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The population of the United States is highly mobile. In the 1980s and early 1990s redistribution from the North Central and Northeast states to the South and West continued to be a major trend, as the American population became increasingly diverse in ethnic composition, characteristics, language, and religion.

According to the 1990 census, the resident population of the United States was 248,709,873. The population grew by 22,164,068 peopleor 9.8 percentduring the decade from 1980 to 1990. This increase was not evenly distributed: About 12 million, or 54.3 percent of the growth, occurred in the states of California, Texas, and Florida. The 1995 estimated population of the United States is 263,437,000.

Another trend evident during the 1980s was that although urban areas grew at a somewhat higher rate than rural areas, growth rates were low in some of the largest metropolitan areas, and the population of a number of major citiessuch as Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroitdecreased substantially from 1980 to 1990.

Ethnic Composition

The United States is becoming a more diverse society racially and ethnically. While the total U.S. population increased by 9.8 percent between 1980 and 1990 and by an estimated 2.6 percent between 1990 and 1992, the black population grew by 14.2 percent, from 26.7 million in 1980 to 30.5 million in 1990 and had reached an estimated 31.4 million by 1992. Persons of Hispanic origin, who may be of any race, increased by 53 percent, from 14.6 million in 1980 to 22.4 million in 1990 and increased by an estimated 8.4 percent to 24.2 million between 1990 and 1992. The Native American population, including Inuit (Eskimo), and Aleut, also increased, from 1.4 million in 1980 to 2.1 million in 1990; the population grew more than 3 percent between 1990 and 1992, reaching 2.13 million. The number of Asians and Pacific Islanders was 7.5 million, double the 1980 figure of 3.7 million; by 1992 the number had reached 8.2 million.

As a percentage of the country's population, the white majority was reported as reduced somewhat between the 1970s and early 1990s both by migration from Asia, Latin America, and other areas and by higher population growth rates among blacks. During much of its history, the United States had an official policy of admitting more European immigrants than Asian, African, and Latin American immigrants. Changes were made in immigration policy during the 1970s that resulted in large numbers of non-European immigrants entering the United States. This in turn added new cultural dimensions to American life. Census figures reported for 1990 showed that whites constituted about 83.9 percent of the U.S. population; blacks, 12.3 percent; Native Americans, 0.8 percent; and Asians and Pacific Islanders, 3 percent. Hispanics, who may also be counted among other groups, made up 9 percent of the population. An unknown number of undocumented immigrants resided in the United States, many of whom were not included in these census figures.

According to the 1990 census, the largest group, about 58 million Americans, was partly or solely of German ancestry. Irish ancestry was reported by 38.7 million Americans, and English ancestry by another 32.7 million.

Population Characteristics: Structure

The diverse characteristics of the United States population can best be understood by examining its structure and spatial distribution. A close look at the age structure of the population, for instance, reveals that the United States is experiencing a decline in children as a percentage of the population, and an increase in the portion of the population composed of young adults and the elderly. Although still increasing to 60 million, the portion of the population aged 14 and younger decreased by about 0.8 percentage points from 1970 to 1992. The share of people aged 25 to 34 increased by 0.6 percentage points during the same period. The number of people of age 65 and older grew 55.6 percent, to 31.1 million, from 1970 to 1990.

The median age of the U.S. population reported in 1990 was 32.9 years, showing an increase over the 30 years reported in 1980. By 1992 the average age had grown to 33.4 years. By race and ethnic group, the country's white population in 1990 was oldest, with a median age of 34.4 years. Asians and Pacific Islanders constituted the second oldest group, with a median age of 29.8 years; followed by blacks, with a median age of 28.1 years. People of Hispanic origin had a median age of 25.5 years in 1990.

Based on the estimated fertility rate for 1990, women in the United States give birth to an average of 1.9 children during their childbearing years (between the ages of 15 and 44). Although this was somewhat below the rate of 2.1 children per woman necessary to maintain the same population level indefinitely, growth of the U.S. population well into the 21st century is nevertheless assured, due to immigration. The estimated annual rate of increase for the U.S. population was about 0.1 percent in both 1990 and 1991; during the so-called baby boom from 1947 to 1961, the annual rate of increase ranged from 1.5 to 2 percent.

