Bryan Caplan  

Rector, Poverty, and Immigration

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Robert Rector and Jason Richwine's new Heritage report on the fiscal effects of immigration has been widely criticized (see here, here, and here for starters).  I'm honestly surprised that the report is not worse.  Rector and Richwine may get a lot wrong, but at least they account for the fact that a lot of government spending (such as defense) is non-rival.  The most disappointing feature of the report is the moral inconsistency between Rector's work on poverty for native-born Americans on the one hand, and his hostility to illegal immigration on the other.

Robert Rector has done excellent and courageous work on American poverty.  His chief observations:

1. The vast majority of America's "poor" are rich by world and historic standards.  82% of poor American adults say they were never hungry during the last year because they couldn't afford food; 96% of poor American parents say their children never went hungry because they couldn't afford food.  Half of poor Americans live in a single-family home, and 41% own their own home.  Poor Americans have 60% more living space than the average European.  82% of poor Americans have air conditioning.  64% have cable or satellite t.v.  40% own a dishwasher.  34% have a t.v. that would have made billionaires drool in 1990.  Materially speaking, poor Americans are doing just fine.

2. Most poor American adults could have avoided their situation with prudent behavior - especially by delaying childbearing until they marry.  71% of poor families with children are headed by single parents.  About 80% of all long-term poverty occurs in single-parent homes.  Married high school dropouts have lower poverty rates than single parents with one or two years of college.  Most unmarried fathers earn enough to keep their kids out of poverty:
[O]ver 60 percent of fathers who have children outside of marriage earned enough at the time of their child's birth to support their potential family with an income above the poverty level even if the mother did not work at all. If the unmarried father and mother married and the mother worked part-time, the typical family would have an income above 150 percent of poverty, or roughly $35,000 per year.
If you combine Rector's evidence with common-sense moral beliefs about the deserving poor, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that few "poor" Americans qualify.  The moral admonition to "help the deserving poor" asks us come to the aid of people who are (a) genuinely destitute, even though (b) they took reasonable measures to avoid destitution.  Rector shows that few Americans qualify on either count.  Most "poor" Americans enjoy a long list of luxuries - and most would be even richer if they (or their parents) chose to delay childbearing until after marriage using cheap, effective contraception.

In stark contrast, most illegal immigrants come from the Third World.  Unlike so-called "poor" Americans, illegal immigrants have endured years of bitter destitution in their home countries.  Unlike so-called "poor" Americans, most people in the Third World remain extremely poor even if they work hard, delay childbearing until marriage, stay sober, and so forth.  Breaking our immigration laws to seek work in the First World is one of the few ways for the global poor to quickly and reliably escape poverty.

Given these tragic realities, I'd expect Rector to stand up and defend illegal immigrants.  He should say, "My arguments against worrying about the American poor definitely don't apply to people born into Third World poverty.  If anyone deserves help from the government, illegal immigrants do."  Then he could add, "The truth, though, is that most illegals could take care of themselves if we started respecting their basic human right to work for willing employers."  Rector should hold illegal immigrants up as a mirror for the American poor - to show them what true misfortune and true determination look like.

Instead, Rector treats illegal immigrants as the moral inferiors of poor Americans.  He wouldn't advocate exile for Americans who consume more in benefits than they pay in taxes.  He wouldn't want to revoke poor Americans' citizenship, saving taxpayer money by denying the poor the right to legally work, drive, or fly.  Why not?  Because like almost everyone, Rector knows that these "solutions" are far worse than the problem.  Welfare may be bad.  But trying to curtail the welfare state by exiling people likely to collect welfare is monstrous.  If this is clear for native-born Americans with all their advantages, it should be even clearer for immigrants whose only crime is selling their labor to willing employers without government permission.



COMMENTS (33 to date)
Noah Yetter writes:

"Why not? Because like almost everyone, Rector knows that these "solutions" are far worse than the problem."

I very much doubt that. The real reason is born-on-my-side-of-the-line-bias, just like every xenophobe.

