Douglas Todd: Progressives wrestle with dilemma on migration

Good nuanced summary of the various research:

It’s called the “progressive’s dilemma,” a term popularized by two Canadian scholars of multiculturalism. It describes the way people with left-of-centre views often find themselves in a fix on the issue of migration.

They become ensnared by a 21st-century debate over whether a higher immigration rate weakens domestic support for social-welfare programs. Most scholars conclude it generally does: The main questions they’re now trying to answer are to what extent and why.

Since “progressives” tend to support both strong immigration and a generous social-safety net, they are put in a bind, say Canadian scholars Keith Banting and Will Kymlicka. It’s why Canadians are often in some denial about the correlation between in-migration and support for a welfare society.

Most Americans and Europeans do not shy away from the problem, however, even if they sometimes exaggerate it. The influential Harvard economists Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser maintain Western European countries have more generous welfare societies than the U.S. (and to some extent Canada) because their populations are more ethnically “homogeneous,” which makes it harder for European taxpayers to “demonize” the poor.

With the ratio of foreign-born residents expanding in many Western countries, a small army of researchers continue to test the theories of Alesina and Glaeser, to pin down where and when immigration might hurt popular support for such things as universal health care, unemployment insurance, social housing, maternity benefits and welfare.

It’s a distinctly First World problem, but not in a trivial sense.

The “progressive’s dilemma” only applies to advanced, democratic countries that welcome immigrants. Since most large or developing countries either don’t seek immigrants or don’t have significant social programs, there are relatively few nations in which progressives have to struggle with the trade-off.

It’s telling that one of the most important studies into whether immigration undermines support for a liberal safety net focuses on just 17 countries (including Canada), which University of California sociologist David Brady and Ryan Finnigan, of Berlin, chose because they are affluent, long-standing democracies.

Some First World progressives believe it’s best this topic, in the name of tolerance and diversity, not be publicly aired. But Finnigan and Brady (the latter is the author of Rich Democracies, Poor People), say that “of course it is reasonable to ask” whether immigration undermines public support for social programs.

“Immigration is changing labour markets, reconfiguring ethnic composition and altering the politics of affluent democracies,” Finnigan and Brady write. “In the past few decades, there has been rapid growth in immigration to affluent democracies. In recent years, there has seemingly been an even more rapid growth in concern for the political consequences of immigration to the welfare state.”

They see weaknesses in the theories of the Harvard economists, who basically maintain the U.S. has more stingy welfare policies because the country is more ethnically diverse than Western Europe and more prone to racial rivalry (partly because of a history of black slavery and undocumented migration from Hispanic countries).

Yet they maintain their findings “do not actually contradict” Alesina and Glaeser. Even though Finnigan and Brady found through their comprehensive study that rising immigration rates do not necessarily erode support for unemployment insurance and pensions, they did discover a conflict over job programs.

When a sample of residents of affluent nations were asked if they supported government programs that would “provide jobs for everyone who wants one,” there was significant resistance.

The authors believe that domestically born people often see immigrants as a “threat” and “competition” for limited jobs (and, to a lesser extent, for social housing and universal health care).

“Individuals with low education, those with low income, and the unemployed tend to be both anti-immigrant and pro-welfare,” say Finnigan and Brady, referring to the way policies that increase migration make some members of the host society feel more “instability, vulnerability and insecurity.”

The authors also point out a common fallacy: That North Americans often mis-label European political parties that want to lower immigration rates as “far-right.” The reality, they say, is many of Europe’s so-called extreme-right parties actually champion the left-wing values of a welfare society.

How foreign-born populations are growing in 17 affluent countries. (Source: David Brady, Ryan Finnigan)

What are the consequences of all this for Canada?

There is cause for concern, since the federal Liberals are increasing immigration rates at the same time immigrants are relying in greater numbers on social assistance than native-born Canadians, according to UBC economists Craig Riddell and David Green and Carleton University’s Christopher Worswick.

“Before 2000, social assistance receipt among immigrants was generally below that of the native-born (in Canada), but recently it has consistently been higher,” Riddell et al say in Policy Options.

“These trends imply that newly arrived immigrants are a net drag on government budgets: they pay less in taxes on average and make average or slightly above average use of government services and benefits. Second-generation immigrants do well, which may offset this net drag to some extent, but the initial impact of a large increase in immigration should be expected to be an increase in taxes, a decrease in services, an increase in deficits, or some combination of the three.”

The “progressive’s dilemma” is also exacerbated in places like Metro Vancouver, in part because the region is a popular destination for wealthy trans-national migrants, who some real-estate analysts, such as Richard Wozny, say are not paying their fair share of taxes. It’s led to the rise of domestic housing-affordability organizations, such as Housing Action for Local Taxpayers (HALT).

For his part, Banting acknowledges there is increasing danger the “progressive’s dilemma” could develop into a bigger predicament in Canada.

Canadians’ over-riding commitment to a “multicultural identity” has served as a kind of “cultural glue,” Banting said, thus forestalling broad antagonism to immigration based on fears it will reduce support for the country’s welfare policies (which, in terms of generosity, lie somewhere in between those in the U.S. and northern Europe).

“But past successes can never be taken for granted,” Banting says. “The slowing economic integration of newcomers has increased their need for support, and their average benefits now exceed those of the native-born. … As a result, we seem to be heading toward territory that has proven politically combustible elsewhere.”

Source: Douglas Todd: Progressives wrestle with dilemma on migration

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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