One year ago, we wrote the Room to Grow report to shine a spotlight on a looming demographic crisis — and to highlight the role that increased immigration can play in responding to it.
We relied on U.S. Census data to reveal an ongoing demographic shift: A precipitous decline in population growth paired with a rapidly aging population is set to result in a host of negative socioeconomic impacts. Our report documented serious labor market shortages emerging in key industries, an increasingly depleted Social Security trust fund, and disproportionate effects in rural communities in the Midwest and South, where population contraction has already resulted in business closures, vacancies, and shrinking local tax bases.
We hoped the report would drive a deeper understanding of our capacity to welcome. We also hoped it would issue a clarion call: We have room to grow today, but we need to grow for tomorrow. We must welcome more immigrants if we wish to create a more robust and resilient America for our children and grandchildren.
Our calls are even more relevant a year later.
In December 2021, the Census published new data: The U.S. population is growing at a slower rate today than it has at any point in the country’s 245-year history. At just 0.1% a year, our growth rate is far lower than it was during the Great Depression, the most recent major downturn. The second-lowest growth rate in our history occurred in 1919, at the tail end of World War I and the last time a pandemic raged.
And yet, today, we’re growing even slower than that. Just 0.1% growth — barely avoiding outright decline.
There are many reasons for the rapid decline in population growth. Victims of the COVID-19 pandemic — coldly tallied by demographers as “excess deaths” — are part of the story. Falling fertility rates are another driver, although those rates have been dropping for years.
We should add a third data point to this mix. In the December release, the Census also published information on net international migration (NIM) to the U.S. over the past 10 years. NIM hit a recent peak from 2015 to 2016, when the country added over a million more people than it lost to emigration. At the time, it seemed that our robust immigration system might represent a path forward, a way out of our demographic malaise.
But that number has been falling steadily since, first due to the restrictive policies of the Trump administration, then due to pandemic-era travel restrictions and a heavily backlogged immigration system. From 2020 to 2021, the U.S. welcomed just 247,000 net new immigrants, the lowest number in decades.
It’s clear: The demographic shifts our report highlighted are accelerating. Falling fertility rates and low international migration combined with a sharp increase in retirement rates are fast creating a society with a smaller and smaller proportion of working-age adults.
And the concerns we raised about this demographic decline are accelerating too. The Social Security trust fund was recently projected to be depleted one year earlier than previously predicted. Labor shortages are increasing, particularly in industries like health and elder care that remain critical to our pandemic response. The U.S. simply has more jobs than it has workers to fill them, a factor contributing to the country’s increasing inflation rates.
We’re at the point where experts are urging older folks to “unretire.”
But as we wrote one year ago, increased immigration levels remain a far more plausible solution to the problems caused by demographic decline. Immigrants are well-positioned to fill critical shortages in the labor market while improving the country’s overall age demographics. Each new cohort of immigrants includes more than 19 working-age adults per elderly person, bolstering our workforce while improving the fiscal health of Social Security and Medicare.
Whether through employment, family-based, or humanitarian pathways, increased immigration will play an important role in addressing the serious demographic and workforce challenges we are facing. Immigrants who come through employment pathways are well-suited to fill gaps in the labor market, and those who come to reunite with and grow their families will be tackling our demographic challenge at its root. Humanitarian immigrants like refugees and asylees often resettle in smaller, more rural communities — communities already facing the brunt of the demographic shift.
As we see it, the Room to Grow report and its conclusions are timelier than ever. Demographic decline is a problem that will persist and intensify without decisive action. The Biden administration has already taken many positive steps forward to rebuild our immigration system and to welcome more immigrants. But ultimately, the task will fall to Congress.
In light of the challenges we face and the opportunities provided by immigration, some members of Congress are beginning to recognize the competitive edge a robust immigration system affords us. It’s time to capitalize on that momentum.
As our analysis showed, increasing overall immigration levels by more than a third would be an effective policy response to demographic decline. It would help us rebuild a stronger and more resilient economy and properly care for our elderly population. As population growth craters and workforce shortages continue to grow, reimagining our immigration system is more important now than ever.
Responding to this challenge will be essential not just for us but for our children and grandchildren. As has so often been true, a more welcoming ethos — and more welcoming policies — will allow all Americans to thrive and progress.
Read the full Room to Grow report here: