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Q&A | SHIFTING DEMOGRAPHICS

Immigrants could be key to boomers' security

February 27, 2007|Jeffrey L. Rabin | Times Staff Writer

The aging of the baby boom generation is no secret. But Dowell Myers, a professor of urban planning and demography at USC, believes that the boomers' future is directly tied to the economic success of the state's younger immigrant population. His forthcoming book is titled "Immigrants and Boomers: Forging a New Social Contract for the Future of America."

Why should baby boomers care about the state's immigrant population?

It will become totally obvious within 20 years that the baby boomers need the immigrant youth.... Not only will California have a shortage of workers, but the whole country will.

We also know there is a skyrocketing tax burden being imposed by the elderly. We need to have more middle-class taxpayers to shoulder the burden. The trouble is you can't grow a worker overnight. You can't produce a middle-class taxpayer overnight, and you can't produce a home buyer overnight. You have to plan ahead.

The debate about immigration can get hot and heavy politically. How much of it is based on fact and how much on misperceptions?

It's all based on a little bit of facts, but it's largely based on perceptions, and some of those are misperceptions.

Most people don't know, for example, that immigration has leveled off. They continue to assume it's going up.... The real actors in this aren't Californians. They are people who are encountering immigration for the first time, and they are shocked by it. They think an immigrant is a newcomer. They haven't had experience seeing that people settle in and they grow older and they move up the ladder.

Trace for us the phenomenal changes that have taken place in California in the last 30 years in terms of the number of foreign-born residents.

Immigration in America really slowed down through the middle of the 20th century. We had a very high level back in 1910. But after the Immigration Act of 1926 it really plunged through the Great Depression and through the World War II years.

The low point was probably about 1970. The U.S. was down to 4.7% foreign-born, and California was down about 8.5%.

Then, after 1970, California's foreign-born shot upward to 21.7% by 1990. Our level now is up to 27% foreign-born. That's an astounding turnaround.

Has the wave of immigrants abated?

The acceleration of new arrivals has just leveled off.... After 1990, we had our recession, which basically discouraged people from moving to California.

We used to get 38% of all the new arrivals in America.... Now we're down to about 20%, the difference being that they have discovered other destinations across America where they had never gone before that have really cheap housing, decent jobs.

Given a choice between coming to Los Angeles County or going to Gwinnett County, Ga., they are going for Georgia, because it's a lot better deal for them economically.

What drew so many immigrants to California over the last 30 years?

Our economy was booming in the '80s. Much of the rest of the U.S. was not doing so well. Texas had the oil crash in '85, and so [in] the later half of the '80s it was not a great economic destination. California took all those Mexican immigrants because Texas couldn't. The Midwest had its own Rust Belt. So we were the hot spot in the late '80s.

How are the aging baby boomers going to realize this common economic and social interest with the younger immigrant population?

The future is very hard for people to see. They are not going to realize this on their own until it's too late.... So my job is to help them see ahead. The longer we delay, the worse the problem gets.

It just so happens the next president of the United States is going to face this problem dead on, hard, in the middle of their second term -- the worker shortages that are going to have states fighting with each other.

For the skilled, qualified workers?

All kinds of workers. The workforce shortages hit the hardest in 2015. The tax crisis will be on us sooner than that. It's already on us.... We already have this huge deficit, and the baby boomers haven't retired yet.

And they are going to be demanding their Social Security and Medicare.

Their entitlements. I think we're going to be cutting those amid great strife.... They are going to be delaying the age of eligibility. They are going to be cutting the levels. They are going to be raising tax rates.

We need to really cultivate the future taxpayers of America. Not the baby boomers, but the immigrant youth today.... The change in thinking seems to be the real barrier.

We've been cutting taxes. We're not looking ahead to this huge problem. When you put everything in the perspective of the baby boom retirement, you realize that this is a monumental crisis.

California has followed the federal government's lead by borrowing heavily in the last five years for its budget deficit and infrastructure needs, without raising taxes. How are we going to be able to reconcile these problems?

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