What Are The Economics Of Immigration?

7:42 minutes

At least 65 million people are currently displaced from their countries around the world. As they cross borders and seek out new homes in other nations, how are they shaping economies? New research in Science Advances, looking at 30 years of data from more than a dozen European countries, finds that an influx of migrants or refugees is quickly followed by an economic bump. Meanwhile, that bump is slower and less pronounced in the case of asylum seekers, who are often restricted from working and awaiting permanent residency.

[This particular squid relies on something that many other cephalopods don’t—its bacteria BFF.]

Maggie Koerth-Baker, senior science editor for FiveThirtyEight, shares this story and other recent science headlines, including the future of plastics recycling and a political controversy about nonstick coatings.

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Segment Guests

Maggie Koerth

Maggie Koerth is a science journalist based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Coming up a little bit later in the hour, how to resolve the question of, is a drink a day OK? Is it helpful? And then we bring our celebration of cephalopod week to a close. But first, according to United Nations estimates, more than 60 million people around the world are in some way displaced from their homes. And roughly 30 million are either refugees or seeking asylum in another country. As US and European countries fight politically over how to treat these migrants, one of the big arguments against welcoming them is money.

How does an influx of new people affect a nation’s economy? New research published in the journal Science Advocates found that countries that welcome migrants often see a boom, and within as little as two years. Here to explain that research and other short subjects in science is Maggie Koerth-Baker, senior science editor at 538. She joins us, as always, from Minneapolis. Hi there, Maggie.


IRA FLATOW: So how do you go about measuring the economic impact of something like immigration?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Well, so what these researchers did was they looked at 30 years’ worth of migrant and economic data from 15 countries in Western Europe. And what they found is that when you accept migrants and refugees into these countries, it didn’t harm the economies. And in fact, what they found is that the more stability the countries offered immigrants, the better off the economies were. So for instance, if you had an influx of migrants who were given some kind of permanent residency status, that was associated with increases in national economic health and reductions in the unemployment rate. And these changes happened, on average, within just two years of the migration.

And in contrast, when you had an influx of people who were coming in under a less stable situation– so, for instance, if they weren’t allowed to work, if they weren’t sure they were going to be given permanent asylum– it took more than twice as long for economic benefits to appear, and the benefits weren’t as large. And basically, the experts think that that’s just because stability means putting down roots. People take on jobs. They increase local demand for products and services. They increase the tax base. They start businesses that create jobs for others. When they have stability, economies benefit.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Should economies alone, then, motivate countries’ decisions about how to treat people who arrive from other countries?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Well, obviously not. We know that there are already lots of good moral and ethical reasons to help people find a safe haven, you know, least of all being what would you want people to do for you. But this is one of those things that can sort of help to put that in the context for people who are concerned about economic impacts of large-scale migration, is that it is not a bad thing for economies.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to another topic, and this is a dilemma for US recycling thanks to China. It’s about plastics in China?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah. So you might have missed back in December, when China announced that it would no longer open its doors to plastic waste from the rest of the world. And it turns out that when you put plastic in the recycling, it was usually cheaper to send that across an ocean for processing in China than to do the actual recycling domestically. That country was accepting more than 45% of the plastic waste from around the world, and that’s over now. So a new study came out this week that found that it could mean these huge quantities of plastic that have nowhere to go, grinding recycling programs to a halt worldwide.

By 2030, the US alone could have an extra 37 million metric tons of plastic to contend with. And a lot of that is probably just going to end up in the trash. The Washington Post is reporting that some states, like Massachusetts and Oregon, are already lifting restrictions that used to prevent plastics from going to landfills.

IRA FLATOW: Going back to the ’60s. We threw stuff around.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: In some ways, yeah. And there’s a couple of things that we can do. One thing you can do is do a better job of sorting and cleaning your recycling, because China is still accepting plastics that don’t have a lot of food contamination on them. The other thing is that we’re just going to have to use less plastic– so plastic bags, plastic straws, all those things that are already on the regulatory chopping block in a lot of places.

IRA FLATOW: Maybe we can make biodegradable plastic more useful.


IRA FLATOW: Next up, nonstick skillets are even worse than you think they are.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah. There’s a toxicology report that came out this week revealing that this whole class of chemicals that are used in nonstick skillets but also in things like firefighting foam, and they can be dangerous at levels that were 7 to 10 times lower than the standards that had previously been set by the EPA. So, in many places around the country, these chemicals are in the drinking water at levels above what the new report recommends. And that’s putting everybody, especially fetuses and newborns, at risk of a range of possible problems from decreased fertility all the way up to things like cancer and liver damage.

IRA FLATOW: How old is this report, and why haven’t we heard about it?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Well, this report has been actively suppressed by the Trump administration. There’s memos that came out revealing that the administration knew about the report at least as early as January and was sitting on it because of its potential to be a PR nightmare. It was only released this week after several congresspeople had drafted an amendment to a Pentagon spending bill that would have forced the publication.

So there’s a lot of things sort of going on with this. It’s going to cost a lot of money in clean up. There are corporations that have made these chemicals that have already paid out huge settlements for fixing water supplies and dealing with the damage caused by the release of this chemical into the environment.

IRA FLATOW: So are they saying everybody to throw out their nonstick skillets?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: The bigger thing is this water issue. The bigger thing is probably more to do some kind of charcoal filter on the water that you drink, because that’s going to clean up some of this stuff.

IRA FLATOW: I already have mine firmly in place. At long last, we’re going to try to clean up some space junk. There is an awful lot of it, isn’t there?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: There is an awful lot of it. NASA is tracking more than 500,000 pieces of space junk. And that’s just the stuff that’s big enough to track, so that’s everything bigger than a marble. 20,000 of those pieces are larger than a softball. And they all move at speeds capable of damaging the International Space Station, damaging spacecraft, creating plots for hit movies, all of that kind of thing.

IRA FLATOW: I see. So what are they going to do? How do you get a garbage truck out into space to collect all this stuff?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Well, the largest satellite ever deployed from the ISS, launched on June 20th. It’s called RemoveDEBRIS, and it is the first real-life experiment that’s kind of aimed at eliminating this space junk from orbit. So what it’s going to do is basically test out the system, kind of like Skeet shooting in space, where it’s going to release a couple of cube sets from itself and then try to pull those things back on board using a harpoon and net system. And then, if that is successful, it will de-orbit itself using a drag sail. So normally, a satellite of this size would take a couple of years to fall out of orbit. With the drag sail, it’ll take eight months.

IRA FLATOW: I think we need some fishermen astronauts up there, with their nets and stuff.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah, apparently. The white whale is now going to be space junk.

IRA FLATOW: Maggie Koerth-Baker, senior science editor at 538, always good to have you. Thanks for joining us today.


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