Immigrants do get the job done. But is it a problem if not enough people know that?
In the last couple of weeks, we at Abacus Data conducted some fresh public opinion research on this topic. Here’s what we found.
When asked whether more or less immigration was the best way to grow the economy, 55% said less immigration would be better rather than more (45%). When it comes to ensuring we have money for social programs like health and education, 62% said less immigration would be better than more 38%.
These views don’t square with the evidence.
Canadians should take note of some important truths, recently described by Canada’s new Minister of Immigration and Citizenship, Marco Mendicino.
Canadians are having fewer children. Our fertility rate is 1.5. But 2 is the number it takes to hold our population steady. Life expectancy is up 11.5 years since 1960. We’re on a fast track to having more old people who need support, and fewer workers to help carry the load.
The inescapable reality? Immigration is probably the single best - and most crucial - economic and fiscal choice Canada could make. It’s not a nice to do, it’s a need to do.
What’s more, the facts about Canada’s economy over past decades couldn’t be more unequivocal. When immigration is up, our GDP is higher; when levels are lower, the opposite happens.
What does this mean? Immigration is probably the single best - and most crucial - economic and fiscal choice Canada could make. It’s not a nice "to do", it’s a need "to do".
Those who worry about the cost of government services if immigration levels go up – they should worry more about who will pay for the services we have if we don’t have more immigration. Taxes will go up, deficits will go up, or services will be cut – if we don’t have more workers paying taxes.
For people who worry about whether the economy has enough jobs for more immigrants, the bigger worry is what happens if we don’t have more workers coming into the economy. Today 4 in 10 small and medium companies have trouble finding the employees they need. There are labour shortages in Atlantic Canada, BC, Ontario, in manufacturing, retail and construction. Too few workers is leading to slower sales.
For some of those who don’t want more immigration, economic or fiscal data won’t matter. Their dislike of immigration is about other things. Skepticism about immigration is 10 points higher among white people than among visible minorities. Conservatives are roughly 30 points more doubtful about immigration than Liberals.
For several years, conservative voices in Canada and elsewhere have been drilling away at immigration – pushing the idea that immigration is trouble, a drain on our finances, a security threat, an idea that puts your job - maybe even your life – at risk.
Donald Trump has made this theme central to his pitch to "Make America Great" – a better America is one that looks more like you and turns people who don’t away at the border.
Brazil’s President Bolsonaro praised Trump, saying “the vast majority of potential immigrants do not have good intentions.” Much of the undertone to the UK Brexit debate centred on the idea that immigrants were an economic problem for Britons.
Here in Canada, one leading political figure proposed a “values test” for immigrants. If it was a dog whistle, it was a lousy one, because we could all hear it. Another formed a new party to be rail against “extreme multiculturalism.
Most Canadians decided not to But along the way, doubts were planted about the value of immigration for Canada. Doubts that are based on a lack of understanding of some basic realities.
Nevertheless, there’s reason to hope a rational debate will leave more people supporting an immigration growth policy that is so clearly in their collective interest.
We explored reactions to a couple of key facts and found 72% said it was a strong argument that throughout our history high immigration and higher economic growth went hand in hand. And 75% had the same reaction to the fact that aging and fewer children mean our social programs will be starved for tax dollars if we don’t have more immigration.
In the course of a short survey, we tested belief in the value of more immigration before positing these two arguments, and again afterward. The impact of knowing a bit more about our economic past and our fiscal future was a 13-15-point jump in support for more immigration.
Of course, the world of politics doesn’t work that cleanly. Stories about illegal entries and social friction get plenty of coverage. The temptation to tease out and nurture resentment is clear around the world. But the politicians who’ve gambled on it in Canada, lost their bet.
If that’s not enough of a reason for politicians across the spectrum to support more immigration let’s try this – the alternative is slower growth, fewer jobs, uncertain social programs and pensions, higher taxes and more public debt.
Are Canadians ready to embrace an increase? They could be. But it’s not easy.
We need politics to do better.