IN DEFENSE OF IMMIGRATION
RICHARD R. REEVES
V. Reeves is a senior fellow in Economic Studies, policy director
of the Center on Children and Families, and editor-in-chief of
the Social Mobility Memos blog. He is the author of John Stuart
Mill – Victorian Firebrand, an intellectual biography
of the British liberal philosopher and politician, and has published
in The Atlantic, National Affairs, Democracy Journal,
the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.
very heart of the American idea is the notion that, unlike in
other places, we can start from nothing and through hard work
have everything. That nothing we can imagine is beyond our reach.
That we will pull up stakes, go anywhere, do anything to make
our dreams come true. But what if that’s just a myth? What
if the truth is something very different? What if we are . . .
DOES IT MEAN TO BE AMERICAN
disclosure: I’m British. Partial defense: I was born on
the Fourth of July. I also have made my home here, because I want
my teenage sons to feel more American. What does that mean? I
don’t just mean waving flags and watching football and drinking
bad beer. (Okay, yes, the beer is excellent now; otherwise, it
would have been a harder migration). I’m talking about the
essence of Americanism. It is a question on which much ink—and
blood—has been spent. But I think it can be answered very
simply: To be American is to be free to make something of yourself.
An everyday phrase that’s used to admire another (“She’s
really made something of herself”) or as a proud boast (“I’m
a self-made man!”), it also expresses a theological truth.
The most important American-manufactured products are Americans
themselves. The spirit of self-creation offers a strong and inspiring
contrast with English identity, which is based on social class.
In my old country, people are supposed to know their place. British
people, still constitutionally subjects of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth,
can say things like “Oh, no, that’s not for people
like me.” Infuriating.
do not know their place in society; they make their place. American
social structures and hierarchies are open, fluid and dynamic.
Mobility, not nobility. Or at least that’s the theory. “We
are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest
poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody
else because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal,
not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”
of the left in Europe would lament the existence of bleak poverty.
Obama instead attacks the idea that a child born to poor parents
will inherit their status. “The same chance to succeed as
anybody else because she is an American . . . “
is a unique and powerful cocktail, blending radical egalitarianism
(born equal) with fierce individualism (it’s up to you):
equal parts Thomas Paine and Horatio Alger. Egalitarian individualism
is in America’s DNA. In his original draft of the Declaration
of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “men are created
equal and independent,” a sentiment that remained even though
the last two words were ultimately cut. It was a declaration not
only of national independence but also of a nation of independents.
lately is not the American Dream in the abstract. It is the growing
failure to realize it. Two necessary ingredients of Americanism—meritocracy
and momentum—are now sorely lacking.
everywhere you look—at class structures, Congress, the economy,
race gaps, residential mobility, even the roads—progress
is slowing. Gridlock has already become a useful term for political
inactivity in Washington, D. C. But it goes much deeper than that.
American society itself has become stuck, with weak circulation
and mobility across class lines. The economy has lost its postwar
dynamism. Racial gaps, illuminated by the burning of churches
and urban unrest, stubbornly persist.
nation where progress was once unquestioned, stasis threatens.
Many Americans I talk to sense that things just aren’t moving
the way they once were. They are right. Right now this prevailing
feeling of stuckness, of limited possibilities and uncertain futures,
is fueling a growing contempt for institutions, from the banks
and Congress to the media and big business, and a wave of antipolitics
on both left and right. It is an impotent anger that has yet to
take coherent shape. But even if the American people don’t
know what to do about it, they know that something is profoundly
start with the most important symptom: a lack of social mobility.
For all the boasts of meritocracy—only in America!—Americans
born at the bottom of the ladder are in fact now less likely to
rise to the top than those situated similarly in most other nations,
and only half as likely as their Canadian counterparts. The proportion
of children born on the bottom rung of the ladder who rise to
the top as adults in the U.S. is 7.5 percent—lower than
in the U.K. (9 percent), Denmark (11.7), and Canada (13.5).
not just poverty that is inherited. Affluent Americans are solidifying
their own status and passing it on to their children more than
the affluent in other nations and more than they did in the past.
