Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Imported Initiative

At five years of age my aunt was shocked when her school teacher said that she couldn't speak English. Well, of course she could speak English. She could readily understand her teacher and her classmates. But she was frustrated that many of them could not understand her. She got along just fine at home and at church; why was school so different?

A representative from the school visited the family home and bluntly told my aunt's parents that they would need to start speaking English at home if they wanted their children to keep up in school. After all, my aunt's father spoke English at work and her mother could get along in English.

Things changed after that. My aunt's parents made an earnest effort to speak English at home; although, the family continued to attend a church for a few more years where the parents' native language was spoken. My aunt and the other students for whom English was a second language rapidly learned to communicate in English.

I recall my aunt having an impressive English vocabulary. She was incredible at playing Boggle. She said that by the time she graduated high school in Minnesota her command of her parents' native Norwegian language had gotten pretty rusty and that most of her younger siblings knew almost no Norwegian.

I thought about my aunt as I read this Wall Street Journal article about how well Hispanic immigrants in the U.S. are assimilating. Despite critics' claims that today's Hispanics are not assimilating like earlier waves of immigrants, "the evidence overwhelmingly shows that today's immigrants are acculturating and moving up the economic ladder like previous generations."
"All of this follows the traditional three-generation model of linguistic assimilation that characterized European immigrants in the last century. Typically, English is the dominant language of the second generation, and by the fourth generation fewer than a quarter can still speak the immigrant tongue."
Of course, it isn't just language that sets immigrants apart; it's culture. U.S. history is replete with established residents fearing cultural changes fostered by new immigrants. In 1751 Benjamin Franklin asked, "Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs?"

Despite technological, commercial, and social offerings that allow immigrants to keep in touch with their mother country's culture, today's Hispanic and Asian immigrants are also following the standard three-generation model of economic and cultural assimilation. It can seem as if this is not the case, because we continue to get new waves of first generation immigrants, who rarely assimilate as well as their children and grandchildren.

A few weeks ago my wife and I dined at Javier's, a Mexican restaurant in the area. A lean Hispanic man in his mid-50s wearing a restaurant employee uniform ate his dinner at a nearby table. After observing him for awhile, I realized this this was Javier himself.

Born in poverty in Mexico, Javier came to the U.S. because he excelled in track and was recruited by a local university for their track squad. He found work in the restaurant industry and eventually followed his dream of opening his own restaurant, which has grown to a small chain over the years. I deeply admire what this hard working man and his family have achieved.

Of course, not all immigrants are as upstanding as Javier. How often do we hear about gang problems and crime among immigrant populations? While crime rates are indeed higher among first generation immigrants than in the broader population, crime rates among the second generation closely match the population average (see Open Borders report, Tyler Cowen post). Some researchers say that crime rates are much lower for current immigrants than they were among 18th and 19th Century immigrants. Nor do today's immigrants use social welfare programs at abnormally high rates (see CATO Institute paper).

My son recently wrote to me about the high rate of social welfare use and lack of initiative among the native population of the European country where he is serving as a missionary. Many people are unwilling to work. Many that are willing to work prefer some kind of government job or something very low risk, preferably with reduced hours.

Like other western European countries, the country where my son is living has a large immigrant population. Should the lack of native ambition be blamed on the immigrants, my son wondered. "No," I responded. Rather, blame should be placed on well intentioned programs that rob people of initiative to the point that they have to import immigrants that still have ambition and drive. These immigrants are also needed to supplement social infrastructure because natives have lost the initiative to reproduce and raise families.

While many features of social welfare systems are cherished and most of the cases where they go awry are founded in good intentions, there is a darker side that insidiously weaves itself into the human soul. Alexis de Tocqueville's amazing 1833 treatise Democracy In America warned that such a system "rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one's acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces [the] nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd."

A missionary that recently returned from the country where my son is serving said that people there are proud that their country ranks high on some kind of happiness scale. He said that it is more like they have a low rate of social factors that are construed to represent unhappiness. The people aren't necessarily unhappy, but many of them aren't happy either. They've got lots of stuff, but their lives lack the thumos that makes life worth living. You've got to go among the immigrant population to find that.

Is this where the U.S. is headed?

1 comment:

Adam Greenwood said...

Immigrants who entered the country before the 1980s typically found that their initial wage disadvantage (relative to natives) narrowed by around 15 percentage points during their first two decades in the United States. In contrast, the immigrants who entered the country after the 1980s have a negligible rate of wage convergence. Part of the slowdown in wage convergence reflects a measurable reduction in the actual rate of human capital accumulation. In particular, there has been a concurrent decline in the rate at which the newer immigrant cohorts are “picking up” English language skills. The study isolates one factor that explains part of these trends: The rate of increase in English language proficiency is significantly slower for larger national origin groups. The growth in the size of these groups accounts for about a quarter of the decline in the rates of human capital acquisition and economic assimilation.