More Importation of Poverty

By James R. Edwards, Jr. on May 31, 2010

Robert Samuelson, in his weekly column in the Washington Post, highlights a key factor in why U.S. poverty rates seem not to improve. Jesus warned that the poor will always be there. But after concerted efforts and giant leaps over more than half a century, surely America is doing better than the statistics show.

Samuelson's column, titled "Why Obama's poverty rate measure misleads," primarily addresses a questionable poverty calculation the administration has proposed. However, he cites "the apparent lack of progress" in reducing poverty as "misleading," with one reason being that "it ignores immigration." He writes:

First, it ignores immigration, which has increased reported poverty. Many immigrants are poor and low-skilled. From 1989 to 2007, about three-quarters of the increase in the poverty population occurred among Hispanics – mostly immigrants, their children and grandchildren. The poverty rate for blacks fell during this period, though it was still much too high (24.5 percent in 2007). Poverty "experts" don't dwell on immigration, because it implies that more restrictive policies might reduce U.S. poverty.

The United States had for most of our history a strong policy of rejecting immigrants unable or unwilling to be self-reliant. Those who gained admittance but later went on the public dole faced deportation. In other words, the storied "poor, huddled masses" and "wretched refuse" largely didn't get admitted into the United States, and those immigrants who did had to be self-sufficient. This common-sense, tough-love approach is known as "public charge doctrine." But it became a victim of political correctness, judicial activism, and welfare statism.

The Clinton administration fought reforms that would have more fully restored public charge doctrine. In 1996, the GOP Congress would have required visa sponsors to earn at least 200 percent of the official poverty level. The status quo at the time was 100 percent of poverty income to be an immigrant sponsor – woefully inadequate. The Clintonites strong-armed lawmakers into accepting minimum sponsorship income of 125 percent of the federal poverty level.

Fast-forward to today. The newly enacted health law makes those earning 133 percent of the federal poverty level eligible for the welfare program Medicaid. That means immigrant sponsors can be poor enough to be on Medicaid (and other welfare programs Samuelson names, including the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is an outright redistribution-of-wealth program), yet "wealthy" enough to sponsor others for visas.

There is something extremely wrong with this picture. It shows how the combination of chain migration, lax visa sponsorship and public charge laws, and a welfare state guarantee the continued importation of the world's poorest. This puts America on a permanent treadmill of importing poverty while decrying how our antipoverty efforts haven't raised the economic boats of the underclass.