Wednesday, April 8, 2009

My Cousins Will Happily Pay Your Grandma's Social Security

People sometimes worry about declining birthrates in Western countries, since this has the public policy consequence that we won't have enough young workers in the prime of their earning life to fund social welfare programs. Solution: bring in more immigrants! Get them in their 20s once they've finished college or their graduate degrees, and you won't even have to pay for educating them. They'll show up and spend 40 years earning high wages and keeping Social Security afloat.

But via Matt, Michelle Goldberg says:
While immigration is obviously part of the solution, immigration on the necessary scale is almost certain to produce serious nationalist backlashes. According to an article published a few years ago in the Journal of Population Research, if Italy’s 1995 fertility rate remained constant, then without immigration the country’s population size a century hence would be a mere 14 percent of what it is today. Even if Italy could smoothly adjust to a majority-immigrant society, will those immigrants really support a system in which a good part of their taxes go to maintaining a bunch of old Italians who they don’t necessarily feel any connection to?
Why won't they? If there's any data that they won't, I'd be curious to see it. My parents were Indian immigrants, as were lots of their friends, and I can't remember anybody complaining about this sort of thing. I heard some other unpleasant stuff, including the mom of one of my friends unashamedly pointing out the increasing number of black children at a school as a sign that it was going downhill. But nothing about funding social welfare programs for Americans in general.

I can see a couple reasons for this. One is that everybody ends up collecting Social Security and other welfare programs. I don't know how they do it in Italy, but the situation of 25-year-old immigrant here isn't any different from that of a 25-year old native whose grandparents happen to be fairly well off and don't need their Social Security money. Neither has an immediate self-interested reason to support the system. But outside of your local Young Republicans chapter, you don't find roving bands of angry 25-year-olds who are trying to get rid of Social Security. Personal connections to the elderly aren't crucial in keeping the system going anyway. (What keeps it going is the fact that the elderly vote, and that they really care about this stuff. That's not changing.)

But the biggest reason is just that immigrants in a well-functioning system that allows for full citizenship tend to like their new home and identify with it. They appreciate the opportunities America gives them, and are happy to play by its rules. Paying for old people's health care is a perfectly sensible social cause, and anyway the deal is that others are going to pay for you later, so why complain? Maybe if immigrant citizens had to pay higher Social Security taxes, or if they were excluded from the system, there would be a problem. But that's not the case.

Now, Goldberg's post is specifically on European countries, and perhaps that's essential to her point. While we do have an excessive set of restrictions on immigration (though from what I understand we're a whole lot better on paths to citizenship once you're in than most of Europe), one of the nice things about this place is that the whole concept of being an American isn't something that requires you to be of a particular ethnic background. It's not like being Italian or French or German, which are ethnicities as well as nationalities. Maybe in Italy, the Indian immigrants grumble about paying Social Security for elderly Italians. But what are you going to do in America? Grumble about paying Social Security for elderly Americans? You're an American too. It's hard to get a good us vs. them dynamic going when us is a part of them.

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