The US Fertility Rate and Immigration

The US is reproducing below the replacement rate.

A conversation (although I will use the term advisedly) in the comment thread of a post about Trump’s approach to immigration led to a commenter politely asking* what number of new immigrants I (and others) would be willing to admit (in addition to the undocumented already residing in the US). This is not, in and of itself, an unfair question, in and of itself, and also is contextual to the moment, given that Trump claimed this week that the country is “full.”

My honest response is that I do not have a particular number in mind. I do support a policy that would provide a reasonable pathway to citizenship for most, if not all,** of the ~12 million undocumented already in the US (certainly for those who have been here for an extended amount of time and have otherwise acted like productive citizens). I further support a policy that would make it easier for people to migrate outright as well as to make working in the US easier. Indeed, part of me is perfectly fine with what we did in the Ellis Island era: if you show up and are willing and able to work, then welcome to the US! Granted, that is likely too simplistic, but I can’t help but always note in these conversations: that is exactly what we did for a significant number of years as a country. It is also the case that the US-Mexican border was essentially open for much of our history (and yet the republic still stands!).

So while I cannot at the moment name a specific number, the reality is: we do have room in the US–not only physical space, but room in the economy for more workers and more consumers (noting, by the way, that more consumers equals the need for more workers).

All of this intersects with the question of US fertility rates, a.k.a., how many babies we are all having, collectively. As a CNN piece noted from January of this year: US fertility rate is below level needed to replace population, study says. Specifically:

The total fertility rate for the United States in 2017 continued to dip below what’s needed for the population to replace itself, according to a new report from the National Center for Health Statistics.

Overall, the total fertility rate for the United States in 2017 was 1,765.5 per 1,000 women, which was 16% below what is considered the level needed for a population to replace itself: 2,100 births per 1,000 women, according to the report.


So, why does this matter? Well, ask Japan.

In a demographic time bomb, fertility rates fall at the same time that longevity increases.

An aging population like Japan’s poses numerous problems. The government will have to spend more on healthcare, and that, coupled with a shrinking workforce and tax base, is a recipe for economic stagnation. It also means, among other things, that there will not be enough young people to care for the elderly.

“An aging population will mean higher costs for the government, a shortage of pension and social-security-type funds, a shortage of people to care for the very aged, slow economic growth, and a shortage of young workers,” Mary Brinton, a Harvard sociologist, told Business Insider last year.

Business Insider: Japan’s demographic time bomb is getting more dire, and it’s a bad omen for the country

Consider that the way we pay for Social Security and Medicare is via payroll taxes. A shrinking pool of workers and an aging population leads to a significant problem given that funding mechanism. Further, in general, markets need consumers and governments need taxpayers. Moderate in-migration, therefore, helps all of those things.

For example, via Marketplace: Undocumented immigrants quietly pay billions into Social Security and receive no benefits.

If all undocumented immigrants were deported today, next year’s Social Security trust funds would have approximately $13 billion less for benefit payouts. It’s a considerable loss of dollars, especially when it’s projected that the Social Security funds will be depleted by 2034.

According to New American Economy, undocumented immigrants contributed $13 billion into the Social Security funds in 2016 and $3 billion to Medicare. Three years prior, the Chief Actuary of the Social Security Administration, Stephen Goss, wrote a report that estimated undocumented immigrants contributed $12 billion into Social Security.

There are a variety of reasons to support reasonable, humane immigration policies that are more liberal than our current labyrinthine mess. One of them is human compassion (coupled with recognition that a lot of the ancestors of current citizens also entered the country under conditions not unlike what we see at the southern border today). Another reason is national self-interest. Allowing more tax-paying workers into the US economy has long-term net benefits. To pretend like these individuals are lazy good-for-nothings simply seeking to come leech off the dole in the US is to a) ignore the history of immigrants to the US and their record of hard-work, as well as to b) be utterly blind to how much hard-work, ingenuity, and self discipline is needed to come to the US-Mexican border in the first place.

