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Who are ‘our poor’ in the immigration debate?

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At First Things last week, in his essay “Our Poor,” economist Andrew M. Yuengert reflected upon his 2004 Acton monograph Inhabiting the Land, questioning whether his economic analysis (that immigration is a net gain for both immigrants and natives) needs more nuance in the light of our current political climate:

In Inhabiting the Land I concluded that we could only argue against immigration if we were willing to “weigh the wage decrease for native unskilled workers more heavily than the significant increase in wages that is enjoyed by immigrants from much poorer countries.” In other words, we would have to be willing to count the costs to native unskilled workers more than the much larger benefits to poor immigrants. I wrote this somewhat dismissively—surely we shouldn’t prevent poor immigrants from quadrupling their incomes simply to keep unskilled natives’ wages from stagnating?

In light of the well-documented plight of low-wage native workers today, I have found myself returning to this passage frequently. Should I have cared more about the predicted effects of immigration on the native poor?

Yuengert’s reflection is welcome. It is nuanced and challenging.

Despite that nuance, toward the end, he worries that simply his use of the term “foreigner” will be misconstrued as “assaulting the dignity of our brothers and sisters from other places.” He continues,

Those inclined to world citizenship and world markets are too often unable to explore the moral distinctions necessary to grapple with the claims of citizenship, and censorious toward those who try.

In contrast, I don’t think he means to assault anyone’s dignity. I simply hope to add a little more of that much-needed moral nuance here. In particular, I have two concerns:

The first concern is that the terms of the debate are in fact more fluid than is often assumed. For example, Yuengert contrasts “natives” and “immigrants.” He does not mean Native Americans by “natives,” he means — so far as I can tell — native-born American citizens. But this demographic is not homogeneous. Indeed, the daughters of recent immigrants born in the United States are as much natives in this sense as are Daughters of the American Revolution. So who are those Yuengert means by “our poor”?

The second concern is somewhat acknowledged by Yuengert:

The plight of the native poor has many interrelated causes, and immigration may be the least important: family breakdown, a terrible educational system, free trade, and technological change have all contributed to the stagnation.

Indeed, I wouldn’t even include free trade on that list. The lost jobs most people blame on trade are actually due to automation. I tend to agree with Yuengert’s hypothetical prioritization that “immigration [is] the least important cause” of stagnating wages among the poor in the United States. Broken families and schools — in addition to other causes — matter far more. And robots.

If that is the case, as Yuengert himself suggests, I believe what is needed is not simply to question whether we have a duty to “our poor” before the poor of other nations who immigrate here looking for a better life. Whether we grant that or not, immigration restrictions aren’t likely to solve the problem. People need to be better informed about the real and most impactful causes of poverty in the United States, and the debate needs to be shifted to addressing those causes instead of the current focus on immigration. Indeed, increased immigration restriction may mean considerable losses for everyone in our economy, as Robert Carle has recently noted at Public Discourse.

Personally, I’m pro-robot but against broken families and schools. That’s easy to say, but automation does present real problems. As I’ve written in the past, I think the opportunities automation represents outweigh the short-term drawbacks. However, what to do about those who may be on the losing end of unevenly distributed benefits in the short-run is a discussion worth having. The problem of inadequate primary and secondary education is huge and complicated, but also worth having. And the problem of broken families, again, is as important as it is complex. We need solutions that address not only the ideal (two loving parents who are married and stay together) but also how best to handle the less-than-ideal (e.g. a single mother who escaped an abusive relationship and now needs to work two jobs to provide for her kids).

Unfortunately, blaming the immigrant among us for the multi-faceted problems of “our poor” does nothing to advance those much-needed conversations. Moreover, it does little to help “our poor,” whoever exactly they may be.

To be clear, I don’t think Yuengert is trying to scapegoat anyone — his reflection is, as I’ve already noted, challenging, well-nuanced, and thoughtful. I’d just like to hear him say more.

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Dylan Pahman Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in Historical Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.

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