In that essay, Eberstadt noted that the United States compares favorably with its great power rivals in terms of demographic vitality and skilled human capital. He also wrote, however, that “to maintain the United States’ edge, American leaders must take steps to slow or reverse the negative demographic trends now eating away at the foundations of U.S. power.” You could almost say that he is concerned with keeping America great, something he shares with the president of the United States. That was almost six months ago, however, a lifetime in the Age of Trump. Surely, with the U.S. economy chugging along, America will continue to be demographically great, right?
Unfortunately, the data that kept trickling out at the end of 2019 suggest that America’s “demographic exceptionalism” might be drawing to a close. Three components of U.S. demographics have always made it unique compared with other parts of the developed world: a higher-than-average birthrate, a significant influx of immigrants and an even more significant influx of immigrants seeking higher education. None of the data in these three categories is trending in a positive direction.
Consider birthrates. The basic narrative is that the 2008 financial crisis caused a significant slump in birthrates. As the economy has picked up, however, one would have expected birthrates to have recovered. According to the New York Times’s Neil Vigdor, however, 2019 census figures look pretty bleak: “In 2019, there were 3,791,712 births and 2,835,038 deaths, which meant that 956,674 people were added to the country’s population estimate, the smallest increase of the decade.” Vigdor notes that the birth slowdown will probably continue, since many millennials wait to have children.
This isn’t just a coastal-elite phenomenon either — President Trump’s base of white evangelicals is experiencing a similar slowdown in births. At first glance, this seems like an odd trend given the superficial signs of a booming economy. According to Pew, however, those rosy economic numbers are not being felt across the income spectrum: “When asked how economic conditions are affecting them and their families, nearly half of adults (46%) say they are being hurt, 31% say they’re being helped and 22% say they don’t see much of an impact.” Partisanship explains some of this, but Pew’s survey results also show that “lower-income Republicans are roughly four times as likely as those in the upper-income tier to give the economy an only fair or poor rating.”
The immigration story is also not good. Vigdor writes that:
Census watchers say that one of the biggest reasons for the stagnancy of the population is the decrease in the number of new immigrants, a trend that has continued through President Trump’s first three years in office.The addition of an estimated 595,348 immigrants to the population in 2019 is a stark contrast to three years ago, when the country added more than one million immigrants, according to the population data.
You can guess the reasons for the drop-off in overall immigration. The Trump administration’s restrictionist policies have certainly played a role. The administration has gone well beyond attempts to thwart illegal immigration, reducing and restricting legal forms of immigration as well. In 2019, Canada surpassed the United States in admitting the most refugees, even though it is a much smaller economy. In October, the United States did not admit a single refugee.
Whether intentionally or not, the Trump administration has also contributed to a slowdown in foreign students studying in the United States. According to Inside Higher Ed’s Elizabeth Redden, “The number of international undergraduate students declined by 2.4 percent, the number of international graduate students declined by 1.3 percent and the number of international nondegree students declined by 5 percent.” Indeed, the total number of enrollments in 2018-2019 was about 10 percent lower from the 2015-2016 peak.
None of these disturbing trends is irreversible. None of them will affect the U.S. economy and U.S. power. They are simply another data point showing the steady erosion of long-held U.S. advantages in the global economy.
If America really was great, we should see increasing birthrates and increasing numbers of foreign students clamoring to study in the United States. The reader can speculate as to why these trends are what they are.