I would note, in conclusion, that appeals to the notion that we already have too many undocumented persons (what about those 12 million!) is actually a self-defeating argument. The bulk of those 12 million (basically the non-child, non-elderly part) work. They are as productive as everyone else is. They pay taxes. They consume products and pay rent (and even own businesses and engage in the same kinds of activities as those blessed with not having to worry about their immigration status). If 12 million undocumented have not resulted in calamity, then a few more isn’t going to hurt. If those 12 million have not taken over cities and unleashed hordes of MS-13 face-tattoos on us all, then that should be evidence not to fear more immigration. They are not all coming to live off public assistance, despite what some commentators may be saying.


*Just kidding, he rudely demanded.

**The devil would be in the details, of course.

FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Sleeping Dog says:

    Not sure how what the raw numbers would be, but having an immigration rate that provided a US population growth rate that would be 2X the replacement rate, seems like a desirable and manageable number.

  2. Kathy says:

    For example, via Marketplace: Undocumented immigrants quietly pay billions into Social Security and receive no benefits.

    Emphasis added.

    That’s the main reason why it pays, literally, to keep illegal immigrants illegal. Otherwise they’d take their share of benefits,

    The other reason is that you won’t get a white supremacist, even a mild one, to acknowledge their country need help from people of color.

    And I suspect for some Republicans, the demise of Social Security and Medicare is to be welcomed with cries of joy, not averted by importing foreigners.

    Hmm. What do all these three reasons have in common?

  3. Mister Bluster says:

    …appeals to the notion that we already have too many undocumented persons (what about those 12 million!) is actually a self-defeating argument.

    Trump and his retinue are not interested in any kind of rational argumentation.
    Their entire scheme is based on fear mongering and appealing to racial bigotry.

  4. An Interested Party says:

    What do all these three reasons have in common?

    The GOP is too chickenshit to own up to any of them…

    Their entire scheme is based on fear mongering and appealing to racial bigotry.

    Oh, but remember, it’s wrong to call this crowd racist…so very unfair to them…

  5. Mister Bluster says:

    @An Interested Party:..so very unfair to them

    What does fair have to do with anything in life?

  6. An Interested Party says:

    What does fair have to do with anything in life?

    To people with power, but still suffering from victimhood status, like Trump and so many in his orbit, fair is everything, unless of course they’re being unfair to someone else…

  7. Kit says:

    There’s so much to speak about here, but I’m really going to force myself to stick to the subject: the fertility rate and how it relates to immigration.

    Consider that the way we pay for Social Security and Medicare is via payroll taxes. A shrinking pool of workers and an aging population leads to a significant problem given that funding mechanism. Further, in general, markets need consumers and governments need taxpayers. Moderate in-migration, therefore, helps all of those things.

    The planet was never going to allow for unlimited population. For generations, a growing economy along with a growing population meant that we could easily afford to care for the elderly. Today, global warming looms as an existienal threat. That this happens to coincide with a naturally falling birth rate here at home should be embraced. Health care needs an overhaul. If other advanced countries can get by with paying half as much, then we should direct our energies in that direction, and not simply look to patch over the holes with ever greater numbers contributing money to a system based on outdated assumptions. That only puts off the day of reckoning. And reckonings will arrive: for the environment, for health care, and for immigration.

    The future will belong to those who learn to thrive with steadily diminishing numbers. That is not in itself an argument against immigration. Still, the old ways will grow increasing untenable and we should be thinking, holistically, about the coming future and how best to meet it.

  8. Kit says:

    I’d also like to add that I think the two major challenges of today’s current immigration debate are to:
    1) find humane solutions, especially for the people currently living in the country without proper documentation;
    2) acknowledge that a significant portion of the electorate is simply enraged at the current situation and that it must, in some way, be appeased.