The structure of the American family continues to change in response to social and economic pressures. Between 1970 and 1990, for example, the median age at first marriage rose from 22.5 to 25.5 years among men and from 20.6 to 23.7 years among women. In 1980, 50 percent of men entered their first marriages between the ages of 20 and 24; by 1988 that proportion had dropped to 38.7 percent, while the share of first marriages among men aged 25-34 rose from 33.2 percent to 47.7 percent. Among women the decline in the proportion of first marriages before age 20 was particularly striking: from 30.4 percent in 1980 to 17.7 percent in 1988. As more adults are postponing marriage, or not marrying at all, so are more adults ending their marriages through divorce. As the annual marriage rate per 1000 population decreased from 10.8 to 9.7 between 1970 and 1990, the divorce rate rose from 3.5 to 4.7; after reaching a peak of 5.3 in 1981, however, the annual divorce rate actually declined during the remainder of the 1980s.

The number of unmarried couples among the total U.S. population approximately tripled between 1970 and 1980, to an estimated 1.56 million households shared by two unrelated adults (with or without children) of opposite sex; by 1991 the number exceeded 3 million. Of the nation's 94.3 million households in 1991, married couples (with or without children) accounted for 52.1 million; there were 23.6 million single-person households, an increase of 242 percent since 1970.

One significant characteristic of the U.S. population has been an extraordinary increase in the number of births to unmarried women. Births among all unmarried women represented 11 percent of all births in 1970; by 1991 the overall share had grown to 30 percent.

Of the 36 million families with children under age 18 in 1993, 69.8 percent were headed by two-parent groups. Of one-parent homes, 85.7 percent were headed by the mother. Because women maintaining families tended to have considerably lower incomes than their male counterparts, their families made up a disproportionate share of the poor population in the United States.

Population Characteristics: Spatial Distribution

Trends in the spatial distribution of the U.S. population continued to be uneven during the 1980s and early 1990s, as above-average growth occurred in the South and West at the expense of the North Central and Northeast states. Every state in the West (except Wyoming) grew faster between 1990 and 1993 than the U.S. average. The South also showed above-average growth, particularly in Texas and the South Atlantic states; exceptions to this pattern were West Virginia and the District of Columbia, both of which lost population. Between 1980 and 1990 the population of the West increased by 22 percent and the population of the South by 13.4 percent. Growth continued in the early 1990s. In 1990 the population was distributed as follows: 50.8 million people in the Northeast, 59.7 million in the North Central states, 85.4 million in the South, and 52.8 million in the West. By 1993 the estimated population distribution was Northeast, 51.4 million; Midwest, 61.1 million; South, 89.4 million; and West, 56 million. The average population density for the United States as a whole was about 26 persons per sq km (66 per sq mi) in 1990. This represents a substantial increase over the average densities of 1.7 people per sq km (4.5 per sq mi) in 1790; 3 per sq km (7.9 per sq mi) in 1850; 9.9 per sq km (25.6 per sq mi) in 1900; and 19.5 per sq km (50.6 per sq mi) in 1950.

Among the total population of the United States, the nonwhite and Hispanic-origin populations have remained highly concentrated. In 1995, for example, it was estimated that blacks constituted more than one-fifth of the population in eight states: Mississippi, New York, South Carolina, Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, Maryland, and North Carolina. In the District of Columbia in 1990, 66 percent of the population was black. About 46 percent of the Native Americans lived in the West, and almost all of the Inuit and Aleuts lived in Alaska. Nearly half of the 7.3 million Asians and Pacific Islanders lived in California and Hawaii. About 65 percent of the 22.4 million people of Hispanic origin resided in California, Texas, New York, and Florida.

