FRONT PAGE CONTRIBUTOR
Welfare, opportunity, and assimilation
Every participant in the immigration debate agrees on the importance of assimilation. (In public, anyway. Privately, I suspect some of the open-borders folks could not care less about it, or are actively hostile to it. But everyone says they hope immigrants assimilate and become fully invested, patriotic American citizens.)
What is the best way to encourage assimilation? It’s not an individual process that can be applied to specific people and evaluated with tests. Cultural assimilation doesn’t work like Borg assimilation. Like many other social and economic concepts, it must be envisioned in the context of a large population growing generally comfortable with their new home, and becoming productive citizens. Some individuals may embrace their new nation with unbridled enthusiasm; others might live there for decades without ever truly seeing themselves as fully naturalized citizens. But the host nation has a clear interest in encouraging large numbers of people to integrate as smoothly and fully as possible. A permanently alienated population of millions is nothing but trouble.
To the considerable surprise of its native-born citizens, Sweden is having a great deal of trouble with its immigrant population, particularly those hailing from Muslim countries. Stockholm has been burning for the past four nights. The incident that touched off the riots was the police shooting of an elderly man who brandished a machete at them. However, both community leaders and Swedish authorities cite cultural alienation, high unemployment, and reduced welfare benefits as the deeper causes of the unrest.
Linguistic barriers are often cited as a major obstacle to cultural immigration. It’s clear enough that the lack of a common language would cause an immigrant population to feel uncomfortable and insular. It’s also difficult to get a good job when you don’t speak the native language. Sweden, however, is fairly aggressive about teaching new arrivals to speak its language, and has long offered free lessons for immigrants.
Sweden is also famous for its lavish welfare state, which is one reason they’re shocked by ungrateful immigrants staging violent riots. Those generous welfare benefits have declined recently as economic reality set in. This is said to have made welfare dependents bitter and restless. It doesn’t look as if handing out free benefits causes new arrivals to assimilate. It only causes greater strife, when money to pay for the benefits runs out.
High unemployment, particularly among the young, has been offered as a cause for unrest. The youth unemployment rate among minorities in Sweden is roughly comparable to the general unemployment rate for young people in the United States; it’s much lower for native-born Swedes. These rates compare favorably with most of Europe. But young immigrants are said to be restless due to the lack of job opportunities. They’ve also been having uncomfortable run-ins with the police, who they accuse of treating them disrespectfully.
“It’s difficult to say why they’re doing this,” a youth worker said of the riots. ”Maybe it’s anger at the law and order forces, maybe it’s anger at their own personal situation, such as unemployment or having nowhere to live.”
Young people with nothing but the dole to look forward to become desperate and resentful. Those of foreign extraction do not embrace their new country out of gratitude for welfare benefits. Removing linguistic barriers is essential, but not sufficient on its own.
The only thing that reliably encourages immigrants to assimilate is opportunity. They need jobs, and a chance to create their own business enterprises. Nothing else brings a sufficient sense of belonging. Nothing else illuminates citizenship as both a privilege and a set of responsibilities. Nothing else brings new arrivals and native-born citizens closer together. Earning, saving, building, and contributing to the cost of government… those are the instruments of national identity. Without them, patriotism can seem hollow, cynical, or hypocritical – a treasure shared by others, precious to members of a club that the immigrant never fully joins. Citizenship really does have to be earned, long after the paperwork has been signed. It loses its value when given away.
The vital importance of opportunity is why the flow of immigrants must be controlled. Dropping too many new arrivals into the system at once leaves many of them with little hope of finding decent employment. This is probably true of both high- and low-skilled immigrants, but there generally aren’t enough high-skilled immigrants at any given time to overload the economy of the host nation. They tend to find good jobs quickly – often they are invited to become citizens to fill particular positions – so they assimilate relatively well.
Large numbers of low-skilled immigrants, arriving either by invitation or through illicit border crossings, are another matter. Even a vibrant economy needs time to process each new group. Many immigrants arrive with young children who quickly reach working age, while others have children after they arrive. These young people need a healthy supply of entry-level jobs. Everyone grows uneasy when they are thrown into desperate competition with native-born young people for scarce entry-level jobs.
This engine of opportunity and integration simply cannot run smoothly when it’s overloaded and jammed. There isn’t any way to properly assimilate more people than the economy can handle… particularly when the trappings of middle-class life are well-known thanks to information technology, but seem out of reach to new citizens. If the United States plans to add 11 or 12 million new citizens at once, along with a constant flow across an insecure border, it had better get a boom economy up and running to accommodate them. Those who think the maternal embrace of Big Government can do the trick should take a look at Stockholm.
Update: The riots continued into a fifth night, according to RT.com, whose report includes a passage that fits neatly into this post:
For years, Sweden – one of Europe’s most tranquil countries, famous for its attractive immigration policies and generous welfare system – has been accepting an influx of immigrants, which now make up about 15 per cent of its population. These migrants have failed to integrate into Swedish society, and are only in the country to enjoy the country’s social benefits system, Swedish journalist Ingrid Carlqvist told RT.
“The problem is not from the Swedish government or from the Swedish people,” the editor in chief of Dispatch International said. “The last 20 years or so, we have seen so many immigrants coming to Sweden that really don’t like Sweden. They do not want to integrate, they do not want to live in [Swedish] society: Working, paying taxes and so on.”
“The people come here now because they know that Sweden will give them money for nothing. They don’t have to work, they don’t have to pay taxes – they can just stay here and get a lot of money. That is really a problem,” Carlqvist added.
Bring a large alien population into your country at breakneck speed, grant them access to a vast welfare state, and this is what results. Feed them more slowly into a robust free market noted for healthy job growth, and the outcome can be happier for all concerned. As it goes in Sweden, so it goes in the United States, and everywhere else.