We need more workers, not more walls

Is the current inflationary crisis due to the policies of President Joe Biden, or are they in part the result of four years of anti-immigration policies enacted by former President Donald Trump?

Economists tell us that one prominent factor fueling current inflationary pressures on the economy is a lack of workers.

Unemployment is low. There are not enough workers for manufacturing so fewer goods are produced with high demand and higher prices. There are not enough workers to transport goods, causing supply chain problems. The lack of workers in all sectors of the economy results in competition for the workers with higher salary offerings. That cost is passed on to consumers.

According to current Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national unemployment rate is 4%, or about 6.5 million people. In December 2019 there were 10.9 million unfilled jobs. That is a gap of 4.4 million jobs without potential workers.

Of course some reader is going to say: "Well, just get people off of welfare and tell them to go to work." Let's look at that.

Currently about 59 million people receive public aid. According to a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities study (2010), about 53% are elderly, 20% are disabled adults and 18% are adults who are working. They often are working in minimum wage jobs that pay so little that the family still qualifies for assistance.

Another 7% goes for benefits for things like Social Security survivor benefits for children and spouses of deceased workers. If you assume – a questionable assumption – the remaining 2% are able-bodied potential workers, that would translate to another 1.1 million workers. That would still leave a gap of 4.3 million workers.

So why the gap?

For decades it has been forecast that when Baby Boomers hit retirement age there was a potential for a workforce shortage. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of boomers retiring each year has been increasing by 2.5-1.5 million per year until in 2019 about 25.4 million retired. The number increased to 28.6 million (a 3.2% rise) in 2020 as workers were laid off due to pandemic closures and many older workers decided to opt for retirement. When data is available for 2021 we may find this trend has accelerated.

The U.S. has not been replacing retiring boomers with potential new workers.

The National Center for Health Statistics reported in 2020 the U.S. hit a record low annual fertility rate, and it was the sixth year in a row that the birth rate has declined. Currently, our birth rates have been far below the rate needed to keep a stable population.

Now a naysayer to this last statement would point out that while the growth of the U.S. population has slowed greatly from 1960 to now, the U.S. population has never dropped.

That is where the Trump/Republican immigration policies come into play.

Immigration into the U.S. helped offset the drop in the U.S. birth rate. The latest census data shows that 14.1% of the U.S. population is made up of immigrants. However, the rate of immigration took a sharp drop in 2016 as the Trump immigration policies were enacted. As a result, the U.S. population growth was only 0.12% from July 2020 to July 2021.

In 2020, immigrant men were more likely to be employed (76.6%) compared to native-born U.S. men (65.9%), while women in both groups had rates in the mid-50th percentile, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

By excessively cutting immigration, the Trump administration cut the pipeline of needed immigrants who were coming to the U.S. to seek work.

The ultimate impact of this on the economy and inflation may have been delayed by the marked decrease in demand for workers that occurred because of the 2020 COVID-related shutdowns. Once the economy began to recover as widespread vaccination occurred in the first year of the Biden administration, the impact of this decreased flow of eager immigrant workers became a factor.

The solution? The Biden administration has taken some steps to open up legitimate immigration while still protecting the integrity of our borders. But the impact of such efforts will be delayed.

Meanwhile, Republicans in an election year are ramping up the get-tough-on-immigration rhetoric that builds on voters' fears or prejudices.

This year we need to elect individuals who support moderate immigration reform to help get our economy back on an even keel. We don't need more walls built against legitimate immigration.

Dr. Stephen Soltys of Springfield is a retired physician who still teaches at SIU on a volunteer basis.