The Agenda

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

The Lessons of the Early Childhood Intervention Debate for the Immigration Debate


Dylan Matthews reports that Jason Richwine, co-author of the recent Heritage report on the fiscal impact of less-skilled immigration (which AEI’s Andrew Biggs, an occasional co-author of Richwine, has addressed in a smart and measured way), wrote his doctoral dissertation on immigration and IQ. I find it odd that is proving to be such an explosive revelation, as Richwine has written on this subject on a number of occasions, e.g., in an article for The American on immigration and the “diversity dilemma” described by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam. The gist of the article is captured in the passage below:

I intend to focus on one such important characteristic—how smart the immigrants are. Intuitively, it is not a stretch to believe that smarter people are better at organizing networks and understanding the long-term benefits of cooperation, and a burgeoning academic literature confirms that intuition. IQ, a construct that psychologists use to estimate general intelligence, has been separately linked to elements of social capital, such as sophisticated ethical thinking, altruism, planning for the future, political awareness, adherence to informal community standards of behavior, and cooperation for the greater good. Despite this research, the direct link between intelligence and social capital has been drawn only in a handful of technical articles. It is time to bring the IQ-social capital link out of the academic journals and into the policy debate. Doing so could help us deal realistically with the problems Putnam has identified.

Some might object to the notion that “smarter people are better at organizing networks and understanding the long-term benefits of cooperation,” but as Garett Jones observes in his paper on “National IQ and National Productivity,” this is a widely held view. The really controversial aspect of what Richwine writes relates to race. Dylan writes:

Richwine’s dissertation asserts that there are deep-set differentials in intelligence between races. While it’s clear he thinks it is partly due to genetics — “the totality of the evidence suggests a genetic component to group differences in IQ” — he argues the most important thing is that the differences in group IQs are persistent, for whatever reason. He writes, “No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against.”

Toward the end of the thesis, Richwine writes that though he believes racial differences in IQ to be real and persistent, one need not agree with that to accept his case for basing immigration on IQ. Rather than excluding what he judges to be low-IQ races, we can just test each individual’s IQ and exclude those with low scores. “I believe there is a strong case for IQ selection,” he writes, “since it is theoretically a win-win for the U.S. and potential immigrants.” He does caution against referring to it as IQ-based selection, saying that using the term “skill-based” would “blunt the negative reaction.”

A few thoughts immediately come to mind:

1. What troubles me about Dylan’s story is that I think it will be used to tarnish all individuals who believe in a skill-based immigration policy with a racialist brush, when in fact a skill-based immigration policy would yield an immigrant influx that is at least as racially diverse as the current immigrant influx. 

2. Here’s the thing. There is an enormous difference between race, as described by scholars like Armand Leroi, and historical ethnicity. And the groups that we use in the U.S. shouldn’t really count as either. Americans who identify as Hispanics come from a dizzying variety of racial and ethnic groups, and are in many cases the product of generations of ethnoracial admixture. To suggest that there is some genetic component (i.e., more than zero) to differences in IQ across individuals is not generally considered controversial, and that there would be differenes in IQ across groups defined somewhat arbitrarily — the people who come from countries within this broad circle, whether they are of Amerindian or African or East Asian or European origin, or some mixture of the above, as compared to people who come from countries within some other broad circle, which might have a similarly diverse population — seems reasonable enough. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some difference in IQ between the residents of my apartment building and some apartment building down the street. But I think we’d all agree that job candidates should be evaluated on the basis of their own qualifications and skills rather than their address. This is why a points-based system that rewards immigrants for educational attainment and English language proficiency makes more sense than a system that heavily weighs national origin, or for that matter group membership. One might object that the system I have in mind privileges members of the college-educated “group” over the non-college-educated “group,” yet the distinction that is doing the work is not a racial distinction.

3. One of the core goals of egalitarians in recent years has been addressing deficits in cognitive and noncognitive skills created by deficient or disrupted home environments. This work is premised on a recognition that (a) there is such a thing as deficient home environments and (b) that deficient or disrupted home environments have an impact on cognitive and noncognitive skills. If this is true of households, and if concentrations of similarly situated households can give rise to problematic neighborhood effects — hence the case for reducing poverty concentrations — it is not unreasonable to suggest that intense poverty in a given society can mean that individuals raised in the society in question might suffer from serious deficits in cognitive and noncognitive skills. Consider, for example, the impact of enviromental health risks on IQ, as documented by Jones:

A study of excessive fluoride in Indian drinking water found a 13 IQ point-difference between children “residing in two [separate] village areas of India with similar educational and socioeconomic conditions” (Trivedi et al. 2007, 178). If even half of this relationship is genuinely causal, and if intelligence has some of the technological and political spillover effects discussed below, then public health matters are of first-order concern for economic development.

Arsenic and fluoride exposures are also associated with low IQ in the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) Shanxi province (Wang et al. 2007, 664), even when comparing “groups [who] lived in rural areas with similar geographic and cultural conditions and a comparable level of socioeconomic development.” High arsenic exposure was associated with a 10-point IQ gap, and high fluoride exposure with a 4-point gap. In both cases, the “normal” group had an IQ of 105, 5 points above the US mean.

In the Visayas region of the Philippines, Solon et al. (2008) found evidence that lead levels reduced the IQ of children. In their study, one microgram of lead per liter of blood was associated with a 2.5 point reduction in the verbal IQ of older children, and a 3.3 point reduction in the IQ of young children. In their sample of children, the levels of lead in the blood averaged 7.1 micrograms per liter, so lead exposure could be costing the average child in this sample 15 IQ points even under conservative estimates.

In an experimental nutritional study in Pune City, India, 10 weeks of zinc supplementation caused a 15–25 percent increase in the number of correct answers on the Raven’s Progressive Matrices (Tupe and Chiplonkar 2009).

Is it impossible to imagine that some countries might have more exposure to these environmental health risks than others? If anything, I’d suggest that it is far more likely that poor people growing up in very poor countries will be exposed to these and other environmental health risks than nonpoor people growing up in affluent countries, which is why I, like many other people, favor humanitarian measures designed to mitigate these environmental health risks in the developing world. One could think of these measures as a kind of “human enhancement” technology. In a similar vein, welcoming less-skilled individuals from impoverished countries, many of whom will inevitably suffer from serious deficits in cognitive and noncognitive skills that flow from their deprived upbringings, will give their children a better shot at a successful life. But the cost of doing so will not be trivial.

One conceptual question for those of us with a humanitarian interest in bettering the lives of the global poor is this: should we try to rescue some trivial share of the global poor by allowing them to work and settle in the U.S., and accept that they will tend to cluster in the bottom fifth of the U.S. socioeconomic distribution while spending a significant sum of money to help them lead dignified lives in a high-cost country? Or should we devote this significant sum — or some much larger or even much smaller sum — to interventions that might benefit a much larger share of the global poor, e.g., by making investments in mitigating various environmental health risks? I can see the sentimental case for rescuing a trivial share of the global poor by allowing them to become U.S. service workers. It’s not clear, however, that this is the best strategy in terms of bang-for-the-buck, or that it best serves the interests of various domestic constituencies, the issue that I tend to focus on in this space. 


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