A Response to Samuelson's "Importing Poverty" article

Robert Samuelson wrote an article in the Washington Post titled "Importing Poverty"

Here is my take on it.

I agree that the poverty rate is higher because of immigration. I think Samuelson shows that very well. But while it increases the poverty rate, it doesn't increase poverty. Your not making people poorer your increasing average wealth in the world, and maybe even the average wealth for non immigrants in the US, but your bringing in new poor people to be counted, that wouldn't have been considered before because they where not in the US.

The rate of poverty (esp. if measured in an absolute rather than a relative sense) among non immigrants has declined. Also the rate of poverty among immigrants has declined (a larger percentage of them where poor before they immigrated). So how do we get a slightly large poverty rate? By immigrants, and there direct next generation descendants being a larger percentage of the population. If the group with a larger poverty rate increases as a percentage of the population that poverty rates can go up even if the rate is declining for every group, and if the majority of individuals are doing better. Immigration isn't on the net making people poor, or keeping them in poverty (in fact it helps raise many of the immigrants from poverty, or at least to raise them to a higher level that we might still consider poor), but its brining in new poor people. Its not totally unreasonable to assert that there is something negative about brining in new poor people, OTOH its likely not to be a random selection of the poor but rather be shifted towards people with higher than average initiative (if your lazier than average you probably won't emigrate, unless perhaps you'll starve if you don't or someone sets up some cushy setup for you after you immigrate, but that doesn't apply to most immigrants. The main counter argument to that point is that people could immigrate for government benefits. That's why I'm much more partial to arguments about not making illegal immigrants eligible for welfare than I am to thoughts about trying to stop illegal immigration (which I don't think can be done) or mass deportation.

Another possible negative is that emigration from Mexico reduces the incentive for government reform, and reduction in the level of socialism in Mexico (both by removing the discontented people, and by the remittances which go back to Mexico and might make some people who stay more content), and also might represent a drain of more intelligent or motivated individuals from Mexico, and thus will help keep Mexico poor.


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Samuelson and Poverty

Immigration does not increase poverty on a worldwide basis - indeed, it decreases it, that is why the poor people come here is to escape poverty (which makes me wonder why some think they're going to help poor people by changing our economic policies to be more like the countries from which poor people come...).

But it does increase the number of poor people within our borders.

Quite simply, legally and illegally combined, we 'import' a million poor people per year, and the total number of poor people increases by between 175,000 and 250,000, depending upon the year. On average between 1990 and 2006 the increase was 181,000.

The only 'retort' I've seen of Samuelson's analysis of this point is based on the fact that overall Hispanic-American poverty RATES have also come down. This is true - but it isn't a retort. Of course the poverty rate among Hispanics has come down - because once they're here, even THEY move up, over time - which is why they keep coming!

Samuelson's point is actually not anti-Hispanic, anti-immigration or anti-illegals - in fact he says we should let the ones to whose presence we have turned a blind eye stay, since we effectively told them they could, by not doing anything. He just wants to stem the tide.

Unlike Samuelson I don't see a need to stem the tide of immigration - I would want to open up legal immigration to whoever wants to come, if we can test for diseases and criminal background and charge a fee for the cost of that process (for those who think a fee would be unfair or unrealistic, it would probably be less than what they're paying now to be smuggled across the border).

I don't see a need to create a new path to citizenship though, or to extend the same benefits - if they don't like the deal, they are free to leave just like they were free to come.

But while we can reasonably disagree as to what to do about immigration, we cannot reasonably disagree as to the numbers. Importing 1 million poor people per year dramatically skews the poverty numbers to hide impressive progress in reducing poverty. Importing 350,000 poor households per year has a smaller but similar effect on the median household income. When you adjust the numbers for the effect of immigration, the Bush economy and the Clinton economy before it, and the Bush and Reagan economies before that, were good for Main Street, not just good for Wall Street.

Immigration and poverty

Re: "But it does increase the number of poor people within our borders."
If a lot of poor people move withing our borders than yes we are increasing poverty within our borders. Some of those poor people do well enough to no longer be poor, but some, possibly many, will not, and even if they all did there would be a time lag.
But if those poor people are better off, and those previously in American aren't worse off, than what is so horrible. Now it might be argued that those previously in America ARE worse off, but if your going to make that argument you need more evidence than a slightly increase poverty rate that includes both groups. If you separate out both groups, the poverty rate of each has declined.
Reading on to the end of your comment now it seems like your end conclusion is very close to mine. I'm not arguing against the idea that the US economy has done well in recent decades or the idea that this growth has been "good for Main Street, not just good for Wall Street".