    I would like to better understand the issue around taxes: who is paying, who is not, who benefits and who suffers? I suspect, perhaps incorrectly, that many illegals can survive in this country because their employers do not pay any payroll contributions, and the workers themselves to not pay any taxes related to an official salary. The low wages undercut locals but provide enough to survive. Employers benefit, and the rest of society pays the price. If that is correct, or at least substantially and significantly correct, then the obvious solution is to go after the employers. Pursue them vigorously enough, and I predict that Fox would change its tune on immigration. And if Fox changes, then those obsessed with immigration and, frankly, currently beyond the reach of reason, would start to come around.

  9. Bill says:

    @Kathy:

    For example, via Marketplace: Undocumented immigrants quietly pay billions into Social Security and receive no benefits.

    Emphasis added.

    That’s the main reason why it pays, literally, to keep illegal immigrants illegal. Otherwise they’d take their share of benefits,

    That is assuming the employer takes out withholding. Some do, alot don’t. People who hire day labor for instance. I know, I’ve made extra income yearly doing income tax returns. One time I had a client who had an employer who sometimes took out withholding, and sometimes didn’t.

  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    They are not all coming to live off public assistance, despite what some commentators may be saying.

    Having seen zero evidence that any of them come here for that purpose, I quibble with your use of the word “all” here Steven, because it implies that some do. Some may end up requiring assistance due to circumstances beyond their control, but I don’t think any of them come here for it (especially in light of the fact that for most of it, they are ineligible).

    b) be utterly blind to how much hard-work, ingenuity, and self discipline is needed to come to the US-Mexican border in the first place.

    This, x 10,000. Contrary to what trump has repeatedly said, these countries are not sending us their worst, sadly they are sending us some of their best people. Most of those who come here for work do so with the full intention of someday returning home (and a lot of them do). They came to build a better life for them and their families but life happens.

    Also, I want add the word “sacrifice” to your above list. We can not imagine the sacrifices these immigrants make just for a chance at the life we take for granted.

  11. @Kit: I recognize that the there are issues with population growth, but I would note that moving peoples from places that are struggling (to include environmentally) from one place (Central Ameria) to the another where they could be better accommodated (the US) actually has an underlying environmental logic to it as well.

    Also: the likelihood that people staying in CA would have a longer-term higher fertility rate than would immigrants and their progeny.

  12. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @An Interested Party: Fair is in the eye of the receiver.

  13. @Bill:

    That is assuming the employer takes out withholding. Some do, alot don’t. People who hire day labor for instance. I know, I’ve made extra income yearly doing income tax returns. One time I had a client who had an employer who sometimes took out withholding, and sometimes didn’t.

    There is tax avoidance of this type with citizens, especially day labor.

    The point is, there are billions sent to treasury by undocumented workers who have fake SSNs or, IIRC, by using tax ID numbers instead. There is a lot of withholding paid by undocumented persons.

  14. @OzarkHillbilly:

    Having seen zero evidence that any of them come here for that purpose, I quibble with your use of the word “all” here Steven, because it implies that some do.

    I may have missed a tonality here. The anti-immigrant claim is that “they are all coming here to live off the dole!” and I was just mirroring that language. No, they aren’t all coming to live off the dole.

  15. @Kit:

    2) acknowledge that a significant portion of the electorate is simply enraged at the current situation and that it must, in some way, be appeased.

    This, by the way, is utterly fair. I think that the main problem, especially now, is that the GOP prefers to use this as means of generating political support rather than a willingness to work to solve the problem. This started, really, back in the Bush administration when the House GOP didn’t want to pursue immigration reform that the Dubya WH wanted to pursue.

    The Obama administration actually deported a lot of people, at least in part to show they would be tougher on the border, but things like DACA presented a different interpretation to the broader conservative public.

    I recognize that ‘both sides” use pretty much any issue to try and achieve political gain. The problem is that that GOP policy preference has taken a turn that makes compromise very difficult.

    The root problem, which Trump and the Millerites in the WH make worse, is that Congress is dysfunctional.

