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The census shows the US needs to increase immigration — by a lot

The 2020 census shows that America isn’t full — and that it needs immigrants.

A person in a face mask holds up their right hand while looking at a printed sheet of paper in their left hand, which also holds a small American flag on a stick.
Candidates for US citizenship listen to the presiding field officer during a naturalization ceremony on March 8, 2021, in Newark, New Jersey.
Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

The results of the 2020 census are a warning sign that America is on a course for slow population growth.

Economists broadly agree that population growth fuels economic growth in wealthy countries. But the recently released census figures show the US population was 331.5 million people, an increase of just 7.4 percent between 2010 and 2020 — the lowest rate since the 1930s. Projections suggest that, unless current trends change, those numbers could continue to diminish dramatically over the next two to three decades, with the population growing by just 78 million by 2060.

Some parts of the US are already beginning to experience some of the downsides of population slowdown or decline: Shrinking tax bases in rural areas have made it harder for government budgets to support essential services, such as infrastructure and public schools. As population growth slows, the pressure for cuts will likely grow. Meanwhile, the existing population will continue to age; by 2030, the Census Bureau estimates that one in five US residents will be of retirement age.

“Slow population growth, at least in the United States and a lot of other developed countries, will become a dire age dependency problem,” William Frey, a senior fellow at the Brooking Institution’s metropolitan policy program, said. “It puts a big strain on the rest of the population.”

There are ways that policymakers can turn the situation around — the Biden administration has advocated for family-friendly policies that could make it easier for Americans to have more children. But that will not be enough to overcome a widening gap in the number of working-age adults that are able to support an aging population of baby boomers.

That leaves immigration, which has historically insulated the US from population decline and represents a kind of tap that the US can turn on and off. Over the next decade, it is set to become the primary driver of population growth for the first time in US history. The question now is exactly how much more immigration might be needed to accelerate population growth — and whether US policymakers can actually overcome their political differences on the issue to make it an effective tool.

“Immigration is one of the most feasible and rational ways to help respond to this challenge and we know that it will have a really significant impact,” Danilo Zak, a senior policy and advocacy associate for the National Immigration Forum, said.

Immigration is the easiest way to increase population growth

There are two main ways that the US could increase overall population growth: by encouraging people to have more children or by increasing immigration levels.

On their own, pro-natalist policies have historically failed to increase birthrates in the kinds of numbers that would be required to stave off stagnant population growth. Internationally, research has shown that child allowances have led to slight, short-lived bumps in birthrates. From 2007 to 2010, Spain had a child allowance that led to a temporary 3 percent increase in birthrates, but that was mostly because more people decided to have children earlier, rather than have more of them. After the allowance was revoked, the birthrate decreased 6 percent.

President Biden has proposed his $1.8 trillion American Families Plan, which would cap child care payments for parents earning up to 1.5 times the median income in their state, guarantee 12 weeks of paid parental leave, and maintain a new enhanced child tax credit for another four years — the kind of policies that might make it easier for families to have children. But even so, the US isn’t likely to see the kind of baby boom of the 1950s and ’60s, when the population was overall very young and a high percentage of women were in their childbearing years.

“Pro-family policies are important, but it’s proven pretty hard to get people to have more children when they don’t want to,” Zak said.

Immigration is a much more reliable driver of population growth. The average age of newly arriving immigrants is 31, which is more than seven years younger than the median American, meaning that they could help replace an aging workforce. They are also more entrepreneurial, which encourages economic dynamism, and more likely to work in essential industries, such as health care, transportation, construction, agriculture, and food processing.

Immigrants may also help stave off regional population declines. Immigrants are more likely to settle in areas where foreign-born populations already live, which are typically large metro areas that have lost population in recent years. Frey found in a 2019 report that, of the 91 large metro areas that gained population since the beginning of the decade, 15 would have actually lost population were it not for immigration, including New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia. In another 11 large metro areas, immigration accounted for more than half of their population growth.

Refugees are also more likely to settle in less dense population centers where housing costs are lower, possibly reinvigorating the nearly 35 percent of rural counties in the US that have experienced significant population loss in recent decades.

Raising immigration levels wouldn’t necessarily require a major reimagining of the US immigration system, though that might offer more flexibility to reevaluate immigration levels periodically — it could be accomplished by just increasing the caps on existing forms of visas and green cards.

“Legal immigration is not something that’s been discussed very much,” Frey said. “I hope ... these census numbers will force people to think about being more serious about that.”

To really reap the benefits of increased immigration, though, the US would have to ensure that immigrants have the ability to integrate, which it has done successfully in the past. Immigrants in the US already have a higher employment rate and labor participation rate than native-born citizens, and immigrant children tend to perform at or above the educational level of comparable US-born children.

