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March 21, 2013
Peter Schrag: On immigration, demography is destiny

(March 21 -- Special to The Bee)

For anybody who still thinks that we're being swamped by a rising tide of immigrants, legal or otherwise, or that our population growth is out of control, University of Southern California demographer Dowell Myers has news for you.

Myers has spent years trying to alert us to the crucial importance of immigrants and their children in California's economic future. He's now telling us that in effect current public policy about immigration and the workforce rests on 30-year-old assumptions and is badly out of date.

In 2007, the Department of Finance projected that California's population would hit 50 million by 2032; this year it says we won't reach that number until 2049. A generation ago, we assumed that the immigrant share of our population was growing and would continue to grow indefinitely. No more.

Myers is also telling us again that we'd better educate those immigrant kids, because our economy, pensions and home values depend on it.

Among other things, the ratio between Californians of working age and people over 65 is shrinking fast. In California in 2010, there were just over 20 seniors - people over 65 - for every 100 people of working age. By 2050, that number will have doubled, to over 45 seniors for every 100 workers. California workers will have to support many more people who depend on them.

At the same time, the foreign-born population, which grew rapidly in California in the 30 years after 1970, has flattened out. In 1990, most immigrants were young recent arrivals. Today, most immigrants in California are older and long settled. For the first time in California's history, the majority of the state's residents were born here.

But Myers, who delivered the latest news at the annual conference of the California Budget Project in Sacramento last week, wasn't trying to make anyone feel more comfortable. What his numbers add up to, he said, is a set of crises:

Who's going to pay for the Social Security, pensions and spiking medical care of the millions of boomers who are beginning to retire now? Who'll replace them in the workforce? The people who are retiring now are the most skilled, best-educated generation in our history. Who will have equal - or, ideally, even greater - skills? Who will have the money to buy the retirees' homes and maintain them? Who will have the income to pay the state and federal taxes to pay off the deficit?

Some of the answers - already in front of us - are as obvious as they are depressing: delayed retirement, higher taxes, lower benefits, and fewer amenities of any kind, public or private. But some, which are equally urgent, are hardly being discussed. On Myers' list:

• "Young adults in supreme demand!"
• "Greater reliance on immigrant workers."
• "Rediscovery of neglected minority youth."

Given the much greater ratio of seniors to working-age adults that he projects, a child born in 2010 will be twice as important to the economy as one who was born in 1985.

Equally important, since more than half the students in California's schools are Latino - a fourth are officially (and some probably unnecessarily) classified as English learners - it will be immigrants and the children of immigrants who will constitute a great share of that workforce. That makes their weak overall educational performance - in graduation rates, college enrollment, test scores - and the dismal resources that their schools get all the more worrisome.

Myers has also been pointing out that in the past generation, the Mexican birthrate has declined from 6.8 births per woman of childbearing age in 1970 to 2.4, not much greater than the replacement rate, in 2000. Combined with the improving Mexican economy, another piece of news that many of us haven't heard, that means that the pressure to emigrate is going down as well.

And what's true for California, which in this respect is also ahead of the country, will eventually be true for the nation as well. The anti-immigrant backlash that hit Arizona, Alabama and Georgia and many other states in the last few years hit California two decades ago.

As the changing numbers make themselves felt, the rest of the country will catch up on immigration, as the Republican Party is slowly starting to do. There may come a time, maybe in the not too distant future, when we'll be intensively recruiting workers abroad - as we often have in the past - and not trying to keep them out.

Myers talks a great deal about the link between generations, an inseparable link, no matter how much the older generation tries not to think about it or, in various ways, to deny it. But here, demography is destiny.

Peter Schrag is a former editorial page editor of The Bee.

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