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A Nation of Singles

The most politically potent demographic trend is not the one everyone talked about after the election

Dec 10, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 13 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Demographers aren’t so sure. Speaking broadly, when it comes to immigration there are two kinds of countries​—​sending and receiving. The economic factors distinguishing the two are what you’d expect​—​rich vs. poor; dynamic vs. lethargic. But there are demographic markers, too. Receiving countries tend to have very low fertility rates​—​generally below the replacement rate of 2.1. (That is, if the average woman has 2.1 children in her lifetime then a country’s population will maintain a steady state.) In the short run, fertility rates below replacement cause labor shortages. Sending countries, on the other hand, have fertility rates well above the replacement rate, and resultant labor surpluses.

When you look at immigration rates from Central and South America to the United States, you find that these demographic markers are fairly reliable. Over the last decade or so the high-fertility countries (Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia) have sent larger numbers of immigrants to America while below-replacement countries (Uruguay, Chile, Brazil) have sent relatively few. Consider, for the sake of illustration, the cases of Guatemala and Costa Rica, two tiny Central American countries. With a population of 14 million, Guatemala still has a relatively robust fertility rate of 3.18. And as of 2010, there were a million people of Guatemalan descent living in the United States. Costa Rica has a population of 4.6 million and a fertility rate of 1.92. There are only 126,000 Costa Ricans in America​—​about 66 percent fewer than you would expect if the Guatemalan rates prevailed.

What else happened between 2006 and today, aside from the housing bubble and the Great Recession? Mexico’s fertility rate​—​which has been heading downward on an express elevator since the 1970s​—​started nearing the replacement rate. The data are slightly conflicting on how low it is​—​some people believe it has already dipped below 2.1, others put the number just over 2.2. But everyone agrees that the trajectory is downward still. And that the same is true of nearly every other country south of the American border.

So will America add another 38 million Hispanics by 2050 just through immigration alone, as the projections suggest? No one knows, of course. But it seems an uncertain proposition. The boom days of Hispanic immigration may already be a thing of the past.

Which leads us to the fertility rate of Hispanic Americans. As a cohort, Hispanics have the highest fertility rate of America’s racial groups, around 2.7. Much research has been done trying to figure out if, and when, the Hispanic-American fertility rate will fall toward the national average (which is closer to 2.0). Some researchers believe that by 2050, our Hispanic fertility rate will be at replacement. Others suggest sooner. Some scholars, looking at the data by cohort, suggest that Hispanic-American women currently in their childbearing years will finish them close to the replacement level. All of the research, however, indicates that in recent years the fertility rate of Hispanic Americans has been moving downward faster than it has for any other ethnic group. 

Last week the Pew Center reported that from 2007 to 2010 America’s birth rate dropped by 8 percent. The decline was relatively modest for native-born Americans​—​only a 6 percent drop. But the immigrant birth rate dropped by 14 percent. And the birth rate for Mexican-born immigrants dropped by 23 percent. These declines were outsized, but they fit the larger trend. From 1990 to 2007, the Mexican-born birth rate had already dropped by 26 percent.

None of this is meant to predict that by such and such year there will be exactly so many Hispanic Americans. Social science has limits, and they are even nearer than you think. But when you look at the assumptions underlying the predictions for America’s Hispanic future, they’re even more uncertain than usual​—​and in fact are already a decade or so out of step with reality. America’s Great Hispanic Future is probably being oversold. And possibly by quite a bit.


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