300 Million Americans...
and more on the way!

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Reuters - October 15th, 2006.

The Lakewood Church in Houston has a space, complete with cartoon murals, for parents to leave their children while they attend a service. There is room for 5,000 children.

Lakewood's size may be unusual it occupies a refurbished basketball stadium, and co-pastor Joel Osteen's televised sermons are watched by 7 million people each week but its focus on the family is not.

"I love children because they are so pure," says Victoria Osteen, who shares pastoring duties with her husband. "For myself, having children has been an awesome, wonderful, full life."

When Europeans hear the words "America," "religion" and "family values," they think of brimstone preachers raging against unconventional domestic arrangements.

They often forget the more positive role American churches play in nurturing conventional families.

Lakewood's ministries, for example, teach married couples how to communicate better and give them practical advice on how to bring up children and put the family finances in order.

In such a mobile society people often have nowhere else to turn for friendly counsel.

Hillary Clinton once said that "it takes a village to raise a child." Often in America, "the church is the village," says Stephen Klineberg, a sociologist at Rice University in Houston.

On Tuesday, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's population clock, the number of people in the country will hit 300 million, up from 200 million in 1967.

By as early as 2043, the bureau says, there will be 400 million Americans. Such robust growth is unique among rich countries. As America adds 100 million people over the next four decades, Japan and the European Union countries are expected to lose almost 15 million.

These are only projections, of course. Lifespans will no doubt continue to stretch and immigration rules may change. What is striking, though, is the gulf between the fertility rate in the United States, the planet's third most populous nation, behind China and India and other rich countries.

American women today can expect to have an average of 2.1 children. That is the number needed to keep a population stable, so observers sometimes take it as a given and say that America's population growth is entirely due to immigration. This obscures the point: for every big advanced country besides America and Israel, the alternative to "replacement rate" fertility is a baby bust.

The fertility rate in the EU is 1.47 well below replacement. By 2010, deaths there are expected to start outnumbering births, so from that point immigration will account for more than all its growth.

And that average hides countries that have seen an astonishing collapse in the willingness of their citizens to breed.

Falling birth rates are linked to prosperity. People in very poor countries tend to have lots of babies because they expect some of them to die in infancy, and because they need help in the fields and someone to care for them in their old age. The fertility rate in Niger and Mali, for example, is more than seven children per woman.

As countries grow richer and women are educated, they have fewer children and invest more in each one. Whereas peasants in Mali cannot afford not to have kids, many Westerners fret that they cannot afford to have them.

University is expensive, and if Mom decides to stay home, the household must forgo the salary she used to earn. Add to this the sudden halt to a life of carefree Western hedonism, and it is no wonder that birth rates have plummeted in all rich countries.

But much less so in the United States. Why should this be?

Religion plays a role, argues Klineberg. Americans are more devout than Europeans, if church attendance is any guide, and their faith colours their worldview.

Birth rates are lower in more patriarchal rich countries, such as Japan and Italy, than in places where the sexes are more equal, such as North America and Scandinavia. Perhaps the knowledge that Dad will help with the housework makes women more willing to have children.

America's wide-open spaces also make child-rearing more attractive. Bringing up a large family in a tiny Japanese apartment is a struggle, even if you can fold away your bed during the day.

The world's lowest fertility rates are in super-crowded Hong Kong (0.95), Macau (1.02) and Singapore (1.06).

In America, the average family-home has doubled in size in the past half-century, from 1,000 square feet in 1950 to 2,100 square feet in 2001.

America's coastal areas are fairly densely settled, but families that cannot afford a spacious home with a garden in Connecticut or California can move somewhere cheaper.

They often do, one reason the mean centre of America's population the point at which an imaginary United States would balance if the only weight taken into consideration was that of its people keeps moving south and west.

Rapid growth may cause environmental problems, but it will greatly slow the pace at which America ages.

Whereas in the EU by 2050 there will be fewer than two adults of working age for every person older than 65, the proportion in America will be less scary, at almost three to one. The problems of growth, says Klineberg, are easier to deal with than the problems of decline.

Can the world cope with a relentlessly expanding America?

Many non-Americans will shudder at the prospect, but which alternative superpower would they prefer? China? If demography is destiny, they will not have to find out what a Chinese hyperpower looks like: the fertility rate in China is only 1.7, and there are almost no immigrants.

Who will be the 300 millionth American? No one knows.

The U.S. Census Bureau has announced that the nation's population will reach 300 million at about 7:46 a.m. on Tuesday.

But don't expect the bureau to identify the 300 millionth American, and don't think that person will necessarily be a newborn baby.

The population estimate which can be seen on a virtual population clock ticker at http://www.census.gov is based on an algorithm that takes into account birth rates, death rates and rates of international migration.

"There's no way we can say it's a baby," said Stephen Buckner, a bureau spokesman.

The estimate assumes that, on average, an American is born every seven seconds, one dies every 13 seconds and the nation gains an immigrant every 31 seconds.

The result is an increase in total population of one person every 11 seconds be it a baby or an immigrant.

Tuesday, Oct. 17, happens to be the anniversary of the 1777 American victory in the Battle of Saratoga, the introduction of the curve ball in the great American pastime, Al Capone's imprisonment for tax evasion, Albert Einstein's immigration to the United States from Germany, the beginning of the 1973 Arab oil boycott and the 1989 San Francisco earthquake.

The Census Bureau is not planning a press conference Tuesday morning but will hold an event to celebrate employees who have worked there since 1967, when the U.S. population hit 200 million.

At that time, Lyndon Johnson was president, a gallon of gas cost 33 cents, Dr. Christiaan Bernard performed the first heart transplant and Americans were mesmerized by colour TV.

Whoever the 300 millionth American is, his or her arrival is bound to be a relief to Robert Ken Woo, an Atlanta lawyer who was anointed by Life magazine as the 200 millionth American in 1967.

"Forty years is enough," said Woo.

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