Rector, Poverty, and Immigration
By Bryan Caplan
Robert Rector and Jason Richwine’s new Heritage report on the fiscal effects of immigration has been widely criticized (see here, here, and here for starters). I’m honestly surprised that the report is not worse. Rector and Richwine may get a lot wrong, but at least they account for the fact that a lot of government spending (such as defense) is non-rival. The most disappointing feature of the report is the moral inconsistency between Rector’s work on poverty for native-born Americans on the one hand, and his hostility to illegal immigration on the other.
Robert Rector has done excellent and courageous work on American poverty. His chief observations:
1. The vast majority of America’s “poor” are rich by world and historic standards. 82% of poor American adults say they were never hungry during the last year because they couldn’t afford food; 96% of poor American parents say their children never went hungry because they couldn’t afford food. Half of poor Americans live in a single-family home, and 41% own their own home. Poor Americans have 60% more living space than the average European. 82% of poor Americans have air conditioning. 64% have cable or satellite t.v. 40% own a dishwasher. 34% have a t.v. that would have made billionaires drool in 1990. Materially speaking, poor Americans are doing just fine.
2. Most poor American adults could have avoided their situation with prudent behavior – especially by delaying childbearing until they marry. 71% of poor families with children are headed by single parents. About 80% of all long-term poverty occurs in single-parent homes. Married high school dropouts have lower poverty rates than single parents with one or two years of college. Most unmarried fathers earn enough to keep their kids out of poverty:
[O]ver 60 percent of fathers who have children outside of marriage earned
enough at the time of their child’s birth to support their potential
family with an income above the poverty level even if the mother did not
work at all. If the unmarried father and mother married and the mother
worked part-time, the typical family would have an income above 150
percent of poverty, or roughly $35,000 per year.
If you combine Rector’s evidence with common-sense moral beliefs about the deserving poor, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that few “poor” Americans qualify. The moral admonition to “help the deserving poor” asks us come to the aid of people who are (a) genuinely destitute, even though (b) they took reasonable measures to avoid destitution. Rector shows that few Americans qualify on either count. Most “poor” Americans enjoy a long list of luxuries – and most would be even richer if they (or their parents) chose to delay childbearing until after marriage using cheap, effective contraception.
In stark contrast, most illegal immigrants come from the Third World. Unlike so-called “poor” Americans, illegal immigrants have endured years of bitter destitution in their home countries. Unlike so-called “poor” Americans, most people in the Third World remain extremely poor even if they work hard, delay childbearing until marriage, stay sober, and so forth. Breaking our immigration laws to seek work in the First World is one of the few ways for the global poor to quickly and reliably escape poverty.
Given these tragic realities, I’d expect Rector to stand up and defend illegal immigrants. He should say, “My arguments against worrying about the American poor definitely don’t apply to people born into Third World poverty. If anyone deserves help from the government, illegal immigrants do.” Then he could add, “The truth, though, is that most illegals could take care of themselves if we started respecting their basic human right to work for willing employers.” Rector should hold illegal immigrants up as a mirror for the American poor – to show them what true misfortune and true determination look like.
Instead, Rector treats illegal immigrants as the moral inferiors of poor Americans. He wouldn’t advocate exile for Americans who consume more in benefits than they pay in taxes. He wouldn’t want to revoke poor Americans’ citizenship, saving taxpayer money by denying the poor the right to legally work, drive, or fly. Why not? Because like almost everyone, Rector knows that these “solutions” are far worse than the problem. Welfare may be bad. But trying to curtail the welfare state by exiling people likely to collect welfare is monstrous. If this is clear for native-born Americans with all their advantages, it should be even clearer for immigrants whose only crime is selling their labor to willing employers without government permission.