Immigration and the underclass

Thomas Lifson
I suppose we owe US Chamber of Commerce CEO Tom Donohue thanks for his candor on immigration. The Chamber that he heads is very strongly in favor of immigration "reform" that would legalize those here without benefit of law, and open the doors for more immigrants, skilled and unskilled. In pushing for these policies, Donohue stated (via the Weekly Standard):

"Immigration can also address labor shortages in lesser-skilled fields where there are insufficient numbers of either qualified or willing U.S. workers to fill positions."

Let's unpack that statement. What kinds of qualifications are necessary for low- or unskilled positions? In fact, a willingness to work -- to show up on time, apply oneself with reasonable diligence and learn through experience -- is the sole qualification for such positions.

Although Donohue does not say so, the sad fact is that many, many Americans who are unemployed or mired in poverty do lack those qualifications. They are able to live with applying themselves to work because of our safety net programs. That is the sobering reality. We have created an underclass that threatens to become permanent because its members prefer indolence and relative poverty to the rigors of actual low-skilled work.

I understand that well. I have worked at low-skilled jobs as a young man, and they were physically demanding and psychologically unrewarding. Some of them required putting up with disgusting filth and enduring serious discomfort. But I was willing to put up with it because I aspired to something better, and besides, I was brought up to believe that I was responsible for my own fate. If I didn't bust my butt, I feared what would result. As a child I had seen weathered and visibly unhealthy skid row homeless (we called them "bums" back then), and my parents let me know that they were the product of personal indolence and indulgence in alcohol. I imbibed the lesson that a similar life awaited me if I did not apply myself. Believe it or not, the desire to avoid such a fate really inspired me to work hard.

Well, those days are over. The rise of "welfare rights" thinking, the notion that everyone is owed a decent living regardless of effort, has spoiled enough people that the Chamber of Commerce honestly believes that we have to import people with a work ethic in order to staff unskilled and unpleasant jobs.

America has a stark choice:

1.)    Continue to nurture and underclass while importing millions of unskilled workers to do the jobs that our subsidized underclass disdains, thereby exaggerating income inequality through the addition to many more people at the bottom and many trapped in their tolerable poverty of welfare dependence.

2.)    Remove the comfortable safety net, and thereby motivate those resigned to leisure and not-so-genteel poverty to exert themselves. That would reduce income inequality, almost certainly.

Of course, there people in genuine need who require our support. But those who can work and who refuse to do so need to face a reward structure that favors work.

By the way, most of the Donohue op-ed cited by the Weekly Standard concerns the need for permitting high-skilled and entrepreneurial immigrants. I fully concur with that view. Such people immediately add to our stock of wealth and enrich our culture with their productive values. Canada has benefitted immensely from its immigration policies favoring those who bring skills and investment capital to that nation.

But in a welfare state, poor people are costly. They consume more public services than their taxes pay for. Our underclass's biggest problem is not poverty; it is morale and indolence. Having traveled in genuinely poor third world countries, I can state unequivocally that poor by American standards is not really poor. But poverty of spirit - the belief that one is powerless, or that it is futile to exert oneself and rise up the ladder of wealth and achievement - is as bad as genuine material poverty, maybe even worse.

I suppose we owe US Chamber of Commerce CEO Tom Donohue thanks for his candor on immigration. The Chamber that he heads is very strongly in favor of immigration "reform" that would legalize those here without benefit of law, and open the doors for more immigrants, skilled and unskilled. In pushing for these policies, Donohue stated (via the Weekly Standard):

"Immigration can also address labor shortages in lesser-skilled fields where there are insufficient numbers of either qualified or willing U.S. workers to fill positions."

Let's unpack that statement. What kinds of qualifications are necessary for low- or unskilled positions? In fact, a willingness to work -- to show up on time, apply oneself with reasonable diligence and learn through experience -- is the sole qualification for such positions.

Although Donohue does not say so, the sad fact is that many, many Americans who are unemployed or mired in poverty do lack those qualifications. They are able to live with applying themselves to work because of our safety net programs. That is the sobering reality. We have created an underclass that threatens to become permanent because its members prefer indolence and relative poverty to the rigors of actual low-skilled work.

I understand that well. I have worked at low-skilled jobs as a young man, and they were physically demanding and psychologically unrewarding. Some of them required putting up with disgusting filth and enduring serious discomfort. But I was willing to put up with it because I aspired to something better, and besides, I was brought up to believe that I was responsible for my own fate. If I didn't bust my butt, I feared what would result. As a child I had seen weathered and visibly unhealthy skid row homeless (we called them "bums" back then), and my parents let me know that they were the product of personal indolence and indulgence in alcohol. I imbibed the lesson that a similar life awaited me if I did not apply myself. Believe it or not, the desire to avoid such a fate really inspired me to work hard.

Well, those days are over. The rise of "welfare rights" thinking, the notion that everyone is owed a decent living regardless of effort, has spoiled enough people that the Chamber of Commerce honestly believes that we have to import people with a work ethic in order to staff unskilled and unpleasant jobs.

America has a stark choice:

1.)    Continue to nurture and underclass while importing millions of unskilled workers to do the jobs that our subsidized underclass disdains, thereby exaggerating income inequality through the addition to many more people at the bottom and many trapped in their tolerable poverty of welfare dependence.

2.)    Remove the comfortable safety net, and thereby motivate those resigned to leisure and not-so-genteel poverty to exert themselves. That would reduce income inequality, almost certainly.

Of course, there people in genuine need who require our support. But those who can work and who refuse to do so need to face a reward structure that favors work.

By the way, most of the Donohue op-ed cited by the Weekly Standard concerns the need for permitting high-skilled and entrepreneurial immigrants. I fully concur with that view. Such people immediately add to our stock of wealth and enrich our culture with their productive values. Canada has benefitted immensely from its immigration policies favoring those who bring skills and investment capital to that nation.

But in a welfare state, poor people are costly. They consume more public services than their taxes pay for. Our underclass's biggest problem is not poverty; it is morale and indolence. Having traveled in genuinely poor third world countries, I can state unequivocally that poor by American standards is not really poor. But poverty of spirit - the belief that one is powerless, or that it is futile to exert oneself and rise up the ladder of wealth and achievement - is as bad as genuine material poverty, maybe even worse.