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Op-Ed

The census: a wealth of enlightening information

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The recently completed census became controversial because of political interference, but the results are still important. This is especially true when it comes to the national birthrate and regions with population growth and decline. Long Island is a region in decline. What can we do about it?

The once-every-10-years census produces a demographic profile of the nation broken down by age, gender, education, national origin, ethnicity, family status and employment, among other elements. It also produces population estimates and charts the changes in births, deaths and migration. The data can be sorted by demographic characteristics as well as by geographic region. Income data is collected by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis. Together, they provide substantial information for community and economic development.

Census data helps government agencies at all levels as well as private employers forecast economic growth, fiscal demands and service opportunities. Businesses use census results to decide where to build factories, offices and stores.

Census results also provide the basis for apportioning the 435 seats in the House of Representatives among the states, and the allocation of more than $675 billion per year in federal funding for schools, hospitals, roads, public works and other vital programs.

One key focus of the census is the nation’s birthrate. In 2017, the total fertility rate in the U.S. was 1,765.5 per 1,000 women, 16 percent below what’s considered the rate needed for the population to replace itself, 2,100 births per 1,000 women. After a decline during the Great Depression followed by the baby boom after World War II, the fertility rate has hovered for four decades at just under that replacement rate. It currently stands at 1.9 births per woman.

It’s estimated that by the 2030s, the number of Americans over age 65 will exceed the number of those under 18. The Social Security Administration’s working assumption is that there should be three covered workers per recipient for the system to be stable. In 2000, there were 3.4; today there are about 2.3. By 2030, the estimate is that there will be 2.0. This imbalance can be addressed by raising the wage base limit on Social Security payroll deductions, now $142,800; providing incentives for families to have more children; and improving our immigration system.

According to the Long Island Association, the number of births in Nassau and Suffolk counties fell by almost 20 percent from 2000 to 2016, and the number of people 19 and younger fell by 7.5 percent. The causes of decline include a “birth dearth” and out-migration due to job opportunities elsewhere and the cost of housing here. Long Island’s population growth of 0.7 percent is lower than the average 1.2 percent in other metropolitan-area suburban counties. In the meantime, the median age of Nassau-Suffolk’s workforce continued to rise last year, according to Newsday.

The consequences of a decline in the young population are manifold for our country and our region. A rising ratio of retirees to new graduates means that funding for pensions and health care will likely result in less support for education. We will need to be concerned about who will start new businesses and who will staff existing ones. Will elementary school buildings become homes for retirees no longer able to live alone? Who will run for school boards, town councils and other civic offices? Another consequence is representation in Congress. In the 1940s, New York had 45 members of the House; it now has 26 due to the state’s declining population.

Where will we find the scientists and engineers to conduct the world-renowned research at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories, Brookhaven National Labs and Stony Brook University, among other venues? These engines of knowledge and prosperity require native-born and immigrant scholars to continue their mission of advancing knowledge and its applications.

While it can be argued that a decline in global population could be good for the environment and the sustainability of natural resources, my immediate concern is with our region.

Historically, nations have sought to manage, or at least stabilize, population growth by encouraging, while managing, immigration. Immigrants comprised about 13.7 percent of our population in 2019, but the growth in immigration has slowed. Restrictive policies have resulted in a drop in the number of international students, scholars, entrepreneurs and others to staff and serve our businesses and communities.

We need a plan for population renewal and dynamic development as well as environmental sustainability. The census and related reports provide the data needed to help us get started with a comprehensive approach. We can work to stall out-migration, improve in-migration and restore a productive immigration system. Such a plan will not only support population growth, economic and community development and the environment, but can also lead to the strengthening of democratic institutions through increased civic participation.

Robert A. Scott is president emeritus of Adelphi University and the author of “How University Boards Work” (Johns Hopkins Press, 2018, Eric Hoffer Awardee, 2019).