Boys born in 1948 to a high-earning father (in the top quarter
of wage distribution) had a 33 percent chance of becoming a top
earner themselves; for those born in 1980, the chance of staying
at the top rose sharply to 44 percent, according to calculations
by Manhattan Institute economist Scott Winship. The sons of fathers
with really high earnings—in the top 5 percent—are
much less likely to tumble down the ladder in the U. S. than in
Canada (44 percent versus 59 percent). A glass floor prevents
even the least talented offspring of the affluent from falling.
There is a blockage in the circulation of the American elite as
well, a system-wide hardening of the arteries.
A in the case against the American political elites: the U. S.
tax code. To call it Byzantine is an insult to medieval Roman
administrative prowess. There is one good reason for this complexity:
The American tax system is a major instrument of social policy,
especially in terms of tax credits to lower-income families, health-care
subsidies, incentives for retirement savings, and so on. But there
are plenty of bad reasons, too—above all, the billions of
dollars’ worth of breaks and exceptions resulting from lobbying
efforts by the very people the tax system favours. So fragile
is the American political ego that we can’t go five minutes
without congratulating ourselves on the greatness of our system,
yet policy choices exacerbate stuckness.
IS A CHOICE
system is also a weak reed when it comes to redistribution. You
will have read and heard many times that the United States is
one of the most unequal nations in the world. That is true, but
only after the impact of taxes and benefits is taken into account.
What economists call market inequality, which exists before any
government intervention at all, is much lower—in fact it’s
about the same as in Germany and France. There is a lot going
on under the hood here, but the key point is clear enough: America
is unequal because American policy moves less money from rich
to poor. Inequality is not fate or an act of nature. Inequality
is a choice.
are facts that should shock America into action. For a nation
organized principally around the ideas of opportunity and openness,
social stickiness of this order amounts to an existential threat.
Although political leaders declare their dedication to openness,
the hard issues raised by social inertia are receiving insufficient
attention in terms of actual policy solutions. Most American politicians
remain cheerleaders for the American Dream, merely offering loud
encouragement from the sidelines, as if that were their role.
So fragile is the American political ego that we can’t go
five minutes without congratulating ourselves on the greatness
of our system, yet policy choices exacerbate stuckness and ensure
folksiness of Americans—which, to be clear, I love—serves
as a social camouflage for deep economic inequality. Americans
tell themselves and one another that they live in a classless
land of open opportunity. But it is starting to ring hollow, isn’t
CLIAMS OF EQUAL OPPORTUNITY HAVE BEEN FALSE FROM THE FOUNDING
remain false today. The chances of being stuck in poverty are
far, far greater for black kids. Half of those born on the bottom
rung of the income ladder (the bottom fifth) will stay there as
adults. Perhaps even more disturbing, seven out of ten black kids
raised in middle-income homes (i.e., the middle fifth) will end
up lower down as adults. A boy who grows up in Baltimore will
earn 28 percent less simply because he grew up in Baltimore: In
other words, this supersedes all other factors. Sixty-six percent
of black children live in America’s poorest neighbourhoods,
compared with six percent of white children.
the riots and the rage, the statistics tell a simple, damning
story. Progress toward equality for black Americans has essentially
halted. The average black family has an income that is 59 percent
of the average white family’s, down from 65 percent in 2000.
In the job market, race gaps are immobile, too. In the 1950s,
black Americans were twice as likely to be unemployed as whites.
And today? Still twice as likely.
heeding the call “Go west, young man” to loading up
the U-Haul in search of a better job, the instinctive restlessness
of America has always matched skills to work, people to opportunities,
labour to capital.
gaps in wealth are perhaps the most striking of all. The average
white household is now thirteen times wealthier than the average
black one. This is the widest gap in a quarter of a century. The
recession hit families of all races, but it resulted in a wealth
wipeout for black families. In 2007, the average black family
had a net worth of $19,200, almost entirely in housing stock,
typically at the cheap, fragile end of the market. By 2010, this
had fallen to $16,600. By 2013—by which point white wealth
levels had started to recover—it was down to $11,000. In
national economic terms, black wealth is now essentially nonexistent.
a century after the passing of the Civil Rights Act, the arc of
history is no longer bending toward justice. A few years ago,
it was reasonable to hope that changing attitudes, increasing
education, and a growing economy would surely, if slowly, bring
black America and white America closer together. No longer. America
IS ALSO GETTING STUCK
productivity growth, measured as growth in output per hour, has
averaged 1.6 percent since 1973. Male earning power is flatlining.
