By Professor Dowell Myers
Dowell Myers is a professor of policy, planning and development at the University of Southern California and author of Immigrants and Boomers: Forging a New Social Contract for the Future of America (Russell Sage Foundation, 2007)
(The following post was provided by the author and is a reprint of an essay contributed to The Reform Institute’s compilation: Many Voices, One Dream: A Collection of Insights and Recommendations for Achieving Meaningful Immigration Reform”)
Recent debates have focused on immigrants and ignored how the rest of us are changing. Surprising to some, but immigrants are part of the solution — not the problem — to avoiding a great demographic train wreck.
With the Baby Boomers on the doorstep of retirement, we face the long-expected crisis in social security, as well as a health care dilemma, and along with that the prospect of sustained labor force losses and a depletion of our middle class taxpayer base. At the same time, massive numbers of elderly home sellers will flood an already weakened housing market.
Immigrants can’t help, can they?
Not according to a majority of both Democrats and Republicans (51% and 56%) who believe instead that “immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and health care,” according to a poll by the Pew Research Center.
Who wants them and who needs them is a frequent sentiment. No wonder sensible immigration reform has shaky support if that is the public’s belief.
Really this is a controversy about the future of America, so let’s get down to it. Immigration reform is not about the past, but instead about the decade ahead, a future with real people working hard and getting older.
Our senior ratio is posed to skyrocket, after decades of stability. From roughly 24 seniors per 100 working age residents, the ratio will surge in the coming decade to 32 and in the decade after that will hit 41.
Absorbing this sudden 30% jump in the senior ratio in a single decade will be a terrific jolt, but the jump is repeated in TWO consecutive decades, testing America like never before.
The quality of life for our elderly and their supporting families is in jeopardy.
Who will join the ranks of taxpayers to help shoulder this substantially greater burden of seniors with their much-deserved benefits? How much will we be forced to cut retirement benefits if we are to survive the double decades of growing burden? And who will actually care for so many more of our eldest citizens, given that homecare workers are often immigrants?
Truly one of the best ways to avoid drastic cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits is to accelerate into the mainstream the millions of immigrants already in our country.
Another benefit is that these immigrants could be crucial in boosting house values.
Already in the last decade immigrants doubled their nationwide presence in home buying, accounting for one-third or better of the increase in homeowners in California, New York, Illinois, Texas and Florida. After 20 years of US residence, more than 50% of Latinos also have advanced into homeownership and, with better education and incomes, they could offer sellers an even better price.
We need to think about the real role immigrants can play in the future of America.
If we just do the math of adding 10 or 20 years to all our ages we can figure how much more we will need immigrants for a better future. But those immigrants can’t be recruited all in a rush. They need to be brought on line thoughtfully and steadily, in preparation for our growing needs.
This top-heavy increase in retirees is like nothing we have seen before, requiring more workers, taxpayers, and home buyers. Squeezing extra value out of all our residents, we need to cultivate our neglected minority youth, ask your elderly to work longer, and yes, embrace the immigrants who have come to work in America.
We need them, and anyone who would reject our immigrant workers is also rejecting the needs of 77 million retiring Baby Boomers.