Unlike the scandals currently rocking the Obama administration – IRS, AP, and Benghazi, which has led to a growing consensus inside the Beltway that something is at best wrong and at worst rotten – the debate on immigration has become more of a Rorschach test than anything else.
The discourse has become a bloated catch-all, and everyone with a twitter feed or a New York Times column has been unable to resist giving their here’s-what-it’s-really-about interpretation. The debates over IQ tests and gay rights, among other issues, are just some of the more colorful examples.
Immigration is understood, at its base, as an “all-American” issue that has been with us since our founding. Immigration also offers a solution to America’s aging population, which will give us a unique competitive advantage in the economic struggle among nations. It’s only because of immigration that the U.S. doesn’t find itself in the same economic conundrum as Japan, China, South Korea, and the European Union. These economic peers are finding it increasingly tricky to pay for their “seniors” as they age. With their birth rates falling and longevity extending, the math no longer adds up.
Australia and France notwithstanding (they’re two rich nations with immigrant populations larger than most), the U.S. is exceptionally young among OECD nations, despite its 78 million baby boomers who are passing into retirement. And it’s the country’s immigrants that are keeping the population balanced and preventing it from becoming like Japan, Korea, and much of Europe, where over a third of their population will soon be over 55.
Recent reports from Pew Research illustrate the point. In the U.S., 13 percent of the total population is foreign born. But 23 percent of all children born in the U.S. are from foreign-born mothers. The total number of births among foreign-born women, according to Pew, is trending downwards, but it still makes up nearly a quarter of all American infants.
For the U.S., this is vital. We have 2.08 children born per woman during her lifetime, but if babies from recent immigrant families were taken out of the equation, this number would drop to well below what demographers call “replacement level.” The U.S. would, in other words, have sub-replacement births like every other OECD nation. And it would, presumably, suffer a similar economic malaise caused in large measure by this demographic structural reconstruction of their populations.
Japan, most obviously, serves as the test case. In 1995, its 60-and-over population eclipsed the 20-percent mark, an historic milestone. By 2010, this segment accounted for 30 percent of its population, and it will pass an incredible 40 percent by 2040. While Japan’s demographics foretell where much of the world is headed, it is also the first nation to experience this historic shift. This is the “dirty little secret” that at least in part explains Japan’s decades-long economic funk.
Yet, as important as babies are to economic growth, leading many to trumpet the “demography is destiny” truism, this need not be the whole story. Economies can grow and social welfare can improve even without a young population. Scandinavian nations offer a current example. With typical European demography (high longevity, low birth rates), much of Scandinavia is forging ahead.
The key, of course, is to keep older adults engaged in social and economic life. This is the real challenge, the one that will make or break American fortunes, and those of the rest of the globe, in the 21st century. We need strategically progressive policies in the public and private sector that enable continued economic contribution of those who are 60, 70, and, yes, even 80 years old. We are making great strides in this direction, but frankly we’re not there yet.
Despite impressive leadership and progress, we still have work to do. And, in the meantime, the higher birth rates among the immigrant population are propping up the U.S. It is, ultimately, an economic strength, and it would be foolish to dismember it while we get the rest of our house in order. Immigration reform, in fact, will be a great economic benefit in addition to its underlying social value.
What’s indisputable is that America’s population is aging – and immigration is proving to be an antidote. Just as immigration fueled the U.S.’s historic rise to global power in the 19th and 20th century, it will be an indispensable asset as we compete in this current century.