February 13, 2012

Low-skilled immigration and the American working class

In his New York Times column yesterday, Ross Douthat addressed Charles Murray’s recent book Coming Apart. The book is about the decline of what Murray calls America’s “founding virtues” within the U.S. working class and the consequences of that decline. Douthat was unsatisfied with Murray’s policy conclusions and offered four of his own, one of which focused on low-skilled immigration and its effects on the working class:

If we expect less-educated Americans to compete with low-wage workers in Asia and Latin America, we shouldn’t be welcoming millions of immigrants who compete with them domestically as well. Immigration benefits the economy over all, but it can lower wages and disrupt communities, and there’s no reason to ask an already-burdened working class to bear these costs alone. Here the leading Republican candidates have the right idea: We should welcome more high-skilled immigrants, while making it as hard as possible for employers to hire low-skilled workers off the books.

His argument is dubious.

If you’re worried about the U.S. working class surviving in a global economy, you should worry much much more about competing with low-wages in Latin America or Asia than competing with immigrants for wages at home. Laborers working in factories abroad where companies can operate with lower costs on many margins relative to the United States pose a much greater threat to U.S. workers’ wages than newly-arrived laborers do. If you’re going to make a nationalist argument about the American working class, the anti-trade and anti-outsourcing one is much stronger than the anti-low-skilled immigrant one, yet in the first sentence excerpted above, Douthat alludes that the two are something-like-equivalent.

Secondly, there’s no ironclad evidence about the effects of low-skilled immigration on natives’ wages. But research like David Card’s Mariel boat lift study suggest the effects are negligible or nonexistent:

The Mariel immigrants increased the Miami labor force by 7%, and the percentage increase in labor supply to less-skilled occupations and industries was even greater because most of the immigrants were relatively unskilled. Nevertheless, the Mariel influx appears to have had virtually no effect on the wages or unemployment rates of less-skilled workers, even among Cubans who had immigrated earlier.

Other natural experiments, about low-skilled Algerian immigration to France, for instance, have yielded similar results.

One thing that seems to be clear is that low-skilled immigration is correlated with higher employment, which says nothing about causation—immigrants are probably drawn to places with already thriving economies—but might suggest a crucial point. Low-skilled immigrants may not be competing with all that many native borns, let alone the working class Douthat writes about. Perhaps the only jerbs they’re taking are those that natives won’t do, like strenuous farm work, or those dish-washing and kitchen prep jobs Anthony Bourdain is always talking about.

It’s telling that Douthat’s utilitarian argument makes a veiled appeal to xenophobia: “Immigration … can … disrupt communities.” I don’t mean to imply that Douthat is xenophobic, but in most cases and places, immigrants are much more likely to speak English than rob a convenience store. Regardless, it’s probably not nearly as disruptive as, say, current backlash against foreigners in Montgomery and Tuscaloosa that seems to have sprouted overnight and not be really about “immigration” so much as weird To Kill a Mockingbird-esque societal issues.

Douthat’s correct that we should welcome high-skilled immigrants because they add to American prosperity. He’d have a more complete argument if he struck the “high-skilled” descriptor.

Posted on Feb. 13, 2012 at 8:16 am Link Share Comment
Tagged: #immigration  #economics  

Tate Watkins

Independent Correspondent

Tate Watkins is a freelance economics journalist in Nashville, TN.