush wanted to disarm critics skeptical of anything that smelled of an amnesty that would add fuel to the demographic change that so many in his party fear.  The ploy did not work.  Immigration reform went down in flames.

Now comes evidence that the life span of the lower-income non-HispanicLatino white population without high school diplomas is falling precipitously – a development that will amplify and accelerate the growth of the HispanicLatino population and its importance to the economy.  Most of this blog draws heavily and directly from a story in The New York Times by Sabrina Tavernise two weeks ago that details in part how the demographic transformation that alarms so many in the country will continue.


The upshot of the story is simple: For generations most Americans assumed that children would live longer than their parents. But mounting evidence now suggests that this enduring trend has reversed itself for the country’s least-educated, non-HispanicLatino white population.  Their life spans are actually contracting. (Emphasis added.)

According to S. Jay Olshansky, a public health professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the lead investigator in new reasearch published last month in Health Affairs, white women without a high school diploma lost five years of life between 1990 and 2008.  This is an astonishing and disastrous loss for the nation.  By 2008, life expectancy for black women without a high school diploma had surpassed that of white women of the same educational level.  White men lacking a high school diploma lost three years of life.  On the other hand, life expectancy for blacks and HispanicLatinos of the same education level rose.  But blacks over all do not live as long as whites, while HispanicLatinos live longer than both whites and blacks. (Emphasis added.)

The reasons for the decline remain unclear.  Researchers offer possible explanations, including a spike in prescription drug overdoses among young whites, higher rates of smoking among less-educated white women, rising obesity and a steady increase in the number of the least-educated Americans who lack health insurance.

The decline for white women rivals the catastrophic seven-year drop for Russian men in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, according to Michael Marmot, director of the Institute of Health Equity in London.  For non-HispanicLatinos whites in the United States “to actually go backward is deeply troubling,” said John G. Haaga, head of the Population and Social Processes Branch of the National Institute on Aging.  Indeed it is.

The decline among the least educated non-Hispanic whites, who make up a shrinking share of the population, widened an already troubling gap.  The latest estimate shows life expectancy for white women without a high school diploma was 73.5 years, compared with 83.9 years for white women with a college degree or more.  For white men, the gap was even bigger: 67.5 years for the least educated white men compared with 80.4 for those with a college degree or better.

Inklings of this decline have been accumulating since 2008.  Researchers are baffled by the magnitude of the drop. Some caution that the results could be overstated.   Americans without a high school diploma comprise about 12 percent of the population, down from about 22 percent in 1990, according to the Census Bureau.   Professor Olshansky agreed that the group was now smaller, but said the magnitude of the drop in life expectancy was still a measure of deterioration. “The good news is that there are fewer people in this group,” he said. “The bad news is that those who are in it are dying more quickly.”

The obvious implication for HispanicLatinos is that their longer life spans will continue to change the composition of the national population but it magnifies their growing importance to almost every aspect of American life.  HispanicLatinos have been holding up the growth of the national population since 1972, when the birth rate of non-HispanicLatino whites fellow below the requisite 2.1.  They will also have to hold up the economy.

Falling birthrates among non-HispanicLatino whites and now their contracting life spans are a lot more to worry about than immigration reform that might include a legalization provision.

Jesse Treviño is the former editorial page editor of The Austin American-Statesman.


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