No, those are our babies too: Why Steve King was wrong
© Greg Nash

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) recently ignited controversy when he commented that our country needed to shut off the immigration spigot, suggesting that no civilization could maintain its cultural identity with “somebody else’s babies.”

Critics have blasted King for the sheer hatefulness of his comments, seeing them as part of the country’s long history of nativist antipathy to outsiders. But aside from the obvious bigotry, King’s comments also highlight his ignorance over some of the major demographic issues facing his state and the nation over the next few decades, challenges that an increased immigrant population would help substantially alleviate.

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Given America’s aging population, an infusion of adults in their prime working ages, such as immigrants, is one way to help ensure that our nation can support the elderly population as they age into retirement, including guaranteeing Social Security remains solvent in the coming decades. Yet some states, including Iowa, face greater challenges in providing for their dependent populations.

 

Representative King’s comments no doubt will contribute to his state’s problem with recruiting the very workers and young people his state needs to support their aging population.

Among the key reasons that Iowa is in dire need of those babies and their parents is the state’s aging population. Iowa’s dependency ratio, or the number of children under the age of 15 and elderly 65 years and older divided by the number of those aged 15 to 64, is considerably higher than it is in the U.S. overall.

According to data from the 2010 Census, the dependency ratio in Iowa was 53, meaning that there were approximately 53 dependents for every 100 working age adults, compared to a national average of 49.

Part of what contributes to Iowa’s higher ratio of dependents to workers arises from their greater population concentration at older ages. 

Fifteen percent of Iowa’s population was aged 65 and older in 2010, compared with only 12.7 percent for the United States overall. While some of these adults may still be in the labor force, the state would be better off if it had more children who could age into being workers, providing they remain in the state which Iowa has struggled to ensure.

The representation of Iowa residents between the ages of 25 to 44 is lower than for the country overall, meaning that those in their prime childbearing ages are more likely to be moving to or living in other states – states with more racial and ethnic diversity and often more accepting of immigrants.

In fact, Iowa’s lack of racial and ethnic diversity no doubt contributes to its older age structure. 

The state also contains a far lower share of the foreign-born than is present in other, more economically dynamic states such as California or New York, states known for being more welcoming to immigrants. 

More than ninety percent of Iowa’s residents self-identified as White in 2010, compared with less than three-quarters of U.S. residents. Furthermore, only 5 percent of Iowa residents identified as Hispanics – over three times lower than the national average. 

Racial and ethnic minorities tend to be younger on average than non-Hispanic whites, and are therefore more likely to be working aged as well as in the childbearing and rearing ages. Their fertility rates also tend to be somewhat higher than those of non-Hispanic Whites, though these gaps have been narrowing in recent years. 

By working, paying taxing, and, in some cases, entering caretaking jobs, these younger U.S. residents and citizens and their children will help ensure that our economy functions and that today’s aging Baby Boomers are cared for. Curtail their presence, or cut off their arrival, and our population will age that much more quickly, as recent estimates from the Pew Research Center have shown.

King evokes long-standing racist tropes that have been applied to numerous waves of immigrants throughout U.S. history. White nativists have long feared that the children of immigrant groups, often concentrated in cities, would alter the nature of our country.

Such sentiments are often expressed the loudest in states with the lowest representation of immigrants – such as in Iowa. But the overarching story of America is that immigrants have altered the nature of our country, generally for the better. They contribute to America’s dynamism and optimistic spirit, but also to its tax base, strengthening Social Security. 

As our population ages, continuing to welcome immigrants will help us better ensure support for our elderly. Steven King suggests that Americans do not want to care for “somebody else’s babies.” But he ought to consider what he will do when “somebody else’s babies” don’t want to care for him or the residents of his state.

Sharon Sassler is a professor in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management at Cornell University and a Public Voices fellow with The OpEd Project.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.