Robert Samuelson confirms what a number of people have quietly started to suspect: poverty in the US has been dropping steadily, except for impoverished folks who move here. Writing in today’s Washington Post, he notes that
The government last week released its annual statistical report on
poverty and household income. As usual, we — meaning the public, the
press and politicians — missed a big part of the story. It is this:
The stubborn persistence of poverty, at least as measured by the
government, is increasingly a problem associated with immigration. As
more poor Hispanics enter the country, poverty goes up. This is not
complicated; but it is widely ignored.
Far from being stuck and unmovable, Samuelson notes that the
increase in the number of people living in poverty is accounted for
entirely by the increase in poor Hispanics.
Consider. From 1990 to 2006, the number of poor Hispanics increased
3.2 million, from 6 million to 9.2 million. Meanwhile, the number of
non-Hispanic whites in poverty fell from 16.6 million (poverty rate:
8.8 percent) in 1990 to 16 million (8.2 percent) in 2006. Among blacks,
there was a decline from 9.8 million in 1990 (poverty rate: 31.9
percent) to 9 million (24.3 percent) in 2006. White and black poverty
has risen somewhat since 2000, but is down over longer periods.
Only an act of willful denial can separate immigration and poverty.
The increase among Hispanics must be concentrated among immigrants,
legal and illegal, as well as their American-born children. Yet, this
story goes largely untold. Government officials didn’t say much about
immigration when briefing on the poverty and income reports. The
American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank, and
the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal advocacy group
for the poor, both held briefings. Immigration was a common no-show.
…It’s usually held that we’ve made
little, if any, progress against poverty. That’s simply untrue. Among
non-Hispanic whites, the poverty rate may now be approaching some
irreducible minimum: people whose personal habits, poor skills, family
relations or bad luck condemn them to a marginal existence. Among
blacks, the poverty rate remains abysmally high, but it has dropped
sharply since the 1980s. Moreover, taking into account federal benefits
(food stamps, the earned income tax credit) that aren’t counted as cash
income would further reduce reported poverty.
We shouldn’t think that our massive efforts to mitigate poverty
have had no effect. Immigration hides our grudging progress.
There are, of course, implications for immigration policy. Notes Samuelson
default, our present policy is to import poor people. This imposes
strains on local schools, public services and health care. From 2000 to
2006, 41 percent of the increase in people without health insurance
occurred among Hispanics. Paradoxically, many Hispanics are advancing
quite rapidly. But assimilation — which should be our goal — will be
frustrated if we keep adding to the pool of poor.
Samuelson does not call for less immigration, just for
..an immigration policy that makes sense. My oft-stated
belief is that legal immigration should favor the high-skilled over the
low-skilled. They will assimilate quickest and most aid the economy. As
for present illegal immigrants, we should give most of them legal
status, both as a matter of practicality and fairness. Many have been
here for years and have American children. At the same time, we should
clamp down on new illegal immigration through tougher border controls
and employer sanctions.
He closes with a plea for honesty, noting that
…any sensible debate requires accurate
information. There’s the rub. Among many analysts, journalists and
politicians, it’s politically or psychologically discomforting to
discuss these issues candidly….the facts won’t
vanish just because we ignore them.
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