Nathan writes:

I am sympathetic to the inefficiencies that boarders (and citizenship/work laws) create, but unless you are advocating doing away with nation-states I think citizenship/work laws - and their enforcement - are necessary. Can't someone be hostile to illegal immigration without being monstrous or xenophobic by predicating their argument on the necessity of nation-states?

In a way, I think it's wonderful that these problems are cropping up. I'm hoping problems like this will catalyze reform in our immigration and welfare system.

Are academics allowed to have common sense?

BZ writes:

The history of the United States in the entire 19th century was one of open borders. And yet the most hated sentiment here in the 21st century continues to be this one:

"Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Ross Levatter writes:

This is beautiful, Bryan. I love the combination of scholarship and passion.

Andrew writes:

So, after taking morality out of the question, is increased low-skill immigration a net benefit for all Americans? Are there any comprehensive studies that take into account immigration-restrictionists main concerns?

For instance, most empirical work seems to solely measure changes in wages for different levels of American workers and the fiscal burden of immigrants, while the main complaints about immigrants involve externalities such as higher crime rates, inequality, higher costs of living (housing in California), failing schools, environmental degradation, etc.

Yes, morality is important, but it seems highly improbable that open-borders advocates will convert immigration-restrictionists to their cause by trying to claim the moral high ground.

Chris H writes:

I do think this sudden concern for the sustainability of the welfare state seems a bit disingenuous. After all, if the welfare state became too expensive and we held strong on keeping the borders open then couldn't the argument for pruning back welfare spending only become stronger? He's using a Milton Friedman-esque argument for the exact opposite conclusion that Friedman would like to make, only without being a political liberal.

matt writes:

Joseph, common sense is basically useless. as long as you can make something sound simple enough, you can claim that it is common sense.

that said, clearly the answer is yes. pretty sure Caplan is an academic

Steve Sailer writes:

In summary, Bryan is saying that unless you subscribe to the Dogma of Open Borders, Rector and Richwine have won the argument and the Gang of Eight's bill should be voted down.

Jeff writes:

Bryan, this is silly. You're guilty of the same moral inconsistency, just in the opposite direction. You rightly recognize America's poor are poor as a result of a tangle of pathologies, many of their own creation, but somehow assume that gosh-golly-gee, all these would-be immigrants are just poor helpless victims of bad government in their home countries, for which they are of course blameless. That is naive, simplistic, wishful thinking...a dozen different adjectives of a similar bent.

Hazel Meade writes:

"The truth, though, is that most illegals could take care of themselves if we starting respecting their basic human right to work for willing employers."

That's the core problem. What we really need is a repeal of the core immigration legislaton from the 50s and 60s that made it illegal to hire an illegal alien or work without the proper papers. And of course this was started by the domestic labor movement who didn't want immigrants "stealing" their jobs.

So effectively in America today, you have to ask the government's permission before you are allowed to work. How sick is that?

Hazel Meade writes:

So, after taking morality out of the question, is increased low-skill immigration a net benefit for all Americans? Are there any comprehensive studies that take into account immigration-restrictionists main concerns?

It may be true that immigrants drive wages down for low-skilled Americans. But I fail to see how that argument differs from the argument that making a better product for less money unfairly steals business from a competitor. Is anyone entitled to keep their current wage or market share?

We're in sort of a pragmatic argument now. Would it be more effective in terms of passing legislation for advocates of immigration reform to appeal to American's self-interest by highlighting the benefits of immigration, or to take the moral high ground? I suspect that the former might work better from a purely political perspective, but I question whether it is just in the first place for domestic labor to have veto power over other human being's right to work. We shouldn't even be in this situation. Sadly, power is power.

...it should be even clearer for immigrants whose only crime is selling their labor to willing employers without government permission.

Well, that and (by definition) crossing the border and remaining in the country in direct violation of extant law. But who cares what the law actually says when tallying crimes in the service of rhetorical flourish?

Meanwhile, I marvel at the continued, persistent, bizarre assumption that literally all illegal immigrants have 'employers'. The picture painted is of 'employers' in the US somehow deciding en masse to send job-offer letters to random folks in Mexico. Is this in fact what you believe occurs?

