Birth Rates, Immigration, and National Identity

The United States currently has one of the highest proportions of foreign-born residents in its history. At nearly 50 million, over 15 percent of the people living in America were born somewhere else.

The hotly debated pros and cons of mass immigration tend to center on economic arguments (that immigrants either benefit or harm America’s economy) or cultural ones (that immigrants either enrich or undermine American culture).

It is impossible to take a position in these debates without inciting hostility from one side or the other. But no matter what position one may take, it is useful to look at immigration in the context of global population trends.

The official United Nations estimate shows global population rising from the current 7.8 billion to peak at 10.9 billion in 2100. But this projection is disputed by demographers Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson in their 2020 book “Empty Planet.” Taking data from numerous recent studies and official reports, nation by nation, their estimate has global population peaking at 9.0 billion by 2050 and declining thereafter.

Everything about this has profound implications. The authors cite urbanization as a central variable affecting population growth, claiming that “in rural settlements children provide farm labor, whereas in cities a child is just another mouth to feed.” More education, more access to healthcare, and a lower prevalence of religious influence are other reasons the authors claim that urbanization lowers birth rates.

These factors are widely cited as the reasons urbanization is lowering birth rates, and true or not, the correlation is undeniable. In 1960, two-thirds of humanity lived in rural areas, and the total fertility rate (average number of children per woman) was 5.0. Today, nearly 60 percent of humanity lives in cities, and the total fertility rate is 2.5 and dropping almost everywhere.

In a 2019 interview to promote their upcoming book, authors Bricker and Ibbitson tick through the demographic trends by country and region. Some of the highlights are fascinating. China, where there are 60 million more men than women, “is going to get old before it gets rich enough to get old.” By the end of the 21st century, China’s population, currently 1.4 billion, could decline to 600 million.

This raises an interesting question. Which national demographic strategy is more perilous? To allow your population to age, and to cope with an inverted worker-to-retiree ratio? That is the strategy of the developed Asian nations. Or to engage in mass immigration to perpetually replace your younger generation, and to cope with the challenge of integrating people from diverse cultures? That is the strategy of the developed Western nations.

There is no glib answer to this question, despite the certainty of proponents on both sides. On the one hand, to welcome immigrants, even if the challenge of cultural integration is met, only defers the ultimate solution. As Bricker and Ibbitson point out, by 2050 there may not be any nations left on earth that do not have below replacement birth rates.

The only places left on Earth where birthrates are still very high is Africa, where the population is forecast to almost double to 2.5 billion people between now and 2050.

Sooner or later, every nation on earth will have to cope with the challenge of an aging population. One may hope that the benefit of automation will offset the shortage of workers, without that epochal shift in the human experience leading to unmanageable economic and civic turmoil.

The solution, if there is one, would be to try to do the best of both. Try to be the last nation to have to cope with an irretrievably inverted population pyramid, while also managing to preserve a national identity. For now, the first part of that is easy. Continue a policy of robust, if not mass, immigration. The second part is harder.

Maybe it’s necessary to maintain a healthy demographic balance between old and young, at least until we sort out the challenges of converting from a labor-intensive consumer society to a machine-intensive retiree society. It’s fair to admit that barring extraordinary cultural transformation, women in developed, urbanized societies where individual rights are protected, are choosing and will continue to choose to have children at below replacement rates. But who then do we invite to live in our nation, and how do we treat them? This is where the American people have been mistreated by their leadership.

America’s current immigration policies are flawed in at least two fundamental ways. First, they aren’t committed to bringing in immigrants who are highly educated and skilled, and come from cultures that adapt well to life in a liberal democracy. Admitting unskilled immigrants victimizes America’s lowest-income citizens, making their own upward mobility much tougher. It drives down wages and requires more government spending. This benefits corporations and government bureaucrats, but damages the nation.

The other fundamental flaw in America’s immigration policies is how immigrants are treated. In past centuries, this “nation of immigrants” was not a welfare state. The people who entered the nation, often Europeans who had to endure years of indentured servitude, had to work, or rely on their family members for support. To make things much worse, along with a comprehensive welfare state, American culture now trains immigrants—virtually all of whom are “people of color”—to believe they’re living in a racist nation, populated either by white supremacists, or at the least, whites who practice “unconscious racism.”

This is a grotesque distortion of reality, if not just a dangerous, opportunistic lie. Yet it is obsessively promulgated by America’s establishment elites, and it filters down to everything from public schools to corporate marketing campaigns. It trains anyone who isn’t white to believe they are inherently disadvantaged, and to believe that any failures or setbacks they may encounter in life are likely to have been the result of systemic racism.

This is a terrible way to integrate immigrants into America. This nation used to proudly proclaim itself to be a melting pot, where immigrant cultures dissolved into a unique American culture. It absorbed the flavors that everyone brought, but assimilated them into something originally defined by the founders—a nation committed to equality and freedom.

When people critical of mass immigration worry that it is changing the racial composition of the country, perhaps they shouldn’t be ridiculed. After all, there are few if any historical examples where this has been easy. Nonetheless, if race is their primary concern, they’re on thin ice.

But when people critical of mass immigration argue that, with rare and justifiable exceptions, immigration should be limited to those with the ability and desire to assimilate into our culture and contribute to our economy, they are standing on bedrock. These are completely different reasons for concern, and must be evaluated accordingly.

America can do both; maintain a youthful population while preserving its national culture and identity. But to do that will require an immigration policy that serves the American people, instead of corporations and government bureaucrats.

About Edward Ring

Edward Ring is a senior fellow of the Center for American Greatness and co-founder in 2013 of the California Policy Center.

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

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