More on "Jobs Americans Won't Do":

A brief response to Orin's post below: Perhaps Orin is right, and I'm mistaken; it's hard to tell exactly how these short phrases are likely to be understood.

But my sense is that the "illegal immigrants do the jobs Americans won't do" argument is mostly aimed at quieting people's concerns that illegal immigrants will take jobs that would otherwise go to current American citizens. Don't worry, the argument suggests: These are jobs that wouldn't exist (or would go unfilled) if it weren't for illegal aliens who are willing to do them cheaply.

The more accurate phrasing -- "illegal immigrants just do the jobs Americans won't do for the same low wages that illegal immigrants will take, and it helps our economy to have the jobs done at those low wages" -- carries, I think, quite a different message: It acknowledges that illegal immigrants do take some jobs that would otherwise go to current American citizens (and would go to them at higher wages), but argues (perhaps quite sensibly) that legalizing such immigrants would still be a good idea.

Orin suggests (as I understand it) that the "jobs Americans won't do" argument is basically seen as shorthand for this more precise phrasing. That just doesn't seem to me to be so (as the McCain quotes mentioned in the comments to Orin's post and to my earlier post suggest).

I agree that the two phrasings carry different implications and that "jobs Americans won't do" isn't just shorthand for Orin's phrase.

However, there seem to me to be two different sorts of jobs, and the shorter phrase is accurate with respect to one sort of job, but not the other.

First, there are jobs that Americans won't do for the wages that illegal immigrants would accept, but that would still exist without the current labor supply from illegal immigrants. Lawn care and nannying come to mind as examples of these sorts of jobs.

And second, there are jobs that may not exist without the current labor supply. Harvesting fruit in California comes to mind as an example). These jobs may still exist, but fruit from California needs to compete in our markets with fruit from Mexico, South America and even further abroad, and it is not clear that California orchards could produce competitively priced product without the current labor supply. (I'm not trying to pick on California or the fruit industry; it just seems like a good example to use for my illustration, and no doubt others could think of other industries for which the logic would hold.)

The shorter phrase is perfectly legitimate to use with respect to this second type of job that would not exist without the cheap labor.
4.11.2006 8:24pm
BruceB (mail):
Question: If citizenship or amnesty is offered as part of an illegal immigration solution, would these jobs exist as they do today?

Once the workers are citizens, or at least legal, they may demand more pay. My understanding is that part of the reason they are willing to work for so little is that 1) they are often paid under the table, so don't pay taxes, and 2) they accept jobs for less than legal pay, because they have no recourse to complain to.

Will changing their status change their willingness to do the jobs Americans won't do for the same low wages that illegal immigrants will take?
4.11.2006 8:55pm
frankcross (mail):
I'm sure different people take it different ways.

But taken literally, that there are jobs Americans won't do under any circumstances or for any pay is so patently irrational that I assumed most people wouldn't take it that way.
4.11.2006 9:56pm
"And second, there are jobs that may not exist without the current labor supply."

Not to get into an economics discussion, but every time a wage is decreased, additional jobs are created (the converse is true as well). More jobs exist at $5/hour than would at $10/hour. If the US were to restrict illegal immigration, employers would hire fewer workers because of the higher wage. But the remaining jobs would go to Americans or legal immigrants, and that is something the phrase "Americans won't do these jobs" just doesn't convey.

It's plausible that there may be some jobs that won't exist because there are not enough Americans to do them for wages which allow profitability. Normally, "free market" thinkers tend to say, "so what?" If we're not willing to pay $1 for each strawberry, then we don't eat strawberries anymore. Or we'll find another way to produce them economically (mechanization). Or we import them from countries that can produce them economically (something which should be apparent to free market types, too).

Of course Professor Volokh is correct that the purpose of the phrase is to allay concerns about immigrants "stealing" jobs from Americans. You won't hear politicians saying "immigrants do jobs for cheaper wages than Americans will" because most Americans will respond, "so pay the wage that Americans deserve/demand."
4.11.2006 10:17pm
"But taken literally, that there are jobs Americans won't do under any circumstances or for any pay is so patently irrational that I assumed most people wouldn't take it that way."

I am not a huge fan of McCain, but I wouldn't describe him as borderline retarded. But he essentially believes that rhetoric. He honestly believes (unless he's a liar) that $50/hour would be insufficient.
4.11.2006 10:20pm

The more accurate phrasing -- "illegal immigrants just do the jobs Americans won't do for the same low wages that illegal immigrants will take, and it helps our economy to have the jobs done at those low wages"

Again, I think you had it when you mentioned the effect of international trade. There are two cases:
1) entirely domestically produced goods--such as construction. In this case, your formulation is quite accurate in its implication that job displacement is occuring
2) goods with a substantial internation production. In this case, raising domestic wages by tightening the supply of labor could have the effect of eliminating an entire industry of jobs. The qualification being whether or not the cost differential can be covered by the shipping costs of importing overseas production.
4.11.2006 10:53pm
stealthlawprof (mail) (www):
It seems to me that there are some additional complexities that are not being addressed in this "jobs Americans won't do" debate. It is true that eliminating undocumented workers would eliminate some jobs and would presumably increase the wages for others. But this assumes that there is some readily available untapped source of displaced American workers to take those jobs. Given present unemployment rates, it is not clear that pool of workers exists. (In fact, I would suggest the opposite -- it is clear the pool does not exist.)

