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Editorial: Declining U.S. birth rate adds urgency to the need for smart immigration reform

A baby sleeping on a blanket.
Fewer babies were born in the U.S. in 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic helped drive down the birth rate for the sixth year in a row.
(Oksana Vashchuk / Oksana )

The recent announcement that the U.S. birth rate slipped further during the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t come as a surprise, but that didn’t make it any less sobering. The report spotlights a complex intersection of issues, including insufficient financial support for families with young children, the social and career costs women must weigh when deciding to have a child (or two or more), the environmental impacts of human population growth, and national economics. Historically, nations with stagnant or shrinking populations also often face stagnant economies.

With a 4% decrease from 2019, last year was the sixth in a row that the birth rate fell; the pandemic just made it worse. The reasons include uncertainty among would-be parents about the future and about the possible effects of COVID-19 on a fetus, as well as reduced opportunities for reproduction because of social distancing and fear of intimate contact. One study found a general decline in sexual activity, so those knowing jokes last spring about a baby boom being the silver lining in the pandemic were off-base.

But other pre-pandemic factors are at play, too. Younger women reported in one survey that they were delaying or opting not to have children because they wanted more personal freedom and leisure time, did not have a partner with whom they wanted to share a child, or worried about the affordability of child care. Notably, deciding not to have children, or not to have as many, often means more success in careers for women, a patently unfair trade-off.

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Overall, a combination of decreased births and immigration and increased death meant the U.S. population grew in the last decade by the second-lowest amount on record, behind the 1930s Great Depression years.

So what are the repercussions? Let’s dispense first with the racist notion pushed by right-wing nationalists that white American women need to have more babies to counter some sort of global conspiracy by nonwhites to move to the U.S., have lots of kids and dilute our national identity. While white supremacy has coursed through the Americas since the first white Europeans arrived, in truth American culture has always been a simmering stew, its flavors and textures changing over time. That, in fact, has been one of the nation’s enduring strengths.

But our economic growth and stability will require a larger future labor pool, even with advances in automation. In fact, an aging population creates more demands for health services, and it can have a trickle-down impact on other work as adult children opt out of the labor pool to care for their parents. An aging population also increases costs for safety net programs like Social Security and Medicare.

A clear source for expanding that labor pool is immigration. To meet that need, though, we must develop a smarter, more flexible and more generous federal immigration policy than the dysfunctional system Congress has let languish for far too long.

But what should it be? For decades U.S. policy has prioritized family reunification and employment-based immigration, which must remain key to future immigration policies. Studies have found that immigrants achieve more and integrate into society faster if they have family ties and family support. The nation also needs job-based immigration, but crafted in such a way that it does not undermine employment for existing Americans or undercut wages and benefits. This is where things get thorny.

The Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan pro-immigration think tank, just issued a report (“Rethinking the U.S. Legal Immigration System: A Policy Road Map”) that lays out suggestions for reimagining employment-based visas to address the need for seasonal and short-term workers, clear paths for “the best and brightest in their fields,” and make it easier for noncitizen workers to move among employers rather than being tied to the one that sponsored their visa. Other proposals, such as the nonpartisan Economic Innovations Group’s idea for site-based visas to shore up struggling communities in the nation’s interior, also deserve consideration.

We don’t want to get too prescriptive at this juncture, but it is imperative that Congress ends its dismaying inability to come up with a reasonable comprehensive immigration reform. Immigration not only is our history, but with the birth rate steadily declining, it is vital to our future.


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