Immigration Restriction Is A Red Herring ‘Solution’ To Poverty

(REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)

Daniel J. Smith Book Review Editor, Review of Austrian Economics
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Nothing like a presidential election to dust off silver bullet solutions to poverty.

Even Republican candidates are jumping on the bandwagon touting strict immigration controls as a cure-all for unemployment and low-wages. But rather than addressing the underlying causes of poverty, this red herring issue is crowding out the discussion of policies that would actually help struggling Americans, like fixing our failing K-12 education system and curtailing excessive regulation.

Immigration reforms on the table aim to limit the number of people competing for jobs with the goal of alleviating unemployment and raising wages for Americans. Proposals range from beefing up border security (i.e. building a wall) to stricter enforcement of existing immigration laws – including deporting existing illegal immigrants and adding more restrictions on legal immigration.

But, these “solutions,” similar to other band-aid solutions such as welfare or the minimum wage, fail to address the root causes poverty: the lack of the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in today’s economy, as well as the government regulations that damper economic opportunities for business owners and workers, alike.

Rather than shielding them from competition, we need to do a better job equipping young people with the skills and knowledge to succeed in the workplace and contribute to true economic growth. One in five American students do not graduate on time from high school and roughly 4 percent drop out each year. Even American students who make it through to graduation are only reading at the 6th or 7th grade level and are unprepared for college.

Furthermore, even after racking up tens of thousands of dollars to pay for a college education, employers are increasingly finding that these graduates are unprepared for the workforce. For instance, an estimated 40 percent of college graduates lack the analytical reasoning and critical thinking skills necessary to meet the demands of modern professional work.

If our education system is failing the next generation to the extent that they are struggling to read at the appropriate grade level or even to graduate – let alone graduate with the necessary qualifications to land a job, is it any wonder they aren’t able to compete with immigrants?

Expanding school choice will drive improvement in our education system and student outcomes. When parents have more schooling options for their children, it provides the motivation and flexibility for teachers to use innovative educational methods. Children forced into a one-size-fits-all structure would be much better served by choice and variety in their education options. The success of school choice in New Orleans, which has seen a boost in graduation rates and ACT scores, provides a remarkable example of what can happen when parents are empowered to hold schools accountable.

The next step is to remove barriers to economic growth to ensure opportunities are there for the next generation upon graduation. Occupational licensing, theminimum wage, and even new EPA rules, are burying businesses with unnecessary costs and reducing their ability to create jobs. The EPA’s new regulations on the allowable amount of ground-level ozone will potentially destroy millions of jobs. Rolling back unnecessary regulations will enable Americans to lift themselves out of poverty by getting to work.

Stricter immigration controls would only exacerbate our regulatory overload, hampering economic activity with more bureaucracy and paperwork for immigrants and business owners — not to mention, a larger government to shuffle through it. Costly labor market regulations are already burying American business owners with red tape and inhibiting job growth.

Keeping immigrants out resigns our nation to stagnancy and mediocrity. Competition drives progress. If we truly want to continue to reduce poverty and improves lives, we should welcome immigrants and do what we need to do to compete: improve education and get out of the way when it comes to business growth. We all stand to benefit from this more welcoming attitude.

Daniel J. Smith is an associate professor of economics at the Johnson Center at Troy University. Follow him on Twitter: @smithdanj1