Stagnating population growth is creating acute economic and political challenges across the Midwest. As such, the region’s state and local governments must prioritize the adoption of pro-immigrant and refugee policy agendas to confront those challenges.
Per the U.S. Census Bureau, the United States gained almost 19.5 million people between 2010 and 2019, with the Midwest accounting for only 7% of those gains. Conversely, the Southern and Western regions of the country accounted for 57% and 33% of the overall growth, respectively. Even more troubling, population projections forecast the region’s continued stagnation and decline in the coming decades.
Political and economic effects
The effects of this stagnation are stark in their political and economic consequences.
Political representation on the national stage will continue to erode, with local concerns garnering less attention as a result. This will be particularly apparent in 2021 when Midwestern states extend their 60-year streak of failing to gain any additional seats in Congress through the reapportionment process, with Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan and possibly Ohio all expected to lose seats.
Economically, labor-force growth is expected to slow to almost zero, with Midwestern hubs like the Twin Cities anticipating long-term workforce shortages. These shortages, expected to limit the pace of and capacity for economic growth, stem from disproportionate rates at which young residents are leaving the region, regional “brain drain,” and rapid aging of the remaining population.
Local efforts to reverse these trends have proven insufficient. States like Wisconsin have spent millions on targeted advertising persuading millennial transplants to return home, while other regional locales have offered financial incentives to attract new residents. However, these efforts have failed to spur sustained, regional growth.
Better approach: Attract international communities
Instead, Midwestern communities should more widely embrace pro-immigrant and refugee policies to attract international communities, buoying lagging regional growth in the process. Evidence already exists to support this approach. Between 2000 and 2015, non-native-born populations in Midwest metro areas grew by over 1 million people, accounting for 37% of all population growth in the Midwest during that period. Likewise, census data shows that immigration prevented or significantly softened population loss in more than one in five U.S. counties between 2017 and 2018.
Despite immigration’s positive effect on population growth, the Midwest has yet to harness that potential, ranking last nationally in terms of inbound international migration. With immigrants and their descendants projected to account for 88% of U.S. population growth through 2065, the failure to embrace immigration as a tool for demographic reinvigoration will only exacerbate regional disadvantages.
Important factors: opportunity and support networks
Two of the most important factors influencing the settlement of international migrants in America are availability of economic opportunity and the presence of local support networks, with international communities exhibiting greater geographic mobility in pursuit of economic opportunity than their U.S. born counterparts. With that in mind and given regional labor shortages, why has the Midwest struggled to attract these communities?
The answer is nuanced and deserving of its own story. Broadly speaking however, there exists a widespread perception of the Midwest as being racially and ethnically homogenized, unwelcoming to outsiders. Nevertheless, many Midwestern enclaves have successfully bucked that perception and achieved success in attracting diverse, international communities, driven by a combination of economic opportunity and the enaction of welcoming policies.
While U.S. immigration policy is enacted and administered primarily at the federal level, state and local governments possess the tools to attract and accommodate immigrant communities. Examples include creating accessible English language and workforce development programs, providing easier access to higher education through tuition benefits and other forms of financial aid, making driver’s licenses and other forms of ID more easily available, and curtailing the scope of local law enforcement’s cooperation with federal immigration enforcement agencies.
Midwestern communities should prioritize the adoption of such policies to stem regional population decline. The cultural signaling associated with and real-world benefits derived from these efforts will convince international populations of the region’s resolve to foster an inclusive environment for them to call home. Combined with the availability of economic opportunity, these efforts will boost abysmally low rates of inbound international migration. The creation of more numerous and well-established international enclaves will beget additional immigration as increasingly expansive cultural, ethnic, and familial ties to the region develop.
Ryan Redmer is a second-year Master of Public Policy student at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, specializing in population and migration studies. Prior to his studies at the Humphrey School, Redmer spent seven years working as an immigration specialist in Madison, Wisconsin, and Chicago.
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