Don't count old stock Anglo-America out

By Razib Khan | August 31, 2011 3:54 pm

One of the things I really hate are unqualified linear projections. They’re so useless most of the time. A science fiction magazine will give you more insight about the future than the United Nations population projection for the year 2100. This is just as much of an issue when it comes to American Census demographic projections. As I’ve noted before population projections of the coming non-Hispanic white minority 2040 to 2050 are sensitive to the assumptions behind the basic parameters. The logic of the projection is crystal clear and airtight, but just because a certain set of assumptions holds today, does not mean that those assumptions will hold indefinitely (though the Census projections are much more plausible than the United Nations projections because two generations are so much more strongly impacted by by the inertia of current conditions that four generations). In the 18th and 19th century white Americans, and especially the Anglo-Saxon founding stock, were a highly fertile folk. They took over the American Southwest and the Northwest in large part due to their demographic assault. In New England the 30,000 of 1650 became the 700,000 in 1790 in large part due to fertility rates on the order of 7 per woman! Today no one would expect that Anglo-Saxon Americans would be so fertile, let alone the New Englanders who were prominent in the population control movements of the 20th century. In the 17th and 18th century the Jews of Eastern Europe were a highly prolific group, and the gentile majority in places like Poland viewed the waxing of the proportion of this minority with great suspicion. Today no one views the Ashkenazi Jews as demographic engines, though in places like Israel the fecund Haredi have now helped close the “birth gap” with the Arab population, as its fraction of the Jewish population keeps increasing. I can give you other “counter-intuitive” examples from the recent past, but a little history goes a long way in teaching suspicion (e.g., in the Balkans in the late 19th century rural Christian populations had much higher fertility than urban Muslim ones).

These sorts of reversals are not inexplicable. Fertility shifts occur, sometimes within a generation or two. This is why Thomas Malthus turned out to be wrong: he didn’t predict the demographic transition. But we shouldn’t be complacent and assume we’ve reached the “end of history” when it comes to fertility transitions. In the early 20th century there was great terror in the American elite due to the immigration of what would later be termed “ethnic whites,” in particular Jews and Southern Europeans. And yet the Jewish proportion of the American population peaked in the late 1940s at ~5%. What about the other groups? The General Social Survey has large sample sizes for some ethnic groups, so I decided to look there.

The CHILDS variable reports the number of children the respondents have. I limited the data set to whites after the year 2000. I used COHORT to track the number of children according to what decade the individuals were born (so older cohorts have more children since they have more time). I focused on cohorts between 1930 and 1980. For ethnic groups I have British, which includes English, Welsh and Scottish. German, which includes Germans and Austrians. Nordic, which includes Scandinavia and Finland. Since Jewish low fertility is non-controversial, I decided to look at Italians as the primary white ethnics. Irish occupy a middle position, having arrived along with the Germans in the middle 20th century, but retaining a more ethnic stamp because of their dominant Roman Catholicism (it seems that history indicates that Catholic Germans retained a strongly ethnic identity than Protestant ones, because the latter could assimilate easily into mainline Protestant denominations and become WASP. And Catholic Irish who became Protestant where very quickly assimilated, especially in the South).

What explains the fertility differences? I think this map does:

The Italian American concentration in Northeastern urban areas is not conducive to a high fertility regime. In contrast, Germans are distributed across the “Heartland,” where family size is less constrained by the cost of living. What’s going on with the British? Poking around the data indicates that this group is very heterogeneous. New England British have much lower fertility than those who live in the South, for example. As the proportion of Southern British increases the fertility for this group may bounce back.

My point here is that I think you could make educated guesses about this pattern by 1930, by noting that cities tend to lead to smaller family sizes, and some immigrant groups, such as Italians, were remaining in urban areas. Many WASPs do feel that American cities are strange and alien places, and they have felt so for over a century. But the large concentration of rural WASPs will likely always serve as a demographic check to their decline, as immigrants pooling around urban zones shift to a lower fertility regime.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Data Analysis, Demographics
MORE ABOUT: Demographics
  • chris w

    Mormons obviously aren’t the same as WASPs, but to me, the most notable aspect of this map in relation to your post is that the biggest patch of English purple is Utah, which ranks highest of all states in average TFR at 2.59.

  • John Emerson

    After a certain number of generations and a few migrations ethnicity is lost. Most of the Italian-Americans I knew in Portland had no Italian culture to speak of, not even Catholicism in many cases, and I’ve known a number of Spanish-surnamed individuals with essentially no Hispanic culture.

