Immigration: The Problem That Must Not Be Named

By CIS on July 16, 2015

It's frustratingly common: The mainstream media discusses a social problem obviously impacted by immigration — overcrowding, low wages, increasing poverty, etc. — but assiduously avoids any mention of immigration. To much of the media, using the word immigration in the context of any social problem has become a taboo, roughly equivalent to saying "Voldemort" in a Hogwarts classroom.

This past Independence Day, the New York Times offered another example. In an article titled, "It's Summer, but Where Are the Teenage Workers?", a Times reporter lamented that teenage summer employment rates have been trending generally downward since the late 1980s. The decrease has been especially sharp since 2000:

Source: Center for Immigration Studies analysis of all public-use files of June, July, and August Current Population Survey, 2000 to 2014. Hispanics can be of any race and are excluded from other categories.

What has caused the downturn? According to the Times, it might be that:

  • Teenagers are doing other things, like traveling and volunteering; or
  • The summer is not as long as it once was because of increased testing and sports commitments; or
  • The economy is sluggish; or
  • The federal government is not subsidizing summer jobs the way it once was; or
  • Labor force participation is down for all age groups; or
  • Teenagers have had a "changing mindset" about the value of work; or
  • Teenagers are too focused on applying to workplaces that sell video games and athletic shoes.

Many of these explanations are plausible, and the Times is right to mention them. But how could such a detailed discussion omit the increased competition for low-wage jobs from immigrants?

The research linking immigration with the decline in teenage employment is fairly compelling. A 2012 study by Federal Reserve economist Christopher L. Smith found empirical evidence that low-skill immigrants and teens are highly substitutable in the labor market: A 1 percent increase in low-skill immigration reduces native teenage work hours by 0.3 percent. He also found that teens — not being breadwinners for whom work is essential — are more likely than adults to drop out of the workforce altogether when the prevailing wage declines due to immigration.

Similarly, a CIS study from 2006 found that a 1 percent increase in the labor force due to new immigration was associated with a 1.2 percentage-point decrease in the probability that the average native between the ages of 16 and 24 would be employed. In addition, a more recent CIS report from 2010 estimated that a one percentage-point increase in the immigrant share of the workforce between 1994 and 2007 led to a 0.8 percentage-point decline in the share of teens employed over that period.

So the connection between immigration and youth employment is both intuitively plausible and backed by empirical research. We imagine that the Times would have readily mentioned that connection, except that immigration is the "Problem-That-Must-Not-Be-Named".

That's regrettable. The decline in youth employment is a serious problem that deserves a serious examination. After all, a number of studies have found that the lack of early labor market experience can have a significant negative impact on employment and wages later in life. If we are unable to have a complete discussion about this problem, how can we ever solve it?

Here is an ironic postscript. Economist Donald Boudreaux, an open-borders libertarian at George Mason University, also noticed that something was conspicuously lacking in the Times article. He blogged that the Times failed to include "the most obvious explanation" for the decline in summer employment. And that obvious explanation is ... the minimum wage is too high! The minimum wage, which has changed little in real terms over the same period that teenage employment has declined, would seem an unlikely culprit. Nevertheless, Boudreaux considers its omission "inexcusable". He makes no mention, of course, of immigration.