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.
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.”
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.
White population share declining either way
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.
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.
Senior population is rising fast
“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.
“We are going to see that ratio really ramp up quickly in the years ahead,” says Phillip Connor, a senior demographer at FWD.us.
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.
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.