The idea that the world is on the verge of some kind of catastrophic overpopulation crisis is a myth popularized in a 1968 book, The Population Bomb, by Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University. The truth is actually closer to the opposite of his theory.
Birthrates in most of the developed world have already fallen below the replacement rate (2.1 children per woman). The birthrate in the United States has dropped below the replacement rate for the first time since the financial crisis, but the U.S. is in much better shape than most countries, emerging or developed.
Japan and Russia have the lowest birthrates in the world and their societies are slowly aging and shrinking. China has its one child policy. Birthrates in India and other developing parts of the world are also slowing. The reality of the global population situation is much different from what is commonly believed. We are actually moving toward a population shortage…
In the United States, the baby boom generation is beginning its move into retirement. That represents 80 million Americans (the largest cohort of Americans in the country’s history) headed out of the workforce and into retirement. As more and more seniors begin drawing Social Security and Medicare, the strain already seen in those programs will become more pronounced.
The generation behind the baby boomers, Generation X, consists of about 40 million people in their 30’s and 40’s. As the chart below documents, the ratio of workers to retirees has declined from 41.9:1 in 1945 to 2.9:1 in 2010. It is projected to drop even further as the pace of boomer retirements accelerates. Sometime soon, there will not be enough workers paying into the entitlement system to support those drawing benefits.
This irrefutable fact renders our entitlement system as it now stands unsustainable. We will be forced to raise taxes significantly, cut benefits significantly, or both. The only way to avoid this fate is to dramatically increase the number of working age U.S. residents paying into the entitlement system.
The U.S. needs a huge influx of high-skill, mid-skill and even low-skill immigrants. And this occurs at a time when net migration to the U.S. is declining. Some of that decline stems from the poor economic recovery, some from better opportunities in immigrant’s home countries, and some from stricter border enforcement. Whatever the cause, the result will be a move, over the next twenty years, to a posture of actively recruiting immigrant labor. In the case of high-skill workers, that will include cash bonuses for moving to the U.S.
It’s hard to say exactly how many workers we would have to import to keep our entitlements solvent, but for sure it will be many millions. But it is here that America’s inherent advantages come into focus. As the chart below indicates, we integrate immigrants into our society far better than any other country. We have integrated huge waves of immigrants throughout our history and it’s time to prepare for another one.
Comprehensively reforming our immigration system to prepare for an orderly recruitment and integration process is not just good policy, it’s a strategic imperative. We should start where there’s most agreement: we must increase the immigration of highly-skilled workers by an order of magnitude.
We should remove the cap completely on the H1-B visa program. Likewise, every foreigner who completes an advanced degree in the U.S. should be automatically cleared to remain in the country. Then we should create a program for actively recruiting scientists, engineers and other high skilled technology talent. Those recruits will have the highest ratio of taxes contributed to services used. But we will need millions of low-to-mid skill workers as well. A dramatically larger guest worker plan should be part of the reform.
And there must be a pathway to citizenship. Political parties should change to make themselves more attractive to immigrants, not impede increased immigration to serve their short-term electoral needs.
Our current illegal immigration problem is transient, temporary, and is more a function of the poor economy than it is representative of our true immigration needs. There is a vocal minority trying to block any form of immigration reform for a variety of reasons, but you put political expediency ahead of strategic imperative at your own risk.
Let’s also be honest with ourselves about a couple of things: we have a 2,000 mile border with Mexico. It is impossible to seal it at any cost, nor should we want to. Secondly, we are not sending the millions of immigrants that are here now illegally home. For one, it’s not possible with existing law enforcement resources, and secondly, our economy is too dependent on immigrant labor.
DC is a sanctuary city, which means it does not cooperate with federal law enforcement on immigration matters. We’re guessing that the people who created the policies that made DC a sanctuary city were operating out of compassion, not strategic foresight, Whatever the reason, it puts DC in a much better position to compete for immigrant workers and now looks like a smart move. Establishing a strategy that welcomes them now and integrates them into the local economy will serve the area well down the road.