Pesky immigrants, coming over here, making our lives better

Further to a previous post about how immigration can benefit the global economy, it’s also important to examine how immigration can affect the people in areas to where people have migrated. One of the main arguments used by those that try to claim that immigration is harmful is that immigration hurts the wages / employment of the low-skilled because supposedly cheaper immigrants take those jobs away from domestic workers. The fact that this argument is based on the false “lump of labour” theory has been covered well elsewhere (see, for example, here), but it can also be tested empirically.

To that end, a recent paper by Foged & Peri investigates the impact of immigration on domestic workers of various different skill types. To do so, it makes use of a quirk in the system that Denmark used to re-locate successful asylum-seekers and the fact that in subsequent years, relatives of those asylum seekers came to join them. Specifically, between 1986 and 1998, Denmark distributed refugees across the country taking into account only the refugee’s family size, the nationality of the refugee (so as to try to achieve “clusters” of refugees that would help each other out), and the availability of housing in each area.

In this way, the location of refugees was almost entirely independent of local labour market conditions. (Note that it is not entirely independent because there is likely to be some relationship between an area’s labour market and the availability of housing.) Nonetheless, this distribution of refugees was followed by a period between 1995 and 2003 in which immigrants from various regions moved to Denmark (most of these were from the likes of the Former Yugoslavia, Somalia etc. and were trying to escape local conflicts).

The people in this “new wave” of immigrants tended to settle in areas where earlier refugees/immigrants with the same nationality had settled – in this way, the initial distribution of refugees (that was mostly independent of labour market conditions) also drove future immigrants’ decisions of where to settle. Hence, the increase in immigration to Denmark from 1995 on can be used to assess the impact of immigration on the labour market in Denmark since the locational decisions of those immigrants was mostly independent of the labour market conditions themselves. (This is important because otherwise the results of an analysis of the impact of immigration on the labour market would be biased if the amount of immigration to a particular area itself was affected by the labour market in that area).

Therefore, in order to assess the impact of immigration on Danish workers, the paper uses a “longitudinal cohort study” – i.e. a frequent survey of a large group of people over a prolonged period of time (in this case, the Danish Integrated Database for Labour Market Research). This survey contains information related to someone’s age, municipal location, whether or not they are employed, their occupation, the number of hours they work, their salary etc. Coupled with information on where immigrants settled as per the previous paragraph, this dataset thus enables the researchers to investigate the impact of immigration on domestic workers.

The results of the study are extremely interesting. Contrary to the fallacious argument that low-skilled workers are harmed by immigration, the results of this study indicate that immigration actually benefits low-skilled workers in multiple ways.

First, immigration motivates and enables low-skilled workers to progress into more complex occupations. Second, these more complex jobs are associated with higher wages, such that immigration actually increases the hourly wage of low-skilled workers. Third, immigration does not result in (some number) of low-skilled workers becoming unemployed. In other words, immigration doesn’t force low-skilled workers out of a job, but instead enables them to obtain better jobs.

In addition, the study also looks to see if the impact of immigration falls different across different sets of low-skilled workers. It finds that the positive impact of immigration is felt most strongly by those low-skilled workers that are either young (less than 46 years old) or have not been in their jobs very long (less than four years), but also that there are no statistically significant negative effects for older workers or those that have been in their jobs a long time.

Overall, therefore, this study is pretty conclusive that immigration is beneficial to low-skilled workers and that those that claim that immigration harms those on low wages really don’t know what they’re talking about.


3 thoughts on “Pesky immigrants, coming over here, making our lives better”

  1. Contrary to the claims of the above first paragraph, the anti-immigration case does not rest on the lump of labour theory (which I agree is nonsense). The LoL theory claims that EACH immigrant pushes one native into unemployment. That’s clearly not the case because demand can be raised to create more jobs and keep natives in employment – pretty much.

    More plausible is the idea than an influx of unskilled immigrant labour depresses the wages of the native unskilled.


    1. I agree that the Lump of Labour argument is incorrect, but it does tend to be one of the main central tenets of the anti-immigrant argument, but leaving that aside, the idea that unskilled immigrant labour depresses the wages of the native unskilled is precisely what is demonstrated to be untrue by the study I covered above.

      Instead, an “influx” of immigrants leads to native unskilled labour moving to more complex jobs, with associated higher wages, which is (obviously) exactly the opposite effect to that which you cite.


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