Will Immigration Make Up for Falling Birthrate?

A recent article in the Washington Post cites demographic figures from the National Bureau of Health Statistics, showing a drop in the U.S. birthrate for the second consecutive year, to a record low, after peaking in 2007. (See Why Immigration Could Help America, by Suzy Khimm, Washington Post, 27.Aug.2010.) As the Post article notes, “there were 13.5 births for every 1,000 people last year, a 2.6 percent drop from the year before, and the lowest birthrate in decades. It looks like the number of babies, like the housing market, peaked in 2007.” A Johns Hopkins researcher is quoted in the article, explaining what might seem self-evident to some: that the birthrate tends to tank when the economy does.

The question of birthrates is no idle concern in modern societies that depend on younger workers to sustain the social safety net for retirees. Restricting immigration is ultimately counterproductive, the article argues, when we need workers to pay the taxes that feed Social Security, Medicare, and the like. What we don’t want, the Post article cautions, is a downward spiral in which a bad economy leads to a shrinking birthrate, leading to further economic retrenchment over time; in other words, we don’t want to be like Japan, “where a negative birthrate brought on by the country’s financial contraction and rapidly aging population has exacerbated its ability to pull out of a decades-long recession.”

Immigration may be the answer to this conundrum, according to Ms. Khimm, who notes that immigrant birthrates, particularly among Latinos, tend to be higher than other ethnic groups – perhaps enough to make up for the decline in the U.S. birthrate, and prevent a downward spiral like Japan’s. As Ms. Khimm points out, citing a study by the National Research Council, “immigrants overall have contributed more in taxes than they’ve taken in public services, particularly as they become more socially mobile.” (As regular readers of this blog are aware, several more recent studies buttress this conclusion.)

Reasonable minds can differ as to what the optimal level of immigration may be, but it should be clear to all of us that simply slamming the door on immigration is nothing short of self-defeating. This has not stopped anti-immigrant forces, including some big-name politicians, from dining out on their extreme restrictionist rhetoric – a rhetoric as yet undisciplined by the realities of the marketplace and the future needs of our social safety net. Let’s hope that when the smoke clears after the November election, the rhetorical haze of the anti-immigrant crowd will clear away with it, so the public can see the true benefits of immigration.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.