Journal Issue: Immigrant Children Volume 21 Number 1 Spring 2011
The changing demographic structure of U.S. society will play an important role in the challenges, fiscal and otherwise, facing the country in coming decades. Generational competition, exacerbated by differing racial and ethnic composition across the age spectrum, is likely to be a factor in resolving many of these issues. The number of children in the United States is projected to increase from about 75 million in 2009 to 100 million in 2050. Immigrant youth and children of minorities will make up an increasing share of this growing population. At the same time, the other dependent age group—the elderly—will also greatly increase. Between 2009 and 2030 the number of people aged sixty-five and over will increase by more than three-quarters to almost 70 million, or 18.4 percent of the population.
Contemporary society provides children and the elderly significant governmental supports, many of which were not available in the early 1900s (the beginning of this demographic assessment) and all of which impose financial burdens on taxpayers. The most notable support for children is the provision of universal education. Today virtually all children aged six to fourteen are enrolled in school, but in 1900 only two-thirds attended school. The difference is even more extreme for children aged fifteen to seventeen—only 41 percent were enrolled in school in 1900 compared with 96 percent in 2008.32 Other direct supports for children are Medicaid (including the State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP); Temporary Assistance for Needy Families; the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps); the Women's, Infants, and Children program; school lunch programs; and financial assistance for higher education. None of these existed at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Governmental support for children and their families notwithstanding, children have higher poverty rates than any other age group—a pattern that developed in the mid-1970s and has persisted since.33 Children of immigrants have a higher poverty rate (23 percent) than children of natives (18 percent). 34 However, U.S.-born children of legal immigrants are no more likely to be poor than children of natives. But 29 percent of the foreign-born children of legal immigrants and 33 percent of the children of unauthorized immigrants are in poverty, pushing up the overall rate for immigrant youth. (See also the article in this issue by George Borjas on poverty rates among immigrant children.)
Notably, many of these children with higher poverty rates and their families are generally not eligible for many of these social welfare programs, because eligibility is determined by legal status and, more importantly, citizenship. Birth in the United States confers citizenship, making U.S.-born immigrant children eligible for these social welfare programs even if their parents and their foreign-born siblings are not. The ineligibility of many parents of immigrant youth and the unauthorized status of some complicates outreach to and participation of children in these programs, as the articles in this volume by Lynn Karoly and Gabriella Gonzalez and by Borjas discuss in more detail.
Support for the elderly comes mainly through Social Security, enacted in 1935, and Medicare, enacted in 1965. Even though there are more than twice as many children today as the elderly, governmental spending on the elderly exceeds spending on children because per capita elderly costs are more than double those for children.35 In an era of high deficits and constrained resources, some competition for societal resources is inevitable between the growing youth population and the rapidly increasing elderly population. Moreover, both Social Security and Medicare are financed through payroll taxes, paid mainly by working adults (and their employers). As the baby boomers age into retirement, immigrant children will be aging into adulthood, where they will make up a greater share of the workforce and will carry a greater share of this financing burden.
This generational struggle has several dimensions— demographic, governmental or fiscal, geographic, and political. Demographically, larger shares of children and younger workers are either immigrants, children of immigrants, or racial and ethnic minorities; older workers and retirees are much more likely to be U.S. natives (especially third and higher generations) and members of the majority white, non-Hispanic population. The bulk of government spending on the elderly comes from the federal government. Even in difficult economic and budgetary periods, political pressures make cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits rare. In contrast, state and local governments provide most of the spending for children, especially for education. These governments tend to have fewer resources than the federal government and generally cannot engage in deficit spending. Consequently, during economic downturns state and local governments are often forced to cut back spending, including spending on education and other children's programs.
Demographic differences are reflected in political and racial dimensions of these potential generational imbalances. The elderly are more likely to vote than other age groups and tend to resist cuts in spending on Social Security and Medicare.36 Children do not vote at all and their parents, if citizens, are less likely to register and vote than the elderly. Moreover, 40 percent of immigrant youth have parents who cannot vote because they are legal immigrants who have not become U.S. citizens, and another 32 percent have parents who cannot vote because they are unauthorized immigrants. Clearly, immigrant children have less voice in spending choices than the elderly. In addition to the imbalance in political power, large racial and ethnic differences exist between children, the elderly, and the voting population. Forty-three percent of children in the United States belong to a racial or ethnic minority, making children the most ethnically diverse group in the population; more than four of every five immigrant children belong to a minority.37 In contrast, only one-third of adults are members of minority racial and ethnic groups, and less than a quarter of voters in 2008 were minorities. These differences will lessen in the future but will persist for decades.
Finally, immigrant youth are very concentrated geographically. California is home to more than one-fourth of them, while nine other states are home to another 50 percent. Differences in state fiscal health and in approaches to education and spending on social programs vary considerably. These differences will undoubtedly play a role in the future prospects for immigrant youth in the United States.
In sum, more children live in the United States than ever before, but they represent the smallest share of the population in U.S. history. Children are the most diverse racially and ethnically of any age group now or in the country's history. Immigrant youth—those who migrated to the United States or who were born to immigrant parents—currently account for about one-quarter of all children, slightly below their share in the early 1900s but much higher than their share in the mid-1900s. Immigrant children, particularly from Asian and Latin American countries, are the principal source of the racial and ethnic diversity. Four of every five immigrant children are U.S.-born; three-quarters of the children of unauthorized immigrants are also born in the United States.
Within about twenty-five years, immigrant youth will represent about one-third of an even larger number of children. Because of their numbers and the challenges facing the country, immigrant youth will play an important role in the future of the United States. Their integration into American society and their accumulation of human capital require continued attention from researchers, policy makers, and the public at large.