One of the Best Anti-Poverty Solutions: Immigration

It is unfair that where you happen to be born matters so much to your potential success in life.

Warren Buffet has said that he won the "ovarian lottery" by being born in the United States — had he been born into a poor village in Peru, he says, his "talents" probably would have gotten him nowhere. "Lottery" is the right word: luck alone determined Buffet's place of birth.

The process of globalization has leveled the playing field a bit and reduced the relative advantage of being born in a rich country. Information and knowledge and physical goods now flow to the poorest corners of the earth. Over the last 50 years, with the rise of free trade and emergence of technologies like the internet, we've seen an extraordinary reduction of poverty. Hundreds of millions of people, mostly in Asia, now live above the poverty line.

But there is still work to be done, of course. Every night, in 2009, over a billion people in the world go to bed hungry. And just because someone isn't ultra-poor, doesn't mean he has the same opportunities or access as someone born in the United States.

So how do we make further progress toward the ideal of all people of the earth starting the race at the same point?

Here's an answer you won't hear from guys like Peter Singer or Jeffrey Sachs: immigration.

Or, to continue the globalization idea: more globalization, though a globalization that includes the free movement of people, not just goods and ideas. The champion of this cause is the economist Michael Clemens.

I recently met Michael at a conference in Miami and witnessed his presentation on migration issues. He began his talk with a moral question: why is it that a guy who happened to be born in the U.S. can do a certain job and get paid more than 300x that of a guy born in Haiti who's doing the exact same job, working equally hard, equally industrious. Why shouldn't the Haitian have the opportunity to move to the U.S. and receive the higher wage? We don't allow discrimination based on the choice-less facts of race or gender — why do we on place of birth?

He went on to debunk various myths: such as the idea that increased legal or illegal immigration depress U.S. worker wages or that the so-called "brain drain" hurts the countries exporting their people to richer places. In one jaw-dropping slide he showed a chart showing unemployment in the U.S. being inversely correlated with total immigration.

It's a complicated issue, to be sure. While I'm persuaded by the short and long run economic gains of immigration, I have lingering doubts about a country's ability to weave together floods of people from varied backgrounds. I wrote a long review of Samuel Huntington's arguments about the challenges of assimilating immigrants into the national fabric. Clemens, for his part, praises mongrelization and notes we've assimilated immigrants successfully in the past. (Not all agree with even this. Mark Krikorian bizarrely argues that our past experience with immigration is no longer relevant; he says we're a post-immigrant country.)

Here's Will Wilkinson in praise of the "intellectual rigor" of Clemens' work. Here's Jeff Jacoby on why conservatives have it wrong in their outrage over illegal immigration. Here's another Jacoby piece that Lou Dobbs should read. Here's an extremely simple, easy to understand chart that explains how the immigration system works in America. Here's a photo that should convince any foodie to think twice before protesting against immigration.

Bottom Line: Immigration is one of the best anti-poverty solutions. We need to reform immigration policy to make it easier for (non-terrorist, healthy) people to enter the U.S. Hail Michael Clemens' work on this topic.

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