Earlier this month, President Trump made headlines by repeatedly claiming that the United States is “full”—suggesting that, therefore, new immigrants to the US would no longer be welcome.
Journalists, commentators, and others were quick to take issue with the statement. Some argued on philosophical grounds. Others took issue on a more factual basis. In one response, reporters from The Upshot at the New York Times—in characteristically astute form—pointed out that, between declining birth rates and an aging population, prime-working age population is already decreasing in many places around the US. Without immigration, these places will face a decline in their labor force in coming decades.
In other words, not only is the US (and specifically, the US labor force) not full, many places are in serious need of migration.
A few days later, President Trump further confounded critics with the suggestion that migrants to the US would be sent to so-called sanctuary cities (a ubiquitous but legally informal phrase that has been self-designated by many cities, including many of the country’s largest, as well as many counties and several states).
In response, residents and representatives of many of those jurisdictions proudly suggested that they would be happy to accept immigrants. (I was glad to read that Pittsburgh’s own Mayor Peduto said as much.) But amidst all of the rhetoric, I worry that we are collectively paying woefully insufficient attention to important economic issues that underlie the conversation about immigration and workforce.
At Fourth Economy, we encounter workforce issues throughout our work. Attracting, retaining, and preparing the workers of tomorrow is a challenge that touches nearly all of our clients, from the Agricultural System of West Virginia to the Metro Hartford, Connecticut, and throughout the US. The age distribution of the workforce is also an important factor in the framework of our Community Index.
But communities around the country are not affected equally by this ongoing challenge. One way to measure the likely challenges of future labor force needs is to look at the concentration of an area’s labor force by age. The map below shows the percentage of the resident labor force in each US county that is above 55 years-old—that is, people who are active in the labor force, but who are older than what might generally be considered prime working age (25 to 54 years-old).
Communities where the current labor force is highly concentrated among older workers are likely to face increasing economic struggles in coming years. As older workers retire, there will likely be too few younger workers to take their place. Growth will decrease. Employers in some industries will compensate through automation. In other industries, remote work will become more common. But many employers in hard-hit areas will likely relocate or close.
The confounding bit is that the communities facing labor shortages are generally not the “sanctuary” communities where the President is threatening to send more new immigrants. They are instead more likely to be rural, and politically conservative communities, as shown in the scatter plot below. (Whereas many of the countries largest, youngest, and most rapidly growing cities are sanctuary cities.) Indeed, among the counties with greatest share of their labor force over 55 years-old—what we might reasonably designate the communities most in need of new workers—92% voted for president Trump in 2016.
Those facts on the surface are not that surprising. Sure, “Trump Country” is populated by rural communities with older labor forces. But the economic implications are being glaringly overlooked. What is being used to threaten to one part of the country is, in fact, a significant threat to the economic vitality of another.