Far right White supremacist groups, conservative media personalities and now Republicans in Congress are trying to inflame nativist feelings among conservative Whites by warning that liberals want immigrants to “replace” native-born Americans in the nation’s culture and electorate.
But that racist “replacement theory” inverts the real consequence of immigration for its target audience of Whites uneasy about social and racial change: Many of the Whites most drawn to the far-right argument that new arrivals are displacing “real Americans” are among those with the most to lose if the nation reduces, much less eliminates, immigration in the decades ahead.
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With or without immigration, the White share of the population will decline in the coming decades, census projections show. But if immigration is reduced or eliminated, America will grow older, with many fewer working-age adults available to support an exploding number of retirees. And that would not only slow overall economic growth, multiple projections have found, but also would increase pressure for cuts in the Social Security and Medicare benefits that provide a lifeline to the older Whites most drawn to the right’s anti-immigrant arguments.
“The projections show we are going to be dealing with lower population growth and an aging population, and the only way we are going to be able to keep our labor force growing and vital is through immigration,” says William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “It’s a matter of math. I never understood why people who are anti-immigration can’t understand the math of the whole thing, because it’s quite simple.”
Already, in nearly half the states, the number of working-age adults – defined as those aged 18 to 64 – declined from 2010 through 2019, according to a recent analysis by Frey. Without immigration, that squeeze will only tighten in the years ahead, forcing Washington to either cut benefits for retirees or to raise the payroll taxes that fund Social Security and Medicare to an unprecedented level on the shrinking number of workers.
If the nation severely restricts immigration, the fiscal impact would be to “double the load on working-age people of all these seniors,” warns Dowell Myers, a demographer at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy.
“Replacement theory,” sometimes called the “great replacement,” gestated in the swampy waters of far-right White supremacist groups. But in the Donald Trump era it has migrated closer to the GOP mainstream. Fox News Channel host Tucker Carlson, who often spreads xenophobic arguments, has ardently embraced the charge that Democrats are “trying to replace the current electorate – the voters now casting ballots – with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World.” Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, both Republicans, have echoed him in recent public statements. The far-right Republican House members, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who floated plans for a Trump-like “America First Caucus” before scrapping them, declared in a recruiting document disclosed last week by the Punchbowl website that large-scale immigration threatens “the long-term existential future of America as a unique country with a unique culture and a unique identity.”
White population share declining either way
Immigrants have indeed steadily increased as a share of America’s population since 1965, when Congress rewrote the immigration laws, which had severely restricted immigration since 1924. Immigrants now compose just under 14% of the US population – almost triple their share in 1970 and approaching the all-time high of around 15% in the “melting pot” era around the turn of the 20th century.
But new immigration is no longer the primary driver of the growing racial, ethnic and religious diversity that unnerves much of the GOP coalition. In a recent paper, Frey explored Census Bureau projections that examined the racial composition of American society through 2060 under scenarios that anticipated four different levels of future immigration. Under all four scenarios, the White share of the population significantly declined and the minority share rose.
Today, Whites make up about 60% of the population. At the immigration levels America experienced during the first half of the past decade – a little over 1 million new entrants per year – that would decline by 2060 to 44%. With immigration levels reduced to about half that, roughly as the Trump administration and most congressional Republicans proposed in 2018 legislation that ultimately failed, the number still shrinks to 46%. Even if the US shut off all immigration in the coming decades, Whites would still decline to just over 51% of the population, the census projections concluded. (At an accelerated level of immigration, the White share fell to 42%.)
Under all four scenarios, the total number of Hispanics, Blacks and mixed-race Americans increased over the coming decades, as did Asian Americans in each scenario except the extreme case of entirely shutting off immigration. But in all four census projections, even the one that completely eliminates future immigration, the total number of Whites declined.
The reason is straightforward: As a group, Whites are aging and producing fewer children. Not only is the White share of the youth population steadily declining, but so are the absolute number of White kids. From 2010 through 2019, Frey calculated in another recent paper, the number of Whites under 18 fell by 3.2 million nationwide; in a striking 44 states, there were fewer White children in 2019 than in 2010. The number of Black kids also slightly fell nationwide over the past decade.
Asian Americans, mixed-race and, above all, Latinos added more children over the past decade, but not enough to completely offset those declines: After growing substantially in the 1990s and modestly in the 2000s, the total number of American kids fell from 2010 through 2019, an ominous milestone. And while that number is expected to shift back slightly into positive territory over this decade, fewer children today establishes an unmistakable implication for tomorrow: fewer adults available as consumers, workers and taxpayers.
Just as the Census Bureau forecasts growing racial diversity under any future level of immigration, it likewise projects ominously slow growth in America’s working-age population without more immigration. Under the immigration levels of the early 2010s, America’s population aged 18-64 will rise by only about 4% through 2035, a historically slow increase. At the reduced level Republicans sought, it would remain virtually stagnant, and with no immigration it will actually shrink by 4%. Only in the high-immigration scenario does the workforce experience significant growth: about 8%.
Working with the economics department at George Mason University, an institution whose work conservatives often cite, the pro-immigration group FWD.us issued a recent paper that looked out further, projecting the size of the workforce through 2050. Those forecasts likewise showed that the number of workers increases only very slightly through the next three decades under a lower level of immigration similar to what Trump and the GOP sought, and contracts severely (with 17 million fewer workers then than now) if immigration is entirely shut off. Like the Census Bureau, the study found that only with accelerated immigration does the working-age population experience significant growth.
