Two of the major demographic groups reshaping how America is growing are immigrants, who are radically changing the ethnic composition of the United States, and baby boomers, who are delaying retirement and staying active as they age. The result: new “Melting Pot” and “Sunbelt” states that will reap the economic benefits of in-migration by the two groups. So says William H. Frey, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Frey discussed some of the implications of early findings from the 2010 Census at ULI’s annual Fall Meeting last week in Washington, D.C. According to Frey, the way immigrants and baby boomers are “spatially rearranging themselves” provides an indication of which states might reap the most development and investment opportunities leading up to the midpoint of the century.

The new Sunbelt states — including Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia – are drawing the most domestic migrants (mainly baby boomers). The new Melting Pot states – including Texas, California, Illinois, New York and Florida – are drawing the most immigrants. Meanwhile, the Heartland states — including Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas and virtually all in the Midwest other than Illinois – are neither drawing immigrants nor retaining baby boomers, leaving them with a predominantly elderly white population.

“Domestic migrants follow jobs and immigrants follow families,” Frey noted. In cities in both the Melting Pot and Sunbelt states, centrally located neighborhoods will be the “windfall gainers,” he predicted, with more people likely to live as close to employment hubs as they can afford.

Another trend worth watching: states with the most people under age 18. The 2010 Census data shows that Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Utah and Idaho all experienced an increase of at least 10 percent in the number of residents under age 18. Many are bi-lingual minorities; and, a major education gap exists between those in the group (Hispanics having the least education; Asians the most). As these children become adults, the decline of whites dominating the labor force, as well as educational opportunities and immigration policies are all “factors that must be considered” in terms of the nation’s ability to prosper, Frey noted.

Panelist Anthony Downs, senior fellow for metropolitan policy at the Brookings Institution, pointed to three trends he believes will shape growth in urban regions going forward:

  • An eventual return to growth in the exurbs. A long-term look at population shifts between 2000 and 2010 shows a sharp increase in suburban growth that stopped only when the recession began two years ago. More than 72 percent of the population increase (180-plus million people) experienced in 60 major metropolitan areas through 2008 occurred on the outer edges. “When the economy returns to normal, most growth will resume in the exurbs,” Downs predicted.
  • Little correlation between population and traffic. With very few exceptions, a comparison of population growth rates and traffic congestion shows no definitive proof that the population growth rate is affected by traffic congestion. The exceptions: New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles all experienced relatively low population growth rates, suggesting that these areas may be suffering the consequences of high traffic congestion.
  • An overall decline in education level affecting global competitiveness. The disparity of the education level among whites, Asians, Hispanics and African Americans is a trend Downs agreed with Frey must be addressed. This gap, in which whites and Asians tend to be far better educated than Hispanics or African Americans, is exacerbated when more people of the same ethnic group choose to live in the same areas, Downs noted. “This…voluntary segregation (among all groups) is making it difficult to improve the grades of African Americans and Hispanics… If we (Americans) continue to live in spatially separated groups, we may be driving the education level of our future labor force so low, in regards to foreign competition, that we cannot maintain our relatively high level of standard of living,” Downs said.

For additional information on immigrant population growth see, “Top 10 Metropolitan Areas for Immigrant Population Growth.”