People and Culture

These lines, part of a poem written by Emma Lazarus, appear on the Statue of Liberty. They offer a very appropriate introduction to this chapter on the American population. The United States has been and continues to be a grand human experiment conducted on a colossal scale. It has often been called a “country of immigrants,” people who arrived from many distant lands in pursuit of a better life. By and large, their faith in the “American dream” was rewarded with good fortune, although for some it involved a long struggle and much sacrifice. Of course, the newcomers arrived in and rapidly took control of a land already long occupied by native peoples. Today, however, the majority population is of European ancestry.

With more than 300 million people, the United States ranks third in population behind China and India, yet with an area of 3.8 million square miles (9.8 million square kilometers), the country—unlike its counterparts with high populations—is not crowded. In fact, the population density of about 80 people per square mile (30 per square kilometer) is well below the world average of about 115 (44), and 90 percent of all Americans live in less than 10 percent of the country's area! Space, good farmland, and other natural resources are abundant.

No country comes close to matching the United States in terms of human mobility. In fact, the average American moves about 12 times. Socioeconomically, few countries offer a greater opportunity for individual advancement regardless of racial, ethnic, religious, economic, or other background. The country's population is a mosaic of people who have come from every country on Earth. In doing so, the population represents the world's most ethnically diverse society in terms of ancestral “roots.” Despite this great diversity, the United States has been and continues to be much more a cultural “melting pot” than a “salad bowl.” Most Americans, regardless of ethnic, racial, or geographic origin, proudly think of themselves as “Americans,” without a hyphenated tie to their ancestral homeland. Cultural assimilation and social integration—although slower and more difficult for some than for others—has characterized the grand American experiment.


Demography is the science devoted to the statistical study of the human population. Demographic data are obtained primarily through a periodic census, a country's single most important source of information about its people. In the United States, a census is a constitutional requirement, and one has been taken every decade (in years that end in 0) since 1790. Districts of the 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives are determined on the basis of population. California, the most populous state, has 53 members in that governing body, whereas seven states have only a single representative. Every 10 years, some states can lose and others gain seats in Congress based on new census data.

A census involves much more than a “head count.” It provides a detailed statistical profile about a country's population. To get some idea of how detailed the information is, you can go to and note the great number of different categories. Just for fun, go to “American Factfinder.” When it opens, enter your home community and state in the space provided. You contribute to not one, but many statistics!

The U.S. population is approximately 301 million (as of mid-2007) and is growing at an annual rate of about 1.2 percent per year. The rate of natural increase is about 0.9 percent, meaning that three-fourths of the growth is from the number of births compared to deaths. The other one-fourth is from immigration, both legal and undocumented. Today, the total fertility rate (TFR), or number of children to which a woman gives birth, has dropped below the replacement level of 2.1. This means that, if the country's population is going to continue to grow, either the birthrate must increase or the void must be filled by immigration. Experts believe that immigration will, indeed, continue at a rapid pace. They project a 40 percent increase in the U.S. population—to 420 million—by 2050 if the current rate of annual gain continues.


Cultural geographers have long recognized that a healthy, well-educated, productive population can and should be a country's most important resource. In this regard, the United States is extremely fortunate. For the most part, its more than 300 million people are healthy. Life expectancy at birth is 78 years, 75 for males and 81 for females. This is slightly longer than the average in the developed world and much higher than that of the world's less developed countries. The United States also has a high rate of literacy: 99 percent. Eighty percent of the population over 15 years of age has a high school education, and nearly 25 percent are college graduates. If a country is to be successful in a highly competitive postindustrial economy that involves skilled services, information exchange, and global networking, it is essential that its citizens be well educated.

As is true in nearly all countries in the developed world, America's population is aging. When births decline and life expectancy increases, a population ages. Currently, the average age in the United States is about 37 years and is increasing. Nearly 13 percent of the population is 65 years of age or older. An aging population creates several problems. First, there are fewer young people to join the workforce. This is particularly critical at the entry level with lower-paying jobs. Second, an aging population requires increasingly costly medical attention and facilities. Finally, an aging population means more retirees who need retirement facilities and will be drawing on retirement financial packages such as social security. In each case, an added burden is placed on the nation's economy.

With declining fertility rates and an aging population, the most obvious solution to the problems is to increase immigration quotas. Currently, the United States not only accepts more immigrants than any other country, it receives more people than the rest of the world combined! Immigration can be a double-edged sword, both solving and causing problems.

The nation's economic prosperity increasingly depends on immigrant labor. Furthermore, there is little to suggest that this dependence will do anything but increase during coming decades. According to various sources, however, an estimated 11 to 13 million immigrants, or nearly 4 percent of the country's total population, are in the country illegally. Immigration is one of the most challenging and hotly debated issues facing the country's political leaders.


Settlements patterns—the distribution of people within a defined area—are among the most revealing of all geographic conditions. They help tell us not only where people choose to live, but, often, why. Some areas, of course, are extremely crowded, whereas others remain almost vacant. Initially, most European settlement hugged the eastern seaboard. Gradually, it spread southward and westward into the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, the Great Lakes region, and adjacent areas. In the mid-nineteenth century, the country's interior was leapfrogged as thousands of people migrated to the West Coast in pursuit of gold and, later, good farmland, a pleasant climate, and other attractions. Other than latecomer states Alaska and Hawaii, the nation's “last frontier” was the central and western interior. Much of this region was not settled until the late 1800s.

