Monday, March 11, 2013

Immigration's Winners and Losers

In the New York Times op ed piece, Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, and Your Economists Too,  Harvard professor Gregory Mankiw gives three main reasons to support immigration to the US. While I, too, am pro-immigration, I find his reasoning another example of an academic mired in theoretical assumptions, disconnected from reality. 

For instance, Mankiw says, “If an American farmer wants to hire a worker to pick fruits and vegetables, the fact that the worker happens to have been born in Mexico does not seem a compelling reason to stop the transaction.” Of course not, especially when the worker has no health insurance, and the farmer has no obligation to the worker to provide a safe work setting, adequate cost of living wages, or any kind of employment security.

He continues that, “When thinking about immigration, there is little doubt that the least fortunate, and the ones with the most at stake in the outcome, are the poor workers who yearn to come to the United States to make a better life for themselves and their families.” True – to a point. Unfortunately, not all immigrants to America arrive with the same advantages, and once here, those who are disadvantaged may find it more difficult to obtain the American Dream. Without a visa, they may lack an easy road to citizenship, an obstacle to legitimate employment even if they have an advanced degree; they lack political power if they cannot vote; and they may suffer poor health if their socioeconomic status is low or their families far away and cannot provide socio-economic support when needed.

For example, Asians now comprise the largest group of immigrants to the US, surpassing Hispanics. However, about 45 percent of Hispanics are here illegally compared to 13 percent to 15 percent of Asians. Moreover, reports show that 26 percent of Hispanics live in poverty compared to 12 percent of Asians. In fact, more Hispanic children live in poverty than any other racial group in America. 

In addition, consider these facts: Hispanics have high school drop out rates twice the rate of whites and three times that of blacks; that Hispanic children immigrating to the US have better rates of school performance and graduation than Hispanic children born in this country of immigrant parents; and Hispanic families face poorer health outcomes the longer they reside in the US due to diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease caused by diet and stress. It makes you wonder what’s so good – for the less educated and the poor – about living in America?

With this in mind, consider how Mankiw jumps from immigrants working for farmers to immigrants with Ph.D.s working at Harvard. While America is theoretically an egalitarian society, we still suffer class woes, ranking 41st out of 136 countries in terms of inequality. Not only do people with low socioeconomic status, regardless of race/ethnicity, have poorer paying jobs, they also suffer higher levels of stress, worse health outcomes and live shorter lives, with life expectancy rates up to 10 years lower than than people with higher educations, higher incomes and higher levels of control over their work environment.

Giving people access to education is a start, but it is not a complete answer. Middle and upper class children are groomed for success by their educated parents, both at home and through sometimes costly and time consuming extra curricular and after school activities, including sports, dance, music, summer camp and travel and humanitarian experiences. Once entering the educational system, much less the work force, their critical thinking and language skills, social skills and ability to interact with social intuitions provide a tremendous edge over children from poor and working class families.  Early education, mentoring and parental support for less advantaged children helps, but solutions are complex.

In addition, Mankiw states that tuition costs “could be worse.” Let’s just say they are bad enough now (take a look at Daniel Golden's "Price of Admission" about white elites and higher education). In recent years, college tuition has risen faster than health care costs, family incomes and available student aid. The state university where I am employed, one that serves a diverse working class community with a school system teaching children whose parents speak over 50 languages, has regular tuition increases. Until the budget is approved, they cannot at present even predict next year’s tuition costs.

When Mankiw refers to ‘the immigration of scholars from abroad,’ he is light years away from really talking about the immigration debate in America. While a university has an obligation to its students to hire the best and the brightest, a wage conscious farmer (to use his example) benefits from a class of workers who lack education and socioeconomic or political power. And when he says, “I understand that not all workers in the United States will embrace foreign-born competitors with the same equanimity as a Harvard professor,” is he admitting that free market economics won’t work across America for cultural reasons or simply throwing out an elitist, condescending thought from his secure tenured position?

Finally, in reference to Mankiw’s Ukrainian forebears and the American Dream, I would like to mention two things, race/ethnicity and inequality. His white Northern European ancestors would have, perhaps, found less discrimination at the hands of the elite English ‘Americans’ already settled on these shores (or at least had available to them a faster path forward) than less desirable social groups from Italy, Ireland or parts of Asia. The United States they entered would also have had less overall inequality than exists today between the rich and the poor. 

Perhaps Mankiw needs to visit the Sociology and Anthropology departments or the medical school there at Harvard to see a different face of immigration than the one found among his scholarly applicants in the Economics department. 

For further information on social class and entitlement, I suggest Annette Lareau's "Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race and Family Life."

For an revealing look at social inequality and health, view 'Unnatural Causes.'

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