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growth of America, immigration rates, E pluribus unum, pluralistic society, United States population

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United States People, human population of the United States today and the characteristics of that population. These characteristics include the age, ethnicity, immigration rates, birth and death rates, and geographic distribution of the American people. This article discusses these characteristics and how they have changed during the nation's history. It includes information on the growth of America’s urban and suburban society, the history of religion in the United States, and changes in the American family over time.

According to the 2000 census, the United States was a nation of 282,338,631 people. In 2006 the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that the United States population had reached a milestone: 300 million people. This population count makes the United States the third most populous country in the world, after China and India. Nearly 5 percent of the Earth’s inhabitants live in the United States. Historically, this nation has attracted vast numbers of immigrants from around the globe. Yet the United States remains less densely populated than other large countries or other industrialized nations—in 2008 there were 33 persons per sq km (86 per sq mi).

The population of the United States has grown continuously, from 4 million at the first national census in 1790, to 76 million in 1900, to 282 million in 2000. Its natural growth rate in 2008 was a moderate 0.6 percent compared with a 1.25 percent growth rate for the world. This U.S. growth rate reflects the 14.2 births and 8.3 deaths per 1,000 people that were occurring yearly in the United States. At this rate of growth, it would take the United States 79 years to double in population, while the world population would double in 55 years. These growth rates, both nationally and internationally, are likely to change, however, as birthrates were declining in developed and developing nations at the turn of the 21st century, and death rates were rising in parts of Africa and the former Soviet Union.

For a large country, the United States is also remarkably uniform linguistically and culturally. Only 6 percent of Americans in the 1990 census reported they spoke little or no English. This is very different from many other countries. In Canada, 66 percent of the population speaks only English, 21 percent speaks only French. India has 14 major languages and China 7 major dialects. The linguistic uniformity in the United States results from early British dominance and from widespread literacy. Advertising, movies, television, magazines, and newspapers that are distributed across the nation also promote a common language and common experiences.

Cultural differences among parts of the United States—north and south, east and west, island and mainland—are also disappearing. In the second half of the 20th century, Americans were more likely than ever before to travel or move to other parts of the country. The national media and large corporations promote the same fashions in dress, entertainment, and sometimes in behavior throughout the states and regions. Newer suburbs, apartments, offices, shops, factories, highways, hotels, gas stations, and schools tend to look much the same across the nation. The uniformity of the American media and the dominance of the English language not only characterize the United States, but increasingly influence cultures around the globe. E-mail and the Internet are the latest technologies that are spreading American English.

Although America’s culture is becoming more uniform, its society remains a diverse mix of ethnic, racial, and religious groups. The United States is a pluralistic society, meaning it is composed of many nationalities, races, religions, and creeds. Some of the people who immigrated to America embraced the opportunity to leave old cultures behind and to remake themselves unencumbered by past traditions and loyalties. Others found that the liberties promised under the Bill of Rights allowed for distinctiveness rather than uniformity, and they have taken pride in preserving and celebrating their origins. Many Americans find that pluralism adds to the richness and strength of the nation’s culture.

The diversity of the U.S. populace has been a source of friction, as well. Throughout the nation’s history, some segments of American society have sought to exclude people who differ from themselves in income, race, gender, religion, political beliefs, or sexual orientation. Even today, some citizens argue that recent arrivals to the United States are radically different from previous immigrants, can never be assimilated, and therefore should be barred from entry. There are very different understandings of what makes a person an American. The nation’s motto, E pluribus unum (“From many, one”), describes the linguistic and cultural similarities of the American people, but it falls short as a description of the diversities among and within the major groups—Native Americans, those whose families have been Americans for generations, and more recent immigrants. This diversity is one of America’s distinguishing characteristics.


For younger readers

Freedman, Russell. Immigrant Kids. Dutton, 1980. Reprint, Puffin, 1995. A photoessay for younger readers.

Kroll, Steven. Ellis Island: Doorway to Freedom. Holiday House, 1995. For readers in grades 3 to 5.

Meltzer, Milton. Bound for America: The Story of the European Immigrants. Benchmark, 2001. For readers in grades 6 to 10.

