The Corner

U.S.

Visas for the Heartland

A farmer harvests his field at his farm in Pecatonica, Ill. (Joshua Lott/Reuters)

U.S. population growth is at an 80-year low. And the population of the United States is growing unevenly. In the 1990s, about two-thirds of counties grew more slowly than the nation as a whole. Today, 86 percent of counties have relatively slow population growth. Sixty-one million Americans live in counties whose population is stagnating or shrinking. Educational attainment in the fastest-shrinking counties is at the same level as the United States in 1978.

These statistics come from a new report by the Economic Innovation Group, a policy and advocacy organization that promotes economic dynamism. Written by Adam Ozimek, an economist at Moody’s Analytics, and Kenan Fikri and John Lettieri of EIG, the report argues that the existing economic divide between thriving and stagnating regions of the country will only be exacerbated by slowing population and labor force growth, and the aging of the population.

The report argues that population loss affects many things that aren’t immediately apparent, including housing markets and the financial health of local governments.

To help address this problem, EIG is proposing place-based visas, called Heartland Visas. From the report’s executive summary:

This program could become a powerful economic development tool for communities facing the consequences of demographic stagnation, but not content to simply manage decline. The visas would constitute a new, additive, and voluntary pathway for skilled immigrants to come to the United States. Eligible communities would opt-in to hosting visa holders, who would provide a much needed injection of human capital and entrepreneurial vitality into parts of the country that retain considerable economic potential.

The Heartland Visas would conform to the following principles:

• Both communities and visa-holders would “opt-in” on a voluntary basis. This double opt-in structure should help ensure strong matching between communities and new immigrants.
• Visas should represent a new door through which human capital can enter the United States and be additive to top-line skilled national immigration flows.
• Visas should be targeted to places confronting chronic population stagnation or loss as a means of boosting economic dynamism and fiscal stability.
• Visas should not be tied to any specific employer and instead make new talent accessible for all local employers, including startups and small businesses.
• Visas should provide a path to permanent residency and full mobility within the United States without taking opportunities away from other immigrants.
• The program should be accompanied by additional federal resources to smooth assimilation and job finding.

Economists have typically been skeptical of so-called place-based policies, because of their view that assistance should flow to people in need, not to places in need. In addition, many critics of place-based policies have been concerned about unintended consequences, and whether government has the knowledge and ability to target programs to places.

But there is growing interest in policies designed to help specific communities. And this proposal deserves serious consideration.

You can find a digital version of the report here, the full report here, and the executive summary here.

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