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Who we are now: Today's America is very different from the one your parents and grandparents knew. A few statistics tell the story of an ever-changing nation.


To help students better understand how American society continues to evolve, both economically and socially.

BEFORE READING: Write "economics" or "economic opportunity" on the board and tell students that changes in the economy--both in the U.S. and around the world--have played a major role in America's development in the last century, and especially the last 50 years.

CRITICAL THINKING/IMMIGRATION: For example, note the dramatic shift in immigration. Tell students that in the 1960s, changes in U.S. immigration laws, along with improvements in economic conditions in Europe, led to fewer Europeans emigrating to the U.S. And in recent decades, Latin American immigrants (both legal and illegal) have made their way to the U.S. in large numbers, often taking low-wage jobs that many Americans don't want.

"BORDER GUARDS": But these new immigrants are not always welcomed with open arms. Write "Minuteman Project" on the board and ask students if they have heard of this group. Tell them that in late March, nearly a thousand of these volunteers (some armed) patrolled a stretch of the Arizona border searching for illegal migrants from Mexico. Ask: If the U.S. is a nation of immigrants, why do some Americans want to keep new immigrants out?

CRITICAL THINKING EDUCATION: Ask how economic changes can affect education levels. Why are Americans better educated than 50 years ago? (One reason is that families have more money and most teens don't have to work to support them.)

SURVEY/INTERVIEW: Assign students to write down salient points in the article and discuss them with older friends or relatives. How many of the changes do the interviewees recognize?


* Why do you think the level of one's education is a reliable indicator of future financial success?

WEB WATCH: The U.S. Census Bureau provides links to information as varied as population shifts and manufacturing statistics.

"They attacked us because of who we are." That's what Condoleezza Rice, now the Secretary of State, told the 9/11 Commission last spring when she tried to explain why terrorists targeted America.

But do they really know who we are? Do we?

It's not easy to define a country as vast as the U.S., which is growing by one person every 13 seconds. The best way to get a sense of America's constantly evolving nature is by looking at the reams of data collected every 10 years in the U.S. Census: Its findings make it clear that what might be called "the typical American" has changed dramatically in the last century--and even in the last decade.

Turning back the crock to 1900, more than a third of all adults worked on a farm and fewer than 1 in 5 women worked outside the home. The "typical" American lived in a rented dwelling in a rural community east of the Mississippi River.

In 1950, the majority of Americans still lived in the eastern half of the country, but most owned their own homes and lived in cities. Fewer than 10 percent owned a television. Most families in 1950 consisted of married couples, with or without children; and chances are the wife worked fulltime as a homemaker (known at the time as a "housewife").

So what's changed in the last 50 years? For starters, the population doubled between 1950 and 2000, while immigration significantly altered the nation's complexion. Other changes were also taking place, less noticeable even if they were right beneath our noses. But their impact has been huge.

Five trends in particular have profoundly shaped America and its culture in recent decades, and are expected to continue to do so in the years ahead: We're forming fewer traditional families; we're moving from cities to suburbs and exurbs (communities beyond suburbs), and heading south and west; our population is aging; we're becoming better educated; and we're becoming a much more diverse nation.

Looking more closely at these changes in our society gives a picture of not only who we are now, but also where we're headed as a nation as the 21st century progresses.

We're Redefining Family

Remember the "nuclear family"? The atomic analogy was coined just two generations ago to explain how a mother, a father, and children lived in harmony, like protons, neutrons, and electrons.

The heyday of the nuclear family was the late 1950s, when married couples with children accounted for roughly 60 percent of all family households in the United States. By 2000, fewer than 25 percent of households consisted of married couples with children.

What happened to all the nuclear families? There are many reasons for their declining share of the population, but the biggest factor was the increase in single mothers who were either divorced or had never married. In 1970, only 12 percent of children in families were being raised by single mothers. By 2000, that figure was up to 26 percent.

Divorce, once relatively rare, has become much more common. In 1900, only 1 percent of Americans were divorced. By 1950, the figure was 2 percent. Today, about 10 percent of adults are divorced and new marriages are more likely to end in divorce than in the death of a spouse. In addition, Americans are now marrying later, having children later, or not having children at all.

Taken together, these trends explain why there are now more Americans living alone than ever before. (Another factor is that we are living longer, and that makes for more widows and widowers than there used to be.) Since 1950, the share of people living alone has soared from less than 10 percent of the population to more than 25 percent.

Another big change in family dynamics has been the huge increase in women who work outside the home. In 1960, about 36 percent of women were in the workforce. By 2000, that figure was up to about 60 percent. The fact that more women are working is due in part to changes in the economy and an increase in job opportunities for women. But it also reflects economic realities: Many families find that one income isn't enough to pay the bills.

We're Spreading Out

Americans are moving south and west. In the 1990s, the populations of California, Texas, and Florida swelled, as did those of Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, and Georgia. Since the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are reapportioned after every Census, political power is shifting as well: In 2000, states in the South and West gained 10 House seats, mostly at the expense of states in the East and Midwest.

Since 1950, there's also been a big shift from cities to the suburbs and exurbs. After World War II, a growing middle class and a new interstate highway system made relocation easier. The ideal of the American dream became a house, a yard, and a car. And as people left, some cities deteriorated, driving still others to suburbia.

