Gross Evidence on Immigrant Voting
By David Henderson
One of the concerns I have had about substantially expanding immigration to the United States, Canada, and other countries is that a large number of immigrants, not understanding the important role of economic freedom in raising our standards of living, will “vote it away.” Recently I posted about one piece of counter-evidence in California. I think many commenters did not get the significance of that piece of evidence. I didn’t give it as a slam dunk but, rather, as one important piece of evidence. Various commenters came up with alternate scenarios in which the legislative representatives who represented some of those immigrant-heavy districts would have voted for more government. They missed my point. The particular piece of legislation that these legislators voted against was so serious that I had started a conversation with my wife about moving out of California after I retire. To put that in perspective, she and I had agreed until then that the probability we will stay in the central coast of California is somewhere between 0.9 (me) and 0.95 (her).
While driving on Monday, I listened to a few minutes of Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. Limbaugh is a strong critic of both legal and illegal immigration. Limbaugh stated that the change in the immigration law in 1965 made us a completely different country in 2015. Specifically, he claimed that the percent of Americans who were immigrants in 1965 was much lower than the percent today. He’s right. That accords with these data from Brookings. In 1960, five years before the change in legislation, the foreign-born population was only 5.4% of the overall U.S. population. In 2010, after the legislation had been in existence for 45 years, that percent had more than doubled–to 12.9%. And those data–on the stock of population–are broadly consistent with the flow data on immigration from George Borjas in his article, “Immigration,” in The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. His data show that the number of immigrants to the United States between 1991 and 2000 was over 3.5 times the number between 1951 and 1960, the last decade before the change. Given that the U.S. population was not nearly 3.5 times as many in the 1990s as in the 1950s, the flow of immigrants decade by decade increased their representation in the U.S. population.
Why do I find this so interesting? Because that means that immigrants were not a big factor in voting in 1964 or even in 1972. Why is that interesting? Because the programs that are responsible for most of the growth in government spending after about 1950 occurred between those two years. I have in mind three: Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Lyndon Johnson got Medicare and Medicaid into law in 1965. And, whereas Social Security was well established 30 years earlier, LBJ took advantage of the baby boom demographics to substantially raise Social Security payments. President Nixon, in a bidding war with Wilbur Mills, the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and a potential Democratic rival for the presidency in 1972, took advantage of the same demographics (the baby boomers were still young) to raise Social Security benefits even more. All this happened without the immigrant vote being significant.
Is that slam dunk evidence that immigrants don’t vote freedom away more than natives do? No. But it’s pretty strong evidence.
By the way, off topic with this particular post, but on topic with the immigration issue generally, George Borjas has a new paper that finds that the David Card results on the Mariel boat lift (“The Impact of the Mariel Boatlift on the Miami Labor Market.” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 43: 245-257) were wrong. Recall that Card found that the increase in the Miami-area number of immigrants from Cuba had little effect on wages, Borjas has done a more-careful study in which he separates, in the data, high-school dropouts. He finds that they took a big hit on wages. Specifically, writes:
A crucial lesson from this literature is that any credible attempt to measure the wage impact of immigration must carefully match the skills of the immigrants with those of the pre-existing workers. The Marielitos were disproportionately low-skill; at least 60 percent were high school dropouts. A reappraisal of the Mariel evidence, specifically examining the evolution of wages in the low-skill group most likely to be affected, quickly overturns the finding that Mariel did not affect Miami’s wage structure. The absolute wage of high school dropouts in Miami dropped dramatically, as did the wage of high school dropouts relative to that of either high school graduates or college graduates. The drop in the relative wage of the least educated Miamians was substantial (10 to 30 percent), implying an elasticity of wages with respect to the number of workers between -0.5 and -1.5.