Mythbusting Nigel Farage: Why immigration doesn’t erode social cohesion and trust

 
Ben Southwood
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Farage is voicing the common concern that immigrants undermine social trust and social cohesion (Source: Getty)
The political scientist Robert Putnam famously found that Americans “hunker down” in the face of social diversity, doing less in the community and trusting people less – even their own compatriots.

When Nigel Farage suggested that one reason kids tend not to play on the street nowadays was immigration, he was voicing a common concern: that immigrants undermine social trust and social cohesion.

Trust and social cohesion are important on more than just one level – they are a crucial correlate of output, living standards and growth. If immigration did undermine trust, it would be a major argument against it. But it’s not clear that the data can support this objection, whatever people’s anecdotal experience might seem to show.

A new Adam Smith Institute briefing paper out today “The Ties that Bind: An analysis of the relationship between social cohesion, diversity, and immigration” looks broadly to see if Putnam’s result is held up by the wider research. There is some (albeit conflicting) evidence that immigration and diversity undermine generalised trust – how much people in society trust other random people in society.

But if you control for factors like neighbourhood status and economic deprivation, the negative relationship between diversity and trust tends to disappear. Furthermore, there is no evidence to suggest higher diversity leads to lower voluntary work, civic participation, less trust in authority or any other measure of social cohesion.

Another popular objection to migration is that the UK is overcrowded – but this seems belied by the fact that the country is only about 10 per cent built up, and half of this is gardens. There are legitimate concerns that publicly-provided services are slow to adapt to changes in demand, though perhaps the ability of privately-provided services to adapt rapidly points to the real problem here.

Other worries are that migrants will cut jobs or reduce wages. But the research seems clear, even just looking at papers out in the last month.

Mette Foged and Giovanni Peri found that, between 1986 and 1998, low-skilled migrants to Denmark, instead of cutting low-skilled native wages, actually raised them by pushing them out of manual labour into more complex occupations. And Brian Hibbs and Gihoon Hong at Indiana University South Bend, looking at data from the 1990 and 2000 US censuses, found that areas subject to higher Mexican migration did not become more economically unequal.

These build on a huge existing literature largely backing the central ideas that migrants are good for jobs and wages (after all, they buy goods as well as sell them) and even productivity (by allowing deeper specialisation, a la Adam Smith’s pin factory).

Immigrants even help bear the burden of the UK’s national debt: the OBR reckons that, with zero net migration, debt will trend up towards 150 per cent of GDP by 2060. With an average of 140,000 more people coming in than leaving per year, it will trend up towards 100 per cent. With net migration at 260,000 annually, it will look more like 75 per cent in 50 years’ time.

Most people are unwilling to listen to evidence that goes against their own personal experience, but I’d urge Farage and other politicians to consider the data before trying so hard to crack down on immigration.

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