    I personally am statistically German-English-Dutch, but “white Midwestern Protestant” is the most meaningful description. I actually identify with Scandinavian-Americans based on upbringing and neighborhood, but that’s not much more than an affectation of mine.

    The people who call themselves “American” pretty much have the right idea, even though their motives may be doubtful.

  • JasonM

    Chris W — don’t forget Razib’s classic 2008 post:

    “Mormon America is a representative of the New England Puritan cultural tradition in “Red America”

  • Huxley

    Germans and British have merged to such an extent that I don’t think you can call them separate anymore.

  • Scott

    You need to take education into account here too. It’s well documented that there is an inverse relationship between the number of children and education levels.

    I agree with your overall point that population projections should be interpreted with caution, but I still believe this one (ie, non-Hispanic white minority by 2040). There are plenty of Hispanic populations in the rural US, especially in the South West. These won’t run up against the city limitations you allude to. And if there continues to be a disparity in education levels between groups, this will help increase the Hispanic population while limiting the rate of increase in the non-Hispanic population.

  • John Emerson

    With the present economic transformations, especially as the status of labor is redefined, it may happen that the direction of movement will be changed, and that instead of Hispanics or blacks rising up into the middle class, white demographics will fall out of the middle class. In Detroit something like that has already happened. This transformation has little to do with race or ethnicity, and everything to do with trade and politics.

  • Aidan Kehoe

    One thing that’s probably relevant to this is that much current immigration in the US is to comparatively rural areas, because with the internet and cheaper communications in general it’s much more practicable to locate a slaughterhouse in a tiny city and have people move there expressly for that job. This may shape demographics differently in the next few decades—or it may not, that article mentions that most of the Mexicans are planning to go back in the medium term.

  • Mark

    I agree that it’s possible that non-Hispanic whites will be a minority by 2040, but it is worthwhile to note that the projections incorporate a gradual, linear decrease in Hispanic fertility, while fertility rates can fall very fast. In Arizona, the number of births to Hispanic mothers dropped from nearly 45,000 in 2006 to 34,000 in 2010, which is, what, a 25% drop in four years. I don’t know how much of this drop is due to an actual change in fertility, and how much reflects illegal immigrants exiting the state in the wake of the much publicized illegal immigration crackdown. But if it’s mostly the former, and replicated elsewhere, I would think that whites will remain a bare majority past 2040. On the other hand, white fertility could drop lower, black fertility could return to levels in the early 1990s, etc… so who knows.

  • BillB

    I have noticed that in the urban Northeast many people who identify as Irish are surprised to learn they have old stock Anglo ancestry as well. It seems with mixed ancestry, at least in this part of the country, Irish is a default identity, perhaps because there is little identification with and sometimes no knowledge of the 17th century ancestors while Irish communal identity is very strong.

  • John Emerson

    English descent is generic. Most people by now will claim something more interesting if possible.

  • ohwilleke

    “the large concentration of rural WASPs will likely always serve as a demographic check to their decline”

    Rural population density is continuing to plummet. Kids in rural areas and small towns overwhelmingly end up in big cities. We are on the verge of demographic collapse in rural America right now because a very large share of the farm population is made up of elderly farmers (average age in excess of sixty-five years) with small farms (usually well under a square mile) that are economically marginal. When these farmers die over the next decade or two, their farms will be added to the holdings of other farmers who operate at a more economically efficient scale, rather than to new small scale farmers. Thus, farm populations, which drive rural populations generally, are likely to fall by a factor of two to three or more from current levels in absolute terms over the next coupule of decades, while urban populations will continue to grow at a low but exponential growth rate something above replacement. This is driven almost entirely by farming technology changes that have not nearly run their course yet.

    This is a very long term trend. The percentage of the population that is rural has declined almost every decade from sometime in the 1700s to the present.

  • John Emerson

    “Rural” and “agricultural” have diverged. The US population is about 2% agricultural and about 20% rural. The most agricultural states are the Dakotas, and they’re less than 10%.

    Around here tourism, light industry, trucking, and retirees keep things going. Truckers live here as a home base and spend most of their time away.

  • ohwilleke

    The main divergence between “rural” and “agricultural” that shows any meaningful trendlines is the concept of exurban development. Even non-agricultural components of the rural population have historically been tied to the agricultural economy. Much of the non-agricultural business activity in rural America is associated with the slow season back up employment of people in agricultural economy related primary identities. Similiarly, more retirees move to urban areas to gain access to health care and other services or the support of family than retire to a rural area from an urban area. The above average share of rural retirees is mostly a product of young people moving away while the retirees choosing not to move.

