The “Health Tolls” of Immigration (And Why They Don’t Matter All that Much)

Post by Evan (occasional blogger for the site, joined June 2013). See:

Sabrina Tavernise’s  recent New York Times article on the “health tolls of immigration” doesn’t seem to have a particularly strong pro or anti-immigration agenda.  If anything it’s more along the lines of one of the “obesity epidemic” polemics which condemn western lifestyles for promoting chubbiness and poor health.  Still, it does make some statements about the wellbeing of immigrant populations which it is worthwhile to address.

The main argument of the article is that, in their native countries, immigrants often develop eating habits that are more conducive to good health than the eating habits of the average American.  They typically develop these habits out of necessity rather than desire, they simply cannot afford the large helpings of calorically dense food that Americans regularly enjoy.  When they arrive in America, the article argues, they often lose these habits, and their children often do not develop them at all.  The main statistical support the article uses is a series of studies finding that immigrants have longer lifespans, and lower rates of certain health problems, than demographically similar American-born people. (The studies also mention a factor the article downplays, the simple fact that immigrants tend to self-select for health, since they usually need to by healthy enough to work in order to stay in the country, while their children may regress to the mean).

While any reduction in lifespan is obviously bad, it is not a particularly good argument against increased immigration, due to a number of factors.  The first, and most obvious one is that a small reduction in the quantity of one’s life may be easily made up for in the increase of one’s quality of life.  Even if immigration results in a greater amount of obesity-related health problems for the migrants and their descendants, the greater standard of living they will enjoy due to increased opportunities will likely more than make up for this.

To further put this in perspective, imagine an American politician proposed a program of economic contraction as a solution to the “obesity epidemic.”  Imagine this politician advocated a program where the government would actively destroy high-paying jobs and replace them with jobs so low-paying and menial that those who held them simply could not afford enough food to become obese.  Such a politician would be ejected from office by outraged voters.  This is because, as most people understand, a high standard of living is well worth a certain amounts of health problems.

It is also important to note that the studies compare the lifespans of immigrants to the lifespans of the native-born people of the same ethnicity.  A very different picture emerges when the lifespans of people in the immigrant’s originating country are introduced into the comparison (this is similar to a point that co-blogger Chris made in a previous blog post).  According to Singh and Miller (2004), one of the studies cited by the article, the average life expectancy (at birth) of a Hispanic immigrant from 1986-1994 was 77.1 years for men and 84.1 years for women.  The average life-expectancy of an American-born Hispanic was 72.8 years for men and 81.1 years for women.  This seems bad, until one considers that, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) website, in 1990 the average lifespan for a Mexican man was 68 years, and the lifespan for a Mexican woman was 74 years.  The other Latin American countries were mostly similar, many even had shorter average lifespans than Mexico did.  In 1990 the only Latin American country that beat the USA in even one category was Costa Rica, Costa Rican men lived 75 years on average in 1990 (Costa Rican women, however, only lived 79).

The picture is similar in non-Hispanic countries.  Singh and Miller have American-born Chinese lifespans  from 1986-1994 at 81.6 years for men and 87.1 for women.  By contrast, the average lifespan for a Chinese citizen in 1990 was, according to WHO, 67 years for men and 71 years for women.  And then there is the mortality rate of many African countries, many of which have average lifespans well under 60, or even under 50.   US-born African Americans, who average 64 years for men and 75.5 years for women, seem like Galapagos tortoises by comparison.

The simple fact is, if the inhabitants of a third world country wants to maximize their lifespan, and the lifespan of any children they might have, emigration to the United States still seems like a great bet.  Even if their children don’t live quite as long as their parents, they will still live longer than the children the parents would have had in their native country.  And they will be spending those longer lives enjoying more wealth than their hypothetical siblings in their parent’s native lands would have.  Any increase in health problems the American lifestyle creates are far outweighed by its many benefits.


One thought on “The “Health Tolls” of Immigration (And Why They Don’t Matter All that Much)”

  1. — imagine an American politician proposed a program of economic contraction as a solution to the “obesity epidemic.”–

    This is a really compelling way to put it.

    In the US we are in the interesting situation where processed food is often cheaper than unprocessed food, at least if we compare things that people find tasty. Plain rice can probably be had cheaply.

    So the issue is not just that people in poor countries don’t have high enough wages to afford unhealthy food. Their society just doesn’t have the manufacturing and distribution infrastructure to make unhealthy food very cheap.

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