Pritzker, Barry M. Native-Americans: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture and Peoples. ABC-CLIO, 1998. For high school readers.

Reef, Catherine. Africans in America: The Spread of People and Culture. Facts on File, 1999. For middle school readers.

USA Immigration & Ethnic Groups

Birmingham, Stephen. The Rest of Us. Little, Brown, 1984. Traces the story of America's East European Jews.

Chan, Sucheang. Asian Americans: An Interpretive History. Twayne, 1991. The particular hardships of this major immigrant group.

Chideya, Farai. The Color of Our Future: Race for the 21st Century. Morrow, 1999. Looks at America's transition to a multiracial society; based on interviews with young people.

Clarke, Duncan, and Stephen Small. A New World: The History of Immigration into the United States. Advantage, 2000. Examines how whole populations moved to America, beginning with the Europeans in the 17th century and continuing through Asian immigration in the late 20th century.

Davis, Marilyn P. Mexican Voices/American Dreams. Holt, 1990. An oral history of Mexican immigration.

Dinnerstein, Leonard. Ethnic Americans: A History of Immigration. 4th ed. Columbia University Press, 1999. First published in 1977, this work is a classic study of immigration to the United States in the 20th century.

Handlin, Oscar. The Uprooted. 2nd ed. Little, Brown, 1990. The many migrations that made the American people.

Jones, Maldwyn Allen. American Immigration. 2nd ed. University of Chicago Press, 1992. One of the best general accounts.

Laxton, Edward. The Famine Ships: The Irish Exodus to America. Holt, 1997. Describes the conditions on immigrant ships landing in America.

Parillo, Vincent N. Strangers to These Shores: Race and Ethnic Relations in the United States. 6th ed. Allyn & Bacon, 1999. An excellent introduction to a complex subject.

Salins, Peter D. Assimilation, American Style. Basic Books, 1997. Importance of belief in the American dream.

Suro, Roberto. Strangers Among Us: How Latino Immigration is Transforming America. Knopf, 1998. History of Latino communities and their impact on American society.

Thernstrom, Stephan, and others, eds. Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups. Harvard University Press, 1980. Detailed information on more than 100 ethnic groups.

Yans-McLaughlin, Virginiam, and Marjorie Lightman. Ellis Island: A Reader and Resource Guide. New Press, 1997. Guide to the museum on Ellis Island, with historical context.

United States (People)

Anderson, Margo J. The American Census: A Social History. Yale University Press, 1990, 1993. Detailed history of the U.S. census and its uses.

Bailyn, Bernard. The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction. Knopf, 1986. Immigration prior to the American Revolution.

Brokaw, Tom. The Greatest Generation. Random House, 1998. A tribute to those who lived through the Great Depression and World War II.

Brooks, David. Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. Simon & Schuster, 2000. An irreverent and insightful critique of American's growing class of the newly rich.

Cayton, Mary Kupiec, and others, eds. Encyclopedia of American Social History. Gale, 1993. Essays of many aspects of American life and customs, for high school readers and up.

Daniels, Roger. Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life. HarperCollins, 1991. Traces immigration to America by nationality.

Flanders, Stephen A. Facts on File, 1998. From pre-Columbian migrations to the present.

Hakim, Joy. A History of US. 10 vols. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 1998. Tells the story of America, starting with Native American settlements; written for younger readers, but enjoyable for adults as well.

Hoxie, Frederick E. Encyclopedia of North American Indians. Houghton Mifflin, 1996. Reprint Diane Publishing, 1999. Includes 400 entries on Native American groups, individuals, rituals and beliefs, and present-day issues.

Mattson, Mark, and Molefi K. Asante. The African-American Atlas: Black History and Culture. 2nd ed. Macmillan, 1998. An illustrated history of the African American people and culture.


Klepp, Susan E., B.A., M.A., Ph.D. Professor of History, Rider University. Author of “Revolutionary Bodies: Women and the Fertility Transition in the Mid-Atlantic, 1760-1830" from the Journal ofAmerican History. Editor of The Demographic History of the Philadelphia Region, 1600-1860.

Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2009. © 1993-2008 Microsoft Corporation.

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