The Challenges Facing Less-Skilled Natives

by Reihan Salam

Jim Pethokoukis ably summarizes a 2012 American Behavioral Scientist article (Luxury, Necessity, and Anachronistic Workers: Does the United States Need Unskilled Immigrant Labor?”) which argues that because there has been “a reduction of both the size and quality of the pool of natives available to carry out” a variety of menial tasks, the U.S. ought to embrace a substantial increase in less-skilled immigration. He identifies the following core arguments:

1. The birth rate in the native-born population is now 20% below replacement level, with the size of the population ages 25 to 34 shrinking since 1980. “This means that the numbers of natives available to meet societal workforce needs are now in both relative and absolute decline, on account of diminished fertility alone.”

2. Far more natives are attending college or getting some post-high school education. The share of adults with more than a high school education has gone up from 5.3% in 1950 to nearly 60% today. As a result, there are now relatively and absolutely fewer numbers of persons with high-school degrees or less. The percentage of the adult population with less than a high school education in 1950 was 87% vs. less than 13% today.

3. The authors point to several other factors reducing the available labor pool: Low-skilled natives are a) often less likely to live where low-skilled jobs are available, b) more likely to manifest problems with alcohol and drug usage, c) more likely to suffer from poor health and physical limitations, and d) more likely to have incurred arrest, conviction, and incarceration for civil and criminal offenses. [Emphasis added]

Jim raises important caveats, e.g., it is possible that many of these jobs will be obviated by outsourcing and automation, yet he also notes that the authors believe that only a tenth of these jobs are vulnerable to either. I would offer a somewhat different set of arguments, which I recognize aren’t entirely airtight:

(a) If less-skilled natives don’t live where less-skilled jobs are available, perhaps we should press for reducing zoning restrictions and land-use regulations that restrict growth in development in America’s most productive regions. We might also consider taking steps to improve the cost-effectiveness of investments in infrastructure and transit, as this will tend to increase connectivity within metropolitan regions.

(b) Restricting less-skilled immigration might lend increased urgency to efforts to address problems with alcohol and drug usage within the native population. Relatively low-cost interventions, like raising alcohol taxes, might make an appreciable difference in the amount of binge drinking, which would also tend to reduce domestic violence, street crime, and other maladies. 

(c) A similar logic applies to the poor health and physical limitations of less-skilled natives — if low-wage employers are forced to rely on less-skilled natives, they might be more inclined to support policy and civil society initiatives designed to improve health outcomes.

(d) And the fact that less-skilled natives are more likely than immigrants to have arrest records seems like yet another good reason to invest more and more shrewdly in crime control efforts, with a focus on deterrence.

Granted, the birth rate piece and the rising educational attainment piece might be a bigger part of the picture. But if restricting less-skilled immigration forces U.S. policymakers and employers to confront the fact that much of the less-skilled native population has been ravaged by alcohol and drug abuse, poor health, and crime, it’s not obvious to me that this is an entirely bad thing.