WASHINGTON — Sometime last week, demographers estimate, a baby was born who brought the planet’s population to a staggering 7 billion. That’s worrisome, given the stresses on precious resources such as water. But the underlying trend that has created a crowded planet is not a baby boom in distant, impoverished countries. It’s a phenomenon you can see in your own neighborhood or church or civic club: People are living longer and healthier lives.
As someone who hopes to live to an advanced old age, I can hardly denounce the trend. But we’ll face a slew of challenges — including inevitable economic decline — if there are not enough younger workers to fill the coffers for Social Security and Medicare, to feed and bathe and medicate nursing home patients, to build the elderly-equipped housing and drive the wheelchair-accessible vans we’ll need.
The United States has a big advantage over several other nations — if we don’t blow it: We have immigrants, some legal, many illegal, who help to keep our population younger. While native-born American women have more children than their counterparts in Japan and Italy and Greece, it’s also true that workers from Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia and other points south have boosted the U.S. fertility rate.
So here’s something you won’t hear from politicians anywhere on the political spectrum: Let’s celebrate those so-called anchor babies, supposedly born to women who sneak into this country just to confer citizenship on their infants. (That particular right-wing cliche is not borne out by research, but it retains its popularity. If it were true, it would be worth encouraging.)
Unhappily, that’s not what you’re hearing these days. With the Republican presidential campaign in high gear, you’re hearing quite the opposite: A steady volley of coarse, demagogic pseudo-facts about the burdens presented by illegal immigrants. They’re criminals bringing drug violence across the border! They’re grifters stealing social services! They’re taking jobs from honest-to-goodness Americans!
The hapless Rick Perry has few policies or proposals worth defending, but he has been mercilessly attacked for one of those: a tuition subsidy for Texas college students who happen to be in the country illegally. If a student graduates from a Texas high school and has the grades and test scores to gain admission to a public college or university, he gets in-state tuition. No questions asked. No citizenship documents required.
That’s actually a fine idea; it enriches not just the individuals but also their adopted state and country. The immediate beneficiaries are young adults who were brought into this country by their parents, have lived here for years and adopted American customs, habits and aspirations. Why not encourage them to get college degrees?
As Perry has noted, his policy creates taxpayers. (He might have added, Those taxpayers can help pay for my Social Security and Medicare costs.) But the Texas governor has been roundly denounced by his rivals, including Mitt Romney, who should know better.
Admittedly, presidential campaigns are not ideal platforms for public tutorials on complex issues. But the problems caused by a population heavily tilted toward the elderly are not difficult to explain.
Take Social Security and Medicare, the two huge entitlement programs that are front and center in the debate over cutting government spending. Those programs will encounter difficulties because the pool of elderly will grow so much larger, and the pool of workers who pay taxes to support them won’t grow enough. It’s shortsighted to the point of dementia to try to expel the illegal immigrants who mitigate that shortage of younger workers.
If you believe illegal immigrants are a bigger drain than they’re worth as taxpayers (and they do pay taxes), there’s a solution: Put them on a path to citizenship. Turn them into full-fledged Americans. Encourage their children to go to college, since college graduates generally end up with higher-paying jobs and higher tax bills.
In a well-researched book about the not-too-distant future, “The Next Hundred Million,” writer Joel Kotkin predicts that the United States will prosper because the country will “maintain a youthful, dynamic demographic” through “a resourceful stream of ever-assimilating immigrants.”
But that future depends on a political and social climate that welcomes newcomers instead of scaring them off.
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at email@example.com.)