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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Poverty and Immigration

Robert Samuelson says lack of progress on poverty is caused by immigration:

Importing Poverty, by Robert J. Samuelson, Commentary, Washington Post: The government last week released its annual statistical report on poverty and household income. .. The stubborn persistence of poverty, at least as measured by the government, is increasingly a problem associated with immigration. As more poor Hispanics enter the country, poverty goes up. ...

The standard story is that poverty is stuck; superficially, the statistics support that. The poverty rate measures the share of Americans below the official poverty line... Look again at the numbers. In 2006, there were 36.5 million people in poverty. ... In 1990, the population was smaller, and there were 33.6 million people in poverty... The increase from 1990 to 2006 was 2.9 million people... Hispanics accounted for all of the gain. ... From 1990 to 2006, the number of poor Hispanics increased 3.2 million...

Only an act of willful denial can separate immigration and poverty. The increase among Hispanics must be concentrated among immigrants, legal and illegal, as well as their American-born children. ...

Why is it important to get this story straight? One reason is truthfulness. ... A second reason is that immigration affects government policy. .. By default, our present policy is to import poor people. This imposes strains on local schools, public services and health care.

We need an immigration policy that makes sense. My oft-stated belief is that legal immigration should favor the high-skilled over the low-skilled. ... At the same time, we should clamp down on new illegal immigration through tougher border controls and employer sanctions.

Whatever one's views, any sensible debate requires accurate information. ...

Free Exchange says yes, we do need accurate information, but you didn't provide it:

Poverty on the op-ed page, by Free Exchange: ...Today ... Robert Samuelson, ... trots out statistics to make a case against immigration. Mr Samuelson argues that we have made progress against poverty, but that progress is obscured by a flood of poor hispanic immigrants.

Now an obvious and appropriate retort is the one made earlier by my co-blogger: who cares? Even if hispanic immigrants are poor by American standards, they are far richer than they were before migrating. Looking at the world as a whole, rather than our narrow slice of North America, social welfare has improved. ...

Mr Samuelson actually deserves far harsher treatment. I would love to be polite about the claims made in his Post piece, but it's very difficult to read his column as anything other than dreadful incompetence with statistics, or worse. Allow me to quote him at length...

Mr Samuelson sees that both the number of Americans and the number of hispanics in poverty has increased by about 3 million since 1990, and he therefore concludes that hispanics are responsible for all of the increase in poverty during that period, obscuring some imagined gains among other groups. He could not be more wrong.

While the absolute number of hispanics in poverty has increased since 1990, the poverty rate among hispanics has fallen dramatically over that period, from 28.1 percent in 1990 to 20.6 percent in 2006. ...

Mr Samuelson's biggest blooper, however, is to ignore trends among all groups within the 1990 to 2006 time period. Between 1990 and 1993, poverty increased among all racial and ethnic groups. There were 2.3 million more non-hispanic whites in poverty in 1993 than in 1990. From 1993 to 2000, poverty rates fell for all racial and ethnic groups, and the absolute number of poor fell for all groups except Asians. The number of hispanics in the country increased by 10 million during that period, but the number of hispanics in poverty fell by 400,000 over the same time frame.

And from 2000 to 2006, poverty numbers increased for all racial and ethnic groups. There were 1.6 million more non-hispanic whites in poverty last year than there were in 2000, and there were 1 million more blacks in poverty last year than there were in 2000. This is not progress in the fight against poverty; it is failure on all fronts.

In fact, the only group to reduce its poverty rate between 2000 and 2006 was hispanics. .... In other words, hispanic poverty rates are converging downward to those of the population at large.

Mr Samuelson should be ashamed of himself. He would ignore the ground lost among all groups in the fight against poverty in order to cut off opportunity for those who have made the largest gains in that fight.

It's more than just getting the statistics right. Unless the goals of immigration policy are defined (e.g., to provide low-skill or high-skill workers as needed to benefit the economy, to alleviate poverty in the world, as refuge, etc.), it is impossible to evaluate it. For example, if the goal is to provide workers to benefit the economy, and the alleviation of poverty is of secondary importance, then immigration policy will reflect the preference for people with high net economic benefits. But if the intent is mostly to reduce poverty in the world, and not so much maximizing of national GDP growth, the policy could be quite different and we may be willing to accept entrants who have, initially at least, a negative impact on the economy's balance sheet.

The participants in disputes over immigration policy often talk past each other because they place very different weights on these goals (in some cases there are even sign reversals). While economic theory offers little guidance about what the goals and weights ought to be - these are normative issues - we should, nonetheless, define the goals clearly before attempting to implement and evaluate immigration policy.

    Posted by on Wednesday, September 5, 2007 at 02:43 PM in Economics, Immigration, Income Distribution | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (69)


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