The Agenda

Heather Mac Donald and Matt Yglesias on Latino Voters

At The Corner, Heather Mac Donald has a post that dispels a number of misconceptions about Latino voters:

If Republicans want to change their stance on immigration, they should do so on the merits, not out of a belief that only immigration policy stands between them and a Republican Hispanic majority. It is not immigration policy that creates the strong bond between Hispanics and the Democratic party, but the core Democratic principles of a more generous safety net, strong government intervention in the economy, and progressive taxation. Hispanics will prove to be even more decisive in the victory of Governor Jerry Brown’s Proposition 30, which raised upper-income taxes and the sales tax, than in the Obama election. 

And California is the wave of the future. A March 2011 poll by Moore Information found that Republican economic policies were a stronger turn-off for Hispanic voters in California than Republican positions on illegal immigration. Twenty-nine percent of Hispanic voters were suspicious of the Republican party on class-warfare grounds — “it favors only the rich”; “Republicans are selfish and out for themselves”; “Republicans don’t represent the average person”– compared with 7 percent who objected to Republican immigration stances. [Emphasis added]

Mac Donald goes on to note that many Latino voters are the beneficiaries of social transfers aimed at low-income households:

And a strong reason for that support for big government is that so many Hispanics use government programs. U.S.-born Hispanic households in California use welfare programs at twice the rate of native-born non-Hispanic households. And that is because nearly one-quarter of all Hispanics are poor in California, compared to a little over one-tenth of non-Hispanics. Nearly seven in ten poor children in the state are Hispanic, and one in three Hispanic children is poor, compared to less than one in six non-Hispanic children. One can see that disparity in classrooms across the state, which are chock full of social workers and teachers’ aides trying to boost Hispanic educational performance.

The idea of the “social issues” Hispanic voter is also a mirage. A majority of Hispanics now support gay marriage, a Pew Research Center poll from last month found. The Hispanic out-of-wedlock birth rate is 53 percent, about twice that of whites. [Emphasis added]

Many on the left believe that increasing teacher salaries in existing public schools, offering higher education student loans on more generous terms, increasing the generosity of social transfers, expanding access to subsidized insurance coverage, spending substantially more on infrastructure, and guaranteeing and expanding collective bargaining rights are the most effective strategies for facilitating economic uplift for less-skilled workers and their children. Viewed through this lens, one can be optimistic about the prospects for Latino economic advancement in the medium-term, as the Obama administration is committed to steady increases in tax- and debt-financed public investment.  

But if the broad center-left view is not quite right — if, for example, changing family structure and resistance to productivity-enhancing structural innovation in the delivery of public services is a big barrier to absolute upward mobility — then one can imagine the continuation and deepening of these policies resulting in the entrenchment of the pattern Mac Donald describes.

Interestingly, Matt Yglesias recently made an argument that is very compatible with Mac Donald’s:

Polling suggests that the Latino problem for the GOP is deeper than immigration. John McCain got a scant 31 percent of the Latino vote despite a long record of pro-immigration policies. The best evidence available on Hispanic public opinion, a big election even poll from Latino Decisions and ImpreMedia, makes it clear that this is just a fairly liberal voting bloc. Just 12 percent of Latinos support a cuts-only approach to deficit reduction, and only 25 percent want to repeal Obamacare. Only 31 percent of Hispanics say they’d be more likely to vote for a Republican who supports the DREAM Act. This isn’t to say Latinos aren’t eager to see immigration reform, it’s just that the lion’s share have bigger reasons for rejecting the GOP. [Emphasis added]

Recall John Hudak’s analysis of the politics of Medicaid expansion:

Republicans often depend on white and wealthier voters for electoral success. Democrats’ electoral constituencies have a larger percentage of non-white and/or lower income voters. White and wealthier individuals are insured at dramatically higher rates. The national average for non-elderly uninsured is 18%. The rate for white Americans is only 14%. However, black Americans and Latino Americans are uninsured at rates of 22% and 32%, respectively. As one would expect, there is an inverse relationship between income and the rate of uninsured.

In a basic way, Republican and Democratic governors are not putting principle before politics. Instead, they are capitalizing on the politics of health care and appealing to the voters most important to their electoral needs. While Republican governors have higher percentages of uninsured in their states, their key voters don’t face the same burden. Conversely, voters critical to Democrats’ electoral fates face dramatically higher uninsured rates. Such a basis for policy support—constituency needs—is certainly not a damning trait. Elected officials are seeking to represent a sufficient percentage of their electorate. However, both sides’ political rhetoric of principle and altruism is disingenuous. Concerns about general health and welfare or of government takeovers are window dressing for political pandering.

This is one reason why I am more skeptical than many of my friends and colleagues about the virtues of an increase in the amount of less-skilled immigration, and why I think that we should instead work to reduce the influx of the less-skilled. As Yglesias observes

The real issue isn’t Democrats courting minority “special interests” (indeed, as an economic matter Latin American immigration is good for everyone except Americans who primarily speak Spanish), it’s Republicans who use targeted outreach to help boost their share of the white vote despite a generally unpersuasive message. [Emphasis added]

Yglesias is a champion of increased immigration of all kinds, including less-skilled immigration, as he believes it is better for the country. My own view is that the challenge of achieving full economic inclusion for less-skilled Latino workers, both foreign-born and native-born, is sufficiently great that we should be mindful of the labor market position of these workers. The classic view — that we can use immigration to grow the economic pie and simply redistribute to the less-skilled workers who are deleteriously impacted — is not an unreasonable one, but I think it overestimates the value of transfers and direct public spending. Suffice it to say, there’s plenty of legitimate disagreement. 

Heather Mac Donald’s writing on California’s demographic transformation, and the entrenched poverty in many of the state’s Mexican-American enclaves, is fascinating and important:


If current labor-market trends continue, 41 percent of California’s workers will need a B.A. by 2025, according to the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). But California already has trouble finding skilled employees. Because it can’t produce all the skilled workers that it needs, it imports them: in 2006, for example, 33 percent of all college-educated California workers had been born in other states and 31 percent had been born abroad, PPIC says. Moreover, since 2000, more college graduates have been exiting California than entering. California will need to attract almost 160,000 college-educated workers annually for 20 years in a row to meet the projected demand, PPIC estimates—three times the number who have been arriving from elsewhere since 2000.

Unfortunately, though Hispanics will make up 40 percent of the state’s working-age population by 2020, just 12 percent of them are projected to have bachelor’s degrees by then, up from 10 percent in 2006. Moreover, their fields of academic concentration are not where the most economically fertile growth will probably occur. At California State University in 2008, just 1.7 percent of master’s degree students in computer science were Mexican-American, as were just 3.6 percent of students in engineering master’s programs. The largest percentage of Mexican-American enrollment in M.A. programs was in education—40 percent—despite (or perhaps because of) Mexican-Americans’ low test scores.

The future mismatch between labor supply and demand is likely to raise wages for college-educated workers, while a glut of workers with a high school diploma or less will depress wages on the low end and contribute to an increased demand for government services, especially among the less educated Hispanic population.

The set of issues Mac Donald is addressing tends to be neglected. We fixate on immigration policy, yet even if we stopped the influx of less-skilled immigrants tomorrow, we’d be left with a complex, poorly-understood assimilation challenge that does not, in my view, have an entirely straightforward partisan valence.


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