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U.S. at 300 million: 'Heaven on earth' to 'uncharted territory'

By Brad Lendon and Thom Patterson
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(CNN) -- Forty years ago, Elizabeth Heydanek lived in her "heaven on earth" -- Schaumburg, Illinois.

She chased lightning bugs in her back yard, filled buckets on the porch with tadpoles from a nearby creek, played tag with friends.

Elizabeth was 7 years old in 1967, one of 200 million U.S. residents at the time. As she and her country grew -- the nation will reach the 300 million mark at 7:46 a.m. ET Tuesday, the U.S. Census Bureau says -- things changed in Schaumburg and the country.

Heydanek had moved to Illinois from New Jersey a year earlier in 1966, a trip made by train. If she and her family were moving now, they would be more likely to be moving to Florida, according to census figures. And they probably would be traveling by car -- there are 237 million vehicles on U.S. roads now compared with just under 100 million 40 years ago.

Intercity passenger train travel has dwindled -- just 0.2% of the amount of intercity travel done by car.

Heydanek said her little Illinois town began to change in 1972, just after the Woodfield Mall opened -- one she said was billed as one of the nation's largest at the time -- bringing in traffic and taking away some of the small-town charm.

Larger commercial properties have opened since, according to a study done at Eastern Connecticut State University, and their locations in Florida, California, Nevada and Virginia are indicative of where the U.S. population is growing and how the suburban sprawl Heydanek found in Illinois has taken over Sunbelt cities.

'Supersize, metro-nation'

Eric Wells was born into a house that was on the outskirts of Scottsdale, Arizona in 1967. "Anyone who knows Scottsdale today knows it is well in the center of town now," he said.

Census figures bear him out. Scottsdale's population was almost 218,000 in 2003, four times that of 1965. From 1990 to 2000, Arizona's population increased 40 percent, census figures show.

"[There's been] this huge shift of the population from the Northeastern part of the country, and there's been really virtually no growth in the Northeast and across the upper part of the country," said Carl Haub, a senior demographer at the nonprofit Population Reference Bureau.

"It's all been in the South and West, and we've seen cities that were tiny years ago, such as Phoenix, where Maricopa County is now the fourth-largest county in the U.S. Now that's pretty amazing in terms of population. No one would have dreamed that.

"If jobs go to places, then people will go there."

Vicky Markham, director of the Center for Environment and Population, said the United States has become a "supersize, metro-nation with a fast-growing population, and supersize appetites for housing, land and resource consumption."

Haub said, "It is a wake-up call. It might make us think more about how to manage growth. Urban sprawl eats up more territory than is necessary. We have rarely paid attention to providing public transportation."

Heydanek knows all too well how it happened in suburban Chicago, Illinois. She said it takes her "an hour with traffic -- a lot of traffic" to drive from her childhood home in Schaumburg to where she lives now in Cary, less than 20 miles away.

With population growth comes stress. Those care-free playtimes Heydanek remembers from Schaumburg don't exist for many of today's 7-year-olds, an American Academy of Pediatrics study released this month said.

The report cited hurried lives, intense competition to get ahead, poverty and lack of open space -- all related to a growing population -- as adding stress to kids' lives and depriving them of the development opportunities that old-fashioned play provides.

Heydanek attests to that. Though her three children are now in their 20s, she recalls just a few years ago how the nightly family sit-down dinners she had in Schaumburg were replaced in Cary with "a microwave and a bag of fast food in the middle of the table."

At 46, Heydanek has another 31 years before she reaches the average American life expectancy in 2003. It undoubtedly will be longer in 2037 with advances in health care and technology.

Federal retirement programs will bear a heavy burden, experts said.

"Social Security and Medicare will overwhelm the budget as more baby boomers retire and there's not going to be any money for anything else," said CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider. "So you're going to find people in a ferocious scramble for a diminishing number of resources because so much of it is going to be gobbled up by entitlements."

Haub said, "We're living a lot longer than we were -- and unfortunately -- we're not going to get all that extra time to go fishing. We're going to have to stay on the job a little longer."

Immigrants help redefine nation

New and younger tax-paying immigrants will offset the burden on Social Security somewhat. Economist James P. Smith of the Rand Corp. said immigrants will help "pay for it a little bit, but it's not going to resolve the problem because the immigrants themselves grow old and they become additional recipients of these programs."

Foreign immigrants add significantly to the population increase. If Heydanek and her family were leaving New Jersey now, foreign immigrants would stand a good chance of taking their place.

"Some geographic regions [the Northeast] and a number of large states [Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York] were either totally dependent or very heavily reliant on new foreign immigration for their population growth over the 2000-2003 period," according to a July 2004 report done for the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts.

For immigrants, America has long been a beacon of hope. In turn, those immigrants provide hope for the country, fueling what experts said will continue to be the world's premiere economy for at least another 40 years.

"The U.S. is distinguished from other developed countries in that it's still in the state of becoming," said Robert Lang, director of Virginia Tech's Metropolitan Institute. "It's a source of the country's vitality in that it undergoes this constant redefinition of itself."

In Illinois, Heydanek feels like one of the fortunate. She said she's lucky to have a husband who budgets well and enough pension and 401k resources to live comfortably when retirement comes.

Her worries are more about the country, and the world the grandchildren she hopes for -- part of America's next 100 million -- will inherit.

Back in Schaumburg 40 years ago, "we never would have worried about going to school and getting shot," Heydanek said.

"It's just a whole different world. This is all uncharted territory."


Young Elizabeth Heydanek, then 6, cradles dog Spot in front of her home on Somerset Lane in Schaumburg, Illinois, in 1966.



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