  16. Kit says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    This, by the way, is utterly fair. I think that the main problem, especially now, is that the GOP prefers to use this as means of generating political support rather than a willingness to work to solve the problem.

    And:

    The root problem, which Trump and the Millerites in the WH make worse, is that Congress is dysfunctional.

    As I’ve started before, I think that the root of the problem is big money. It buys support via Fox, and candidates via various means. Damage has been done, and any solution will simply need to take into account an enraged, ignorant Right. I don’t know what form a practical solution could take, but speaking idly, a comprehensive policy as formed on the Left with, as a cherry on top, a wall (expensive and useless) might (almost) make everyone happy. Dunno. My point is that reasoned analysis is no longer enough.

  17. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kit: Yes, what you are positing has been the conservative argument since I was a teenager and the issue du jour was the loss of work for good Americans in the grape arbors of the Napa Valley and the nefarious UFW and Teamsters trying to back door a whole bunch of ‘meskins’ into citizenship by organizing the field workers.

    Since that time, conservatives have also been real tough on “border enforcement” and keeping undocumented workers out–as long as such activities didn’t increase the costs of doing business in industries that use undocumented workers (which, curiously enough seemed to be at the root of conservative objections to organizing field workers–regardless of nationality.) Hmmmm…

  18. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Just yesterday, I saw a headline noting that Senate Majority Leader McConnell was saying that a conversation in Congress about immigration was “long overdue.” Unfortunately translated from McConnellese, the statement comes out “I’m running for reelection in 2020 and will need to demagogue this issue to gin up the xenophobia in Kentucky (State Motto: Four million citizens, five last names) that I’ll need to win.” Alas, it will also work because, as is true of most reforms (probably world wide), people want to want reform; they also tend not to want to have any of the available choices.

  19. Tyrell says:

    “an aging population leads to significant problems”: and this is being seen with the large “baby boomer” generation and its effect on the economy, health care costs, and numerous other aspects that most people overlook or forget.
    You wind up with a shrinking tax base and that is the “big elephant” that the politicians and news talk shows seem to be ignoring.

  20. Kathy says:

    another reason often heard form the GOP for not allowing a path to citizenship for long-term immigrants, is that they’d all vote Democrat.

    This misses the point in many ways:

    1) If the GOP wasn’t dead-set against these people, many of them would vote Republican.

    2) Reagan signed off on amnesty for a sizable number of similar immigrants. How do they vote now, and what’s their voting pattern been?

    3) Not all such immigrants want citizenship. Some would be glad just to be able to get a work permit, and go back and forth between the US and their home countries, others might prefer legal residency and would also travel back and forth. If all you see is mass deportation or citizenship, you’re not looking at the issue the right way.

    they also may want to keep a lower-wage workforce who may be easily intimidated with threats of deportation. What does that tell you about modern Republicans?

  21. Jay L Gischer says:

    Thanks for elaborating on the demographic issues. I’m not sure I’m in the “I’d take all of them” camp. I’d take all of them eventually, but I think some metering on the inflow is valuable. Giant surges can create a bunch of problems of their own.

    However I am in hearty agreement with the notion that they make things here better, not worse. My people immigrated here when they didn’t have to wait 10 years for a visa. I think they made a positive contribution.

  22. @Kathy:

    1) If the GOP wasn’t dead-set against these people, many of them would vote Republican.

    Indeed. I thought, back in the Dubya administration, that at least some in the GOP understood that and saw the opportunity to exploit that fact. Instead…

  23. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Fair enough, Steven. I just don’t like discussing it on that level at all, because it feels like legitimization of a nonexistent point. I am probably over sensitive about it, having gotten to know more than a few immigrants on both sides of the border, known of whom are anything at all like the caricature.

  24. An Interested Party says:

    If the GOP wasn’t dead-set against these people, many of them would vote Republican.

    It’s amazing how powerful racism is…this fear crowds out sensible reasoning like the comment above…