The Assumption That Less Immigration Equals Less Inequality Is Fundamentally Flawed

Written by | Thursday, March 19th, 2015

Katy Long (LSE European Politics and Policy Blog)

According to the OECD research, the rising economic inequality in the society is one of the greatest obstacles in overall economic growth. It then does not come as a surprise that governments all over the world seek a solution to this vexing problem. One ominous line of reasoning identifies a link between inequality and immigration. In Britain, for example, as the May 2015 General Election approaches, politicians like David Cameron, Nigel Farage or Ed Miliband all subscribe to the widespread argument that people in their country do not benefit from migration – on the contrary, their salaries are being lowered and some even lose their jobs, or so the argument goes.

Although the logic of “less immigrants – more opportunities and therefore more social mobility” may be an appealing one, it is not based on the truth. The World Bank estimates that up to 50 percent of personal income is determined by the individual’s citizenship, which essentially means that migration itself influences opportunities and social mobility. The question remains, however, what does migration bring to the community which accepts the migrants. One can point out that immigrants are the cornerstone of what is in our age an important part of nation-states: a functioning system of institutions and public services. The low-income migrants contribute to this system not only as taxpayers but also as a work force.

Conversely, one can illustrate that legislative measures designed to prevent the influx of poor immigrants could in effect harm the domestic low-income groups and reinforce inequality in the society. For example, a British law, which requires that a sufficient income must be proven from everybody who seeks to obtain a visa for their wife/husband and descendants outside of the European Economic Area, in effect divides families and prevents many single parents from working full-time and forces them to rely on state benefits. According to the research, this law will cost the British taxpayers an additional £850 million in the next decade.

The second example is the growing migration industry which includes state border agencies and the staff operating the detention centers for immigrants. These agencies often hire poorly trained and educated employees from lower class regions struggling with high unemployment rates. Their incomes are low and the real profit from the whole anti-immigration business, which emerged from restrictive legislature, is controlled by a small group of owners. Thus, this legislative designed to lower inequality through the limitation of migration – perhaps somewhat paradoxically – leads to its deepening.

The problem of inequality does not lie in migration but in the overall poor working conditions. The finding that a British company can expect a fine for breaching the right for minimum wage statistically once in a million years leads to a conclusion that the real fight with inequality lies in functioning measures for the protection of the workforce regardless of their place of birth.

(The study can be downloaded here)

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