Question: Who are the five biggest California homebuyers these days?
Answer: Garcia, Hernandez, Rodriguez, Lopez and Martinez.
No, this isn’t a joke or a fantasy. According to Dowell Myers, a demographer at the University of Southern California, those were the five most common names of California homebuyers in 2005, the most recent year for which he has data. In the nation as a whole, four of the 10 most common homebuyers’ names are Latino. Five years ago it was two out of 10.
The story, of course, is evidence for a much larger point: Immigrants don’t just “pile up” as unskilled, undereducated burdens on the economy like so many Peter Pans who never grow up or change. They learn English, get jobs and buy homes.
And as boomers retire in the coming generation, those immigrants and their children represent the core of California’s labor force and, ultimately, much of the nation’s as well.
We therefore better see their education not as a cost but as an investment in the economy and as support for the boomers in their retirement — helping to pay for pensions, Social Security and Medicare — and giving them the wherewithal to buy the homes that for many boomers represent their largest chunk of savings.
There are about 200 seniors for every 1,000 working-age residents in California. By 2040, there’ll be more than 350 for every 1,000. The numbers are even starker for the nation as a whole.
But Myers, in his important new book “Immigrants and Boomers: Forging a New Social Contract for the Future of America,” due out next month from the Russell Sage Foundation, makes a set of other arguments as well.
• Mexico’s fertility rate has declined from 6.8 births per woman in 1970 to 2.4 births in 2000, which is just above the replacement level, making it likely that in another decade or two, there’ll be many fewer young adults to migrate.
• As immigrants, legal and illegal, have gone to other parts of the country, California’s share, while still the nation’s largest, has declined sharply.
• Meanwhile, the percentage of foreign-born residents both in California and in the nation, while still rising, is rising much less steeply than it did between 1970 and 2000 or had been forecast a few years ago. Some 27 percent of today’s California residents are immigrants, which should taper off at about 30 percent in 2030.
• As the percentage of foreign-born residents who’ve been here 10 years or more increases, many more of them will become integrated into the middle-class economy and join the ranks of the Garcias and Hernandezes who are buying homes.
All this, of course, speaks directly to the national immigration debate, which, as Myers notes, is still stuck in a largely static view of immigrants.
“When immigration is a new event,” he writes (as it is for much of the nation), “all the immigrants are new.”
That shocked Californians in the early 1990s, when voters passed Proposition 187, seeking to deny education and other public services to illegal aliens. It shocks people in Georgia, North Carolina and Iowa now.
And while illegal immigration, and sometimes any immigration, still angers some Californians, at least for now there’s been a change in attitude. A survey last year by the Public Policy Institute of California found 58 percent of Californians regarded immigrants as an asset to the economy, while 35 percent thought they were more of a burden on public services.
The problem, as Myers notes, is that recent immigrants, though a declining percentage of the whole, “overshadow and mask the upward advancement of previous arrivals. Citizens have simply extrapolated past conditions into the future, ignoring the fact that settled immigrants grow older, assimilate and make economic gains.”
Many of the arguments about contemporary immigration echo arguments about Poles, Italians, Greeks and Hungarians of a century ago. They were of inferior stock, would never be educable, were prone to crime and disease and would contaminate the Anglo-Saxon stock that made the nation great.
There are major differences between then and now. There were more jobs for unskilled labor; there was no public social welfare system or any assumption that all young people had to finish high school and, in most cases, be educated for at least two years beyond. Because of geographical distance, ties to the old country were harder to maintain.
But what today we call Anglos includes all those Poles and Italians, some of whose descendants are now voicing the same complaints that other Americans made about their immigrant great-grandparents a century ago.
There are few unskilled jobs providing decent wages as in the first half of the last century. But the projections for the coming decades indicate a labor shortage both in this country and other developed nations that can be met only by immigrants from the underdeveloped world. And that, as Myers says, demands a grand bargain between generations and ethnicities, especially about education, like none that this country has ever made before.
Peter Schrag is former editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee. This article published with his permission. Many of the questions he writes about in this article, are dealt with more extensively in his book, California: America’s High-Stakes Experiment.
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