New immigration estimates help make sense of the pace of employment

March 7, 2024

Key takeaways:

  • This analysis considers the macroeconomic implications of recent estimates of immigration flows.
  • Recent immigration flows are notably higher than previous projections. New numbers from the Congressional Budget Office suggest that 3.3 million net immigrants arrived in 2023 compared to the 1.0 million projected prior to the pandemic.
  • Higher immigration rates mean that employment growth does not need to slow significantly to get the labor market to a sustainable pace: The authors estimate that the labor market in 2023 could accommodate employment growth of 160,000 to 230,000—versus previous projections of 60,000 to 130,000—without adding pressure to wages and price inflation.
  • The uptick can also help to explain the surprising strength in consumer spending and overall economic growth since 2022.
An immigrant worker wearing a hard hat

In this analysis, we consider recent immigration flows and their potential macroeconomic implications. Interpreting the current labor market requires understanding recent immigration: how many people arrived and how they engaged in the economy. Recent estimates from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) suggest much higher rates of recent immigration than were previously projected. In 2019, CBO projected that net immigration in 2023 would total 1.0 million people; Now, the agency estimates that net immigration last year was 3.3 million. Moreover, we estimate that CBO’s current immigration estimates suggest faster population and labor force growth in recent years than currently reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) using Census population estimates.  

Prior to the pandemic, the range of population and labor force participation projections from CBO, the BLS, and the Social Security Administration (SSA) suggested that sustainable employment growth (that which did not put unwelcome pressure on inflation) would be between 60,000 and 140,000 per month in 2022 and, as more people retired, fall to between 60,000 and 100,000 per month by 2024 (table 1). According to the Employment Situation Report from BLS, employment growth in 2023 averaged 255,000 per month, two to four times the pace that had been considered sustainable.  

Many observers took this as evidence that the labor market was much too tight and needed to soften significantly in order to get inflation down. But, using the new CBO estimates of net immigration released in January 2024, we estimate that the labor market in 2023 could have sustainably accommodated employment growth of 160,000 to 230,000. That is still below the actual monthly increases in employment in 2023, but far less so than previously estimated. Similarly, for 2024 we estimate sustainable employment growth will be between 160,000 and 200,000, approximately double the sustainable level that would have occurred in absence of the pickup in immigration according to the pre-pandemic projections from CBO, BLS, and SSA.  

Table 1: Potential employment growth, monthly, with range adjusted to account for higher immigration

Source: CBO 2019b; CBO 2020; BLS 2017; BLS 2019; SSA 2019; CBO 2022; CBO 2023. Note: Range of pre-pandemic estimates includes potential employment growth from CBO (2019) and CBO (2020) as well as projected employment from BLS (2017), BLS (2019), and SSA (2019), which are far enough from the date those projections were published that the employment growth reported here is interpreted to include only non-cyclical factors. To estimate SSA projections, we use the BLS (2019) baseline number in 2019 and SSA’s stated labor force growth rate of 0.8 annually from 2018 to 2028. To account for higher immigration than projected, the initial ranges are adjusted by the upward revision since 2019 to CBO’s estimates of net immigration in 2022 and 2023 and projected immigration for 2024.

The unexpectedly high level of immigration also explains some of the surprising strength in consumer spending and overall economic growth since 2022. Moreover, we expect immigration flows to further boost economic growth in 2024. 

Table 2: Economic effects on income, GDP growth, and spending directly attributable to the increase in immigration
Source: Authors’ calculations. Note: The first row shows the authors’ estimate of real income earned by recent immigrations, relative to what would have been predicted before the recent increase in immigration. The next two rows show the authors’ estimated effects on real consumer spending. The third row shows the resulting effect on GDP growth, only through the channels described here. The ultimate effect on GDP in these years may be higher as a result of effects on government spending and investment. Dollars are shown adjusted for inflation, in 2017 dollars.

Although we focus here on the near-term boost to the aggregate economy from greater immigration, the forces we describe are also relevant in the long term. The United States is facing a demographic challenge because of lower fertility rates and population aging. Recent Census projections make it clear that the growth of the U.S. population in coming decades will hinge critically on the level of immigration. 

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  • Acknowledgements and disclosures


    We are grateful to Lauren Bauer, Eric Jensen, John Sabelhaus, and Louise Sheiner for their generous feedback. We thank Cameron Greene, Simon Hodson, and Olivia Howard for their excellent research assistance.

    The Brookings Institution is financed through the support of a diverse array of foundations, corporations, governments, individuals, as well as an endowment. A list of donors can be found in our annual reports published online here. The findings, interpretations, and conclusions in this report are solely those of its author(s) and are not influenced by any donation.