To the larger point, Bryan why haven't you considered the possibility that one of the forces affecting America's undeserving poor is, in fact, the presence of large numbers of illegal immigrants (among other things) undercutting their wages or potential wages? I searched this blog post for a nod to that possibility, but in vain.

johnleemk writes:
I am sympathetic to the inefficiencies that boarders (and citizenship/work laws) create, but unless you are advocating doing away with nation-states I think citizenship/work laws - and their enforcement - are necessary. Can't someone be hostile to illegal immigration without being monstrous or xenophobic by predicating their argument on the necessity of nation-states?

Honestly, this is a bit like saying that "Unless you want to abolish restaurant licensing laws, we should keep enforcing laws preventing blacks from sitting at the lunch counter." Open borders doesn't require the abolition of the nation-state. It just requires a reform of the nation-state's laws.

You don't even need to rethink citizenship laws to address immigration. Nobody's saying that countries ought to have open citizenship. Open citizenship and open borders are two very different things. Open borders is the simple principle that nobody should have to beg the government for permission to earn an honest living or to be with their family.

somehow assume that gosh-golly-gee, all these would-be immigrants are just poor helpless victims of bad government in their home countries, for which they are of course blameless.

I'm curious, can you make this a little more concrete? Are you seriously suggesting that a poor citizen of North Korea is mostly or entirely to blame for that? I doubt it. It's quite clear that North Korea's institutions are incapable of employing people productively. So why are other poor countries any different? Because they are run by elected governments? So the millions of people who didn't vote for Hugo Chavez are supposed to put up with him, because his reign was entirely their fault anyway?

It's one thing to keep out people who are seeking to abuse the welfare state or commit crime. It's another thing to keep out people who just want to earn an honest keep. Adjusting for purchasing power, job type, and qualifications, you can do the identical job in Yemen or in the US -- but earn 16 times more in the US than you would have in Yemen. How is that possible? Only because the governments of the world have conspired to keep people inside the arbitrary lines they were born into.

johnleemk


Honestly, this is a bit like saying that "Unless you want to abolish restaurant licensing laws, we should keep enforcing laws preventing blacks from sitting at the lunch counter."

This would make sense if

borders : nation-state :: no-blacks-at-counters : licensing a restaurant

But not if not. In the event: not.

Nobody's saying that countries ought to have open citizenship.

Sentences beginning 'Nobody's saying..' are almost always false and this one is no exception.

It's quite clear that North Korea's institutions are incapable of employing people productively. So why are other poor countries any different? Because they are run by elected governments?

You tell us: Why is the US different? If poor North Koreans are poor because of their institutions being incapable of employing them, could that perhaps be also true (to, of course, a far lesser but still nonzero extent) of poor Americans?

One thing we know that US institutions do to poor Americans is to look the other way at large numbers of immigrants who come to live alongside them. Could that have an effect and what is the sign of that effect? It's hard to answer these questions if you ignore them.

It's another thing to keep out people who just want to earn an honest keep.

Again, this is a very strange and unsupported sweeping assumption/fantasy to make about all/most illegal immigrants. Where does it come from? Once again I feel compelled to point out that in almost no realistic cases does an illegal immigrant enter the country with some sort of job-offer in hand. That is simply not an accurate picture of what happens. Why do people think that it is? Because their only contact with illegal immigrants is as their under-the-table employer, right?

Dan Carroll writes:

On Net Benefits: The economics literature is quite clear that immigration is a net benefit to the US. Some studies point ambiguously to localized temporary pressure on low income wage brackets, but other studies refute that. It probably depends on labor market rigidities and other variables. Absent rigidities and reservation wages, labor market supply creates its own demand.

Fiscal burden: non-citizen immigrants take fewer benefits yet still pay taxes (undocumented immigrants take even fewer benefits, pay consumption and indirect taxes, and are forced to take significantly lower pay for the same job). Crime: I've seen no evidence that, ceteris paribus, the crime rates on immigrants is higher than domestic born. Reported income inequality does go up due to a higher mix of immigrants, but I'm not sure how that is relevant. Housing costs are a function of many things (underwriting standards, school districts, and regulation, primarily). California property tax policy, for instance, limits new housing supply and housing turnover; low tax rates raises housing prices; land use/zoning regulation further limits supply.

