It was the Inconvenient Truth of its day. The book was The Population Bomb, by Paul Ehrlich, published in 1968. Ehrlich made some apocalyptic predictions about resource depletion and mass starvation resulting from population growth. A frightened public devoured the book.
But Ehrlich got some things wrong. He didn’t factor into his thinking technological change and the growth of free enterprise around the world, both of which have done much to ameliorate global poverty and hunger. The biggest thing he got wrong, though, was that he failed to foresee this: The population is now shrinking in many parts of the world. Entire nations, even continents, are committing slow-motion suicide by not making babies.
A more prescient title of Ehrlich’s book would have been “The Population Bust.”
Take Russia. According to the United Nations, its adult population will fall from 90 million today to 20 million by the end of the century. Eighty percent of the population of the Russian Federation are ethnic Russians, but fertility is higher among Central Asian Muslim minorities. Some experts predict a Muslim majority in Russia by 2040. This past year, more babies were aborted in Russia than were born.
These facts might help explain President Vladimir Putin’s recent aggression in the Ukraine. Maybe he’s looking to lift a depressed nation’s spirits, but maybe he’s also looking for more Russians, to ward off a population decline of nearly 700,000 a year.
Japan’s numbers are almost as bleak. In 2013, its population shrank for the third year running, with the elderly, people over 65, making up a quarter of the total for the first time in its history. That number will reach 40 percent by 2060. Meanwhile, the proportion of people aged 14 or younger dropped to a record low of 12.9 percent. The number of deaths this past year exceeded the number of births.
The baby bust is ravaging Europe and spreading to the developing world. Governments have tried to offer incentives to drive up fertility rates but to little avail. Many countries are now in the grip of an impending crisis: how to pay for the needs of an aging population as the ratio of workers plummets? The ratio of workers to retirees is falling fast in America, too. While there were 16 workers for every retiree in 1950, the ratio is now 3 to 1. As more baby boomers approach retirement age, that ratio will fall to 2.5.
America’s secret weapon on the all-important population front is our immigrant advantage. It’s our immigrant population that has kept America from falling over the demographic cliff of late. Today, there are roughly 38 million people in the U.S. who were born somewhere else; two-thirds of them are here legally.
“Consider that just four million babies are born annually in the U.S,” Jonathan Last wrote in The Weekly Standard last year. “If you strip these immigrants — and their relatively high fertility rates — from our population profile, America suddenly looks an awful lot like continental Europe.”
Immigrants help ease our impending demographic and entitlement problems in two critical ways. First, most immigrants come here at the beginning of their working years, and few come with elderly parents, which immensely helps our worker-to-retiree ratio. Second, and equally important, immigrants have more children than do native-born Americans, and their children, too, will pay into our Social Security system.
All of this was confirmed last year in a report of the trustees of the Social Security Administration. In addition, SSA’s chief actuary, Stephen Goss, predicted that new legal and illegal immigrants, who currently come to the U.S. at the net rate of 1.08 million each year, will increase the Social Security trust fund by $500 billion over 25 years and by $4 trillion over 75 years. Even in Washington, D.C., that’s real money.
There are three categories of immigrants we must examine separately to understand the opportunity before us.
First and foremost are the nearly 12 million undocumented residents who live here, the vast majority of whom work, pay taxes, and contribute to the American economy. Those who argue that undocumented immigrants crossed a desert only to live off the state are wrong. Proof of that assertion is the near-sudden end to illegal immigration after the Great Recession of 2007–09. The jobs dried up, and so too did the workers chasing them.
We know that we’re not going to deport all of these people. Why we’re waiting so long to make these de facto citizens legal makes no political sense. And leaving entire families in limbo as we’re doing makes no moral sense. Creating a path to citizenship for those who came here is common sense and would be in keeping with the soul of a nation enriched by its immigrant heritage.
Then there are the two categories of immigrants who wish to come here but are blocked by current policies — the skilled and the so-called unskilled.
Let’s address the skilled immigrants first, mostly in the technology, science, and engineering fields. In 2013, our government received 124,000 applications for the H-1B program in four days. But we took 85,000 as a result of a self-imposed cap. That means some other country was the beneficiary of all of that human capital that wished to come to America — but was rejected.
What do those skilled immigrant workers who come here contribute? One-quarter of our technology firms established since 1995 have had at least one foreign-born founder, according to Matthew Slaughter, professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, writing recently in the Wall Street Journal. “These new companies today employ 450,000 people and generate more than $50 billion in sales. Immigrants or their children founded 40% of today’s Fortune 500 companies, including firms behind seven of the 10 most valuable global brands.”
What’s the cost of our Scrooge-like approach to H1-B visas? Back in 2008, Bill Gates told members of Congress that for every immigrant hired at technology companies, an average of five additional employees were added. Slaughter calculated that approximately 500,000 jobs a year are lost thanks to our restrictive immigration policy regarding skilled workers.
But America should do more than simply cherry-pick from the world’s “best and brightest” workers. We should increase our numbers of “unskilled” immigrants, too. No one takes a berth in steerage because he heard that in America the government gives you stuff. It takes courage to leave your country and cross an ocean. Most immigrants do it not for themselves but for their families. That kind of selflessness and risk-taking is a perfect American skill set, perfectly reflecting our national character.
— Lee Habeeb is the vice president of content at Salem Radio Network. Mike Leven is the president and COO of the Las Vegas Sands and a member of the Job Creators Alliance.