In Honor of Canada Day . . .

by Reihan Salam

In honor of Canada Day, Sarah Kliff of Vox has written a light-hearted post on various ways Canada is superior to the United States. Around the world, Canadians have a positive reputation, and a more positive reputation than Americans. They report somewhat higher levels of life satisfaction than Americans, though both countries fare well on this metric. Canada has a somewhat lower rate of assault than the U.S., and a substantially lower murder rate. Canada’s cities also have somewhat cleaner air than their U.S. counterparts.

Yet at least two of Kliff’s examples merit further discussion, e.g., that Canadian life expectancy is slightly higher than U.S. life expectancy (81 years vs. 78.7 years) and the average performance of Canadian 15-year-olds is significantly higher than that of U.S. 15-year-olds in the Programme of International Student Assessment. It is worth noting that the composition of the Canadian population is notably different from that of the United States, for historical (a large share of the U.S. population consists of the descendants of enslaved Africans) and policy reasons (Canadian immigration policy places a greater emphasis on English- and French-language proficiency and educational attainment than the U.S., where family reunification plays a larger role and immigration enforcement has been comparatively lax). 

One result of these differences is that while 2.9 percent of Canada’s population is of African origin, including immigrants of African and Afro-Caribbean descent and their children and a small number of descendants of black Americans who migrated to Canada to escape enslavement, while 13.1 percent of the U.S. population is of African origin, and nearly 1 in 10 of those in this slice of the U.S. population are foreign-born, a far smaller share than in Canada. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find comparable life expectancy data for U.S. and Canadian, in part because the two countries use different statistical designations to measure various outcomes. What we do know, however, is that while average U.S. life expectancy is 78.7 years, it is significantly lower for African Americans, and in particular for black men. Though the composition of the black populations of the U.S. and Canada are quite different, there are segments of Canada’s black population (particularly men of Somali and Jamaican origin) that face challenges not unlike those facing black Americans, including high incarceration rates and high levels of family disruption, which make it difficult for children raised in these environments to acquire human and social capital. Recently, Canada has placed tighter restrictions on less-skilled immigration and asylum-seekers, measures that will tend to limit the growth of foreign-born populations that are particularly dependent on labor-intensive services and transfers, which in turn will tend to reduce the size of second-generation populations that are similarly in need. We can expect that future growth in Canada’s population will be driven by skilled immigration and natural increase.  

Meanwhile, as of 2011, Canada’s population is 4.8 percent South Asian, 4.8 percent East Asian, 2.8 percent Southeast Asian, and 1.8 percent West Asian and Arab. Other estimates find that the total Asian Canadian population is now close in the neighborhood of 15 percent. In the U.S., people of Asian origin alone represent 5.1 percent of the population. This population has an average life expectancy of 85.8 years, and it tends to fare well on the PISA. When you have a group with higher-than-average life expectancy and educational outcomes and you triple its size, you will raise average outcomes. (The U.S. has seen a dramatic increase in its Latino population, which now stands at 15 percent – Canada’s Latin American population remains quite small – and this population has higher-than-average life expectancy, which matches Canada’s, and below-average educational outcomes.) Crafting an immigration policy that limits the influx of individuals and families belonging to communities with lower-than-average life expectancy and educational outcomes will tend to have a similar effect. This is not to say that one policy is better than another. One could coherently argue that the U.S. approach is superior to Canada’s because it is more inclusive, and that our lower levels of life expectancy and educational attainment should this be a point of pride, though that’s not a view I’d embrace. But if Kliff believes that Canada’s (modest) life expectancy advantage and its (immodest) educational advantage are signs of superiority, she is implicitly suggesting that Canada has a superior immigration policy to the U.S., and that is an implication that is worth exploring further.