Saturday, July 19, 2008

Q&A: Steve Murdock, state demographer turned census czar

New director of U.S. Census Bureau talks about state and national trends, and the 2010 census.

By Suzannah Gonzales
Sunday, June 15, 2008

The American-Statesman recently got one of the first interviews with the new director of the U.S. Census Bureau, Steve Murdock.

Before getting the call from the White House, Murdock was the first state demographer of Texas. For more than 25 years, he led the Texas State Data Center and Texas Population Estimates and Projections Programs.

While at the Census Bureau, Murdock is on leave from Rice University, which he joined about a year ago from the University of Texas at San Antonio.

In this edited and condensed interview, Murdock talks about important demographic trends, the 2010 census and his love of data tables.

American-Statesman: I've quoted you before saying, 'The Texas of today is the U.S. of tomorrow.' What are the most important demographic trends facing Texas and the country? And what are the policy implications of these trends?

Steve Murdock: We are, relative to all other developing countries, a very rapidly growing nation. Our growth is such that we're expecting to be a population of over 400 million by the middle of this century, almost 420 million, I think. Not only do we have a relatively high rate of natural increase — that's the excess of births over deaths — but we also have a relatively high rate of immigration. And that immigration is leading to more rapid growth, and it is also leading to increased diversity.

The diversification of the population is another major force impacting the U.S. One of the reasons that I say that Texas is a barometer of the country is that if you looked at Texas in 2000, about 53 percent of the population was non-Hispanic white, or Anglo as we call it in Texas, and by about 2040, that is the percentage that the Census Bureau projects to be the case for the country as a whole.

A third factor is the aging of the population due to that group of people born between 1946 and 1964, what we refer to as the baby boom generation. They're about a quarter of the U.S. population. They're about a quarter of the Texas population. The first of the baby boomers will turn 65 in 2011, and by about 2030, about 20 percent of all Americans will be 65 years of age or older.

What are some ofthe implications? Let's look again at population growth. It is leading to a younger work force. I think we're looking at a population that continues to have some economic advantages relative to market growth, relative to labor force supplies, compared to slower growing countries.

When you look at the diversification of the population, 2050 will look more like the world than it does today. Just like we see the economy globalizing, internationalizing, we're seeing that the nation's population is internationalizing.

When you look at the aging population, from now to about 2030, we're looking at primarily a relatively large middle-age population. In the long run, we have some very difficult decisions to make about the elderly. Costs related to medical care, costs related to long-term care, these sorts of factors are impacted by the aging population. And we will have the largest aging, aged population in the history of the United States.

What are the challenges of the census?

There's a lot more concern about your personal information. Our mandate is to count those people residing in the United States at any one given point in time, that being April 1, 2010. We have a good deal of contentiousness about the issue of immigration. We take no stance on the issue, but it does impact the fear and concern that people may have in responding to the census.

The data that people provide to the census are absolutely confidential. We don't share that information with any other agency. It's absolutely confidential and absolutely safe, but we have to ensure that people are confident that we will protect that confidentiality. That and the growth of the population — we'll be around 310 million, we think — by that point in time. All of those are challenges to us.

Describe the typical American now, compared with 50 years ago and 50 years from now.

If we can talk in general terms, the average American 50 years earlier than now was very likely to be non-Hispanic white, would have been younger, had lower levels of education, living in a household that was larger, more likely to be living as part of a married-couple-with-children household, living in the Northeast and the Midwest.

Now, bring it to today, that average American is older. There's a higher likelihood that they will be diverse, they will live in either a single-person household or a married-couple-without-children household and be living in the South or the West.

And if you go 50 years from now, what you can say is that person will be about equally likely to be what we characterize now as minority members as they will be non-Hispanic white. Let 2050 be about 50 years from now, that American, one of every four we expect to be Hispanic, a little less than 50 percent will be non-Hispanic white, another eighth or so will be African American and then you can take another plethora of groups that will make up the rest.

How did you become interested in demography and crunching numbers? What do you enjoy most about working with data?

Demography is not destiny, but it certainly is a large determinant of what occurs. I got, as one of my colleagues refers to it, infected by demography early in my graduate career and became just enamored with it. I love tables. My staff used to say that if you wanted to keep me entertained for the afternoon, just give me about 25 tables and I would spend the rest of the afternoon looking at every element of data on those tables. On the other hand, most people would have, you know, been asleep in about half an hour.

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