    Tourism economies are demographically (and politically) much more like urban and suburban areas than they are like genuinely rural areas, and have similar land use as well. Vail may count as “rural” because it has few permanent residents, but has a peak population of a big city and high density land use and public transit and high costs of living to match it. You see something similar in resorts like Martha’s Vinyard on the coasts.

    The confounding trend in rural America is exurban development. These are people who have jobs in cities (often outlying suburban office parks or industrial parks of urban areas), or have jobs that have no real tie to any location due to the Internet and telecommunications, but choose to live on large lots (the famed 5 acre ranchette or 40 acre horse farm) in rural areas. These people are overwhelmingly WASP and do pick up a lot of cultural and political tendencies from their rural neighbors and the low population density lifestyles they live. But, unlike the typical rural resident, they typically have high incomes that are steady, instead of the irregular and often very limited incomes of an ordinary rural resident. Often privacy, conservative community values and more house for less money are important motives for exurban development.

    Exurban development is soaring. It isn’t unusual for a county experiencing exurban development to see exurban newcomers from the last couple of decades utterly dwarf the original rural populations of the area. Indeed, it has an almost uncany resemblance to the models where farmers demographic swamp hunters and gathers upon their arrival in an area.

    But, the case that these exurbanites represent a high fertility buffer for Anglos is not at all obvious. The imputus for having large families was not just that the cost of living was low, but also that children could participate in economic activity. A fourteen year old farm kid can run a tractor and participate in the harvest. A fourteen year commodity broker’s kid can’t make a meaningful economic contribution to the family and is likely to dissociate economically from the family unit by the time that the kid has finished his or her education and can be economically self-supporting.

    A shotgun wedding in a farm family typically winds up with the new couple living in a trailer in the middle of some field and the husband and wife both taking an active part in working the farm (with the kid joining at a far younger age than urban kids start contributing meaningfully to the workforce). Exurbanites couldn’t imagine doing something like that.

    Another impetus for having large families was the reality that many may not live to adulthood. A risk of losing a child before adulthood almost always produces a more than compensating increasing in ferility. But, exurbanites face no more risk in this regard than urban and suburban families. In contrast, the agricultural rural lifestyle was far more perilous, with limited access to health care and extremely high rates of occupational injury. Far more farm families have prematurely lost a family member to death than suburban families.

  • John Emerson

    Shotgun weddings around here usually end up with the guy driving truck. I can think of several examples. Some kids drop out without even getting married. I’ve talked to the wives in a couple of these marriages, and they are pretty firm in not wanting their kids to follow their example. They realize that they had a lot better luck than would be possible today.

  • Antonio

    This is somewhat off-topic but I’m wondering what is going to happen to the hispanic community as they became a larger and possibly a wealthier group. Most people assume that they will behave in a cohesive and coherent way – as they allegedly do now. But I don’t see why this has to be true, specially as they start to increase their relative share in US. Perhaps some of them will migrate to the white community, which might mean something different by them. Or, instead, they will keep some kind of unit but then they will also start to exhibit some kind of divisions inside their own community, perhaps following the more typical US racist pattern.

  • elvisd

    “The people who call themselves “American” pretty much have the right idea, even though their motives may be doubtful.”

    And these “doubtful motives” that you imagine unhyphenated Americans might have are….??? I’m all ears.

  • John Emerson

    When people play dumb, they should make sure that they’re smart first.

    The people who call themselves “Americans”, unhyphenated, are mostly in Appalachian and Southern areas where there’s traditionally been hostility to Catholics, Eastern Europeans, Hispanics, blacks, Jews and other Americans who are often hyphenated. Their “American” identification can be a sign of their nativism and hostility to other Americans.

    My point was that a lot of people try to keep their ethnic identification alive beyond what is reasonable, for example if I would call myself an Anglo-German-Dutch American. Past a few generations, except in the most densely ethnic areas like South Boston, that kind of ethnicity becomes pretty nominal. There are a number of distinctions that don’t go away, however, especially the ones thought of as racial.

  • Roger Bigod

    The phrase “old stock Anglo-America” mixes up two or three groups that are culturally, and possibly genetically distinct. New England was settled by Puritans from East Anglia. Lots of Anglo-Saxon and Dane. Rule-followers with an emphasis on community. The Borderlands wasn’t ruled by a central government, English or Scottish, for 500 years. Reliance on family and clan with a deep antipathy for central authority, religious or governmental. I suspect there was some genetic sorting. If there are genes for submission to authority, people who wanted social stability moved out and the ornery ones moved in. I don’t know if 500 years is enough to make much difference in gene frequencies. Anyway, these are the rednecks of the rural South.