For many decades before 1970, the urban population grew at a rapid pace. In the 1970s the trend seemed to be changing. Data from the 1980 census showed that the proportion of the U.S. population living in urban areas (defined as densely populated areas and places of 2500 or more inhabitants outside densely populated areas) grew only by about 0.1 percent between 1970 and 1980, the smallest ten-year gain in U.S. history. According to the 1990 census, the pace of urban growth increased between 1980 and 1990, as the total urban population rose to a new high with an increase of 13.5 percent over 1980. Only once in the history of the United States has the urban proportion of the population declinedby 0.1 percent between 1810 and 1820.

In 1990 urban dwellers made up about 75.2 percent of the U.S. population, or some 187.1 million people. Rural residents made up 24.8 percent of the population, or about 61.7 million people. The United States continued to be a predominantly urban nation, and there was no evidence of a significant migration of urban dwellers back to farms. Approximately 1.9 percent of the total U.S. population, about 4.6 million people, lived on farms in 1990, a decline of 12.1 percent from 1980.


English is the main language of the United States and is spoken by the great majority of U.S. residents. Nearly 32 million U.S. residents age 5 or older speak a language other than English at home. Of this total, approximately 54 percent speak Spanish, making Spanish the second most widely spoken language in the United States. Other languages frequently spoken include Chinese, Tagalog, Polish, Korean, Vietnamese, Portuguese, Japanese, Greek, Arabic, Hindi and Urdu, Russian, Yiddish, Thai and Lao, Persian, French Creole, Armenian, and Navaho.


The religious affiliations of the inhabitants of the British colonies that formed the nucleus of the United States varied from region to region. Throughout the New England area the dominant faith was Congregationalism, established by Separatist and Puritan groups who were dissidents from the Church of England; settlers of the South Atlantic region adhered officially to the Church of England; and the Middle Atlantic region was a haven for a variety of sects and creeds.

The New England Separatists and Puritans came to North America in order to worship in their own way, without interference from the Church of England. The first group to reach New England were the Separatists called the Pilgrims, who in 1620 founded the Plymouth Colony. The colony, with its church, was absorbed eventually by the more powerful Massachusetts Bay Colony, which was founded in 1629 by Puritans. (see Puritanism).

The churches of the Puritans were organized as separate congregations, each bound together by a covenant taken by its members; the name of the Puritans' organized church was derived from this emphasis on congregationalism. Religion was the focal point of social and political life in New England. Until 1691 the Massachusetts Bay Colony was a theocracy, in which church attendance was compulsory, and church membership a qualification for voting and holding office. Non-Congregationalist denominations, notably the Baptists and Quakers (see Friends, Society of), were regarded with hostility and often persecuted by the colonial government. Noteworthy among those who rebelled against this alliance between church and state was Roger Williams, who in 1636 left the Massachusetts Bay Colony and founded the community of Providence, located in what is now the state of Rhode Island. Williams, whose colony became a haven for people of many creeds, established the first Baptist church in America in 1639. (see Baptists).

In the South Atlantic coastal region, which comprised Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, the Church of England was the established church, and all settlers were required to pay taxes for its support. Clergy of non-Anglican denominationsfor example, Baptist and Presbyterianwere frequently prohibited from preaching and from performing marriage ceremonies.

The Middle Atlantic colonies provided a more congenial climate for freedom of religion than did the New England and South Atlantic colonies. The first European settlers of the Middle Atlantic region were the Dutch, who first founded trading posts along the Hudson River about 1613. They founded the colony of New Netherland in 1625, bringing to it the beliefs and practices of the Reformed church (see Reformed Church in America). The first organized group of Jewish settlers in North America arrived in New Amsterdam, the capital of New Netherland, in 1654. After New Netherland was seized (1664) by the British, the Church of England became influential there, and by the beginning of the 18th century it was the established church of the four most populous counties of New York. Delaware and New Jersey, which had been parts of New Netherland, maintained a complete separation of church and state. The territory now comprising Maryland was granted in 1632 to the Calvert family, who were English Roman Catholics. Members of the family colonized the region in 1634 with the aim of providing a haven for their persecuted coreligionists; eventually, Anglicanism was made the established religion of Maryland. Pennsylvania, under the terms of a charter granted in 1681, was founded by the English Quaker William Penn as a haven for adherents of all religions. Lutheranism was established during the colonial period in Pennsylvania, New York, and Delaware. Presbyterianism was introduced on a large scale into the Middle Atlantic colonies by Scottish and Scotch-Irish settlers during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Methodists settled in the Middle Atlantic region, notably in New York, during the latter half of the 18th century (see Methodism; United Methodist Church).