In 2014, the median full-time male wage was $50,000, down from
$53,000 in 1973 (in the dollar equivalent of 2014). Capital is
being hoarded rather than invested in the businesses of the future.
U. S. corporations have almost $1.5 trillion sitting on their
balance sheets, and many are busily buying up their own stock.
But capital expenditure lags, hindering the economic recovery.
creation and entrepreneurial activity are declining, too. As economist
Robert Litan has shown, the proportion of “baby businesses”
(firms less than a year old) has almost halved since the late
1970s, decreasing from 15 percent to 8 percent—the hallmark
of “a steady, secular decline in business dynamism.”
It is significant that this downward trend set in long before
the Great Recession hit. There is less movement between jobs as
well, another symptom of declining economic vigour.
are settling behind their desks—and also into their neighbourhoods.
The proportion of American adults moving house each year has decreased
by almost half since the postwar years, to around 12 percent.
Long-distance moves across state lines have as well. This is partly
due to technological advances, which have weakened the link between
location and job prospects, and partly to the growth of economic
diversity in cities; there are few one industry towns today. But
it is also due to a less vibrant housing market, slower rates
of new business creation, and a lessening in Americans’
appetite for disruption, change, and risk.
are everyday symptoms of stuckness, too. Take transport. In 2014,
Americans collectively spent almost seven billion hours stuck
motionless in traffic—that’s a couple days each. The
roads get more jammed every year. But money for infrastructure
improvements is stuck in a failing road fund, and the railophobia
of politicians hampers investment in public transport.
job is it to do something about this? The most visible symptom
of our disease is the glue slowly hardening in the machinery of
national government. The last two Congresses have been the least
productive in history by almost any measure chosen, just when
we need them to be the most productive. The U. S. political system,
with its strong separation among competing centers of power, relies
on a spirit of cross-party compromise and trust in order to work.
Good luck there.
IS TO BE DONE?
anything, the first step is to admit the problem. Americans have
to stop convincing themselves they live in a society of opportunity.
It is a painful admission, of course, especially for the most
successful. The most fervent believers in meritocracy are naturally
those who have enjoyed success. It is hard to acknowledge the
role of good fortune, including the lottery of birth, when describing
your own path to greatness.
is a general reckoning needed. In the golden years following World
War II, the economy grew at 4 percent per annum and wages surged.
Wealth accumulated. The federal government, at the zenith of its
powers, built interstates and the welfare system, sent GIs to
college and men to the moon. But here’s the thing: Those
days are gone, and they’re not coming back. Opportunity
and growth will no longer be delivered, almost automatically,
by a buoyant and largely unchallenged economy. Now it will take
are plenty of ideas for reform that simply require will and a
functioning political system. At the heart of them is the determination
to think big again and to vigorously engage in public investment.
And we need to put money into future generations like our lives
depended on it, because they do: Access to affordable, effective
contraception dramatically cuts rates of unplanned pregnancy and
gives kids a better start in life. Done well, pre-K education
closes learning gaps and prepares children for school. More generous
income benefits stabilize homes and help kids. Reading programs
for new parents improve literacy levels. Strong school principals
attract good teachers and raise standards. College coaches help
get nontraditional students to and through college. And so on.
We are not lacking ideas. We are lacking a necessary sense of
political urgency. We are stuck.
can move again if we choose.
to a rejuvenation of policy in all these fields, there are two
big shifts required for an American twenty-first-century renaissance:
becoming open to more immigration and shifting power from Washington
to the cities.
