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WASHINGTON — Minorities make up nearly half the children born in the U.S., part of a historic trend in which minorities are expected to become the U.S. majority over the next 40 years.

In fact, demographers say this year could be the “tipping point” when the number of babies born to minorities outnumbers that of babies born to whites.

The numbers are growing because immigration to the U.S. has boosted the number of Hispanic women in their prime childbearing years. Minorities made up 48 percent of U.S. children born in 2008, the latest census estimates available, compared to 37 percent in 1990.

“Census projections suggest America may become a minority-majority country by the middle of the century. For America’s children, the future is now,” said Kenneth Johnson, a sociology professor at the University of New Hampshire who researched many of the racial trends in a paper being released Wednesday.

Johnson explained there are now more Hispanic women of prime childbearing age who tend to have more children than women of other races. More white women are waiting until they are older to have children, but it is not yet known whether that will have a noticeable effect on the current trend of increasing minority newborns.

The numbers highlight the nation’s growing racial and age divide, seen in pockets of communities across the U.S., which could heighten tensions in current policy debates from immigration reform and education to health care and Social Security.

There are also strong implications for the 2010 population count, which begins in earnest next week, when more than 120 million U.S. households receive their census forms in the mail. The Census Bureau is running public service announcements this week to improve its tally of young children, particularly minorities, who are most often missed in the once-a-decade head count. The campaign features Nickelodeon’s Dora the Explorer, the English- and Spanish-speaking Nickelodeon cartoon character who helps “mommy fill out our census form.”

The population figures are used to distribute federal aid and redraw legislative boundaries with racial and ethnic balance, as required by federal law.

“The adults among themselves sometimes forget the census is about everyone, and kids should be counted,” said Census Bureau director Robert Groves. “If we fail to count a newborn that is born this month, that newborn misses all the benefits of the census for 10 years.”

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