On the surface, new workers from abroad would seem to offer a straightforward way to meet the country’s demographic needs. Facing an outsized population of dependent retirees and low birth rates that have constrained the growth of the existing workforce, the United States will need and influx of productive talent. But, as with so much in this world and especially with immigration, the matter is not quite so simple.
Immigration, especially as it is now governed in the United States, cuts two ways. On the one side, it brings in increased numbers of workers to address the country’s demographic imperatives. On the other side, it creates social strains. Low-income immigrants, especially since many arrive with dependents of their own, can impose as many burdens on the nation’s social safety net as their production might otherwise alleviate. Further, by forcing settled communities to adjust, sometimes radically, immigrant flows can also cause social strains of a different type. This country’s predominantly low-skilled immigrant flow risks social strain by putting downward pressure on wages at the lower end of the income distribution and thereby exacerbating already severe problems of income inequality.
Nor does it help in these matters to strike a moral pose, as so many do these days. However otherwise deserving of consideration, immigrants, especially low-skilled people with large numbers of dependents, do bring such strains along with whatever productive help they offer. While resistance by some communities may include unavoidable elements of racism and xenophobia, they also reflect a natural human response to disruptive change.It only exacerbates bad feelings when the authorities and other elites dismiss all such concerns as simply biased and ugly feelings. Neither does it help to deny the laws of supply and demand that make clear how a flood of predominately unskilled labor will depress wages at the low end of the income distribution. Nor does it help to argue, as so many pro-business outlets do, that the economy needs the labor and that all the other concerns are secondary.
By Milton Ezrati for FORBES
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