Tag Archives: benefits to migrants

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.  To get the best men’s health advice, click on the link here. 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.

Benefits and harms to migrants: a meta-response

I just published a blog post titled gains from migration: GDP versus surplus where I make arguments similar to those in the blog post by Michael Clemens titled Do the Gains from International Migration “Go to the Immigrants”? But in true Caplanian fashion, I think it may be better to step back a bit and offer a meta-counterargument to people who use “all the gains from migration are captured by the migrants” as sufficient grounds to dismiss the huge benefits from open borders. And while I’m at it, I want to consider its mirror image argument, which is also offered by many restrictionists (though I haven’t yet seen a restrictionist offer both arguments simultaneously).

  • Benefits go “only” to the migrants: The claim here is that the benefits of open borders are huge, but they go “only” or “largely” to the migrants. Once we subtract off the benefits to the migrants, the benefits to the rest of humanity are miniscule, zero, or negative. So, open borders aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
  • Open borders hurt the very people they’re intended to help: This argument has a few respectable versions, such as the killing the goose that lays the golden eggs formulation and the cheap labor leading to a technological slowdown argument. But, there are a lot of other versions of the argument, and the version I want to address here builds upon the analogy between immigration restrictions and apartheid in South Africa. The claim is that the end of apartheid spelled disaster for South African whites and blacks. If immigration restrictions are like apartheid, then open borders might lead to the very same problems globally that we currently see in South Africa. Typical for this line of reasoning is this comment by egd on Bryan Caplan’s blog post:

    Do you seriously believe that open borders would lead to such an outcome for you?

    No, but that’s not the right question, is it?

    Even in South Africa, treatment of whites after apartheid is far better than treatment of blacks under apartheid.

    Has ending apartheid made whites better off?

    Has ending apartheid made blacks better off?

    The answer to both of these questions is pretty clearly “no”: more poverty, more income inequality (to the extent it’s bad), reduced life expectancy, and other problems have developed in South Africa.

    The root cause isn’t desegregation, the root cause is political externalities associated with desegregation. Political externalities matter.

    James A. Donald, in a further comment on the same blog post, writes:

    It is glaringly obvious that not only are whites far worse off with the end of Apartheid in South Africa, blacks also are worse off.

    The flood of illegals from neighboring black countries has ended with the end of apartheid, and in many cases reversed. Blacks are voting with their feet that black South Africa is no good, after previously voting with their feet that white South Africa was good.

    Electricity has become intermittent, water is dangerous, and the higher stories of tall buildings have become uninhabitable

    Black incomes have fallen dramatically following the end of apartheid



    When the superior rule the inferior, it is not only better for the superior, it also better for the inferior.

    Even if blacks had the same income, that would be no substitute for the lack of clean water, lack of reliable electricity, and lack of law and order.

    And that is what America will become in due course with current levels of immigration of inferior people.

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