Not since white settlers surged west, overwhelming the native population, has Washington been at all diverse in its population, at least if one defines “diverse” by ethnicity rather than European country of origin. By 1890, whites represented 97 percent of Washington’s recorded populace, and that number remained static for decades. Now that mix has started to change. Just recently, the white (not Hispanic) portion of Washington’s population dropped below 80 percent, for the first time since the mid-19th century.

Annabel Kirschner, a professor in the Department of Community and Rural Sociology and an extension specialist, recently released “Increasing Diversity in Washington State 2000–2008,” the latest in a continuing series of demographic analyses of Washington state, now named Washington Counts in the 21st Century.

The idea of the series, says Kirschner, is to give county administrators, social service personnel, small business owners, and others a clearer view of what U.S. Census and other demographic information means for their county. Washington’s geographic diversity lends itself to great economic and social diversity, if not necessarily to ethnic diversity. Lewis is not Adams is not Grays Harbor County.

And none resembles King County. It’s rare, says Kirschner, that county trends mimic those of the state. King County, the big gorilla in the game, skews all information for the state because of its disproportionate population and economic activity.

In 1980, non-Hispanic whites represented 90.2 percent of Washington’s population. By 2008, that percentage had dropped to 76.2. Actually, white population over that period increased by better than 25 percent. However, over that same period, Washington’s Hispanic population grew by nearly 200 percent.

Immigration, of course, was a major factor in the growing diversity. In 1980, 5.8 percent of Washingtonians were foreign-born. By 2007, that number was 12.3 percent. However, says Kirschner, better counting of people who have always been there also contributed.

The immigration growth number is from the American Community Survey, an ongoing survey by the U.S. Census Bureau of a small sample of the population. It is likely a conservative estimate, as undocumented immigrants are probably undercounted. The Census Bureau targets households, says Kirschner, not people.

According to Washington’s Office of Financial Management, immigration contributes most to the growth of Asian and Pacific Islander and Hispanic groups. In 2000, 67.2 of Washington’s Asian and 45.6 of its Hispanics were foreign-born.

An important factor leading to diversity, notes Kirschner in her report, is the age structure of different groups. The median age of whites in Washington in 2000 was 37.9, of blacks 29.7, American Indians 28.6, of Asian/Pacific Islanders 30.5 , and of Hispanics 22.7.

According to Kirschner’s report, even if immigration to the United States were to stop and fertility rates for all populations were to fall below the rate necessary to replace the next generation, Washington would continue to grow more diverse—because of the age structures of the non-white populations.

Hispanics make up more than 100 percent of population growth in Adams, Columbia, Okanogan, and Yakima counties. Without their additional population, the counties’ population would have declined. In 2008, Hispanics became the majority in Franklin and Adams counties.

Kirschner’s assessment of these numbers? Washington must recognize the shift in its population and plan for it.

“We need to integrate these kids into the school system so they can go on to realize their talents,” she says. Otherwise, she continues, the children of this growing population will not be paying taxes on high-level professions.

“The difference in tax between a McDonalds worker and a PhD or a doctor is phenomenal. It’s penny-wise and pound foolish not to build such a system.”