Mark Mather on the 2010 U.S. Census and population trends

The U.S. census it a great resource to look at population change,” said Mather, “not only at the national level, but the regional level, state level, and to see what’s happening in local communities all the way down to the city block level.”

Every 10 years since 1790, the U.S. government has attempted to count its people. EarthSky spoke with Dr. Mark Mather, a demographer at the Washington, D.C.- based Population Reference Bureau, about the 2010 U.S. Census.

Mark Mather: This is a great resource to look at population change, not only at the national level, but the regional level, state level, and to see what’s happening in local communities all the way down to the city block level.

He said regional population trends matter, because they’re closely linked to labor supply and demand – and economic growth.

Mark Mather: There are parts of the country that are rapidly growing. Then, there are some areas – especially the Midwest – that have been losing population for decades. That’s a real concern to policy makers.

Mather talked about other trends he expects the 2010 U.S. Census to reveal.

Mark Mather: There’s an age difference, so that we have all these baby boomers starting to reach retirement age. The baby boomers are mostly white. But that stands in stark contrast to the U.S. population under age 18, who are increasingly Latino, Asian, and multiracial. The fastest growing groups – mostly Latinos – are facing the biggest challenges. There are big gaps in education, gaps in income and health status. So, the fact that those groups are a growing share of the population really, really matters.

He added that, when the official results come in for the 2010 Census, the newest tallies of age, diversity and regional population will impact services like health care and education all over the U.S. Mather explained that the main purpose of the Census is to distribute government power and funds. But the ten questions on the Census also provide a standardized and accurate-as-possible picture of the nation’s population, down to a very local level.

Mark Mather: The great thing about the Census is that it’s providing information about every community in the country. That’s what people are going to be most interested in. They can get a snapshot of every town, every county, every neighborhood in the country. They can compare it with what’s happened since 2000, or compare it with neighborhood next to them.

He said that while there are sure to be surprising results in the Census data, demographers track long term trends to make their predictions.

Mark Mather: You can usually trace these demographic trends back to what was happening [in the past]. Obviously, baby boom cohort reflects birth rates during the baby boom of 1946 – 1964. And trends in race/ethnic diversity, you can trace back to the changing immigration laws in the 1960s. So you can kind of predict what’s going to happen based on changes in birth and mortality and US policy.

Mather expanded on why these trends matter.

Mark Mather: Aging has a big impact on health care, our social security. Diversity matters because the fastest growing group – Latinos – is facing the biggest challenges.

Mather said demographers don’t just rely on the Census for data about the U.S. population. They have started using a survey with more specific questions about social and economic status called the American Communities Survey, which replaces the longer Census form this year. Mather’s study of Census trends is related to his work for the Population Reference Bureau, or PRB. The PRB describes itself as an organization that, “informs people around the world about population, health, and the environment, and empowers them to use that information to advance the well-being of current and future generations.” It also aims to provide objective, accurate and up-to-date population information in an easily understood format.

Lindsay Patterson