Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton has gotten a lot of attention the past couple of weeks with his proposed RAISE Act to change the nation’s legal immigration policies. One question that hasn’t been answered: How do we pay for Social Security and Medicare if we limit immigration?
Cotton’s argument – supported by President Trump – is that the current laws let in the wrong people and ultimately depress working class Americans’ wages. His RAISE (Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy) Act would create a skills-based system awarding points based on education, English proficiency, high-paying job offers, age, achievement and entrepreneurial initiative. The current system instead gives preference to extended family members. The RAISE Act also would limit to 50,000 the number of refugees offered permanent residency.
Focusing on the world’s best and brightest kind of flies in the face of Emma Lazarus’ poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty. (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. … I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”) That poem’s “wretched refuse” traveled across the ocean with nothing and built America. As the Washington Post’s Philip Bump pointed out, Trump’s immigrant grandfather, Friedrich Trumpf, likely would not have qualified for entry under the RAISE Act.
But it’s the 21st century, and the United States has every right to at least reconsider its immigration policies. Canada and Australia, two other immigrant destinations, have skills-based systems.
The RAISE Act would limit immigration significantly – by 41 percent the first year, according to a study cited by Cotton’s office, and by 50 percent by year 10. Unfortunately, having fewer immigrants, rather than more, would make it more difficult to solve Social Security’s and Medicare’s funding challenges.
Created in 1935 (Social Security) and 1965 (Medicare), the two programs serving senior citizens are entrenched in American life and enjoy broad support, even among those who say the government can’t do anything right.
Unfortunately, they face a demographic reality: Americans are living longer and having fewer children than previous generations, so there’s a lot of people receiving benefits for a long time, but not enough people paying for them. In 1945 there were 42 covered workers for each Social Security beneficiary, and that ratio was still 5:1 in 1960. Now, there are fewer than three workers paying into the system for every recipient, and the ratio will continue to worsen.
More workers are needed now, and more workers will be needed in the future. Unfortunately, Americans are not young enough to produce them. According to the Census Bureau, the median age of American females in 2010 was 38.5 years – about when women stop having children. Fifty-four percent of American women that year were at least age 35.
In other words, we have a lot of older people and not enough capacity to make new ones, unless many more Americans follow Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar’s example and have 19 children (or my grandmother’s and have an 11th child, my mom, at age 47). Because we’re not going to produce enough young workers to pay for Social Security and Medicare, we’re going to have to import them.
To its credit, the RAISE Act does award more points to younger applicants, and it does the same for higher wage earners, who would pay more into the system. But one of its supposed selling points is that it allows fewer immigrants, when instead we must have more of them.
Importing young workers is not the only solution for Social Security’s and Medicare’s funding issues, but the others include cutting benefits and raising taxes, and the American people won’t let elected officials do that. So for all the talk about building walls, we’ll eventually not only lift our lamp beside the golden door, but we’ll be looking high and low for young people to walk through it.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.