New York 43
California 30
Pennsylvania 30
Illinois 25
Ohio 23
Texas 22
Michigan 18
Massachusetts 14
New Jersey 14
N. Carolina 12


California 53
Texas 32
New York 29
Florida 25
Pennsylvania 19
Illinois 19
Ohio 18
Michigan 15
Georgia 13
New Jersey 13
N Carolina 13

We're Getting Older

America grew order in the 1990s--as did the populations of most other developed countries in Europe and Asia. (The U.S. would have aged more rapidly had there not been a large influx of immigrants: They tend to be younger and to have higher birthrates than native-born Americans.)

Starting in 2011, when the baby boomers (Americans born between 1946 and 1964) begin to turn 65, the elderly's percentage of the population is expected to rise dramatically.

The aging of America has already had a significant impact on public policy, and is likely to continue to do so. Older voters tend to be concerned about pensions, Social Security, health care, and taxes. How will younger Americans, who share those concerns but tend to focus on education, the economy, housing, and other issues, handle the growing political clout of their parents and grandparents?
Percent distribution
of the population

1900 1950 2000

Age 24
& younger 54% 42% 35%

Age 25-44 28% 30% 30%

Age 45
& older 18% 28% 34%

Note: Table made from pie chart.

We're Better Educated

As recently as 1950, only a third of Americans had a high school diploma, and fewer than 1 in 18 had a bachelor's degree. Today, well over 80 percent are high school graduates, and more than 25 percent are college graduates. Since about 1995, young women have had higher high school and college graduation rates than young men.

Of course, all those degrees don't guarantee that we're actually smarter as a nation than we were before, but education is a reliable indicator of future financial success: Over a lifetime, the average college graduate is likely to earn nearly twice as much as a high school graduate.
Percentage of
people 25 and
older who had
each level of

 1940 2000

High school graduate or higher 25% 80%

Bachelor's degree or higher 5% 24%

Note: Table made from bar graph.

We're More Diverse

As recently as 1950, the population of only one state outside the South (Arizona) was more than 10 percent nonwhite. Today, the populations of only 10 states are less than 10 percent nonwhite. In five states (Alaska, California, New York, New Mexico, and Hawaii) nonwhites account for more than 30 percent of the population.

Immigration was the driving force behind the increase in diversity during the 1990s. In that decade, the number of newcomers from abroad soared to 11 percent of the population--below the 14 percent plateau in the first decade of the 20th century, but still the highest proportion of foreign-born Americans since the 1930s.

Today, about 1 in 5 Americans were born abroad or are the children of foreign-born parents. In part because of changes in immigration laws since 1965, the majority of immigrants are, for the first time, coming from Latin America, followed by Asia. Europeans, who made up the vast majority of immigrants to the U.S. until about 1970, now rank third.

This latest influx has also altered America's racial and ethnic mix. Overall, about 1 in 4 Americans are black, Hispanic, or Asian. Beginning with the 2000 Census, Hispanics officially became the nation's largest minority group, with 12.5 percent of the population, versus 12.3 percent for blacks.

"Smith" remains the most common surname in the U.S., but the influx from Latin America has elevated Garcia, Lopez, Martinez, Rodriguez, Hernandez, Gonzalez, and Perez into the top 50. Jose is the No. 1 name for baby boys in Texas, No. 2 in Arizona, and No. 3 in California.

There are also signs of assimilation: Among Hispanic newborns in New York, the most popular names are Ashley and Justin; among Asians, Michelle and Kevin. By about the middle of this century, everybody will be a minority: No racial or ethnic group will account for a majority.

"In California, we are not using the word minority much anymore," says Juelle Taylor Gibbs, a retired professor from the University of California at Berkeley.

Some people fear that these new sources of immigration will change America's character and identity. Similar concerns have been voiced periodically for two centuries, though, and most of the changes have enriched the nation.

Times columnist David Brooks responds to these concerns: "If we close our borders to new immigration, you can kiss goodbye the new energy, new tastes, and new strivers who want to lunge into the future."

Remember, this picture of America and its people is constantly changing. The population of the U.S. is now close to 300 million, following the only decade of the 20th century (the 1990s) in which every state gained population.

But even that's old news. The population has grown in the few minutes since you began reading this article. On average, another American is born every 8 seconds, and every 12 seconds, one dies.

At the same time, every 26 seconds there is a net gain of one immigrant. And so roughly every 13 seconds, the nation's population clock records a net increase of one more American.

That's who we are, right now.


Who We Are Now

1. Explain how and why states' political influence in Congress has changed since 2000. --

2. What does the term "nuclear family" mean? --

3. How are economic factors affecting the lives of women with families today? --

4. America's population is aging; it would be even older if not for --

a the impact of medical science.

b an upswing in early marriages and a rise in birthrates.

c the impact of divorce on population trends.

d immigration.

5. A person's level of education is a reliable indicator of his or her

a career choice.

b family size.

c future financial success.

d longevity.

6. Which world region accounts for the majority of immigrants to the United States?

a Asia.

b Latin America.

c Africa.

d Middle East.

7. The article quotes a source who says the word "minority" isn't heard much in California any more. Why not? --

1. States in the South and West gained seats as their populations grew.

2. A mother, father, and children living in harmony.

3. More married women have to go to work to help support their families.

4. (d) immigration.

5. (c) future financial success.

6. (b) Latin America.

7. No one ethnic group accounts for a majority.

Sam Roberts is urban affairs correspondent for The New York Times. This article is adapted from his recent book Who We Are Now: The Changing Face of America in the Twenty-First Century (Times Books, 2004).
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Article Details
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Author:Roberts, Sam
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:May 9, 2005
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