Does immigration increase the "grit quotient"?

Does immigration increase the "grit quotient" in the United States?

Featured Responses

  • Yes... Tamar Jacoby

    Most migrants make the trip for the opportunity to work. The decision is an economic, not moral one. And like any group, today’s newcomers are a mixed bunch, with good and bad apples among them.

    But migration is also a winnowing experience. Those who end up staying in the U.S. despite the hardships are a self-selecting few. Among the qualities that distinguish them are their pluck and determination.

    Immigrants work harder than native-born Americans. In 2006, before the economic downturn, when 66 percent of native-born men were working or actively looking for work, the rate for males from Mexico was 88 percent, and that for Mexican men in the U.S. illegally was 94 percent. Immigrants also worked longer hours: at the height of the boom, a typical low-skilled immigrant’s work week was a stunning 56 percent longer than a typical low-skilled native’s.

    Newcomers rely less on government benefits. Not even legal immigrants are eligible for federal welfare programs in their first five years in the U.S., and illegal immigrants are ineligible for handouts of any kind. Even when U.S.-born children qualify families for the program most people think of as welfare, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, only 1 percent of immigrant-headed households avail themselves, compared to 5 percent of households headed by U.S. citizens.

    Migrants are risk-takers by definition, and uprooted, hungry people are always going to be scrappier than settled folks. Remember the immigrant workers rushing to New Orleans in the wake of Katrina for cleanup and construction jobs. We shouldn’t be romantic about this: the jobs immigrants do are often dirty and dangerous, and their eagerness to work under any conditions makes it all too easy for some employers to exploit them. But their drive pays off, both for them and for us, and at both the low and high ends of the economic ladder.

    By the third generation, ironically, this determination falls off as immigrant families assimilate to America’s far less driven norms. So it has always been, since Ellis Island and before. The good news: by the time the drive gives out, there is another wave of newcomers waiting in the wings, attracted by the beacon that is America and ready to test their spirit in a country they don’t know.


    Tamar Jacoby is president of ImmigrationWorks USA.

  • No... Mark Krikorian

    Perhaps in the past there was some self-selection among immigrants; only the most enterprising would dare undertake the long and dangerous journey. But even if that were so, modern transportation and communications technologies have changed things permanently. There is no longer a weeks-long trip in steerage to scare off the weak-willed, nor the prospect of being permanently cut off from contact with home. In fact, in modern conditions, we see the development of transnationalism, where people are essentially able to live in two countries at the same time. This dramatically reduces the psychic and emotional price of departing for America, and is thus less likely to weed out the less “gritty” among potential immigrants.

    Welfare use among immigrants debunks the fable of the grit-bearing newcomer. While in 2007 19 percent of households headed by a native-born American used at least one major welfare program (a pretty alarming figure in itself), the number for immigrants was 33 percent. For immigrants who’d lived here twelve years or more, it was 34 percent. And for Mexicans, whose number is equal to the next ten immigrant groups combined, the welfare use rate was more than 50 percent.

    Not much here to deliver us from our decadence.

    In trying to understand why the myth of immigrant superiority is false, it’s important not to succumb to its flip side, the myth of the “degenerate immigrant,” which sees the new arrival as a parasite determined to live off the taxpayer. Instead, immigrants are people like any other, subject to the same temptations and weaknesses, but with an added disadvantage. Immigrants generally come here from pre-industrial societies, with low levels of skill and education, a lot like many of our ancestors a century ago. But unlike our ancestors, these characteristics do not prepare them for life in the America they are entering.

    This mismatch renders their labor of relatively little worth and plunges them and their children into a moral miasma that we, at least, have had many years to adjust to and evolve with.


    Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.