Academic journal article The Cato Journal

America's Demographic Future

Academic journal article The Cato Journal

America's Demographic Future

Article excerpt

Perhaps nothing has more defined America and its promise than immigration. In the future, immigration and the consequent development of what Walt Whitman (1855: iv) called "a race of races" will remain one of the country's greatest assets in the decades to come.

At a time when anti-immigrant fervor has been building, a number of states--including Arizona, Georgia, and Alabama--have enacted draconian laws aimed at apprehending undocumented immigrants. Those laws are widely seen even among legal immigrants and long-term residents as hostile to immigrants. Indeed, newcomers are already leaving those states. This Latino exodus has been happening in once-thriving neighborhoods in Gwinnett and Cobb counties in Georgia--as shown in business closures, arrest statistics, and declining church attendance--caused both by the economy and the increased immigration enforcement (Simmons 2010). Nationwide, there has been a declining number of unauthorized immigrants living in the United States, a decrease of 1 million from 2007 (Hoefer, Rytina, and Baker 2011).

These laws and other similar efforts could have long-term negative effects for many communities, particularly for local enterprises in sectors such as agriculture, construction, transportation, and hospitality, which are highly dependent on foreign labor. Other industries that would be negatively affected include the professional and related industries, as well as the service industry (Shapiro and Vellucci 2010).

But beyond specific industries, immigration may prove more important in the future than in the past. The three key elements behind this assessment are the global demographic slowdown, globalization of the world economy, and challenges to our own long-term economic and social sustainability. Immigration represents a key factor in determining whether the United States can avoid long-term stagnation and maintain its leadership role in the world economy. Overall we should be less concerned about too many newcomers than with the consequences of drastically reduced rates of immigration.

New Global Demographics

The developed world is entering an unprecedented era of largely unexpected demographic change. To the Baby Boomer generation, brought up on fears of overpopulation promoted in books such as Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb, the idea of there being too few people seems almost absurd. Many xenophobes and anti-immigration activists still advocate a "national population policy" aimed at slowing population growth by strict limits on immigration.

Yet in sharp contrast to Ehrlich's predictions, global population growth has not increased but slowed considerably over the past few decades. Global population growth rates of 2 percent in the 1960s have dropped to less than half that rate, and past projections of the number of earth's human residents in 2000 overshot the mark by more than 9.00 million.

That pattern is likely to continue, with annual population growth rates declining to less than 0.8 percent by 2025, largely due to an unanticipated drop in birth rates in developing countries such as Mexico and Iran. Those declines can be attributed to increased urbanization, the education of women and their entrance into the workforce, and greater secularization. Close to half the world's population, notes demographer Nicholas Eberstadt (2010), lives in countries with birth rates below the replacement level. Rather than out-of-control births, the world is experiencing a "fertility implosion."

Overall what author Phil Longman (2010) calls a "'gray tsunami" will be sweeping the planet, with more than half of all of the population growth coming from the number of people over 60 while only 6 percent will be from people under 30. The battle of the future, including in the developing world, will be to maintain large enough workforces required for the economic growth needed to care for the elderly (Longman 2011).

Those growth numbers could plunge further if slow economic growth, particularly in advanced countries, persuades couples to postpone having families, perhaps permanently. …

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