Immigration and Poverty with Gumballs

I don’t know if you noticed, but this month the USA had an election. I’m not going to discuss the outcome of that election. However, I will discuss one of the most important issues for the candidates and many of the voters: immigration.

In the build-up to the election, a video started making the rounds on social media in which Dr Roy Beck of Numbers USA makes a case against immigration using gumballs. These gumballs represent the people of the world living below, and just above, the poverty line. Ignoring the recurring trend of using sweet snacks to represent complex issues and human lives, let’s focus on his arguments against immigration as a tool to fight world poverty.

First of all, Beck tells us that there are 3 billion people living on less than $2-a-day, and a further 2 billion living below the average income of Mexico, where he argues the ‘plurality’ of US immigrants arrive from. The US then ‘take a million, and suggest that we have somehow made a humanitarian difference’. And put this way, he seems to make a good point. How could taking such a small amount, less than 0.1% of the growing impoverished population of the world, even make a dent in the problem of world poverty?

Obviously, to get it out of the way, the USA is not the only country in the world accepting immigrants. In 2014 for example, 3.8 million people immigrated to an EU country. However, it is more important to think from the other side of the coin. From the side of the people living on under $2-a-day.

A significant chunk of those who escape these conditions do so through immigration. For example, according to, 82% of Haitians who escaped poverty did so through immigration.

However, it is in the wider effects that we see a greater impact.

When people emigrate, they usually do so to receive better pay or conditions for the same work. In a global market, like ours, this helps promote convergence. This is where labour markets across borders begin to see more ‘convergence’ in conditions and wages as local economies try to hold on to their workforce. The extent to which this is happening is questionable, and variable depending on emigrant nation, however, it could be contributing to global GDP rises.

Coupled with the more observable effects, such as remittances (money sent home by immigrants, often outstripping foreign aid) and improved trade and diplomatic relations between countries, we can start to see how migration can have a wide reaching impact on poverty.

Secondly, Dr Beck makes that point that, as our immigration systems seek the highly skilled workers and the well-educated, we are depriving countries of their ‘most energetic…certainly the most dissatisfied’ people at home. Taking away the ‘aegis for change’ and improvement in these home countries.

This is what is known as ‘Brain Drain’, and there are a lot of good arguments for why this could be a real problem around the world. Doctors, academics, teachers and more from poorer countries see better-paid opportunities with better conditions in the richer nations, and what if all the best and brightest left?

Well, they don’t. Not all of them. It is argued that the opportunity for global migration provides opportunities to study and train and return home with better skills as well as ideas taken from more ‘successful’ nations. These ideas could help build businesses, restructure schools, start a revolution.

It could even be viewed as a motivation to provide quality education to more people so that as well as more skilled workers staying home, they also emigrate, sending home remittances, bringing back more ideas, trade, and relationships within these other countries. In a global market, more connectivity is a good thing that can help build the home economy and GDP.

The migration system the USA and many other nations around the world employ will not solve the problem of world poverty.

But it is a useful and powerful tool in that fight.



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