Worries about the effects of immigration are prevalent in politics across Europe and the US. In the UK, for instance, concerns over immigration dominate much of the Brexit debate. For many, immigrants are seen as a source of competition for jobs and access to public services (irrespective of whether this is true or not).
Despite the intuitive appeal of this argument, empirical evidence to support it is lacking. One reason for this is that although migrants enter the labour market, they create jobs too by using the wages they earn to support economic activity in the local economy. Another reason is that migrants tend to complement, as opposed to compete against, existing workers by often doing the tasks others don’t want to do.
A further commonly expressed concern relates to whether migrants contribute their “fair share” to the tax and welfare system. These concerns are also largely unfounded. Migrants in the UK, for example, are substantive net contributors to the public purse. This is because migrants tend, on average, to be more likely to be at work and less likely to access social services.
In short, immigration does not appear to have any appreciable negative impact on jobs. Meanwhile, migrants partly subsidise the costs of public services for others.
Part of the story
Focusing on the economic effects of immigration may, however, only tell us part of the story. In new research, my colleagues and I examined how rises in immigration into local areas affected different people’s self-reported sense of well-being, as opposed to actual economic well-being. We found some interesting patterns.
The measure of subjective well-being that we use is commonly referred to as the General Health Questionnaire. It is widely used by researchers to measure a variety of components of what constitutes mental well-being. This includes anxiety, social dysfunction and general happiness.
Some examples of the types of statements included in this measure include: “Have you recently felt unhappy or depressed?” Or: “Have you recently lost much sleep over worry?” And: “Have you recently been able to enjoy your normal day-to-day activities?”
When it comes to this measure of subjective well-being, we found that for the population as a whole, the effects of immigration during the 2000-2017 period for UK-born residents in the UK is very small. But, having said that, there appears to be certain sub-groups where the effects are negative and more notable.
These groups include relatively older people (those over 60), those with low household incomes, and/or the unemployed. These well-being differences across sub-groups closely mirrored voting patterns in the recent UK referendum on EU membership.
So the question arises: why in the face of overwhelmingly positive economic effects, would the subjective well-being of some people in the UK be negatively impacted by immigration? In our study, we put forward two potential explanations that we feel are important, but there are likely to be many more.
The first we suggest is due to flawed reasoning. In effect, a rise in immigration could cause psychological distress for UK-born residents based on their belief or perception that it lowers their economic opportunities – even if it doesn’t actually have a negative impact.
Supporting this idea, we find that immigration is more harmful for the subjective well-being of certain groups of UK-born residents in times of low as opposed to high GDP growth. When the overall economy is not doing as well, the perceived economic threat posed by immigrants may be more apparent to UK-born residents.
Tackling misleading negative stereotypes (such as “job-stealing immigrants”) and drawing people’s attention to the economic and social contribution of migrants may, therefore, be an effective strategy for lessening the negative impact of immigration on people’s sense of overall well-being.
‘Us’ and ‘them’
A psychological framework called social identity theory offers another potential explanation for our findings. This relates to the idea that people are naturally inclined to self-categorise into an “in-group” (us) versus an “out-group” (them). In turn, people belonging to the in-group are less likely to be trusting of out-group members.
It is not hard to see that UK-born residents, especially those with relatively strong attachments to their own ethnic identity, may perceive themselves as part of an in-group and immigrants as part of an out-group. Social identity theory therefore suggests that even if effects on economic outcomes are positive, migrants may be perceived by UK-born residents as belonging to a competing out-group, and in turn a cultural threat irrespective of whether this is actually true or not.
The main concern with these findings is that if – despite positive economic benefits– immigration is associated with adverse effects on the subjective well-being of certain groups in society, then this makes the challenge of integration more difficult.
Going forward, focusing on people’s subjective well-being as opposed to pure economic indicators may help us understand more about the forces shaping anti-immigration attitudes in the UK – and the rise of this sentiment across Europe.