Editor's note: This editorial published in the Aug. 26, 2019 edition of The Washington Post.
Occupational and physical therapists. Religious workers. Plant operators. Railway personnel. Construction workers. Maintenance and repair workers. Firefighters. Social workers. Nurses. Funeral workers. Truckers. That's only a brief sampling of the jobs in the United States for which there are severe shortages of available employees, and way more openings than applicants.
A recent article in The Washington Post detailed the heartbreaking effects of a drastic deficit in just one employment category – home health aides – in just one state, Maine, which has the nation's second-highest percentage of people over age 65. They and their relatives who cannot afford private home health aides (who charge roughly $50 an hour) are suffering. Nursing homes, similarly, are closing for want of workers. Even attempts to lure employees by raising wages have hit a brick wall; there simply aren't enough job applicants in the state nor, apparently, enough people willing to move there.
Maine's problems in that regard will soon be a national epidemic. Within a decade or so, at least a fifth of the population in roughly 28 states will be 65 or older. The effects of aging baby boomers will be compounded by a national fertility rate that has fallen to its lowest level in nearly five decades. That means younger people will not be available to replenish the ranks of older workers as they retire.
A rational immigration system, one that meets the labor market's demands for workers in an array of skill categories and income levels, is the obvious antidote to chronic and predictable labor deficits. Unfortunately, the Trump administration, heedless of the pleas of employers, has implemented and proposed measures whose effect will deepen existing and future shortages. And it has done so even as the unemployment rate, now 3.7 percent, continues to bump along at near-historic lows.
A policy announced by the administration this month would impede large numbers of low-income legal immigrants from remaining in the United States, or coming in the first place, if they are judged likely to use public benefits to which they are entitled, including noncash ones such as housing subsidies and health care. The impact would be a dramatic reduction in newcomers, and in existing immigrants eligible to become legal permanent residents, or green-card holders, the final step before full citizenship. By targeting low-income and low-skilled migrants, the rule would perpetuate severe worker shortages in a variety of sectors.
Earlier this year, the administration unveiled a blueprint for legal immigration that, in a reversal, maintained overall levels of immigrants. That recognized that slashing immigration is a recipe for economic decline. However, the Trump plan, by favoring educated, skilled English speakers with strong earnings prospects over relatives of current residents, ignored the reality that retail, landscaping, food processing and dozens of other industries rely on relatively low-skilled labor – and are desperate for workers.
President Donald Trump has leveraged nativist policies to his political advantage. He has been indifferent to their corrosive long-term economic impact. Far from making America great again, the president's policies are likely to transform the United States into a second Japan, where an aging population and barriers to immigration have sapped the dynamism and prospects of what was once one of the world's most dynamic economies.