Immigration Is No Fix for an Aging Society
By Steven Camarota
Its effects on programs like Social Security are tiny.
We hear it all the time. During the recent primary debate, Joe Biden said illegal immigrants “increased the lifespan of Social Security.” America must have large numbers of immigrants to “rebuild the demographic pyramid,” in the words of Jeb Bush.
To be sure, Americans have had small families for quite some time, and life expediency has increased. Our population is aging. But there is a significant amount of research on how much immigration can offset population aging in low-fertility countries such as the United States, and the answer is clear — not much.
In a 1992 article in Demography, economist Carl Schmertmann explained that, mathematically, “Constant inflows of immigrants, even at relatively young ages, do not necessarily rejuvenate low-fertility populations. In fact, immigration may even contribute to population aging.” After reviewing population projections, the former chair of Princeton’s sociology department and the director of its graduate population-studies program, Thomas Espenshade, observed:
It becomes apparent that the effect of alternative immigration levels on population age structure is small, unless we are willing to entertain a volume of U.S. immigration of historic proportion. . . . Immigration is a clumsy and unrealistic policy alternative to offset a shortage of domestic labor or to correct a perceived imbalance in the pensioner/worker ratio in the United States.
After looking at all the population projections prepared by the United Nations, Oxford demographer David Coleman has concluded, “There are no feasible migration solutions to the age-structure change and its effects on social security.” Coleman and others have pointed out that immigration can prevent population decline — that is, it can add a lot of people to the country — but it does not significantly change the age structure in the way that many immigration advocates seem to imagine. If we wanted to use immigration to offset population aging, the level necessary would have to be truly enormous.
A recent paper I coauthored based on the most recent Census Bureau population projections examined the impact of immigration on the nation’s age structure. Assuming current levels of immigration continue, the latest projections indicate that the total U.S. population will reach 404 million in 2060 — 79 million larger than in 2017. Future immigrants and their descendants account for nearly all (75 million) of the increase. Under this scenario, 59 percent of the population will be working-age (16 to 64). By contrast, in a zero-immigration scenario, 57 percent of the population would be working-age in 2060. More realistically, if immigration were limited to half of the expected level, 58 percent would be working age…