Half Full or Half Empty? U.S. Glass has 300 Million Drops of Water

As the United States population reached 300 million early this morning, reporters took the opportunity to provide a State of the Union address of sorts.

Look into the melting pot and describe what you see. That was the challenge confronting journalists as the United States population reached 300 million early this morning. For the past week, reporters have scrambled to pull meaning from a demographic milestone that really has no intrinsic value at all. Today there are 300 million—tomorrow there will be more. What’s the point?

The point, for good reporters, was an opportunity—a State of the Union address of sorts. For that nice, round number, in addition to being a milestone by which we measure progress, is also a benchmark — a standard against which we may weigh other things. As such, news stories took two general approaches: characterizing the 300 million people now living in the U.S., or distinguishing how the country has changed since 1967, when we hit 200 million, and since 1915, when the 100-million mark was achieved.

Although most pundits commented optimistically on U.S. population growth, some called it a harbinger of troubled times. In 1968, shortly after the last such anniversary, a book by Paul Ehrlich, “The Population Bomb,” predicted that human consumption, driven by overpopulation, would outstrip food production. In terms of food supply, just the opposite has happened, but other fears have not abated. The San Francisco Chronicle, among others, included paragraphs mentioning Ehrlich and current concerns about climate change, energy consumption, over-development, pollution and other manmade stresses on the planet. In contrast to the 1960s, however, the question on many people’s minds is not what the 300 million people do, but who they are.

Immigration is a flashpoint this political season. The cover of this week’s New York Times Magazine shows border patrols along the fence separating Arizona from Mexico. The headline reads, “The Keep-‘Em-Out Campaign.” Anti-immigration sentiment has reared its head with a vigor not seen in decades. And thus, The San Francisco Chronicle’s lede is especially poignant, making the significant observation that today’s “landmark resident won’t necessarily be a newborn. She or he may be an adult immigrant.”

The Chicago Tribune and National Public Radio’s Ira Flatow both interviewed Linda Jacobsen, the director of Domestic Programs at the Population Reference Bureau in Washington. Jacobsen told both that despite media reports about the likelihood that the 300 millionth American will be a Hispanic male (the most quickly growing demographic) born in Los Angeles, births far outnumber new immigrants in the U.S., so it is more likely to be a child born to a white woman (the most fecund demographic). Jacobsen told NPR’s Flatow that although the 36 million foreign-born individuals living in the country today represent a record number, their presence in the larger population has diminished since the boom period of 1860-1920. Then, the foreign-born share of the population was 15 percent; today it is only 12 percent. The recent surge in immigration seems so dramatic, Jacobsen told Flatow, because just before the last anniversary, the foreign-born population was at an all-time low: “So it’s that increase between 5 percent [in 1970] and 12 percent today that’s really put it on the radar screen of most Americans.”

At any rate, with midterm elections right around the corner, the politicization of the census might explain some of the public ambivalence to it, which the media has also been quick to point out. The government did not engage in any pomp as the Census Bureau’s population counter rolled toward 300 million. “Little public fanfare will greet the milestone,” wrote USA Today in a page-three story. The article quoted Census spokesman Mark Tolbert saying, “We are not in the business of celebrating.”

A score of other publications picked up on the lack of enthusiasm. Many recalled a different atmosphere on November 20, 1967, when President Lyndon B. Johnson stood in front of a large census clock in the lobby of the Commerce Department. When the clock ticked off 200 million, the crowd of 500 interrupted Johnson’s speech with cheers and applause. Life magazine arbitrarily (because nobody can know for sure) branded a baby born minutes later in Atlanta, Robert Ken Woo, the 200 millionth American.

This is not to say that there has been no cheer this time around. But most of it came from the fourth estate, rather than public figures. A New York Times editorial declared that the 300 millionth American “should get a bouquet and a thank-you card … signed by President Bush on behalf of a grateful nation that is buzzing with a youthful energy.” Another editorial, from the Columbus Dispatch in Ohio, advised that the U.S. “should party like it’s 299,999,999.” The editorial board of the Boston Herald noted, “We’ve marked our calendar with a reminder to give a cheer.” And finally, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article led with the invocation: “Get this party started.”

The New York Times’ editorial (fundamentally, an attack on anti-immigration crusader Patrick Buchanan) provoked a number of critical responses which accused the paper of “dangerous oversimplification,” among other optimistic faux pas. Their letters voiced political, social, economic and environmental worries about overpopulation. But news sources supported their enthusiasm with just as many examples of how the U.S. is better off today than it was in 1967: life expectancy is up, homeownership is up, pollution is down, there is plenty of food. The bottom line for most pundits, however, was that growth is always a sign of vitality, progress and innovation, and they gave immigrants a large share of the credit for the robust American growth rate. Most papers, including the Washington Post, which ran a balanced article, pointed out the unenviable negative growth rates in many European countries, and Canada, Japan and Russia.

A few newspapers took notable departures from these boon-versus-doom arguments about the rapidly expanding population, putting fresh twists on their stories. Three days after its editorial appeared, the Columbus Dispatch ran the best piece of local reporting on the subject. Author Debbie Gebolys gives a detailed account of the state’s transformation from “booming” in 1967, when the country hit 200 million, to “stagnant” 39 years later.

Then there was the predictable, but entertaining, then-and-now list of pop culture favorites and fads from the Living section of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The San Francisco Chronicle also tacked an abbreviated list onto the end its commendable immigration-focused story. The most unusual angle, however, came from Wisconsin, where the local deer population, 1.6 million, is also at an all-time high. In an article in the crossroads section of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, staff writer Gregory Stanford questions the state’s intention to thin the animals — “What about the human herd?” he writes. “Humans have despoiled Mother Earth far greater than have deer.”

Glass half full, glass half empty — it’s anybody’s call. At least with 300 million people it is more likely that journalists will continue to produce such a wide and interesting array of stories when the next anniversary rolls around in 2043.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.