Friday, May 31, 2002
By Heide Seward, Research Fellow
Based on findings from the 2000 Census, it appears that the American “melting pot” tradition remains alive and well. Data from the Census “long form,” a more detailed questionnaire distributed to approximately one in six households, reveals that more and more Americans prefer to describe themselves simply as “Americans,” rather than to identify their ethnic or national heritage. Not surprisingly, this trend is especially prevalent among older immigrant groups, especially among Americans of European origin. Compared with the 1990 Census, in 2000 some 9 million fewer Americans identified themselves as being of German descent, and some 5 million fewer Americans described themselves as being of English or Irish descent.
By contrast, the number of Americans claiming West Indian, Latin American and sub-Saharan African descent increased dramatically. Although much of this is attributable to a straightforward increase in the numbers of immigrants from these areas of the world, it is also due, at least in part, to changing trends in ethnic identification. For example, more Americans today identify themselves as African-American than in 1990, and that may explain some of the increase in Americans claiming their origins in sub-Saharan Africa. The question of ethnic identification is even more complicated when it comes to Americans from Central and South America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. Observers have noted that more established groups from this part of the world –such as Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Cubans –have forged political alliances in certain instances. Americans from these areas are often reluctant to identify themselves with newer “Hispanic” immigrant groups, such as those from Mexico and Ecuador.
Such findings offer hope that new immigrants may also eventually consider themselves primarily as “Americans.” This is not to say that any American’s cultural origins are anything to be ashamed of. To the contrary, true cultural “diversity” makes for a much more interesting American culture. But all too often in recent times the idea of “diversity” has come to mean interest group politics in which one group of Americans is pitted against another group, and in which certain groups sometimes claim victim status in an effort to gain political advantage. September 11, 2001 reminded us that we have more to gain from national unity than from cultural fragmentation. The new Census data offer evidence that more Americans may be learning that lesson.
Teen Girls’ Behavior & Welfare Reform
It appears that welfare reform has had a positive effect on the behavior of teenage girls, according to a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). Researchers Robert Kaestner and June O’Neill (former director of the Congressional Budget Office) looked at data from the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth, comparing results from 1979 and 1997 on factors like welfare use, fertility rates, educational attainment and marriage rates among girls deemed to be at “high risk” in terms of these behaviors. They found that the 1997 data compared favorably with the 1979 data in each of these categories. Teen birthrates, school dropout rates and rates of entry into welfare all decreased. And teens in the ’97 group were also more likely to live with a spouse or with at least one parent. Congress passed welfare reform legislation in 1996, so the results of this study suggest that it has had the effect Congress intended –to discourage out-of-wedlock childbearing and other behaviors associated with entry onto the welfare rolls. Congress is currently in the process of reauthorizing the 1996 welfare legislation. This report may give them considerable food for thought.