    There were also Quakers from northern England to the Middle Atlantic colonies, a tiny number of gentry to Virginia during the English Civil War and yeomanry from southern England, who were the bulk of the immigrants to Virginia for the first 100 years. It would be difficult to study the genetics at this late date.

    The attitude toward authority of the Puritans and Rednecks was a secondary cause of the Civil War. Southern politicians of the Redneck tradition will say that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. Properly educated folk are trained to sneer at that line. But the rednecks who fought for the Confederacy owned few slaves. They didn’t have articulated theories of governmental functions, but they did have attitude.

  • Razib Khan

    Properly educated folk are trained to sneer at that line.

    how old are you? it’s not true today. economic determinism is quite often promoted by in non-specialist circles who are educated. it’s the less intelligent cohorts who get the slavery explanation. of course, those immersed in the literature often focus on slavery again, but the reality is pretty complex in terms of necessity and sufficiency.

  • Roger Bigod

    I don’t think it’s changed in a while. The usual scenario is that a crypto-racist == or back in the day racist — southern politician intones sanctimoniously that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. His followers nod and feel better about their racism. This has happened so many times that the position is dismissed by reasonable people (the “properly educated”) as trashy political talk.

    But there’s something to it. Most of the Borderlands descendants at the time of the Civil War owned no or few slaves. And the Confederate Constitution gives the central government very limited powers. They took “states rights” seriously in a way that was distinct from the slavery question.

  • Razib Khan

    roger, who are you talking to? you understand i assume that all of the facts that you state above are well known to me (i disagree on some of the interpretation or plausibility you put on them, but that’s a different issue).

  • John Emerson

    A lot of Southerners and borderers either stayed out of the Civil War or fought for the Union. Kentucky and West Virginia were Union states (WV was formed specifically in order to be a Union state).

    Gen. Sherman spent time in the South (he was a founder of Louisiana State, sort of) and he commented that most white Southerners had no stake in slavery, but that they’d go along with the people who did, not because they had some other stake in the war, but because they were subservient to their betters. The South was controlled by the planter elite, who made the decisions, and for them protecting slavery was the main issue. Everyone else either went along, willingly or unwillingly, or else didn’t go along. But the states seceded because of slavery.

    A lot of things came along with slavery — agrarianism v. industrialism, an aristocratic tradition v. a non aristocratic one. But these weren’t alternatives to the slavery issue, they were part of the slavery issue.

    Before the Civil War southerners trampled all over states rights — the Fugitive Slave act required all states to help enforce slavery. Rather than states rights, I think that the issue was that the Southern aristocrats wanted everything their way, and they were determined to get it whichever way they could.

    Sherman (thinking of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s men) said that the Southern planters and gentry made the best soldiers in the world, but were worthless for any other purpose.

  • ElamBend

    My understanding is that a lot of those who claim ‘American’ ancestry are often Scots-Irish. If you see that little patch of yellow in northern MO, it’s the most rural part of MO, settled by borderlanders, including a lot of west virginians.

    I grew up in NW MO and a townnearme, Conception, MO was a German Catholic town of very large families. I graduated high school in 1993 and I had many contemporaries there with more than 3 siblings and often dozens, if not hundreds of cousins. (I bet I could also randomly guess 3of 5 of the surname son the local basketball team even now).

  • Roger Bigod

    John Emerson

    Agree that before the Civil War, the South had way disproportionate representation in Congress and on the SC. And they were childish about demanding that they have their way.

    I respect Sherman’s opinions, but “subservient” is just plain wrong. One strong feature of the borderlanders was fierce personal pride and refusal to bow to authority (except as soldiers). The planters and gentry may have made their case through churches and newspapers, but pulling social rank wouldn’t have gone very far.

    I’ve never been interested in the Civil War, but I did look at the genealogy of my mother’s family in the piney woods of northern Louisiana. They were about half borderlands and half yeomanry from southern England. No gentry. Some had arrived as recently as 1857 from north AL, where there were no plantations. The nearest plantations with gentry from the other parts of the South were 20-30 miles away. So they had little direct contact with gentry, but all the males of military age signed up, except one who stayed behind to take care of others’ farms. And only a few owned slaves, and in small numbers. I’m not sure why they signed up, but it wasn’t because their social betters told them to.

    I’d be curious to know how Sherman would have classified Andrew Jackson. By standards of wealth and education (for the times) he was elite. But his background and attitudes were pure Borderlands.

    A question I’ve never heard is why the Borderlands folk supported the Revolution. They and the gentry were the big supporters in VA. The middle class from southern England tended to be Loyalist. The gentry had an economic stake in that they were heavily indebted to English trading houses. But the rednecks had no similar interest.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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