For most of its history, the United States enjoyed a young and quickly growing population. However, over the past decade, fewer births, mostly flat immigration rates and a rapidly aging society have reduced overall U.S. population growth to its lowest rate since the Great Depression. As a result, the country adds roughly 900,000 fewer people each year than it did in the early 2000s.
The demographic slowdown falls unevenly across regions. About half of U.S. counties are now experiencing declines in population overall. Fully 80 percent have seen their prime-working-age population shrink over the past decade. And by 2037, two-thirds of U.S. counties will have fewer prime-working-age adults than they did in 1997.
The implications are profound. Population loss depresses home values and weakens municipal finances. It is also a serious problem for entrepreneurship, as it leads to fewer available workers and fewer potential customers. These forces conspire to keep many areas locked in a cycle of decline.
Immigrants — skilled immigrants, in particular — bring an array of benefits to declining communities. They fill empty housing stock, reduce crime rates and spur new business creation. Where there is a shrinking tax base, they bring fiscal stability for schools and first responders. Where there is a dwindling local workforce, immigrants enable employers to expand. Many struggling cities have underused assets and infrastructure built for much larger populations; new immigrants activate such latent capacity.
We shouldn’t be surprised. Immigrants have long been a key ingredient in the most vibrant areas of the country. The problem is that our skilled immigration policy fails on two fronts: It welcomes too few workers, and it primarily serves to strengthen already successful and fast-growing areas of the country by tying a visa to a single employer. As a result, the areas that could most benefit from an infusion of skilled immigrants are the least likely to be served by current policy.
This is a policy choice. What if we chose differently?
The idea of “place-based” — rather than employer-based — visas has been already implemented in countries such as Canada and Australia. Recently, the Economic Innovation Group released a paper calling for a specific place-based visa program — a “heartland visa” — aimed directly at helping struggling regions break the economic and demographic declines they are experiencing. Such a program would open a new door — without reducing the slots available through other programs — for skilled workers who could meet a range of local needs, from helping grow a local robotics hub, to filling small-town physician shortages. But instead of relying on employer sponsorship, heartland visas would be tied to communities — ones that qualify based on a stagnant or shrinking local workforce, or other economic criteria. The draw could be considerable. Many demographically stagnant U.S. communities offer an enormously attractive chance for a better life for would-be immigrants.
To participate in the program, eligible communities would be required to opt in and commit resources — perhaps matched by federal dollars — to implement the program and assimilate new arrivals. Welcoming communities would rally to attract human capital much as they do for a new corporate headquarters — by showcasing their local amenities, quality of life, job opportunities and growth potential.
Visa holders, in turn, would commit to settle in an eligible community for a set period — say, three years — in exchange for being fast-tracked for a green card and permanent status. They would have a wide array of choices for where to settle and full job mobility within their chosen labor market. While some visa holders would eventually relocate, many would put down permanent roots. Over time, areas that find success implementing this program would see their populations rise and prosper.
Heartland visas could also help defuse the combustible politics of immigration. Our national debate is rife with resentment toward geographically and culturally remote elites. But putting agency in the hands of communities would encourage them to view immigration for what it truly is: a powerful catalyst for economic growth. Rejecting a false choice between compassion and self-interest, this program would align the needs of struggling areas with the aspirations of those looking to build a better life. In an early sign of this proposal’s broad appeal, the U.S. Conference of Mayors endorsed heartland visas on a bipartisan and nearly unanimous basis.
People around the world see the United States as a beacon of opportunity; it is our greatest national advantage. But we’ve done tragically little to apply it to our most deep-seated economic challenges. Meanwhile, policymakers and economists are struggling to find meaningful ways to boost left-behind areas of the country. Place-based visas offer the rare chance for a breakthrough on both fronts.
John Lettieri is the president and chief executive of the Economic Innovation Group, a bipartisan research and public policy organization. This is the second in a series of On Common Ground essays, a partnership between the Niskanen Center, a moderate think tank in Washington, and the Post Opinions section.