A liberalizing influence on the religion of colonial America was the revivalist movement known as the Great Awakening, which developed in the middle of the 18th century. Inspired by the evangelical preaching of several ministers, most prominently the Congregationalist clergyman Jonathan Edwards in New England, the Presbyterian minister Gilbert Tennent in the Middle Atlantic region, and the visiting British evangelist George Whitefield, the movement eventually spread to all the colonies. The general effect of the Great Awakening was to increase the strength of the Methodist and Baptist denominations, and to pave the way for the separation of church and state when the United States became an independent nation. See Revivals, Religious.

The ratification in 1788 of the Constitution of the United States marked the beginning of a new era in American religion. The First Amendment states that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. After the adoption of the Constitution those states with established religions gradually eliminated their church-state ties; the last state to do so was Massachusetts, which disestablished its church in 1833.

During the first half of the 19th century the population of the United States was overwhelmingly Protestant; it included relatively few Catholics and Jews, and almost no adherents of such non-Christian religions as Islam and Buddhism. The first Roman Catholic bishop in the United States was John Carroll, bishop of Baltimore. The number of Roman Catholics was increased greatly beginning about 1820 by the arrival of large numbers of Irish immigrants; as a result of potato famines more than 1 million people emigrated from Ireland to the United States between 1845 and 1855 (see Roman Catholic Church). Following the unsuccessful popular uprisings of 1848 in Germany, large numbers of German Lutherans migrated to the United States. In the latter half of the century most of the immigration was from countries in southern and eastern Europenotably Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Russiafrom which came large numbers of Catholics and Jews.

Among the religious developments of the 19th century was the founding of several indigenous American denominations, among which were The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known popularly as the Mormons (see Mormonism), the Church of Christ, Scientist (see Christian Science); the Seventh-day Adventist Church (see Adventists); and Jehovah's Witnesses. Within the major denominations, slavery and other social questions were important issues in church affairs, resulting in sectional divisions and fragmentation of church bodies.

During the first two decades of the 20th century, migration from Europe continued to be heavy and included a large percentage of Jews and Roman Catholics. Beginning in 1921, however, Congress passed a series of laws that sharply curtailed immigration from south central and eastern Europe. Thereafter, the religious composition of the U.S. population ceased to be modified significantly by immigration and tended to become stabilized. The denominational divisions of the 19th century were reversed in many instances as the 20th century continued (see Ecumenical Movement).

The United States today is primarily Christian, but other religions and a large variety of denominations and sects add religious diversity. Although members of the various Protestant churches are most numerous, the largest single American religious group consists of Roman Catholics, representing about 25 percent of the U.S. population. Among the major Protestant groups were the Baptists (19.4 percent), Methodists (8 percent), Presbyterians (2.8 percent), Pentecostals (1.8 percent) (see Pentecostal Church), and Episcopalians (1.7 percent) (see Episcopal Church). The Orthodox church had a large following. The largest non-Christian religion in the United States was Judaism (2 percent), and Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism also had significant numbers of adherents.

Regionally, Roman Catholics are concentrated in the East and Midwest and more frequently in metropolitan areas. Most Baptists live in the South and in rural areas. Methodists are about equally represented in the East, Midwest, and South, and more than half live in rural areas. More than half of all Lutherans live in the rural Midwest. Almost two-thirds of Jews live in the East, and about half in the largest metropolitan areas. Presbyterians are more evenly distributed regionally, but live primarily in rural areas. Mormons are concentrated in the west in the states of Utah and Idaho.

Cooperative work among the churches in the United States is carried on by various interdenominational bodies, among them the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Some churches belong to the World Council of Churches, which is an organization that works on the international and interdenominational levels.