The United States went through a lot between the summer of 1918 and the summer of 2018. But nothing that transpired in that century — none of the recessions, epidemics, wars, or nativist movements — managed to bring our nation’s rate of population growth to a lower level than the one it saw last year.
Between July 2018 and July 2019, the U.S. population grew by less than 0.5 percent, its slowest in a century, according to a new report from the Census Bureau. This result is partially a function of long-running demographic trends. As the baby-boom generation grays, and millennials delay child-rearing until later in life than past cohorts, births only outstripped deaths in the U.S. this year by 957,000, which is the lowest that figure has been in four decades. But a more significant — and less inevitable — driver of the declining growth rate was a sharp drop in new immigrants to the United States. The year that Donald Trump was elected, 1 million new arrivals came to our shores; in 2019, only 595,000 did.
The president has failed to get his desired cuts to legal immigration quotas through Congress. But by implementing a variety of executive actions restricting admissions — and relentlessly communicating his administration’s hostility toward foreigners over the bully pulpit (and/or presidential Twitter feed) — Trump has succeeded in repelling immigrants from our shores. Which is bad news for fans of “American Greatness.”
Although pro-natal welfare policies like child allowances and public day care could facilitate marginal increases in our nation’s birth rate, such policies have failed to avert demographic decline in other countries that have implemented them. America’s relatively high levels of immigration have helped to keep it much younger — and thus, more economically vibrant — than its peer nations in Europe. If the U.S. becomes durably less attractive or welcoming to newcomers, then it will have much greater difficulty sustaining robust economic growth and providing a decent retirement to its aging population. Meanwhile, as a vastly more populous China accrues greater power and technological sophistication, a graying, xenophobic America will be in a much worse position to maintain its influence on the world stage than a rapidly growing cosmopolitan one.
To be sure, many Americans may value lower rates of immigration more than higher rates of economic growth or well-funded retirement programs, let alone something as abstract (and double-edged) as their nation’s global preeminence. But Donald Trump often suggests that the former is a means of achieving all of the latter — that tightening America’s borders will strengthen its economy, Social Security program, and geopolitical advantages over China. As the Census Bureau’s report indicates, this could not be further from the truth.