NEEDS ANOTHER WAVE OF IMMIGRATION
is in part just basic math: We need more young workers to fund
the old age of the baby boomers. But there is more to it than
that. Immigrants also provide a shot in the arm to American vitality
itself. Always have, always will. Immigrants are now twice as
likely to start a new business as native-born Americans. Rates
of entrepreneurialism are declining among natives but rising among
children show extraordinary upward-mobility rates, shooting up
the income-distribution ladder like rockets, yet by the third
or fourth generation, the rates go down, reflecting indigenous
norms. Among children born in Los Angeles to poorly educated Chinese
immigrants, for example, an astonishing 70 percent complete a
four-year-college degree. As the work of my Brookings colleague
William Frey shows, immigrants are migrants within the U. S.,
too, moving on from traditional immigrant cities—New York,
Los Angeles—to other towns and cities in search of a better
future. Entrepreneurial, mobile, aspirational: New Americans are
true Americans. We need a lot more of them.
makes a mockery of our contemporary political debates about immigration
reform, which have become intertwined with race and racism. Some
Republicans tap directly into white fears of an America growing
steadily browner. More than four in ten white seniors say that
a growing population of immigrants is a change for the worse;
half of white boomers believe immigration is a threat to traditional
American customs and values. But immigration delves deeper into
the question of American identity than it does even issues of
race. Immigrants generate more dynamism and aspiration, but they
are also unsettling and challenging. Where this debate ends will
therefore tell us a great deal about the trajectory of the nation.
An America that closes its doors will be an America that has chosen
to settle rather than grow, that has allowed security to trump
the American Dream is part of the national identity, it seems
natural to look to the national government to help make it a reality.
But cities are now where the American Dream will live or die.
America’s hundred biggest metros are home to 67 percent
of the nation’s population and 75 percent of its economy.
Americans love the iconography of the small town, even at the
movies—but they watch those movies in big cities.
mayors in those cities have greater room for maneuvering and making
an impact than the average U. S. senator. Even smaller cities
and towns can be strongly influenced by their mayor.
federalism in part is being born of necessity. National politics
is in ruins, and national institutions are weakened by years of
short-termism and partisanship. Power, finding a vacuum in D.
C., is diffusive. But it may also be that many of the big domestic-policy
challenges will be better answered at a subnational level, because
that is where many of the levers of change are to be found: education,
family planning, housing, desegregation, job creation, transport,
and training. Amid the furor over Common Core and federal standards,
it is important to remember that for every hundred dollars spent
on education, just nine come from the federal government.
be witnessing the end of many decades of national-government dominance
in domestic policy-making (the New Deal, Social Security, Medicare,
welfare reform, Obamacare). The Affordable Care Act is important
in itself, but it may also come to have a place in history as
the legislative bookend to a long period of national-policy virtuosity.
for the new federalism need not be overstated. There will still
be plenty of problems for the national government to fix, including,
among the most urgent, infrastructure and nuclear waste. The main
tools of macroeconomic policy will remain the Federal Reserve
and the federal tax code. But the twentieth-century model of big
federal social-policy reforms is in decline. Mayors and governors
are starting to notice, and because they don’t have the
luxury of being stuck, they are forced to be entrepreneurs of
a new politics simply to survive.
POSSIBLE FOR AMERICA TO RECOVER ITS EARLIER DYNAMISM?
question for Americans is: Do you really want to? Societies, like
people, age. They might also settle down, lose some dynamism,
trade a little less openness for a little more security, get a
bit stuck in their ways. Many of the settled nations of old Europe
have largely come to terms with their middle age. They are wary
of immigration but enthusiastic about generous welfare systems
and income redistribution. Less dynamism, maybe, but more security
it seems to me, is not made to be a settled society. Such a notion
runs counter to the story we tell ourselves about who we are.
(That’s right, we. We’ve all come from somewhere else,
haven’t we? I just got here a bit more recently.) But over
time, our narratives become myths, insulating us from the truth.
For we are surely stuck, if not settled. And so America needs
to decide one way or the other. There are choices to be made.
Class divisions are hardening. Upward mobility has a very weak
pulse. Race gaps are widening. The worst of all worlds threatens:
a European class structure without European welfare systems to
dull the pain.
tell themselves and the world that theirs is a society in which
each and all can rise, an inspiring contrast to the hereditary
cultures from which it sprang. It’s one of the reasons I’m
here. But have I arrived to raise my children here just in time
to be stuck, too? Or will America be America again?