The United States is facing an unusual convergence of trends that threaten to upend our economy and the nation’s ability to fund its priorities, particularly payroll-funded programs like Social Security and Medicare.
For a variety of reasons, which only intensified as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the birth rate in the U.S. has fallen to its lowest level on record the past few years. While there is evidence of a very slight rebound with the pandemic now behind us, it is clear that many more young people are opting not to have children today than in the past. Indeed, according to U.S. Census data, nearly 35 percent of women currently of childbearing age won’t have children in their lifetimes. That’s basically double the 18 percent of women in the U.S. who remained childless in 1975.
As it stands today, American women are having, on average, 1.7 children during their lifetimes, which is well below what is widely considered to be the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman.
The U.S. continues to very slowly add population, thanks mostly to legal immigration, which is currently contributing well over half of our net population growth.
The implications of this trend are wide-ranging and significant. While some states, mostly in the Sun Belt, are still experiencing population growth mostly as U.S. residents continue their longstanding internal migration from north to the south, nearly half of U.S. states are experiencing near stagnation in their population. These trends hit some areas harder than others. The Minnesota state demographer, for example, currently projects that St. Louis County will lose 12,400 residents between now and 2050, while the Arrowhead as a whole will lose just under 20,000 residents in that same time frame. That’s thousands fewer workers and customers for businesses, hundreds of fewer students in area schools, and fewer taxpayers to pay for government services, or for social insurance programs like Social Security and Medicare. Bringing new people into the workforce is the only way to improve the financial outlook for these programs, upon which so many seniors rely here in the U.S.
At the same time, the U.S. population, including here in northeastern Minnesota, is rapidly aging, which only exacerbates the effects of declining population. The elderly don’t have babies, don’t spend as much money on goods as young people, and typically don’t contribute to the workforce. They do, however, place demands on care providers, who are already in critically short supply in our region.
Ambulance services, hospitals, and nursing homes in our area are all facing nearly existential workforce shortages, as we’ve reported recently.
Adding to the problem is the fact that many politicians in the U.S., responding to xenophobic attitudes among far too many Americans, are calling for increasingly Draconian efforts to stem the flow of asylum seekers from Central and South America, the vast majority of whom are fleeing violence, poverty, and political repression in their home countries.
These asylum seekers (who have a legal right under U.S. law to seek asylum) want nothing more than to work here in the U.S. in hopes of earning their own American Dream in a country that’s comparatively safe. These aren’t people coming to waste away in overcrowded shelters, as has been their experience in recent years. These are families, in many cases, who could bring new workers, new students for schools with declining enrollment, new taxpayers, and new engaged citizens to small towns across the nation’s mid-section. Rather than crowding them into urban centers, the Biden administration should begin reaching out to nonprofits that serve places like St. Louis County to develop mechanisms to support bringing immigrants here. Hundreds of rural counties across the country are losing population and have little hope of reversing that dangerous trend without an influx of immigrants. We need changes in immigration laws that give asylum seekers more opportunities to become Americans, if they agree to locate in places where many Americans are no longer willing to reside. And we need to invest in those communities that offer open arms to these new residents, helping to rebuild their economies to create new opportunities for old and new residents alike.
Rather than treating immigrants as a problem, we need to recognize them for what they really are— a potential resource to help maintain strong local economies, fund government services, and bring vitality back to places that have, for too long, been forgotten in Washington.