When Americans think about immigration, disturbing images from the U.S.-Mexico border come to mind. The flow of refugees and people entering the country illegally creates a range of emotions, from empathy for the suffering to hostility toward politicians for the lack of a comprehensive immigration policy.
The border issues are real, but so is the fact that the United States needs immigrants for economic reasons. A report by the non-profit, non-partisan National Foundation for American Policy concludes that the country’s demographic factors make foreign-born workers increasingly important to the country’s well-being.
“Without continued net inflows of immigrants, the U.S. working-age population will shrink over the next two decades and by 2040, the United States will have over 6 million fewer working age people than in 2022,” the report concluded.
The country’s birthrate is falling, and the baby boom generation is aging out of the workforce. Those factors combined with expected economic growth will increase demand for workers. “Virtually every labor market indicator points to the need for additional workers, and these pressures will increase over time if the working-age population shrinks,” according to the report.
This phenomenon is especially true in West Virginia, where the size of the labor force is headed in the wrong direction. Workforce West Virginia calculates the civilian labor force of the state at 783,000. That is down from nearly 800,000 a decade ago.
A stagnant workforce is bad enough, but a shrinking labor pool makes it even more difficult for new businesses to locate here and for existing businesses to expand or simply maintain a workforce.
We have complicated, and even conflicting, views about immigration in this country. A recent Gallup Poll found that two-thirds of those questioned said immigration is a good thing for the country (27 percent said it was a bad thing). However, the poll also found that a plurality of those questioned—41 percent—believe that immigration should be decreased (31 percent said it should be kept at present levels, while 26 percent said it should be increased).
The poll also found that Americans are split on immigration and the economy. Thirty nine percent said foreign-born workers make the economy better, while 38 percent say they make it worse.
But what really places a burden on the economy is not having enough people to fill the jobs available. As the National Foundation for American Policy report concluded, “Absent inflows from abroad or from other states, the majority of states will see their working-age population shrink in the coming years.”
West Virginia’s industrial economy was forged by immigrants. Italians, Poles, Slovaks, Germans, English, Scotch, Welsh, Lithuanians, Russians and others all came—or were recruited—to the Mountain State to work in the coal mines and steel mills along with white and black West Virginians.
If any state is pro-immigration, it should be West Virginia. It is good for our economy and an extension of our state’s multicultural roots. The same goes for the rest of the country where the demand for workers will continue to outstrip the supply, unless we have functional policies that encourage more people to come here to work.