Immigration and the Coming “Majority Minority”

Well over a year ago, the Census Bureau released a national projection through mid-century showing that the U.S. population will be minority white in the year 2042, creating much ballyhoo, as well as speculation about what it implies for the nation’s voting patterns, labor force and generational divides. That projection assumed an immigration trajectory of up to two million each year.

Never mind that there are now four states and a slew of cities with so called “minority majority” populations. The sense that the combined minority population would outnumber whites some 40 years out led to the usual outrage among those who feel our country is changing too fast, and that immigration is the major cause.

New Census projections will probably bring some comfort to those who prefer the status quo. One Census alternative to last year’s projection assumes a lower, and constant immigration of roughly one million new Americans annually over the 2010-2050 time span. This is broadly consistent with our experience of the last two decades, after averaging variations due to economic shifts.

The new, more realistic projection pushes the “minority majority” tipping point back eight years, to 2050. This scenario also estimates that the U.S. population will not reach the 400 million benchmark until just after 2050, compared with 2039 under the earlier projection.

Census also offered projections based on other immigration scenarios, with the highest assuming a rise to 2.4 million annual immigrants by mid-decade. Not surprisingly, this moves the minority white tipping point closer to the year 2040 and shows the 400 million mark reached already in 2035.

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Thus, those concerned about long-term immigration are right to note that immigration levels do have consequences for the nation’s demographic future. Yet more so than its impact on race, the projections show the significance immigration holds for the near term size of our labor force.

This is made plain in a projection that shows what would happen if immigration were eliminated between now and 2050. Under that scenario, we would see an absolute decline of more than 7 million persons in our labor force. This would begin five years from now, and occur over the 20-year period when the large baby boom generation moves into prime retirement age.

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It would make our predicament similar to that in immigration-wary nations of Europe or Japan, whose working-age populations are already diminishing.

In comparison, any of the Census Bureau’s positive immigration scenarios will fill the void and add from 31 million to 64 million working-age adults over the next 40 years. It is a demographic fact that continued immigration is necessary for this country to maintain a growing vital labor force.

Census’ “no immigration” projection also sends a message to those who would eliminate immigration because of race-ethnic diversity concerns: it is already too late to return to the predominantly white population of the past. If immigration stopped this year, we will continue to become more diverse simply due to the fertility and population momentum associated with minority-majority make up of today’s population. In this case, whites will comprise only 58 percent of the population at mid-century (compared to about two thirds today) and the under 5 population will become majority minority. 

There is much to consider beyond mere numbers of people when we finally get serious about implementing an enlightened immigration policy reform. Since it’s nearly certain that immigration will continue at some level, these projections make fairly obvious that newcomers from across the world  will change our race, ethnic and national-origin complexion in ways, it seems, that can only improve our interconnectedness to the global economy. Yet, because immigration is so crucial to the near- and long-term growth of our working population, it is imperative that any forthcoming reform pays close attention to matching the skill levels—both high and low—of new immigrant waves, to our forthcoming labor force needs.