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Una Osili: Immigrants contribute to public good

May 25, 2018

Una Osili
The United States has a rich tradition of welcoming newcomers. For two centuries, newly arrived Hoosiers have brought their skills and talents to contribute to and invest in the success of their new home.

My two children, like so many Americans of the 21st century, have an immigration story. With grandparents from two different continents, my children have learned firsthand about the economic and social investments immigrants make. My maternal great-grandparents were entrepreneurs and owned a candy store in Brooklyn, New York, and they taught their grandchildren (my mother) the values of hard work, excellence, thrift and investing in their communities. Likewise, my paternal grandmother in Awka, Nigeria, was also an entrepreneur, who worked hard to improve the lives of others.

Here in Indiana, as across the United States, we have seen shifts in the demographic and cultural composition of our cities and towns. The share of immigrants has grown steadily over the past decade. From recent U.S. census data, the fraction of Hoosiers who were born outside the United States has reached 6.3 percent, compared to 1.7 percent in 1990.

Perhaps less well-known is that the new immigration to the Hoosier state contributes to a critical source of diverse and skilled talent. Thirty percent of the foreign-born population in Indiana holds a college degree or higher. Immigrants account for nearly 10 percent of business owners in the Indianapolis metropolitan area and are twice as likely to start a business compared to their native-born counterparts. Whether it is because they are willing to take risks, or, like my grandparents, possess an entrepreneurial drive, immigrants create jobs and expand economic opportunity.

With the rising visibility of new immigrants, the public debate surrounding immigration policy has grown more divisive and controversial. A vocal group has argued that new immigrants—even when they contribute to our workforce and tax base—place a burden on U.S. communities. Others have suggested that recent immigrants might not adapt rapidly to U.S. social and economic institutions.

The heated climate led me to update my research on how the new immigration affects net contributions to public goods. My study examines how immigrants and natives compare in their contributions to local public goods over the past decade. More than any other industrialized country, the United States relies on private contributions toward public-good provision in education, health care and social services.

Voluntary contributions of money and time are also key indicators of “social capital,” which is defined as trust, norms and networks that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating cooperative outcomes.

In contrast to popularly held beliefs, my study finds that immigrants tend to adapt relatively quickly to U.S. institutions. It’s important to note that immigrants and their children are less likely to be a net burden. They contribute toward the provision of public goods. They are also less likely to receive assistance from government and non-government sources as their lives stabilize, compared to natives.

Further research can help us identify how immigration can contribute to Indiana’s economy. To grow our regional economies, business and community leaders can play an important role by developing strategies that can better integrate newcomers.

Like many young Hoosiers, our two children have grown up with the new immigration. They have had immigrant teachers, coaches, nurses, doctors and mentors from Nigeria, Congo, Ghana, China, Russia, Mexico, Haiti, Ethiopia and the Philippines.

Their lives have been enriched by the powerful example of newcomers who invest their time and talent to make lives better for Hoosiers.•

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Osili is professor of economics and associate dean for research and international programs at Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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