Donald Trump’s son attributed wage stagnation to Syrian refugees and border-crossing immigrants Monday on Fox News.
“I mean, wages have been stagnant for the last 15 years and it’s because you have, you know, Syrian refugees coming in. It’s because you have, you know, thousands of people coming over the border. I mean, Americans are suffering because of it, and that’s his point,” Eric Trump said on Fox & Friends, explaining his father’s views on immigration.
Trump starts with a simple, obvious chronological error. Syria’s civil war began in 2011. Wages have been almost flat for U.S. workers not just for 15 years as Trump said, but since the 1970s.
Even if we let Trump off the hook for thinking that refugees can time travel, he’s still full of it. Refugees do not cause wages to stagnate, regardless of their country of origin.
That’s partly a matter of numbers. Just 11,000 refugees from Syria have arrived in the United States since the war began there, for example — a microscopic dusting of humanity atop the nearly 145 million Americans who work today. The U.S. has accepted 784,000 total refugees of all nationalities in the 15 years since 9/11, barely a blip compared to the 13 million new jobs created in that time.
But even in countries that are far more generous toward refugees and take in a large enough number of them to potentially influence overall economic patterns, Trump’s theory doesn’t hold up. Concentrated refugee populations have been connected to economic growth overall.
And on wages specifically, refugees have almost no influence — and what little they wield can be positive in the end for native workers. One pair of economic researchers in England have found that even a 10 percentage point increase in migrants working in menial labor jobs depresses wages by just 2 percent. Another academic duo found that native workers in Denmark saw their wages go up as they shifted into less menial work in response to a refugee influx from 1991 to 2008.
Trump’s broader immigration rhetoric taps into that idea that people get displaced by incoming workers in some fields. Traditional classroom economics has long held that as low-skilled workers come into an economy, wages and employment fall for low-skilled workers already there.
But the real world isn’t as simple as the classroom. And the research is divided on whether immigration generally places a small drag on wages, has no measurable effect, or actually prompts a small boost to average earnings for native workers. A survey of the literature by the Hamilton Project concluded that “economists do not tend to find that immigrants cause any sizeable decrease in wages…and instead, may raise wages and lower prices in the aggregate.”
In general, researchers that have tried to model economic impacts of immigration in more acute, localized, and dynamic ways have tended to find a small positive impact on job growth and wages alike. Some businesses expand hiring, rather than displacing existing workers. In other cases, low-skilled immigrants “have kept entire industries alive,” retaining factories and other facilities that might otherwise have gone overseas or out of business.
American workers have seen their earnings flatten out over the past four decades. But as much as the Trump family wants Americans to blame their lot on poor brown foreigners, the real cause of wage stagnation looks, well, a lot like the Trumps.
Powerful, wealthy white people who were born into influential families have been getting this stuff wrong for decades. Our policymakers have panicked about inflation that was never really coming, thus depressing employment and wages through unambitious macroeconomic ideas. Our business tycoons have broken and undermined unions, removing the strongest bulwark to working-class earning power.
Corporate America has hoarded cash for shareholders rather than investing it in workers. The minimum wage has steadily declined in buying power for decades, leaving corporations that depend on low-wage workers to be effectively subsidized by the taxpayers who pay for the anti-poverty programs on which their workers rely. And compensation at the other end of the economic spectrum has skyrocketed, capturing an ever greater share of total American productivity at the expense of working families.