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USA, People

pluralistic society, E pluribus unum, populous country, population count, national census

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 281,421,906 people living and working within an area of 9.6 million sq km (3.7 million sq mi). 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 2002 there were 29 persons per sq km (75 per sq mi).

The population of the United States has grown continuously, from 4 million at the first national census in 1790, to 63 million in 1890, to 250 million in 1990. Its natural growth rate in 2002 was a moderate 0.5 percent compared with a 1.25 percent growth rate for the world. This U.S. growth rate reflects the 14.1 births and 8.7 deaths per 1,000 people that were occurring yearly in the United States. At this rate of growth, it would take the United States 78 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, 67 percent of the population speaks only English, 14 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.

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