Senior population is rising fast
These forecasts don’t map just some hazy, distant future. The total US population may have increased more slowly over the past 10 years than in any other decade in American history, census projections show. In 23 states, the working-age population already declined from 2010 to 2019, Frey has calculated. Topping those numbers are West Virginia (down almost 9%), Vermont (5%), Maine (4%) and Illinois and Wyoming (between 3% and 4%). In the years ahead, more states are certain to join that list, Frey says, especially those that can’t attract either immigrants from abroad or domestic migrants from other states.
“You’ve got tons of baby boomers who are retiring and there are not enough White workforce entrants to match the outflow,” agrees Myers.
Because population growth is an essential component of economic growth, these numbers would be foreboding enough under any circumstances. But to demographers they are especially troubling, because the working-age population is stagnating exactly as the nation’s senior population is exploding, with the retirement of the huge baby boom generation born between 1946 and 1964.
In every state, Frey’s figures show, the senior population grew far faster over the past decade than those of working age. (In fact, the senior population grew faster in every state than the working-age cohort did in any state.) That dynamic will only accelerate in the coming years: the Census Bureau’s projections show that under any immigration scenario, the number of seniors in America will grow by about 40% through 2035.
An increasing number of seniors, coupled with a stalled working-age population, means a deteriorating balance in what demographers call the “dependency ratio” or “senior ratio”: that is, the number of seniors who must be funded in retirement for each working-age adult available to pay the taxes that support them.
Today, the US has about 27 seniors for every 100 working-age adults. As Myers notes, that itself represents an increase, driven by the retirement of the first baby boomers around 2010, from levels that had remained fairly constant (at just under 20 seniors per 100 working-age adults) during the final quarter of the 20th century. But that growth represents only the first tremors of the coming earthquake.
“We are going to see that ratio really ramp up quickly in the years ahead,” says Phillip Connor, a senior demographer at FWD.us.
Even at the relatively higher levels of immigration common in the first half of the past decade, the number of seniors per 100 workers would rise to 37 by 2050, the FWD.us study found. At the lower levels of immigration Republicans sought under Trump, or no immigration at all, it would soar to 40 or more. Another study released in February by the National Immigration Forum reached similar conclusions.
Such numbers would leave the US facing dependency ratios now common in European countries like Germany, France and Spain – where there are about 33 seniors for every 100 working-age adults – whose aging profiles have been a headwind against economic growth. The US, in those scenarios, would even approach the dependency ratio evident in Japan, a society deeply resistant to immigration, which today has nearly 50 seniors for every 100 workers.
And even projections based on the 18-64 population, Myers notes, might understate the problem, because they include young adults in their late teens and early 20s, many of whom will be in school, not the workforce. That’s why he thinks the share of seniors to actual workers, in practice, could roughly double over the coming decades, also leaving the US with only about two workers for every retiree, the unenviable position Japan confronts today.
“We’ve never had that number before,” he says. “We deserve all our entitlements and we earned it, but someone has got to carry the load and it’s these working age people.” An America so tilted toward seniors, he says, would be “top heavy,” producing a burden for supporting seniors that will be “crushing” on the constricted number of workers.
’The brown and the gray’
Indeed, the FWD.us study found that if immigration is reduced to roughly the lower level that Republicans pursued under Trump, Social Security, to maintain current benefits, would need to pay out $400 billion more in 2050 than the system is projected to raise in revenue; with no immigration, the shortfall would rise to nearly $450 billion.
Deficits that large would require either big tax increases on the working-age population or benefit cuts for retirees, who will remain mostly White for decades to come (because of the extremely limited immigration between 1924 and 1965). Low, much less no, future immigration “is certainly not sustainable in terms of keeping … what we have today” in federal retirement benefits for the elderly, Connor says.
One of the great ironies of 21st-century America is that the older Whites who are often the most receptive to anti-immigrant arguments like the “replacement theory” will be relying on an increasingly non-White workforce to fund their retirement through the payroll taxes they pay. In that way, the fates of what I’ve called the “brown and the gray” – the mostly diverse younger and preponderantly White older generations – are linked: There is no financial security for the “gray” without greater economic opportunity for the “brown.” But few of the conservative Whites at the core of the GOP coalition apparently see that connection.
In polling by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute, about three-fifths of Republicans in both 2019 and 2020 agreed with the harshly worded statement that “immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background.” Among Whites who described themselves as very favorable toward Trump, more than three-fourths in each year endorsed that idea, according to detailed results provided by the institute.
In 2019, nearly half of all Whites 50 and older agreed with that statement, which echoes the language of the “replacement theory” conspiracy; that number declined somewhat in 2020, but few opinion analysts would be surprised if it rises again with Trump out of office and conservative media, like Fox News, incessantly fanning alarms over undocumented immigration and unaccompanied minors at the southern border. Already the Public Religion Research Institute polling shows that Republicans who receive most of their information from Fox News are more likely than others in the GOP to embrace the “invading” argument.
The economic realities facing the nation suggest that the “replacement theory” has the equation almost exactly backward. Carlson, Johnson and other proponents of the theory are telling their audience centered on older and working-class Whites that they should fear being “replaced” by immigrants. But the real threat to those constituencies, as more of them step into retirement, is that they won’t be replaced by immigrants in the workforce and the tax base.
Without more immigrants, those culturally anxious Whites face the virtual certainty of more financial pressure on their federal retirement benefits and slower economic growth for American society overall.
“You talk about ‘replacement,’ well, they need to be replaced in the workforce – that’s the issue,” Frey says. “Growing the younger age groups and particularly the younger workforce age groups is essential for us to not get into a situation of accentuated age dependency.”
It’s far from the first time, but in pushing the racist “replacement theory,” the voices of the populist right are stirring cultural anxieties to mobilize their blue-collar and older White constituencies behind economic policies that harm their own interests.