The benefit that I think is often overlooked is that a large expat community in the US creates pressure on the home country for reform, often within one generation, as the expats send money and expertise back.

Jeff writes:
Because they are run by elected governments? So the millions of people who didn't vote for Hugo Chavez are supposed to put up with him, because his reign was entirely their fault anyway?

His reign of course was not entirely their fault, but on important questions like "who do we want to let in to the United States, given that they and their progeny will be casting votes alongside us and ours in perpetuity?" I tend to be cautious and conservative. My suspicion is the fact that Venezuela is so deeply dysfunctional and rife with violence and corruption and run by someone as awful as Hugo Chavez does not, quite frankly, speak very highly of Venezuelans, writ large. If one could be sure that by facilitating the immigration of large numbers of Venezuelans (or whomever) into the United States, you would not make the United States simply come to resemble Venezuela over time, with its afore-mentioned violence, corruption, and rule by psuedo-socialist thugs, I'd be more disposed to a more liberal regime of immigration from such areas.

North Korea, at least, is a bit different. One simply has to look at Seoul a bit to the south and realize, hey, those Koreans in general would probably make okay neighbors. It's just the one's in the north have got themselves in a pretty thorny situation with that Kim family. By contrast, you can look at South/Central America and see that Venezuela basically fits right in with its neighbors in terms of corruption, government dysfunction, violence, etc. Chile is pretty much the only major outlier. Shouldn't this lead you to conclude something about South/Central Americans, in general?

e pearse writes:

I admire the moral position, specially when is backed by economic facts and real comparative circumstances.

But the immigration issue is more a political one than a moral or economic issue. It is the fight for political power based in the fact that by 2040 the Hispanic population will double to 25% of the total (Census Bureau).

So, perhaps, the biggest unintended sin of the anti-immigration study by the Heritage foundation is the consequence of keeping conservatives out of the legislative process dealing with immigration - and everything else for that matter - for the conceivable future by making them unelectable

Renato Drumond writes:

"If one could be sure that by facilitating the immigration of large numbers of Venezuelans (or whomever) into the United States, you would not make the United States simply come to resemble Venezuela over time, with its afore-mentioned violence, corruption, and rule by psuedo-socialist thugs, I'd be more disposed to a more liberal regime of immigration from such areas."

@Jeff:

It's difficult to be sure, but I think it's reasonable to expect that most immigrants are against the government practices of their former countries. After all, most of them weren't forced, but choose to leave.

Noah Yetter writes:

"Can't someone be hostile to illegal immigration without being monstrous or xenophobic...?"

No.

All arguments against immigration are rationalizations covering for xenophobia. This is understandable, and perhaps somewhat excusable, since xenophobia is a basic human instinct learned on the savanna.

Recognizing your bias is the first step in overcoming it.

Nathan writes:
You don't even need to rethink citizenship laws to address immigration. Nobody's saying that countries ought to have open citizenship. Open citizenship and open borders are two very different things. Open borders is the simple principle that nobody should have to beg the government for permission to earn an honest living or to be with their family.

Your bizarre restaurant analogy notwithstanding, thank you for the distinction between open borders and open citizenship - I hadn't thought of that. I believe that nation-states would fail if they had "open citizenship" meaning they did not reserve the right to deny citizenship.

Similarly, I think one of the governments prime responsibilities derived from its mandate to proved for the common defense is to enforce a non-open borders policy. And by that I mean the government should reserve the right to refuse entry to our country. Now we can debate when it should exercise that right. All of us non-racists, non-xenophobic, non-monsters would not only argue for less refusals but probably less rigorous criteria (ie don't refuse someone just because they are not sufficiently educated).

Andrew writes:

e pearse, that seems right on. Clearly, most of the people Bryan is trying to convince to come over to the open borders position are Republicans.

Is there evidence that Hispanics will transition to the Republican party any time in the foreseeable future? It appears that supporting more immigration does not convince Hispanics to vote for the Republican party.

