Why Americans hate welfare and what that tells us about immigration policy

Published: Monday, Oct. 8 2012 1:05 p.m. MDT

Princeton professor Martin Gilens discusses link between American attitudes on welfare and immigration policies.

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In his recent book "Why Americans hate welfare," Princeton political science professor Martin Gilens outlines the impulses that inform public opinion about government assistance. Our views, he argues, contain elements of cynicism and compassion; misinformation and racial prejudices.

What Gilens' book essentially does is make the case that the relatively small size of the American welfare state is a result of racism, writes George Mason University economics professor Bryan Caplan. Capan suggests Gilians' work provides an important insight for understanding the scope of the welfare state. "People don't like helping poor people who don't look like them. As a result, ethnically diverse countries like the U.S. have smaller welfare states." Part of the reason the Swedes are able to maintain large welfare programs is because 95 percent of the population share the same ethnic origins and religion. It decreases the likelihood that state organized redistribution of resources will give rise to conflict, writes Steffan Mau of the University of Bremen in Germany.

Gilens' book has interesting implications for political conservatives who worry about the political externalities of immigration, namely that increasing the number of immigrants to the United States would also increase demand for government assistance programs. But according to Caplan, if we take Gilans argument to its logical conclusion, this may not be something to worry about. "Even if immigrants vote staunchly in favor of the welfare state, their presence reduces native support for the welfare state," he wrote.

Gilens' second book, "Affluence and Influence," provides an even more direct argument about why the political externalities of immigration are overstated. His main finding is that American democracy is far more responsive to the policy preferences of the rich than the poor. In fact, his analysis suggests that the poor and middle class have almost no influence at all.

Caplan says that if Gilens is right, and there is reason to suspect he is, granting citizenship to pro-welfare immigrants would be politically harmless. The exception being unless they're rich. Caplan ends his post with a tongue in check comment, "The immigrants to fear aren't Mexican laborers, but French professors."

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