Another round of demographic information, another reminder that more growth is crucial for northeast Indiana's future. And from a respected demographer, another warning that immigration will be a key to this area competing economically.
As The Journal Gazette's Ron Shawgo reported Tuesday, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that the nation has grown by 18.2 million people since 2010, an increase of 5.9 percent. But the population in Indiana increased by just 2.8 percent during that period – putting it 31st among the states.
Population growth is not just a matter of pride; it's a key to economic competitiveness. But the state, and this region, would be even further behind on population growth if it weren't for immigration, according to Rob Paral, a demographer for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
A council report Paral produced showed the number of native-born residents in cities throughout the Midwest, including Fort Wayne, has been dropping between 2000 and 2015, and the number of immigrants in that age category has been rising. Some Midwestern cities with low immigration lost population, while others grew only because of immigrants and refugees. Fort Wayne has been a bit ahead of the curve, growing 12 percent during that time. Its foreign-born population has grown as well, led by refugees from Myanmar, and the metro area stood at 6.4 percent in 2015.
“Along with the Northeastern states, we are losing native-born residents to the West and Southwest,” Paral said. Immigrants, most of whom are of working age, have been key to replacing some of those lost workers, he said, and the need will only intensify as more baby boomers retire.
“I think immigration is a tool to grow your economy,” Paral said. But for the Midwest, he said, the Trump administration's efforts to discourage immigration are creating “a perfect storm, demographically” by cutting off the only sure way to counter the drain of native workers in regions such as ours.
Just 5 percent of Hoosier residents were born in another country, but a report by the American Immigration Council this fall showed more than 30 percent of immigrants have a college undergraduate degree or higher. Seventy-five percent report speaking English well and they represent “nearly 8 percent of business owners in Indiana and more than 9 percent of all engineering and architectural employees,” the council said.
In 2014, immigrants in Indiana paid $1.6 billion in federal taxes and $702 million in state and local taxes, and spent $5.8 billion within the state.
Efforts to present immigration as a national problem obscure the net positive effect studies have shown immigrants and refugees have on our society and our economy, Paral said. “They're not eligible for most forms of welfare,” he said. “Wages are down, but it's not because of immigrants.”
Paral was quoted in a favorable Wall Street Journal article this week on Fort Wayne's efforts to reimagine the GE campus. “They're really swimming upstream,” he said, referring to the demographic trends local developers in cities like ours are trying to overcome. In his interview with The Journal Gazette, Paral said he hoped the plan to convert the unoccupied plant into stores, restaurants, residences and startup incubators would be “hugely successful.” But he predicted some of the work would have to be done by immigrants, both in low-skilled positions and perhaps in high-skilled computing and technical jobs. “Immigrants (work) at both ends of the scale,” he said. “It's a real irony.”
Immigration isn't just an economic issue, of course. But it deserves to be included in any discussion of this region's future.