Location, Location, Location

Location—where a place is and what it has to offer—is the primary factor that influences where people decide to settle. Traditionally, economic conditions have been the primary determinant of where people choose to settle. They search for places where a decent living can be made for themselves and their families. Good farmland and other resources such as dense woodlands for timber or minerals for mining drew many settlers, as did streams that provided freshwater, easy navigation, and perhaps a site for water-powered flour, lumber, or other mills. In time, towns along railroads and, later, highways or around natural harbors grew economically, offered jobs, and attracted settlers. Through time, as economic, social, and technological changes occurred, perceptions of good (and bad) places to live also changed. Settlement, after all, is not spread evenly across the country, as can be seen on the “United States at Night” map. How might such great differences in settlement and population density be explained?

The Attraction of Water

An estimated 60 percent of all Americans live in counties that border the Atlantic or Pacific ocean or the Great Lakes, and about 80 percent live within 200 miles of these waters. Clearly, Americans are attracted to oceans, lakes, and rivers. Think for a moment about the number of ways in which you use (directly or indirectly) water every day. Water is essential to life, and the average American uses approximately 400 gallons daily. It also offers the least expensive medium for surface transportation. Water is an essential resource for many industries, and 15 percent of all American agriculture is irrigated, a figure that jumps to 85 percent in the dry Western states. More recently, people have flocked to lakeshores and seacoasts because of the scenic and recreational amenities they offer. As was noted in Chapter 2, the importance of water to a place is often suggested by its name. In addition to the terms mentioned previously, other names that suggest the importance of water include bridge, ferry, ford, mill, portage, and well.

Because natural harbors offer access to all lands that border the global sea, many cities were located around them and grew primarily because of their seaport function. On the Atlantic Coast, Boston; New York; Philadelphia; Charleston, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia; and Jacksonville and Miami, Florida grew as major port cities. Along the Pacific Coast, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, and Anchorage owe much of their growth to their port function. On the Great Lakes, which have shipping access to the Atlantic Ocean, Buffalo, New York; Cleveland, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; Chicago, Illinois; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Duluth, Minnesota; all grew as inland port cities. In addition, the aforementioned New Orleans; Memphis, Tennessee; St. Louis, Missouri; and Minneapolis–St. Paul grew as ports on the Mississippi River. Upstream, Cincinnati, Ohio and Pittsburgh flourished on the Ohio River, as did Kansas City, Missouri and Omaha on the Missouri. Portland, Oregon, is on the Columbia River. Hundreds of smaller communities throughout the United States also owe their origin and growth to a riverside location.

In arid portions of the western United States, including much of California, most settlement occurred at an oasis site—a location where freshwater was available from a stream, lake, or groundwater source. Some communities outgrew their available water supply and were forced to look elsewhere in order to thrive or even survive. Most of southern California obtains its water supply from elsewhere—the Colorado River or streams that flow from the Sierra Nevada. This makes the region highly vulnerable to any event or condition that might limit the flow of water, a situation much like someone on a life-support system. In the desert Southwest, booming Phoenix, Tucson, and Las Vegas are among the country's fastest-growing metropolitan areas, yet nearly all of their growth depends on water diverted from the Colorado River. In the future, assuming that the region's population continues to grow, ensuring an adequate water supply will be the arid West's greatest challenge.

Fertile Farmland

Farming is essential to human survival—we must eat—and much of farming depends on good soil and its cultivation. The United States is blessed with some of the world's best farmland. Vast areas of flat land with good soil and adequate moisture provide the foundation on which the world's most productive agricultural economy was developed. From the very beginning of European settlement, people were drawn to good farmland. Fertile alluvial (stream-deposited) soils drew settlers inland across the broad Atlantic and Gulf coastal plains and inland along river valleys and into broad basins.

In 1862, the U.S. government took a very bold step by passing the Homestead Act, which offered free land in the country's interior to people who were willing to settle and develop it. Hundreds of thousands of people took advantage of the opportunity, swelling the population of the Interior Lowlands and Great Plains. Interestingly, much of this land could not be farmed until the steel-tipped, moldboard plow was developed by John Deere in the mid-nineteenth century. The steel tip could break the thick sod and turn the soil so it could be tilled. Later, thousands of settlers trekked westward to settle and farm the fertile Central Valley of California, Oregon's Willamette Valley, and Washington's Puget Sound and Palouse regions.

Improved Access

The phrase “build it and they will come” certainly holds true for the impact that highways and railroads have had on settlement. Between the Appalachian Mountains and the Pacific Coast (excluding Alaska and Hawaii), it is estimated that about 80 percent of all permanent communities owe their origin to railroads. Many cities, including Chicago and St. Louis, grew as major railroad transportation centers. The automobile age began in the early 1900s, following the coming of the railroads by up to half a century in some places. Whereas people were drawn to railroads, just the opposite was true in regard to highways. Highways, at least during the early decades of automotive transportation, tended to serve already-existing populations.

