What Economists Think About Immigration Doesn’t Really Matter

Labor shortages in the United States have led to renewed calls to increase immigration to enlarge the work force. (Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa shortage.) “Even if it’s just temporary workers, immigration is a really, really effective tool to make sure you have people in open jobs who can produce,” Laura Collins, director of the Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative, told me recently.

That’s reigniting the long-running argument over whether immigration is a net benefit to the U.S. economy and various groups of Americans. On the “yes” or “mostly yes” side are economists such as David Card of the University of California, Berkeley, an immigrant from Canada who shared the Nobel in economic science this year for his work on immigration and minimum wages, among other topics. Heading up the “no” or “not so sure” side is George Borjas of the Harvard Kennedy School, who came to the United States as a refugee from Cuba.

The dueling econometric analyses of Card, Borjas and others are fascinating and important but I’m not going to delve into them in this newsletter. Instead I’m going to focus on the squishier but no less important question of how Americans feel about and react to immigration, regardless of what the economists tell them.

It turns out that people tend to be more worried about immigrants and immigration than the facts justify. Economists surveyed 24,000 people in France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Britain and the United States in 2018. “In all countries, respondents greatly overestimate the total number of immigrants, think immigrants are culturally and religiously more distant from them, and are economically weaker — less educated, more unemployed, and more reliant on and favored by government transfers — than is the case,” according to the resulting paper by Alberto Alesina, Armando Miano and Stefanie Stantcheva, all of Harvard.

Those misunderstandings have consequences. People who think that immigrants are economically weak and likely to be on welfare also tend to support less redistribution in society, the paper says — i.e., they’re more skeptical of taking from the rich and giving to the poor. Simply getting people to think about immigration tends to reduce their support for redistribution, including donations to charities, the authors found.

Their paper, “Immigration and Redistribution,” was first released in 2018 as a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper. Alesina died during preparations of a revision of it for The Review of Economic Studies. The revision was released on the website of the Social Economics Lab at Harvard in August.

Surely educating the respondents about the facts of immigration would cause them to change their minds? No. More information, the authors found, mainly prompts people to “think about immigrants and reduces their support for redistribution.” In contrast, “an anecdote about a ‘hard working’ immigrant is somewhat more effective” in influencing the public, they found.

In decades of sparring over immigration, Card and Borjas have found the same thing. Borjas chose an emotionally laden title for his 2016 book, “We Wanted Workers: Unraveling the Immigration Narrative.” It’s an allusion to an observation about immigration by Max Frisch, a Swiss novelist and playwright, who once said, “We wanted workers, but we got people instead.” Borjas’s point is that people shouldn’t be treated like widgets that are freely traded across borders.

It’s indisputable that the benefits of immigration aren’t shared equally. The people who compete with immigrants for jobs — whether they’re doctors at the high end or janitors at the low end — clearly benefit the least. There’s a split on the political left between those who support immigration because it benefits the huddled masses from abroad and those who are more dubious, saying that it simply bolsters business profits by giving companies a cheaper source of labor.

Card likes to say that economic theory and evidence go only so far in the immigration debate. A team that Card led surveyed people in 20 countries in 2002 using the European Social Survey and found that economic issues such as beliefs about wage effects explained only about 20 percent of people’s attitudes toward immigration, with the remaining 80 percent accounted for by cultural issues such as how people felt about living with people of a different language, religion or culture.

In Europe as well as the United States, Card said, opposition to immigration is strongest among retirees without college educations who live in rural areas, who don’t encounter many immigrants and don’t compete with them for jobs, but may feel culturally threatened by them.

“The economic side of immigration, although it’s important and interesting and has kept me employed for many years, is not necessarily the thing we need to focus on in thinking about why different people have such different attitudes,” Card said in a 2017 lecture to the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University in Minnesota.

The readers write

Let me start with a big “thank you” for mentioning Women in Red in your Dec. 13 newsletter about charitable giving. While communities such as Women in Red are eligible to apply for Wikimedia Foundation grants, Women in Red has never requested or received financial support, not from the Wikimedia Foundation or anyone else.

Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight
The writer is a founder of Women in Red.

Quote of the day

“We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics.”

— Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his Second Inaugural Address (1937)

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