One South Carolina equipment company recently decided to replace its native-born factory workers with Hispanic immigrants. As described by the researcher Laura Lopez-Sanders, the company instructed Hispanic supervisors to hire their co-ethnics for entry-level jobs and to advertise only in Spanish-language newspapers. This initiative, known in the firm as "the project," successfully transformed a predominantly black labor force into an Hispanic one in a matter of months. Hispanics, the company believed, were simply better employees than blacks. They were more reliable, punctual, harder-working, and less likely to complain. In the company's view, the best kind of Hispanic worker was an immigrant — especially an illegal immigrant.
The Lopez-Sanders study is part of a larger body of ethnographic research showing that American employers of low-skill workers overwhelmingly prefer Hispanic and Asian immigrants over native-born whites and blacks. As the evidence has accumulated, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has filed several lawsuits accusing businesses of systematically replacing natives with immigrant labor.
These developments have been accompanied by a growing labor crisis among less-skilled American workers. Although the country's official unemployment rate is just 4.1 percent, the statistic is misleading because it only reflects people who are actively seeking work. A significantly larger percentage of working age-adults has dropped out of the workforce altogether. The problem is most pressing for men ages 25 to 54. Not long ago, such men were expected to work, and that expectation was usually met. In 1970, just 4 percent of prime-age men were out of the labor force. But that number has tripled to 12 percent today. And the problem is not evenly distributed. While 6 percent of native male college graduates have abandoned the workforce, 17 percent of those with only a high school diploma have done so, as have 36 percent of high school dropouts. For African Americans the problem is even worse: the labor force dropout rate for black men of any education is 22 percent. What are these men doing instead of working? They are not taking care of dependents or going to school. Rather, the evidence indicates that they spend much of the day — 5 and 1/2 hours on average — watching movies and television!
The decline in the number of native men in the workforce has started to attract attention from policy analysts and academics, but many overlook the connection between native idleness, high levels of low-skill immigration, and employer preferences for immigrant labor. While native work effort dwindles, immigrant men continue to put in long hours — an average of 49 full-time weeks per year for workers without a high school diploma, compared with just 35 weeks for comparable natives. And Hispanic immigrant men work 10 more weeks per year than native-born black men. Attempts to explain this picture result in a frank contradiction: Experts blame natives' nonwork on a reduced number of jobs for low-skill labor, while at the same time attributing the influx of millions of low-skill immigrants to the shortage of workers available to do those very jobs. Unfortunately, the case for more low-wage immigrants ignores a source of workers right here at home: the millions of less educated but able-bodied Americans who are currently out of the labor force.
Do immigrants "steal" jobs from natives? A more accurate assessment, based on what business managers say, is that as the native work ethic deteriorated, immigrants increasingly filled the void. But as long as the United States receives a steady flow of low-skill labor from abroad, the crisis of worker idleness can be papered over or just ignored altogether. In the words of economist Vernon Briggs, immigration exerts a "narcotic influence" on politicians, opinion leaders, and business owners. It allows our country to avoid confronting head-on the vital national problems of native non-work and declining worker quality.
Without drastically curtailing low-skill immigration, there is little incentive to make the significant cultural and practical changes needed to improve and reintegrate native workers. If the influx of foreign low-skill workers were ended, employers who wish to keep their plants running would have to aggressively pursue native labor with advertising campaigns, better working conditions, and perhaps relocation incentives and higher wages. Reducing immigration would encourage other long overdue changes as well, including strengthening work requirements as a condition of government aid, tightening eligibility standards for disability benefits, and abandoning the college-for-all mindset that devalues blue-collar occupations. Finally, low-skill natives themselves should embrace the social expectation — once unquestioned in our society — that they must work at the jobs that are actually available, even if sometimes arduous and unpleasant.
Work is a vital source of dignity, respect, self-reliance, and connection. When able-bodied people are idle, whole communities can become dysfunctional. Putting Americans back to work should be a top policy priority. Pursuing that goal starts with cutting off the "narcotic" flow of low-skill foreign labor.
Amy L. Wax is the Robert Mundheim professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. firstname.lastname@example.org
Jason Richwine is a public policy analyst in Washington, D.C. email@example.com
This op-ed is adapted from an article in the Winter 2017 issue of American Affairs.