Do the working class and the middle class experience immigration differently? Is immigration a socioeconomic issue? Last week, this column laid out the case for immigration: in the aggregate, immigrants are good for the economy. But is this true at every level? If we are to understand some of the anger on the streets, it’s important to assess whether immigration is a class as well as a cultural issue for which economics doesn’t have all the answers.
Last week a survey by the Ireland Thinks consultancy Public Opinion | Ireland Thinks found that more than half of voters believed Ireland had “taken in too many refugees” this year. Therefore, immigration is not a fringe issue but a central concern. Lack of housing and the cost-of-living crisis are still people’s most immediate worries, but immigration is creeping up. Dismissing anxiety about immigration, its pace and the impact on society as exclusively the preserve of “racists” is precisely how “far-right” political movements gain traction. We need to accept that high immigration during a housing crisis is problematic.
How people feel is important.
In terms of those surveyed, 61 per cent of Sinn Féin supporters thought Ireland had “taken in too many refugees this year” compared with 56 per cent of Fianna Fáil voters and 47 per cent of Fine Gael voters. When it comes to the smaller parties, 41 per cent of Labour, 33 per cent of Social Democrats and only 21 per cent of Green voters thought there were too many refugees.
Why are Sinn Féin voters the most exercised when that party’s leadership is liberal and supportive of immigration? The reason might be that Sinn Féin voters tend to be poorer (though their middle-class support is now strong too), and immigration affects poorer people differently from richer people. This division is hidden in the aggregate numbers. Immigration does enhance the economy overall, but its impact is uneven.
Immigrants are sometimes described as “competing” with poorer people in the job market, on the housing waiting list, and in the market for public health and schooling. While the economy might get workers, the society gets people, and, as a result, the technocratic language of economics is ill-equipped to describe what is actually going on.
In the wake of Brexit, a 2020 UK report showed that immigration undermined the wages of the less well educated while it increased the wages of those with higher skills and status. Every 1 per cent increase in EU migrants to the UK led to a 0.8 per cent decrease in wages for those British-born workers at the bottom and a 0.6 per cent increase for the highest earners.
Over a long period these disparities add up. Over a quarter of a century, the data shows that increased EU immigration into the UK led to a wage reduction of 4.9 per cent among those at the poorest 10 per cent, compared with a 4.4 per cent increase for those at the top 10 per cent. Politically, this is a big deal. Obviously these are the extremes, but you get the picture. Immigration is good for the economy in general but not for everyone.
For the wealthy or relatively wealthy, more poorer immigrants means more drivers, childminders, cleaners, online deliveries, waiters and shop assistants. Immigrants make the service sector economy boom, benefiting those who use it. The well-off, particularly those who own houses, don’t have to worry much about immigrants pushing up the rent or house prices, because most immigrants can’t afford to live in middle-class areas. It’s the same story in access to education and health. Immigrant kids, as a general rule, don’t have parents with health insurance.
But the far-right is a disaster for all. Apart from its ethical and moral nihilism, or maybe because of it, no country that has ever embraced a far-right agenda has progressed. Capital leaves, talent leaves and the country gets poorer, exacerbating problems for all. Liberal democracies, grounded in decency, tolerance and openness are countries that generate the wealth that can then be spent on social problems, inequality and lack of opportunity. Without this wealth, all bets are off.
So what do we do?
Build houses! The fault-line is homes. If people could rent or buy homes at a reasonable price, much of the heat would be taken out of the immigration issue. On the class issue, spread asylum seeker centres more evenly between rich and poor areas. Globalisation is not going to stop, nor is the movement of people. The country will benefit from the arrival of hard-working, talented go-getters – but we do need to listen to those who feel left behind.
Democracy has a way of dealing with this. It’s called the ballot box. Ireland has prospered as a tolerant country; we languished when we were intolerant. When we were almost universally “white Irish” between 1920 and 1990, this country stagnated. When we embraced liberal values and tolerance from about 1990 onwards, we prospered.
We know what “pure” feels like; diversity, for all its teething problems, is the future.
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