For instance, Reagan's 1986 immigration reform law granted citizenship to about three million illegal immigrants, and yet GOP presidential candidates have received a lower share of the Hispanic vote than Reagan did in 1984 in every election except 2004. In addition, George H.W. Bush passed an immigration reform act in 1990, increasing the limit on legal immigration by 200,000 per year, and yet his share of the Hispanic vote fell 5% from 1988 to 1992.

Also, is the Democrat's high share of the Hispanic vote due to actually passing immigration reform? I mean, even the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act was primarily supported by Republican politicians, who voted 85% in favor of the bill, as opposed to 74% of Democrats. It appears that no matter what Republicans do regarding immigration, they will never convince Hispanics to vote for them. Furthermore, it seems that Democrats can do anything they want concerning immigration, such as deport record numbers of illegal immigrants, and never lose the Hispanic vote.

Hazel Meade writes:

GOP presidential candidates have received a lower share of the Hispanic vote than Reagan did in 1984 in every election except 2004

That's like TWO presidential elections. Both of which featured Barack Obama against a white man.

Isn't it just possible that Hispanics are voting for the black guy for the same reason that blacks are voting for the black guy, and not because they have any special dislike for Republicans?

If you're a racial minority in America, voting for the black guy is in part an act of solidarity with other minorities, and a symbol that anyone can make it, regardless of race. This could have less than nothing to do with Hispanics views on economic or social policy.

Andrew writes:

Hazel,

The point was that of the seven elections since Reagan, the GOP has not improved its share of the Hispanic vote, despite passing more immigration friendly legislation than the Democrats.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

What is missing from these kinds of discussions is consideration of the failures of assimilation and integration.

Failure of assimilation exacerbates the differentiations in social considerations.

Instead we have emphasized the differentiations (in the names of various political objectives, such as "diversity") to the point of bi and multilingual colonization.

Bryan Caplan points out the need to recognize the commonalities. The political forces prefer to emphasize the differentiations for purposes of establishing constituencies.

The present legislative efforts are all constituency oriented without regard to the social benefits of establishing commonalities.

Daublin writes:

@Nathan:

"Can't someone be hostile to illegal immigration without being monstrous or xenophobic by predicating their argument on the necessity of nation-states?"

In all sincerity, I am not familiar with any serious argument against immigration that is not xenophobic. I would be interested if you want to spell out the position in more detail.

If you argue that local people are more deserving of any given job than a foreigner, or if you think foreigners have an inferior culture and will vote for poor policies, then either way you have an across-the-board negative view about foreigners. That's what the word "xenophobic" means.

Anon writes:

> In all sincerity, I am not familiar with any
> serious argument against immigration that is not
> xenophobic. I would be interested if you want to
> spell out the position in more detail.

If someone were to hypothetically argue that immigration was bad for citizens because of any vaguely plausible mechanism, that would not be xenophobic.

If someone were to hypothetically argue that immigration was bad because it helped people who were foreign or strange and helping them is bad, that would be xenophobic.

I think maybe you misunderstand the term. Wanting good things for citizens is not xenophobic. Wanting bad things for foreigners is. "Xenophobia" is a word that describes intentions and feelings. I value my brother over my co-worker. That doesn't imply I dislike my co-worker or that I do anything immoral when I invite one over for dinner but not the other.

Discussions usually get muddier when people are asked whether they are compelled to actively help foreigners by, say, making a new citizen slot (or other immigrant visa type) for them with all the obligations that implies, or whether they can morally forgo doing that. People have very similar discussions when healthcare provision is on the table.

MWG writes:
The point was that of the seven elections since Reagan, the GOP has not improved its share of the Hispanic vote, despite passing more immigration friendly legislation than the Democrats.

That's certainly questionable. Not that I'm a fan of democrat politics as it relates to immigration, but when republicans supported the bill passed by Reagan they generally did so kicking and screaming. Even Reagan only passed it with assurance that the border was going to be locked down. Not that dems are great, but republicans are hardly a pro immigrant party. Hell, I stopped calling myself a conservative republican when the republicans derailed Bush's attempt at reform. Not that I was a huge fan of the legislation itself, but the screaming coming from the right was nothing less than embarrassing.

