PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island, once one of the whitest states in the country, is steadily becoming much more diverse.
Back in 1980, the year Ronald Reagan was elected president, 96% of Rhode Islanders were non-Hispanic whites – ranking seventh-highest among the 50 states. By 2014, however, the white share of Rhode Island’s population had shrunk to 76%, a 20-point drop over about two generations, as the number of Hispanic residents jumped.
And that trend is expected to continue in the coming decades: non-Hispanic whites are forecast to account for only 62% of Rhode Islanders by 2040 and just 52% by 2060, setting the state up to become majority-minority soon after that. By 2032, one in five Rhode Islanders is likely to be Hispanic.
Those projections come from “States of Change: The Demographic Evolution of the American Electorate,” a major study released last year by experts at the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution and the Center for American Progress, three prominent national think tanks. Their research has received new attention this year amid signs of racial strife and polarization nationwide.
“The scale of race-ethnic transformation in the United States is stunning,” the study’s co-authors declared. They expect non-Hispanic white Americans will be a minority of the nation’s population for the first time ever by 2044. The research “shows definitely that diversity is coming to every corner of our country,” they wrote.
The diversifying trend is seen across Southern New England. In Massachusetts, non-Hispanic whites’ share of the population dropped from 93% in 1980 to 75% in 2014 and is expected to be 51% by 2060. In Connecticut, the white population decreased from 93% in 1980 to 70% in 2014 and is expected to be just 42% by 2060.
Looking at New England as a whole, the study noted that Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont are still among the four whitest states in the country, while also pointing out that “even the more urbanized states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island have larger white shares than the nation as a whole.”
The demographic changes have political implications, as well, since they will also shift the composition of who can cast a ballot in state elections.
Non-Hispanic whites’ share of eligible voters will remain somewhat larger than their share of the total population due to the younger ages and higher rates of non-citizens among minority residents. Still, non-Hispanic whites’ share of all eligible voters in Rhode Island fell from 97% in 1980 to 83% in 2014, and is expected to be 69% in 2040 and 59% in 2060. However, the study says actual voter turnout among minorities is usually substantially lower than among non-Hispanic whites.
Also of note is the declining dominance of Rhode Island’s white working class. In 1980, 83% of Rhode Island’s voting-age population was made up of non-Hispanic whites without a college degree; by 2014, they were down to only 50% of the population, while the college-educated white population was up from 13% to 28%.
The “States of Change” study also noted other types of demographic changes in Rhode Island. Looking at different generations, Millennials were the state’s largest cohort as of 2014, at 27%, with Baby Boomers close behind at 25% and Generation X further back at 21%. Millennials are expected to remain Rhode Island’s largest generational group until 2030, when they’ll be overtaken by Post-Millennials.
The study also looked further ahead: “In 2060, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts should all have age structures markedly younger than the nation as a whole. Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, on the other hand, should be as old or older than the national average.”
Another interesting change: marriage rates have been on a notable decline in Rhode Island, as well as elsewhere in New England and nationally. The share of voting-age Rhode Islanders who were unmarried climbed from 37% in 1980 to 51% in 2014, when they made up a majority for the first time, according to the study.
“Political parties and policymakers will confront a bold new world in the coming decades,” the study’s authors concluded. “It is imperative for them to get out in front of the changes and make America work for the newest Americans, as well as for those who have long enjoyed the promise and opportunity America has to offer.”