In recent years, states and cities have adopted a patchwork of policies to promote immigrant integration, including programs designed to provide English classes, schooling, and professional training; resources to start businesses; and access to citizenship. But Biden has reestablished an Obama-era Task Force on New Americans to expand the role of the federal government in such initiatives.

“We need to figure out how to give those young people the opportunities for success,” Frey said.

Some researchers say America needs to raise immigration levels by more than a third

It’s hard to estimate just how many more immigrants the US would need to accept annually in order to reverse its low population growth trend. In recent history, before President Donald Trump pursued policies curbing immigration and global travel largely came to a halt during the pandemic, the US typically admitted more than 1 million immigrants per year. But under that scenario, census projections indicate that the US would see less than half the population growth between 2020 and 2060 than it saw over the previous 40 years.

Some have argued that the US should try to set its immigration levels equal to its historical per capita rate of immigration, or to the per capita immigration rates of comparable countries, such as Australia or Canada. Others have argued that the US shouldn’t set immigration levels at all and instead let the market decide how many people are needed to fulfill the needs of employers.

But Zak said that all those methods seem somewhat arbitrary and unlikely to spur members of Congress to action. In his research with the National Immigration Forum’s president and CEO, Ali Noorani, he argues that the US should increase net immigration levels by at least 37 percent, or about 370,000 additional immigrants a year, to prevent a “demographic deficit” stemming from low population growth.

That number of immigrants, they estimate, would maintain the current “Old Age Dependency Ratio” (OADR), which is the number of people ages 16 and 64 per person over age 65 — basically, the number of workers available to support one retired person. It’s generally considered to be a good indicator of the demographic health of a country.

Today, the US’s ratio is 3.5, down from 5.4 in 2005 and 6.4 in 1965. By comparison, Japan has an OADR of 2.1, the lowest worldwide, and is scrambling to shore up the viability of basic services for its aging population, such as public pensions, health care, and long-term care systems.

Even just maintaining the US’s current ratio may not be enough to avert the problems associated with an aging population. But it provides a preliminary benchmark for members of Congress, who, in an ideal world, would reevaluate immigration levels every few years. (The last time the US significantly increased legal immigration levels was with the Reagan-era Immigration Reform Act of 1986.)

“When we talk about maintaining the current OADR, it’s a conservative judgment, hoping to at least stop the bleeding,” Zak said. “We look at it as an initial target, rather than a cap. We don’t want things to get significantly worse.”

America needs all kinds of immigrants — not just workers

America doesn’t necessarily need to be picky with regard to the kinds of immigrants it seeks to welcome.

The US might need more workers to help fill growing labor shortages associated with demographic decline, as well as more immigrants who are sponsored by their family members to ensure that immigrant populations feel comfortable putting down roots in the US and having children. The children of immigrants will be a major driver of population growth in the long term.

But immigrants in general, including refugees and asylum seekers, carry the benefit of boosting population in rural areas that are feeling the brunt of the effects of demographic decline.

“When it comes to responding to demographic needs, that really needs to emphasize all different kinds of immigrants and the value they all bring to the country and to help us respond to the demographic challenges we face,” Zak said.

But the US could also take a more targeted approach by addressing existing labor shortages in industries such as home health care, hospitality, transportation, and construction.

The Labor Department has a list of occupations with shortages, making it easier for employers to bring immigrants to the US to fill those jobs, but it hasn’t been updated in many years. Currently, just physical therapists, nurses, and artists and scientists with “exceptional ability” qualify as shortage occupations.

“We need to do an even better job of figuring out where our labor shortages are going to be in the coming years,” Zak said.

The US can fill those shortages with a range of flexible visa programs. Lawmakers have already weighed creating a state-based visa that would allow states to select what kinds of immigrants they will accept based on their specific labor needs. Rep. John Curtis (R‐​UT), with the blessing of Utah’s Republican then-Gov. Gary Herbert, introduced a related bill in 2019 under which each state would get an average of 10,000 visas a year and would be able to determine how long they last and how often they could be renewed.

But the US could also look for policy solutions abroad: Wealthy countries such as Australia have adopted visas for immigrants who can fill national labor shortages, and Canada created its Provincial Nominee Program to encourage immigration to provinces that are experiencing labor shortages.

These kinds of increases in new, legal immigration can be used in tandem with programs to legalize the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already living in the US. Researchers from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania found that the provisions in Biden’s comprehensive immigration reform proposal granting legal status to undocumented immigrants would increase the size of the US population by more than 4 percent by 2050. That’s because it would decrease their likelihood of emigrating and increase their birthrates.

“There’s no doubt that we should be pursuing all of these ideas to help us respond to what’s really one of the most pressing challenges the country will face over the next several decades,” Zak said.

Clarification, May 6: Updated to clarify that the most recent census found the US population was 331.5 million people, representing a growth rate of 7.4 percent between 2010 and 2020.

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