More immigrants expected, and that’s good
April 24, 2009
The idea that Utahns with pioneer ancestry marrying young and having big families will keep the state forever white and forever young is a myth, asserts senior research economist Pam Perlich from the University of Utah.
Perlich, a demographer, presented her predictions for the state’s make-up for the next 50 years at the Mountainland Regional Council on Workforce Services Thursday in Midway to regional administrators in the Department of Workforce Services and industry leaders who work with them.
Future demographics may not be what many might expect, she said, but it should be viewed as an opportunity that will require action now to benefit from later.
Perlich began by discussing current trends in immigration both foreign and domestic.
The current recession threatens to create an exodus from areas of shrinking job markets to areas of growth. One aim of President Barack Obama’s stimulus money is to keep people where they’re at, she said.
Utah is an area of growth. Americans and internationals, legal and illegal immigrants, are continuing to come to Utah even though there are no jobs for them. Why? Because the West is viewed as a long-term growth region.
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"They see it as a good bet," she said.
Contrary to some reports, immigrants are not going back home, she said. The situation is no better in Mexico and China.
This surprised meeting attendee Tim Dahlin, executive director of the Christian Center of Park City.
"We’re seeing people leave Summit County," he said.
That’s because recessions force immigrant families, low-income families in general, to move in with friends and relatives. The recession is causing movement but they’re not leaving the country and they’re not leaving the region, she said.
A lot of people talk about workers from Mexico, but they only make up 46 percent of immigrants, she said. The rest are from Latin America, Asia, Europe and Canada and in fairly equal measure. A 2008 survey given to children revealed that 117 languages are spoken in Utah homes.
Some are coming for the jobs, some are coming to be with other members of the LDS faith and some are coming for the state’s universities.
2050, 80 percent of the state’s population growth will be from the children and grandchildren of immigrants, she said.
That’s scary to some people, Perlich acknowledged. But it shouldn’t be. After all, her grandparents were immigrants. So were those of most people she knows. That’s America and that’s the new Utah.
The challenge is acting now to make sure the current generation can be proud of Utah in 2050, she said.
The high school drop-out rate is high among immigrants. Many illegal workers have less than a high school education. And because the parents working now are undereducated themselves and busy at menial jobs they’re not doing enough to support their children’s education, she said.
More needs to be done to help immigrants succeed, she said, and that’s a tough sale right now with many white Utahns. Legislators tell her they get calls saying the opposite in a ratio of 10 to one.
That’s why they need to understand demographic trends better, Perlich said.
The Baby Boomer generation will retire over the next 10 years. With failing 401k plans, failing pension plans and a culture of living beyond our means, that generation will need Social Security and will strain the system, she said.
"Us Baby Boomers will not go down quietly," Perlich said. "Kids in school now must be the most productive generation ever to handle this load."
This year, the number of Americans age 60 or over exceeded the number of school-age children. That will be true in Utah by 2038.
The exodus of Baby Boomers from the work force will leave a vacuum that must be filled to support the retirees. Immigrants will be needed to help fill that vacuum. The better educated and trained they are, the better able they will be to support that system.
The future of Utah, Perlich said, is also a large number of elderly, single women.
"It is in my interest as a future old woman to have kids get the best education possible so they can fund my Social Security," she said.
Another presenter at the meeting, Department of Workforce Services chief economist Mark Knold, also spoke on the effect Baby Boomers have had, and will have, on the state’s economy.
Knold said that in some ways, the current recession is Utah’s worst downturn since the Great Depression. But unemployment numbers will never come close to reaching the levels of Utah’s 1983 recession. How can that be?
The tail-end of the Baby Boomer generation had reached working age by the early 1980s, and large companies like Kennecott were downsizing. There simply weren’t enough jobs for all the Utahns wanting them, he said.
When that tail-end of the generation retires, there won’t be enough Utahns to fill all the jobs needed, he said.
Perlich acknowledged that looking decades into the future and trying to plan for it is politically unpopular, but it must be done, she said.
Dahlin questioned Perlich’s optimism. He said he’s worried that Utah’s minorities will become increasingly marginalized.
"Is there mixing going on now? In Summit, all I see are ghettos and isolation," he said.
Another meeting attendee, vice president of corporate relations David Cook from Clyde Companies in Orem, said he’s perplexed by the state’s attitude toward immigration. He said draconian measures like those implemented in Utah this year resemble those in Oklahoma that have ravaged that state’s economy.
"We’re concerned that people will be leaving," he said. "There’s so much misinformation out there. The debate seems to be run by emotion rather than facts."