Ghost of Christmas Past writes:
The economics literature is quite clear that immigration is a net benefit to the US.

Actually, the literature is quite clear that immigration benefits the immigrants but doesn't benefit natives except for a few plutocrats. Low-wage immigrants impose heavy taxes on middle-class natives via welfare-state schemes. If values of amenities not normally accounted for (e.g., quality public schools, uncrowded parks) are considered the losses to natives look even more severe.

(I realize glibertarians writing about immigration always assume away the welfare state, but the US has seen heavy immigration for several decades now and the welfare state-- plus the taxation of the middle-class to finance it-- has grown steadily even as an increasing share of welfare spending has flowed to poor immigrants and their offspring. No glibertarian fantasy that native voters tired of subsidizing immigrants would somehow drive politicians to shrink the welfare state has been fulfilled and there are not even any "op-ed voices" calling for such a change.)

Absent rigidities and reservation wages, labor market supply creates its own demand.

This has got to be the second-greatest fallacy that immigration boosters commonly assert, despite a plenitude of existence proofs of the opposite. E.g., Egypt has a giant supply of labor for which there is no demand...

The greatest fallacy is that "we can just give unlimited immigrants residency without citizenship." How long do you think your "apartheid government" would last after you opened the borders? It would probably fall even before the number of recent immigrants exceeded the number of natives, just because some native party would ally with an uppity-immigrants party to force the issue. The only way to keep immigrants "in subjection" (that's what the demagogues would say) would be raw force. Don't forget, the immigrants would be human beings, filled with pride and ambition and all that stuff, so when some of them (just like some natives) inevitably became disappointed with their wealth and status in their new home, they would listen to agitators who blamed such troubles on "discrimination" and join political-- eventually guerrilla-- movements to "throw off the oppressors--" who would be those natives who foolishly thought they could deny citizenship to an unlimited number of immigrant residents.

maybe you had something to do with it writes:

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R. Jones writes:

I agree with the previous commenter. If Americans are lazy, how did they get that way? It happened too quickly to be genetic. However, we know that Latin-american immigrants have low-IQ, so that isn't going away. After a few generations the low-IQ immigrants will assimilate to American norms, becoming lazy, but retaining their inferior intelligence. Is the author of "Selfish Reasons to Have more Kids" unaware of this phenomenon?

NZ writes:

@Noah Yetter:

Recognizing your bias is the first step in overcoming it.
Everyone knows denial is a hallmark sign of addiction, so denying that you're a heroin addict just proves once and for all that you're a heroin addict. The first step to curing addiction is admitting you have a problem. Oh wait...

Seriously though, Mr. Yetter, your statement that "All arguments against immigration are rationalizations covering for xenophobia" is observably false, but even if it were true it wouldn't change the fact that many of those arguments still make more sense than many of the arguments favoring increased immigration. Would you rather raise your kids in a safe, productive society where people were xenophobic, or in a dysfunctional crime-ridden society where everyone professed their love of foreigners? (And Byran Caplan, if you're reading: in which society do you reckon it'd be easier to erect and maintain your bubble?)

Our southern border is in need of a good fence, but so it seems is the concept of immigration. On one side can safely live the statement "I wish no ill upon the good people of Mexico" and on the other side can be this statement's peaceful neighbor, "I don't want to import more Mexicans here."

It appears that you, Mr. Yetter, have no conceptual fence on this issue, and so in your mind one idea has gone and chased away the other one from next door, and now the two cannot coexist at all.

Erik writes:

This article raises some interesting questions in my mind:

How many of America's currently undeserving poor would be reduced, by open immigration, to a level of poverty that would make us sympathetic to their plight?

If we blame America's poor for not delaying childbearing, should we also blame the poorest Third World residents for bearing any children at all? Those Third-Worlders should have anticipated that sex leads to children being born into a desperate situation.

If Third-Worlders create a problem by bearing children, is it appropriate for them to then demand that wealthier countries relieve them of the consequences and solve the problems they needlessly created? Is it wise for the wealthier countries to accommodate that reckless breeding?

I don't know the answers to these questions. But as you might guess from the way I phrased my questions, I'm still skeptical about this article.

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