The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

David Frum on Child Poverty, Plus Thoughts on Immigration


David Frum writes:

America suffers much more child poverty than do comparably wealthy countries – Germany, France, Canada, etc. – for two main reasons:

* Our much higher levels of immigration and especially unskilled immigration, which continually add to the population of poor in this country.

* Our much lower levels of social spending, which mean that poor families receive far less social support than do poor families in other countries.

I disagree with this interpretation. In “For richer or for poorer: Marriage as an antipoverty strategy,” Adam Thomas and Isabel Sawhill of Brookings examined the effect of changes in family structure on the child poverty rate:

This study examines the effects of changes in family structure on children’s economic well-being. An initial shift-share analysis indicates that, had the proportion of children living in female-headed families remained constant since 1970, the 1998 child poverty rate would have been 4.4 percentage points lower than its actual 1998 level of 18.3 percent. The March 1999 Current Population Survey is then used to conduct a second analysis in which marriages are simulated between single mothers and demographically similar, unrelated males. The microsimulation analysis addresses some of the shortcomings of the shift-share approach by making it possible to account for the possibility of a shortage of marriageable men, to control for unobservable differences between married men and women and their unmarried counterparts, and to measure directly the effects of increases in marriage on the economic well-being of children. Results from the microsimulation analysis suggest that, had the proportion of children living in female-headed families remained constant since 1970, the child poverty rate would have been 3.4 percentage points lower than its actual 1998 level. Among children whose mother participated in a simulated marriage, the poverty rate would have fallen by almost two-thirds.

This isn’t dispositive, obviously. But it is certainly suggestive. 

Now we turn to my favorite statistic, from “The spread of single-parent families in the United States since 1960” by David Ellwood and Christopher Jencks:

Similar changes have occurred in most other affluent nations, but Figure 2 reveals that none have nearly as much family disruption as the United States. It is true that out-of-wedlock birthsare as common in many European countries as in the United States. But the estimated percentageof fifteen year olds living with both of their biological parents is far lower in the United States thatin Western Europe. Even in Sweden, where nonmarital births are almost twice as common as in the United States, most unmarried parents raise their children together. As a result, two-thirds of all Swedish fifteen year olds are expected to live with both of their biological parents – a figurecomparable to that in Germany and France.

Suffice it to say, this presumably has a considerable impact on levels of child poverty across countries. And the Thomas-Sawhill analysis doesn’t capture the extent of the problem insofar as many unmarried parents are far less likely to raise their children in the U.S. than in Sweden, as sociologist Andrew Cherlin has observed.

As for Frum’s claim regarding the role of the immigrant influx in exacerbating child poverty, I’m not sure he’s right. Brookings has a survey of child poverty across the states:

At the other end of the spectrum, there are five states – Connecticut, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey and Wyoming – where child poverty was below 15 percent in 2008, and there was only moderate growth in recipients of SNAP benefits through June 2009. The children in these five states are at less risk of poverty in 2009 than children in the rest of the country.

At 18.9 percent, New Jersey, one of the states with the lowest levels of child poverty, has the third highest proportion of foreign-born residents in the United States after California and New York. To be sure, this could reflect the relative affluence of New Jersey’s foreign-born population relative to other states.

But of course Sweden has a very low rate of child poverty and the foreign-born share of the population is 12 percent, roughly comparable to the level in the United States. And unlike Canada or Australia, Sweden hasn’t had a so-called “designer” immigration policy. From the Migration Policy Institute:

Most immigration in the 1950s and 1960s was from neighboring Nordic countries, with the largest numbers coming from Finland. However, since the early 1970s, immigration has consisted mainly of refugee migration and family reunification from non-European countries in the Middle East and Latin America. In the 1990s, Sweden received thousands of refugees from the former Yugoslavia. Currently, about 12 percent of Sweden’s population is foreign born. A number of social indicators show that people of migrant origin have considerably higher rates of unemployment than native Swedes and that they are more heavily dependent on social welfare benefits. Labor immigration is not and will not be accepted from non-EU countries in this situation.

I personally think our immigration policy should change. But I don’t think child poverty rates are the reason. While we’re at it, I recommend checking out Michael Clemens’s very sober thoughts on immigration reform, which I found via Will Wilkinson. Clemens writes:

There are other routes to political compromise, other ways to avoid the perception of diluting the value of citizenship: offer some immigrants something other than citizenship. There is no fundamental reason why the bundle of obligations and privileges we call U.S. citizenship — jury duty, military service in time of draft, access to federal government services, access to many jobs, and so on — must always and exclusively be conferred to other people as an unchangeable bundle. Different elements of the bundle can be conferred to different people. Granting some of today’s unauthorized immigrants a status that is legal but is not citizenship is another, different way to avoid the perception that amnesty cheapens citizenship.

This is far from radical. It has been the norm in past regularizations of migrants. Amanda Levinson of the Migration Policy Institute lists 24 different regularizations in the U.S. and other countries over the past three decades. These have offered a range of different permits — that is, a range of different bundles of obligations and privileges. I’ve seen thoughtful discussions of how citizenship is defined by Alex AleinikoffKerry Howley, and CGD’s Lant Pritchett, and there are many others. All of them point out in different ways that there have always been different bundles of obligations and privileges given to people living in the same place, and it is up to societies to choose how many bundles there are, what’s in each bundle, and who gets them.

I’m more skeptical about guest worker programs than Clemens and Wilkinson, but they offer an interesting way to think through the problem. And Wilkinson, a diehard cosmopolitan who has tussled with our own Jonah Goldberg on whether patriotism is defensible, has written a brilliant column calling for an end to birthright citizenship — he changed my mind of the subject, and he might change yours as well.


Subscribe to National Review