Census estimate marks a first for the nation, serving as harbinger of change to come.
WASHINGTON - For the first time in U.S. history, most of the nation's babies are members of minority groups, said new census figures that signal the dawn of an era in which whites no longer will be in the majority.
Population estimates show that 50.4 percent of children younger than 1 last year were Hispanic, black, Asian or other minority members. That's almost a full percentage point higher than the 49.5 percent of minority babies counted when the decennial census was taken in April 2010. Census demographers said the tipping point came three months later, in July.
The latest estimates, which gauge changes since the last census, are a reflection of an immigration wave that began four decades ago. The transformation of the country's racial and ethnic makeup has gathered steam as the white population grows collectively older, especially compared with Hispanics.
The census has forecast that non-Hispanic whites will be outnumbered in the United States by 2042, and social scientists consider that current status among infants a harbinger of the change. "This is a watershed moment," said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University who specializes in family issues. "It shows us how multicultural we've become."
Although minority members make up about 37 percent of the U.S. population, the District of Columbia and four states are majority minority - California, Hawaii, New Mexico and Texas.
One of the biggest factors in the demographic change is age. Whites are by far the oldest group. Their median age is over 42, so many are beyond their prime childbearing years. In contrast, the median age for Hispanics is under 28. Blacks and Asians have median ages in their early 30s.
As the number of white women in their 20s and 30s declined over the past decade, the number of white children dropped in most states, said Kenneth Johnson, a sociologist with the University of New Hampshire.
'This is the first tipping point'
"The population is literally changing before us, with the youngest replacing the oldest," he said. "This is the first tipping point. The kids are in the vanguard of the change that's coming."
Places that serve Hispanic mothers and children are experiencing a baby boom. Mary's Center, which started in Washington in 1988 to provide immigrant women with prenatal care, opened its fifth center Wednesday just outside of the city in Maryland.
"The people who migrate are the young and healthy people," said Maria Gomez, founder of the center. "They are fertile, and that's the cycle of life."
In the short term, it's not clear whether the baby boom will continue. Immigration from Mexico, the country of origin for the vast majority of Hispanic immigrants in the United States, has come to a standstill, and may be moving in reverse.
William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, said the slowdown in immigration may delay the nation's transformation to a majority-minority society from 2042 to 2050 or beyond. But he said it will not prevent it.
"Eventually, when the economy returns, we're going to get more immigrants, maybe not from Mexico but from other parts of the world," he said. Without so many youthful immigrants, he added, the United States would look more like Japan, with its disproportionate share of elderly citizens.
'We had a perfect storm'
"We were already seeing a declining youth population in large parts of the country," Frey said. "Without immigrants, we'd be essentially youthless. We had a perfect storm. We got them all coming, younger immigrants having children, at a time when we really needed them."
Cherlin said the immigrant baby boom eventually will taper off. Studies suggest that the children and grandchildren of the newest immigrants will have birth rates much closer to those of non-Hispanic whites.
"The changes to the country may not be as huge as some people think," he said. "Immigrants will change our society, but our society will change the immigrants."