New York Times on the Advantages of Being an Immigrant

Many attribute the great dynamism of this country to its constant renewal by the steady influx of immigrants – people who bring new ideas, entrepreneurial flair, and a tireless drive to succeed. There’s more than a little evidence to support this.

In a recent New York Times opinion piece, writer Anand Giridharadas summarizes the evidence that naturalized U.S. citizens tend to be, statistically speaking, better off than many of their native-born counterparts: on average, they will “earn more than us native-borns, study further, marry at higher rates and divorce at lower rates, fall out of the workforce less frequently and more easily dodge poverty.” [See The Immigrant Advantage, by Anand Giridharadas, New York Times Sunday Review, 24.May.2014.]

To be clear: Mr. Giridharadas’s argument is based on the subset of immigrants who “… arrived by choice, found employer sponsors, navigated visas and green cards,” not the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants who still are struggling for a foothold in this country. Higher-skilled immigrants, he finds, tend to compete on an even footing with their U.S.-born counterparts on the coasts, and have a more pronounced advantage in poorer, rural states.

The question is: Why? His theory is fascinating. In brief, Giridharadas says that immigrants have an easier time succeeding here because they don’t expect much from the government. In most cases, these immigrants grew up in places where government assistance is limited – at best – and the only sure way out of poverty is to build your own social and economic support networks. This mix of self-reliance and communitarian values keeps immigrants from relying on the state, and provides what Giridharadas calls “community backup.” In other words:

“What’s interesting about so many of America’s immigrants is how they manage to plug instincts cultivated in other parts of the world into the system here. Many are trained in their homelands to behave as through the state will do nothing for them, and in America they reap the advantages of being self-starters.”

He concludes that the American dream is not dead, even in communities that are struggling economically; if immigrants can be successful there, so can native-born Americans. The dream will be reachable for everyone, Giridharadas argues, if we strengthen the social ties in our communities. “Helping people gain other people to lean on – not just offering cheaper health care and food stamps, tax cuts and charter schools – seems essential to making this American dream work as well for its perennial flowers as its freshest seeds.” It’s a fascinating and thought-provoking article, and one worth reading in its entirety!

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