Recently, the issue of Anchorage's growing diversity was thrust into the spotlight after public statements questioned the economic cost of newly arriving immigrants. The comments brought to the public's attention the issue of the rapidly changing demographic and economic landscape in our community and provided a timely discussion.
The face of Anchorage is changing, and we need to celebrate that fact. The economic contributions of our newly arrived neighbors are having a profound effect on the local economy. Over the last decade, our community has welcomed immigrants from Asia, the Pacific, Africa, Europe and South America. The main concern surrounding immigrants is the economic costs to taxpayers. The assertion is that Anchorage and the local economy is being swamped by newly arriving immigrants who are driving up cost to taxpayers. This simply isn't true.
In a recent presentation to the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce's Business Committee, Karen Ferguson, who serves as the Alaska refugee coordinator and Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services program director, said Alaska has the second-lowest participation in the U.S. refugee program of any state. None of the new arrivals get to choose Alaska, as that is determined by federal agencies. In Anchorage, these new arrivals are helped along by Catholic Social Services -- a local network of nonprofit organizations run by the Archdiocese of Anchorage -- and its Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services program.
These new arrivals often outperform other groups and make a positive economic impact on the city. Ferguson said 75 percent of adult refugees have a job within six months of their arrival in the U.S., and over 75 percent of refugee families are off welfare within the first 12 months. According to the Immigration Policy Center, in the 2011 American Community Survey, there were 711,920 people in Alaska, of whom 7 percent were immigrants. Among children under 18 years old, 11.4 percent had one or more parent who was an immigrant, and 86 percent of those children were U.S. citizens.
Meanwhile, the growth of the nonwhite population's buying power in Alaska has been estimated by the IPC to be almost $4 billion a year. The IPC estimates that Asian buying power has increased 470 percent since 1990 and that Asian-owned businesses had sales and receipts of $477 million and employed 4,219. The IPC also estimates that Alaska's Hispanic and Asian populations combined generate over $3 billion a year to Alaska's economy.
This spending power touches everything from education to commerce. Currently, over 600 immigrant students attend Alaska's University system and contribute over $14 million annually. In 2009, one third of science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates from the University of Alaska system were foreign-born. There is no question that immigrants are helping grow the local economy. With senior Alaskans remaining our fastest-growing demographic, the need to welcome and integrate young immigrants into both our education and economic systems is critical.
For the last few years, the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce has adopted diversity as one of our key focus areas. The goal is to promote Anchorage as a dynamic and inclusive community, where access to opportunity is equal and we strengthen the local economy by strengthening our community.
According to Richard Florida, American economist and social scientist at the University of Toronto, America's "creative class" (today's younger workforce demographic) will be the leading force of growth in the future economy, expected to grow by more than10 million jobs in the next decade. This creative class includes almost 40 percent of the current population.
For Anchorage to attract the creative class, Florida argues, it must possess "the three T's": talent (a highly talented/educated/skilled population), tolerance (a diverse community, which has a "live and let live" ethos) and technology (the technological infrastructure necessary to fuel an entrepreneurial culture).
To ensure Anchorage remains a dynamic city, we must cultivate the three T's while understanding that embracing diversity is an important bridge to a healthy community and economic vitality.
Andrew Halcro is president of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce.