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Published: Sunday, 12/12/2004

No change at the top, but America's on the move

JUST because there won't be any change in the White House next year doesn't mean there hasn't been any change in the country - and that there won't be even more change in the remaining four years of the Bush years.

Indeed, one way to think about this month's election is that George W. Bush won a second term precisely because the country is changing - changing fast and changing a lot. Much of the attention in the past several weeks has been on changing American values and changing American views on spirituality. There's probably something to that. But there are other kinds of changes going on, too, and they are changing the way the country lives - and where the country lives.

The traditional way America changes has been through immigration, and since the Passenger Act of 1819, which required ship captains to list who was coming to the United States on the high seas, the country has recognized that the way to change the nation is to change the mix, and the numbers, of newcomers from abroad. Immigration is still one of the straws that stir the American drink, though most of it today is concentrated in California, Texas, New York, New Jersey, Arizona, and New Mexico.

But there is movement throughout the country, not just in the high-growth corridors. Hundreds of thousands of Hispanics continue to pour into California, but the number of Hispanics who are leaving California is even greater. In fact, it's possible to describe the phenomenon of people leaving California as middle-class flight, as its components are not only Hispanics but whites and blacks as well.

Look for a moment at Florida. The biggest gain there is from domestic migration, not immigration, and the result is that central Florida increasingly is looking a lot like Georgia and the Carolinas.

Meanwhile, Hispanics are moving to North Carolina, Georgia, Nevada, and Arizona, primarily because the middle-class whites who are already in those states are demanding services and creating job opportunities for new Americans with skimpy resumes but boundless senses of drive and of ambition. That's one reason those four states are humming in the beginning of the new millennium.

Americans more than ever are on the road. They're moving inward (more power to those Red states) and southward (lots of Red there, too), filling up Phoenix, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Dallas, Fort Worth, Tampa, Orlando, Sacramento, Austin, and Charlotte.

But - and this is the important thing - they're doing more than filling those cities up. They're moving them out. They're spilling into the parts of America that are already the most suburban and they're expanding the bounds of the suburbs.

"People used to move from the city to the suburbs, but they find they cannot do that anymore," says William H. Frey of the Brookings Institution, a deft tour guide for a changing nation. "They go not to a suburb but to a suburban region like the Southeast or the Southwest. They're attracted by bigger houses, lower costs, less taxes, more local control, safer streets, and neighbors more like themselves."

The result: burgeoning new suburban metropolises like Atlanta. Some of the new people who consider themselves Atlantans actually live in Alabama. Tough commute to a Falcons game, maybe, but Atlantans in spirit (and in some demographic definitions) if not exactly in ZIP code.

Several of these population movements are shaping the places these migrants left behind. Though many baby boomers are settling in the southern states, in the next decade boomers will consolidate their domination over states like Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and a lot of New England. In those places watch for conflicts between the needs of older people (health care, Social Security) and the needs of younger people (parks, schools).

But the conflicts won't be confined to the older states. In high-immigration places like California, Texas, Nevada, and Arizona, Mr. Frey believes, a racial generation gap may develop, pitting older whites against younger, non-white immigrants. The new theme is an old theme in American history.

At the same time, demographers are watching the development of a new, non-metropolitan empire inside the United States. (Demographers like terms such as non-metropolitan. The rest of us are driven to words like rural.) Kenneth M. Johnson, of Loyola University in Chicago, and Calvin L. Beale, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, have found that rural areas of the nation are growing at the fastest rate in more than two decades - and at near record levels. As recently as the 1980s, rural areas were losing population.

No longer. Three-quarters of the nation's rural counties are growing in population, with gains greatest in the mountain west, the upper Great Lakes, the Ozarks, the South, and rural corners of the Northeast.

Big opportunities beckon, but big problems do, too, many of them environmental.

"Population growth increases population density along the forest edge, puts additional pressure on [rivers] and wetlands, increases recreational facilities, and complicates forest management and fire suppression," the demographers wrote. "For many rural communities that have coped with a declining population for years, managing an influx of people and businesses represents a serious challenge."

Population movement reflects and causes changes in a large nation. The growth of Chicago, for example, from 240 people in 1840 to 100,000 in 1860 and then to a million in 1890 reflected the growing urbanization of America and, in turn, represented an important shift in power in America.

Similar dynamics are now being worked out in places, like Las Vegas, that once were regarded as colorful settlements but now are emerging as important urban centers.

The lesson of all this: Presidential elections choose national leaders, but individual Americans establish national trends.

The President will be the same for the next four years. The country won't. The biggest movement in American life has always been movement itself.



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