America continues to diversify, with nearly one in every 10 of the country's counties having a population that is more than 50 percent minority, according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau. That diversification is expanding beyond the traditional immigration gateways, however, into more suburban and rural areas, and is fueled by the growth in the Hispanic population.

That's not to say that major cities are becoming less diverse. According to the Census report released on Aug. 9, Los Angeles County, Calif., had the country's largest minority population. Seven million, or 71 percent, of its residents are minorities. The county's minority population, the Census Bureau noted, is larger than the total population of each of 38 states. Cook County, Ill. (Chicago) and Harris County, Texas (Houston) ranked second and third in the number of minority residents. Based on total population, the highest proportion of minority population in a county was 98 percent in Starr County, Texas, on the Mexican border.

Howwever, the places with the highest percentage of minority population growth were on the East coast and in the South; topping the list of counties with populations of more than 100,000 were the Atlanta suburbs of Paulding and Henry counties, where the Hispanic population grew 236 percent and 190 percent, respectively.

The new data is powerful enough that "one could describe it as the 'Hispanization' of the United States," says former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros, who has studied Hispanic demographics and home-buying trends in-depth.

What it means for builders, Cisneros says, is population growth in many cities where, except for projected Hispanic growth, there would be none.

"This is a very important population," he says. "It's very entrepreneurial, capable of saving money, and is the fastest growing segment of middle class. That will add to the capacity to buy homes. Add to that the subjective element; this is a population that is very family oriented. Home ownership is their vision of the American dream."

One of the new trends demographers are seeing in terms of raw numbers is that while major cities such as Los Angeles and New York still have the largest concentration of Hispanics, there are small communities in the South, parts of the East Coast and the Midwest that are becoming Hispanic enclaves "almost overnight," says Adrian Pantoja, a professor of political science at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., who specializes in studying immigration and the Hispanic population. One of the reasons has to do with economics, he says, because those communities have both a demand for labor and fewer immigrants with whom to compete for jobs. Another reason is that those areas of the U.S. feel more like home.

"Some of these individuals are coming from rural areas in Mexico," he says. "For them, moving into Los Angeles is very frightening. Rural areas offer this sense of traditionalism that appeals to immigrants. They're coming from very conservative countries and communities. Places in the Midwest and the South are known for their conservatism."

Myelita Melton, author of "Survival Spanish for Construction," says she sees that trend as well.

"I feel that many Hispanics like the slower pace of life in Southern rural communities," she says. "(Southerners and Hispanics) have much in common: high family values, a strong spiritual attitude, anda most importantly, a fierce work ethic."

Demographer Kenneth Johnson says the most surprising thing to him in the new data is how important the birth rate is becoming. "Historically, much of the Hispanic population increase has come from immigration and migration," says Johnson who is a demographer at the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. "Roughly half the increase between 2000 and 2006 comes from natural increase (the difference between the birth rate and death rate). It indicates a transition point for the Hispanic population, following earlier patterns of immigration."

While the data might seem to reinforce the stereotype of Hispanics having large families, Johnson says, natural increase has more to do with the fact that Hispanics tend to have children at a younger age than non-Hispanic whites. Plus, since the Hispanic population in the U.S. on average is younger, there are fewer deaths. The ratio of births to deaths in the Hispanic population is about seven to one, he notes, while for non-Hispanic whites, it's about 1.3 to one.

The shift is important to builders, Johnson notes, because the birth of a child often is a major reason that families decide to purchase a home.

For more information on the Census data and Hispanic population shifts, visit (PDF)

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