Analysis | Vance tries (and fails) to undermine jobs data by pointing to the border

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Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) thinks he has figured out a stone that can kill two particular birds his party has been hunting. The steady increase in jobs reflected in monthly data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics — like the increase shown Friday — isn’t what it seems. Instead, Vance claimed Sunday, it’s heavily attributable to illegal immigration.

“If you look not just over the last year but over the last three or four years, much of the job growth from the Biden administration has gone to the foreign-born,” Vance said while appearing on Fox News’s “Sunday Morning Futures.” “And many of those, of course, are illegal aliens.”

He contrasted that with the “Trump economy,” which, he claimed, was “about productivity enhancements, higher wages for American workers, more manufacturing, and, ultimately, better good-paying jobs for American workers.” Under President Biden, by contrast, “so much of the economic growth has gone to the foreign-born, has gone to illegal immigrants, while American workers struggle to feed their families and struggle to buy homes.”

It’s clever, as befits the source. Turn the jobs numbers from a frustrating (to Republicans) positive for the president into a way to talk, once again, about immigration and the border.

The increase in employment during the Biden administration has been heavily a function of gains among those born outside the United States. From February 2017 to February 2020 (just before the pandemic), 71 percent of jobs added in the United States went to native-born Americans. From February 2021 to February 2024, 52 percent did.

To an extent, though, this was a reversion of an existing pattern. The density of native-born Americans in the workforce — like the density of native-born Americans in the population — has trended down since 2010. The unrevised employment data for March are generally in line with where we’d expect them to be, based on the trend from 2011 to the beginning of 2020.

The rate of change is much sharper, certainly. Some of what has happened with employment under Biden is that the economy took time to rebound from the pandemic — a much fairer way to condition the job growth seen since 2021. Had trends continued since 2011 without the pandemic’s interruption, we’d be about where we are anyway.

Why? Because in the two decades after World War II, there was a huge increase in the number of babies being born, babies who have now been retiring at a rapid clip for more than a decade. The most recent Census Bureau data indicate that only about 58 percent of the native-born population is working-age (that is, ages 18 to 64). More than three-quarters of the foreign-born population falls within that age range.

As a result, while foreign-born U.S. residents made up only about 4 percent of the population under 18, they make up more than 17 percent of the working-age population. That’s higher than the 14 percent of the 65-and-up population they constitute.

In other words, we would expect them to be overrepresented in the workforce relative to their total population.

You can see that represented in a chart aired during the program on which Vance appeared. The number of native-born Americans who are retiring is far larger than the number of foreign-born residents, because the group of native-born Americans is older.

We must also note that Vance’s representation that these workers are in the country illegally is dubious — particularly when considering the intended implication that they arrived under Biden. Census Bureau data show that two-thirds of the foreign-born residents in the United States last year arrived before 2010. More than half were naturalized citizens.

The pattern we are seeing in employment was predictable — and predicted. A 2017 report assessing the effects of immigration on the economy predicted that the increase in the size of the workforce this decade would be a function of first- and second-generation immigrants, a shift since the baby-boom-driven surge seen 50 years ago.

Demographers see this as a central advantage of the American economy. As China’s population contracts because of rigid immigration rules, America can fill positions vacated by retirees in part thanks to the population growth that follows immigration.

Vance, who wrote a book on class, was once an observer of American demography and politics. He is now a politician, one who aims to share Donald Trump’s base of support. So we should note that Vance’s efforts to disparage foreign-born workers (and Biden, via a bank shot) are an inherently political effort. We should also note that, two years ago, he was disparaging immigrants more broadly.

“There’s just no comparison between the positive effects of children and the positive effects of an immigrant,” Vance said in an interview with right-wing commentator Charlie Kirk. “I think people are great. I love that people want to come to the country. But you can’t have so many people coming to the country at a time when our own families aren’t replicating themselves.”

If you didn’t have people coming to our country, the United States would lack the workers we need to fill jobs and pay into systems required to support America’s retirees. But Vance is tipping his hand here: A key part of his issue isn’t immigrants getting jobs. It’s immigrants immigrating.

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