Low-Skill Immigration and the Decline in Social Mobility

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on January 12, 2012

The topic of Monday's "On Point" public radio program was the decline in social mobility in the United States. Host Tom Ashbrook and guests expressed alarm that the United States now trails such countries as Canada, Germany, France, Denmark, and Sweden in important metrics of the ability of citizens to rise on the economic ladder. The U.S. ladder, they agreed, has become steadily stickier, making those at the bottom more likely to stay at the bottom and those at the top to stay there.

One of the guests, economist Jared Bernstein (a former advisor to Vice President Biden), took a jab at politicians like Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan. Bernstein said Ryan boasts about the American tradition of mobility even as he works to cut such "mobility enhancers" as Pell grants, Head Start, and the WIC nutrition program for the poor.

Reihan Salam, the lead writer of The Agenda blog at National Review Online, said the stickiness at the bottom end of the ladder is likely to be aggravated by the fact that in the United States, three million children have a parent who is in jail. Then Salam, the American-born son of immigrants from Bangladesh, offered an observation concerning immigration that is worth quoting at length:

Another really interesting fact is that between 1970 an 2010, the foreign-born proportion of the United States population went from 3.8 percent, an historical low, to 12 percent, which is very close to the historical high in the United States. And also, these foreign-born folks have contributed mightily to population growth.

After noting that the American-born children of immigrants now total 11 percent of the population, Salam added this:

When a lot of those folks are born in very poor countries that tend to have somewhat lower skill endowments, they can catch up in terms of their human capital. But it's going to take them awhile to do that. And if you look at countries like Canada and Australia that do somewhat better on the relative mobility front, they have pursued what we might call designer immigration policies, in which a much bigger share of their foreign-born population consists of people who already had the language skills and who also had relatively high skill levels.

This observation relates to the argument of economists Pia Orrenius and Madeline Zavodny, whose work has received considerable attention in the past year. In their book Beside the Golden Door they make this observation:

Current immigrant flows are disproportionately low-skilled and unauthorized, which leads to adverse effects on the earnings of competing native workers. It also creates an adverse fiscal impact, with low-wage immigrants receiving more in public services than they pay in taxes, on average.

The arguments of Salam, Orrenius, and Zavodny point toward a point system that would turn U.S. immigration policy away from its current emphasis on family relations to an emphasis on education and skill as the principal basis for awarding green cards. One proposal would grade all green card applicants on a 100-point scale.

But there is determined resistance to that idea from politicians like New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez. Said Menendez, "As a Latino – there's no way when 50 percent of the people in this hemisphere live below the poverty level, that future opportunities for immigration to the United States is going to come from that community because they're not going to qualify under the 100 points system."

This is one of the fundamental arguments in the national debate on immigration reform. It deserves more attention.