The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
January 20, 2015

Thinking about our country's demographic future: Projections and policy

January 20, 2015

In the last two weeks, President Obama has identified several new policies to address national challenges, such as making mortgage loans more affordable by lowering FHA premiums and increasing access to education by offering free tuition at community colleges. Immigration reform is occurring through administrative action while the potential for legislative action continues.

These and other national policies may have different impacts on different regions. How can we learn about the regional reach of national policies?

First, we need an understanding of who lives in these different places—and who will be living there by the time the policy is implemented and starts having an impact. How many people will be living in a given place 10 or 20 years from now? How many of those people will be children or working-age adults or older adults?

These are all important questions, and for months, my colleagues and I have been building a tool called Mapping America’s Futures to help us answer them. For every small region of the country, we project the demographic makeup in 2020 and 2030: population, age, and race. We present a range of plausible scenarios for each place—and invite you, the user, to investigate what your community might look like 15 years from now.

We use “futures,” plural, because projections are based on underlying assumptions. A range of assumptions are possible as we can’t predict precisely where people will move or how many babies they will have. Instead, we use past trends to consider the possibilities.

So, how can we use this tool to think about policy changes?

Consider Obama’s community college proposal. Increasing access to community colleges is going to affect an area with a large population of younger adults differently than an area that consists mostly of retired workers, though they too may benefit from increased offerings at and greater investment in the local campus. A sense of the racial and ethnic background of the younger adults who may live there in 5 or 10 years may help the local colleges match their course offerings with residents’ needs.

 

MAF Unsurprisingly, most plausible scenarios show strong growth in the elderly population by 2030. Click to see more projections.

 

And thinking of older adults, we know they will be an increasing share of the population in the years to come. You see a pretty consistent picture of the growth in people 65 and older across the nation when the rates are all set at average, whether you look at all races, white, black, Hispanic, or other race. It doesn’t change much with low or high migration (with the exception of lower growth of older whites in New York and other races in Hawaii—but still more than 30 percent). Only when you switch to higher mortality rates do you start seeing some variation, and only for whites and blacks.

How are state governments preparing for this demographic change over the next 15 years? Are they going to have sufficient numbers of skilled health care workers? Some states are projected to have a declining number of adults between the ages of 20 to 49.

Local governments should also be thinking about how their populations could evolve in the coming years. In the tool, switching from states to commuting zones shows even greater variation geographically. Areas are going to have different experiences in the coming years, and Mapping America’s Futures provides an opportunity to think about the range of variation.

As these demographic changes will drive federal, state, and local policy, policy also affects demographic change: where people choose to live, their ability to access health care to live longer, and their access to family planning and prenatal care are just a few examples.

We are at an exciting time where new challenges are motivating innovative policy ideas. We need to remember to look beyond the national numbers and consider the experiences of states and smaller areas. And we need to consider that different futures are possible. We all can play a role in what the future holds.

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