America Needs More, Not Less, Immigration To Combat a Historic Baby Bust and Looming Labor Shortages, Researchers Say

Immigration must increase to about 3.5 times the current rate, a new survey says, to bump America’s working population amid the lowest birthrate in American history.

AP/Eric Gay
Migrants who crossed the Rio Grande and entered the United States from Mexico are lined up for processing by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at Eagle Pass, Texas. AP/Eric Gay

Research from the University of Pennsylvania suggests that America needs more, not less, immigration in order to offset birth rates among native-born Americans that have dropped to the lowest levels in the nation’s history.

An annual immigration rate of about 3.5 times the current rate is necessary to boost the working population and combat “persistently low fertility,” the research says. That’s according to new population projections by the Penn Wharton Budget Model using data from sources like the Census Bureau, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

With America’s death rate poised to exceed the birth rate, the analysis suggests that immigration alone will sustain positive, though declining, population growth.

The nation’s fertility rate is expected to average 1.7 children a woman over the next few decades, well below the replacement rate of 2.1. The current figure represents a fertility decline that intensified following the Great Recession of 2008 and the Covid pandemic, furthered by women with college degrees who are postponing pregnancy. Unlike the baby boomers of their parents’ generation, young American women appear to be prioritizing professional success over family life, taking part in a new religion that the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson calls “workism.”

The job market, though, is expected to take a hit as many baby boomers shift to retirement in the next decade and a large portion die by mid-century. “Immigration is one way to maintain the relative strength of the worker population,” a project director at the Wharton School, Jagadeesh Gokhale, who conducted the analysis, tells the Sun. “The number of workers won’t keep up with the growth in the retiree population, and workers support retirees and key programs like Social Security and Medicare.”

Immigration could also reverse the ongoing baby bust. The fertility rate among first-generation immigrants, especially Hispanics, tends to be a little higher than the fertility rates of native-born Americans, Mr. Gokhale says. “That will certainly go some way towards also restoring the fertility rate of U.S. residents,” he says.

Wharton’s study seeks to determine how government spending on public goods and social services will need to evolve according to the productivity of the future population. Federal agencies like the Social Security Administration tend to make budget predictions based on extrapolating information from the past. “But fundamentally,” Mr. Gokhale says, “national output and the tax basis that people will have in the future will depend on the types of individuals that are around in the future.”

Pro-natalist policies seek to reverse downward demographic trends. A child tax credit expansion easily passed the House in February but is now stalled out in the Senate with four weeks left until the tax deadline of April 15. Proponents say the legislation could give families a chance to maximize the child tax credit if their ability to work was interrupted by a job loss, illness, or caregiving duties. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says that the proposed expansion to the child tax credit would benefit 16 million children.

Republican critics, though, say that because the package can apply to taxpayers who earn no income for a year, it will encourage parents to drop out of the workforce. The credit could therefore create what Senator Willis called in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed a “de facto welfare program.” Other GOP critiques of pro-natalist policies hold that it’s not the government’s job to socially engineer family life, especially for individuals who cannot on their own provide for their children. 

Years of policies favoring procreation haven’t succeeded in counteracting the dip in the birth rate below the replacement rate, Mr. Gokhale says. Whether the child tax credit will succeed depends not just on the policy itself, he says, but on external factors like the state of the economy, the labor market, and whether women are foregoing pregnancy for “workism.”

Despite partisan skirmishes in Congress, demographic decline is happening even more dramatically on the global stage than in America. More than 97 percent of countries across the world will have fertility rates below the replacement level by the year 2100, according to a Lancet study published last week by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine. Birth rates will drop across most of the globe while increasing in low-income regions like sub-Saharan Africa, resulting in “a demographically divided world.”

South Korea’s total fertility rate has fallen by 25 percent in just 5 years. Finland’s rate has dropped by 20 percent. In Communist China, the legacy of the one-child policy looms large years after it ended.

Countries with a strong sense of gender egalitarianism are being hit hardest, like Finland, Sweden, and Norway, which had, until recently, seen higher fertility rates than countries in southern Europe while espousing progressive ideas of gender and robust state support for child-rearing. This model had served as evidence that “feminism is the new natalism,” the New York Times’s Ross Douthat writes, yet now, “that hope seems to be dissolving.”


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