- Written by Linda Chavez
The old adage "be careful what you wish for" is an apt reminder in light of this week's news that the U.S. birthrate has dropped to its lowest level on record. For years, population hysterics have tried to convince Americans to aim not just for zero population growth in the U.S. but its complete reversal.
Many of the groups pushing this view have also been in the forefront of the anti-immigration movement -- NumbersUSA, Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and Negative Population Growth (NPG). They don't like immigrants -- even legal ones -- because immigrants, especially Hispanic immigrants, traditionally have had higher birth rates than the native born. But the new report from the Pew Research Center suggests that even among Hispanic immigrants, birth rates are falling quickly. So why is this a problem?
Contrary to the agenda pushed by the aforementioned neo-Malthusian groups, a declining population can spell real economic trouble in the future. As populations in advanced countries age, more people become dependents rather than contributors to the economy. Especially in nations that provide a social safety net, such as Social Security and Medicare in the U.S., the ability to fund these programs depends on population growth among younger, working-age people.
Declining population means fewer tax dollars to pay for everything from Social Security to national defense. As the base of taxpayers shrinks, the government will either have to reduce benefits and spending on essential programs or take a larger share of workers' incomes to pay for them. But the latter approach -- raising taxes -- will only make the problem worse. If people get to keep less of the money they earn, productivity declines and revenues fall. It's human nature.
Other countries with declining birthrates, most notably Japan, are paying the price already. Economic growth in these countries has slowed -- Japan, once considered a threat to American economic dominance, has experienced two decades of slowed growth. It is no coincidence that Japan also has one of the world's strictest immigration policies. They allow temporary workers but neither their integration nor the granting of citizenship to their children born on Japanese soil.
The U.S., on the other hand, traditionally has been generous in terms of immigration. The inflow of newcomers, who are younger, entering the workforce, and more likely to give birth to children than native-born Americans, has made our economy more dynamic and ensured a future funding source for programs for our aging, dependent, native-born population.
But the dismal economy of the last four years has discouraged immigrants. Mexicans, who for years have been the largest group of immigrants to the U.S., are no longer coming in vast numbers. Last year, net immigration from Mexico fell to zero for the first time since the Great Depression. And those immigrants already here are choosing to have far fewer children. The overall American birthrate fell by 8 percent between 2007 and 2010, but the birthrate among Mexican immigrant women fell by 23 percent.
The decision by immigrant women to have fewer children is not only rational during an economic downturn, it is a sign of their assimilation to American norms. They are emulating the decisions of American women to have smaller families to invest more in raising each child. The solution to the problem of declining birthrates is not to encourage the women already living here to have more babies, but to boost our population size by admitting more working-age, productive immigrants.
Without a continued influx of such immigrants, America will become poorer, not richer. Not only will millions of hard-working people be denied the opportunity to make their lives better, but Americans will lose out on the benefits of a growing economy.