This changed somewhat with the development of the Interstate Highway System that was begun during the 1950s. Other Influences on Settlement Many other factors have influenced where Americans live, now as in the past. Hundreds of communities, scattered throughout nearly every state, owe their origin to some primary industry such as mining, fishing, or logging. Such centers often experience what can best be called a “boom-and-bust” economy. The West, for example, has thousands of “ghost towns” that were once thriving mining camps. Many such communities, however, have experienced a rebirth. Because they occupy scenic locations, are of historical interest, or are ideal sites for some recreational activity, such as skiing or fishing, they have become tourist centers. Once again, place names often provide a clue to a community's origin. Dozens of towns and cities have fort, university or college, or some other term that identifies a founding function. Many cities, such as Washington, D.C., developed as seats of government.

Changing Patterns of Settlement

Americans have always been “on the go.” Through time, however, ideas of where they want to live have changed greatly. As a result, there have been some remarkable changes in the country's settlement patterns as populations shift from place to place. That millions of Americans followed nineteenth-century newspaper editor Horace Greeley's advice to “Go West, young man, go West!” is evident by the westward shift through time of the “Mean Center of the United States Population.” In 1790, the mean center was located in Kent County, on Maryland's Eastern Shore. One hundred years later, in 1890, it had moved west to Decatur County, in southeastern Indiana. And, most recently, in 2000, it was located in south-central Missouri's Phelps County.

There have been many other shifts. At one time, most Americans were rural. During the past century, however, tens of millions of people have participated in a massive rural-to-urban migration. Today, in fact, nearly 80 percent of all Americans reside in urban centers (communities with more than 2,500 residents). Long ago, people found that they could no longer make an adequate living on a small family farm. Cities, however, offered a variety of wage-paying employment opportunities.

Schools, health care, and entertainment were better, as were shopping options and other services. There were libraries, museums, and art galleries and also organized sports, opera halls, and restaurants.

As urban transportation facilities improved, people could commute to work. They could live at the city's edge and still work “downtown.” This resulted in what urban geographers call the urban-to-fringe migration that created suburbia. Suburbs were removed from the congestion, pollution, and growing decay of urban centers, and they also offered a more open and natural landscape. Today, many people are moving even farther out from the urban center to exurban locations. Exurbia is simply defined as “beyond the suburbs.” For some commuters, it may be many miles beyond. The author knows a number of people who have a daily commute of 50 to 100 miles or more to work each way. One major attraction of exurbia is that, in many locations, real estate sells or rents for a small fraction of its cost in the city or suburbs.

Another mass migration has occurred during the past half century. Millions of people have fled the Rust Belt or Snow Belt of the Northeast and have moved to the warmer Sun Belt of the South and Southwest, an area that stretches from Virginia to southern California. During the 1960s, effective and relatively inexpensive air-conditioning was developed. It made comfortable living possible despite the scorching temperatures of the desert Southwest and soggy heat and humidity of the South. Many other factors were involved. Property, taxes, and other costs of living were much less expensive in the Sun Belt states. Businesses were attracted by lower wages, a large labor pool, lower taxes, and other lucrative incentives.

During recent decades, major changes in American culture and society have contributed to still another major shift in settlement. Until recently, people had little choice but to live where they could make a living. In retirement, they lived close to family members who cared for them during their twilight years. Today, millions of people make their livings from jobs that are not tied to one place (for example, a large industrial city). They can live where they want, rather than need, to reside. Some are self-employed; they may be artists, writers, musicians, or craftsmen. Others need only a computer to do their jobs successfully. These are the kinds of changes made possible as American society has moved from an industrial economy to a postindustrial service-based economy. In addition, and really for the first time in history, many retirees can count on their own savings and retirement programs, including social security, to retire where they like.

The result of these changes is that millions of people have chosen to settle in “amenity” locations. These are places that offer exceptional scenery, a pleasant climate, varied recreational opportunities, or some other amenity that attracts people. Seacoasts, mountainous areas, and lakes are examples of such locations. As recently as the 1950s, most coastal areas of the country, with the exception of major port cities or resort centers enjoyed by the extremely wealthy, had very sparse settlement. Economically, there was nothing to do. The Appalachians and Ozarks were remote, isolated, run-down centers of extreme poverty and home to little more than socially scorned “hillbillies.” The Mountain West was dotted with once-prosperous mining centers whose empty streets and decaying structures stood as stark reminders of a more prosperous past. Amazingly, within the past half century there has been a complete turnaround. Today, coastal areas, mountain regions, and historical centers—which once offered the nation's cheapest property and lowest population densities—are booming. Population is soaring and property values are now some of the nation's highest.

If a country is to achieve the stability needed for its population to prosper, it must have a government that is responsive to its people and their needs. It also must have a strong and diverse economy. The United States has been and continues to be extremely fortunate. It is blessed to have both a responsive and enduring political system and a vibrant and diverse economy. How the country has prospered politically and economically is the topic of the next two chapters.