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Monday, April 25, 2011

Measuring Assimilation in the U.S.

"Assimilation" is a word I have learned to use carefully.  For one thing, it is a word that is often used as a weapon to justify ungracious behaviour.  "If they would just learn the language, they would be treated better," - as if mastery of a particular language were a pre-condition to humane treatment.  If that were true we would have all the justification we need to snob tourists.

For another, it is a word that is highly dependent on context and is both used and interpreted differently depending on where all the participants to the conversation happen to be coming from.

So I greatly enjoyed this study from the Manhattan Institute that attempts to put some clarity into the debate in the U.S.  The author, Jacob Vigdor,  sets a very clear standard and then uses explicit criteria to make meaningful measurements about the degree to which the foreign-born differ (or don't) from the native-born.    The report lists three types of assimilation:  economic, cultural and civic.

Economic:  Basically this is labor-force participation.  How do the foreign-born contribute and in what sectors?  Assimilation is low if workers from a particular national origin cluster in a particular rung of the economic ladder or in particular industries. Low economic assimilation can be true of high-paid workers as well as people in lower paid occupations.  What is being measured is how that participation differs from that of the native-born.

Cultural:  In the report language is a criteria among others used to measure integration.  Religion is not a factor - intermarriage with a native, marital status overall, and the number of children, are.

Civic:  This is measured through naturalization and military service.  The report says (and I agree) that this may be an even stronger indicator of overall integration than cultural assimilation because "the choice to become a naturalized citizen, or to serve in the United States military, shows a tangible dedication to this country."

This report which was published in 2006 is not intended to be the definitive word on assimilation and the author is clear that he is not making a judgement about people's personal choices or coming down on one side or another on the assimilation debate. He freely admits that, in some cases, "Assimilation may not be necessary for immigrants to make net positive contributions to society. Assimilation may even be undesirable under certain circumstances. For example, immigration may have the most positive net impact on economic growth if immigrants are economically distinct from natives."

What he does aim to do (and I think he succeeds brilliantly) is to raise the tone of the debate and help Americans clarify their thinking in order to make sober, well-reasoned decisions about policy in our democracy. And that, mes amis, is what being a citizen is all about.

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