Helping the Poor Get Off the Dole

By Mark Krikorian on May 17, 1995

The San Diego Union-Tribune, May 17, 1995

Welfare reform has been widely debated since last November's elections. The state and federal governments are planning various changes, from requiring recipients to work for their government checks to enrolling them in worker-training programs to forcing them off the dole altogether after a period of time.

At the same time, welfare and immigration have increasingly been linked in the public mind. After all, California's Proposition 187, approved last year, seeks to deny illegal immigrants access to all nonemergency government services. And the welfare-reform bill passed by the House of Representatives denies welfare to most noncitizens, whether they immigrated legally or illegally.

Whatever the merits of these proposals, the most important connection between welfare and immigration has not even been mentioned in Congress or the state legislatures. And that is the effect that millions of unskilled immigrants have on the job prospects of poor Americans, many of whom are either trying to get off welfare or trying to avoid welfare altogether.

No doubt there are many other factors that fuel the persistence of welfare and the pathological behavior associated with long-term dependency. But the social problems of America's poor cannot be dealt with successfully if hundreds of thousands of unskilled foreigners are allowed each year to enter the country and compete for blue-collar jobs.

Immigration is at a historic high. Since 1984, 10 million people have immigrated legally to the United States, in addition to millions of illegal immigrants. In 1994 alone, more than 1 million people from abroad settled in the United States, both legally and illegally. The 1990s are well on the way to becoming the decade with the highest level of immigration in America's history.

While some of these newcomers are doctors and engineers, a disturbingly high percentage are unskilled and have little, if any, education. This is due to the fact that only a small percentage of immigrants - 15 percent in 1994 - are admitted because of the skills they can bring to this country (and that percentage is as high as it is only because it includes family members of the skilled immigrants). Most immigrants are admitted because they have relatives here, without any consideration given to their potential contributions to the nation.

This nepotistic system, with its bias in favor of unskilled immigrants, harms America's poor.

A report by the Council of Economic Advisers, sent by the president to Congress in February, says "Immigration has increased the relative supply of less skilled labor in the United States and has contributed to the increasing inequality of income, but the effect has been small."

Even a "small" impact nationwide translates into a large problem when concentrated in small geographic areas and specific industries, as is the case with unskilled immigration. Immigration also displaces American workers from their jobs. Rice University economist Donald Huddle estimates that for every four low-skilled immigrants, one low-skilled American loses his job.

Though some economists dispute Huddle's estimate, arriving at a higher ratio of immigrants to displaced Americans, the evidence indicates that some Americans indeed are losing out to unskilled newcomers. University of Michigan demographer William Frey has found that states with high levels of foreign immigration are losing blue-collar American residents, who are moving to states with less immigration.

At the same time, American college graduates are migrating into high-immigration states, further widening the gap between rich and poor. A less tangible, but still very real, effect of unskilled immigration is the development of ethnic networks that eventually make it difficult for poor Americans to find work in certain industries.

Given the effects of unskilled immigration, it seems morally dubious to undermine the job prospects of the poor while forcing them to move off welfare. And is it sensible to train poor Americans for entry-level work and then turn around and leave the door open to people from overseas coming to compete with them?

When our economy was in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, unskilled immigrants were just what the economy needed, to dig ore, lay rails, work in factories. But as our economy becomes more high-tech, even jobs that once required little skill are changing.

For example, the Supreme Concrete Block Co. in Winchester, Va., used to make concrete blocks with old machinery which required lots of labor and little training. But a new factory built a few years ago can turn out twice the blocks - and every worker operates a computer on the factory floor. As Cornell University economist Vernon Briggs wrote in his 1992 book Mass Migration and the National Interest:

Unskilled jobs that pay high wages are rapidly disappearing in the wake of automation and international competition. High-skilled jobs are increasing but they typically require extensive preparatory training and education.

Given this phenomenon, it would seem incumbent on those seeking to elevate the poor to reserve whatever unskilled jobs that remain for our own people seeking to escape welfare by taking the first steps toward upward mobility. By reducing the competition for the blue-collar jobs requiring low levels of skill and education, we can ensure that those of our fellow countrymen who, for whatever reason, need such jobs are actually able to get them.

Furthermore, the forces of supply and demand will ensure that reduced competition from unskilled immigrants will lead to higher wages and improved working conditions for unskilled Americans.

Thus, immigration reform is welfare reform. Though cutting the high level of unskilled immigration isn't sufficient to turn our decaying inner cities into Eden, it is a necessary part of any real solution. Hiding from this fact is a disservice to the most vulnerable of our fellow citizens.