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
By 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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