So, the effect of eliminating 11 million workers would be to eliminate millions of jobs and to shift a different set of millions of workers from one job to another as stiff wage competition ensues. Some of these presently-filled jobs might be not be necessary and could be eliminated (but there should not be many because the marketplace should ostensibly minimize that inefficiency.) So, the elimination of eleven million workers would shift many jobs out of the country and create a huge bidding war for workers to fill the others. As the bidding war escalates, the incentives to move more jobs to cheaper sources of labor will increase. Thus, we would have additional waves of jobs leaving the U.S.

Of course, we would also have massive restructuring across industries as complete industries become impossible to sustain in the restricted labor pool of the new America. Thus, the shake out would spread beyond the original range of lower level, unskilled or semi-skilled positions to middle management and perhaps even upper management. (That adds to the political ramifications of the move.)

Some might say from the standpoint of pure economic efficiency that all of this is fine. If it is cheaper to make the product overseas, it should be produced overseas. All of that is true, except it fails to grasp why it would suddenly be cheaper to produce things overseas. Drastically cutting the available labor force by eleven million workers is a manipulation of price accomplished by manipulation of supply. It is hard to see how this would have any less deleterious effect on the economy than any other manipulation of the price of labor, such as an increase of the minimum wage to $10/hour or a prohibition on work by some other segment of society (bar the 11 million youngest or oldest workers from the workplace). These are not free market solutions.

While I do not regard myself as a hard-core free-market advocate, I have enough confidence in the market and enough fear of government manipulating it to think that the burden of persuasion is very stout for anyone advocating the elimination of 11 million jobs and workers.
4.11.2006 11:14pm
Elliot123 (mail):
I'm reminded of various civil rights groups which have considered certain jobs to be lacking in dignity. This usually happens when one points out the pages of help wanted ads in the paper to people who say there are no jobs. Some civil rights folks will respond that those jobs lack the dignity their grop demands.

I wonder if the short phrase is implicitly using that idea to push the notion that there are some jobs which, by their very nature, are below the dignity of the average American.

Personally, there is a wage at which I will accept just about any job. I qualify that because I haven't thought of any job I wouldn't take for the right wage, but there still may be some.
4.12.2006 12:06am
A. Zarkov (mail):
The employment-to-population ratio for non-institutional men aged 25-64 has been decreasing for a long time, and it currently stands at something like 87%. For some reason, many men (and probably women too) have left the labor force. Either they can't find jobs and have given up, or they choose not to work. I think we should consider the effects of the large influx of unskilled low wage immigrants on this ratio. Illegal immigrants will clearly work for very low wages, and probably don't pay income tax and FICA. The after tax wage for an unskilled person is pretty low, especially if that wage sits on top of the income from a spouse. If the spouse's job provides medical benefits there is even less reason to work for a low wage. Therefore it's reasonable to conclude that if we reduced immigration, both legal and illegal, some Americans would come back into the labor force if wages went up. We could impose a tariff on those goods that would be uneconomic to produce at a higher wage. It might be worth doing if we consider the total cost to the American economy of the flood of low wage illegal immigrants. For example, working Americans have to pay the cost of medical services to low wage immigrants. When they come to a hospital emergency room, the hospital must treat them and recover the costs from other patients. Working Americans pay the cost of schooling the children of illegal immigrants, and so forth.
4.12.2006 12:26am

More jobs exist at $5/hour than would at $10/hour.

Yeah, and there would be even more at five cents an hour.
4.12.2006 12:32am
John McG (mail) (www):
There's a moral guilt trip in the "jobs Americans won't do" phrasing that isn't present in the more precise phrasing.

The message of the original phrasing is, you're not willing to pick strawberries for 12 hours a day in 90 degree heat, so how dare you stand in the way of those who are?

The second phrasing makes it seem explitive -- we tolerate these undocumeted workers so we can all pay a few cents less for produce, and at the same time enrich the American agriculture industry.
4.12.2006 12:34am
"But this assumes that there is some readily available untapped source of displaced American workers to take those jobs. Given present unemployment rates, it is not clear that pool of workers exists. (In fact, I would suggest the opposite -- it is clear the pool does not exist.)"

Not really. Many individuals, especially unskilled and under-educated workers, become what economists call "discouraged workers." These are workers that are unemployed in actuality but because they are not actively seeking employment within the last few weeks, they are excluded from unemployment figures.

There are 4 million unemployed adult natives with less than a high school education. There are another 19 million who are not in the labor force, a good deal of them probable "discouraged workers."

These numbers have increased quite rapidly since 2000 (when the largest flow of illegal immigrants in American history began).

See the CIS study for more data and discussion.
4.12.2006 1:21am
stealthlawprof (mail) (www):
Zarkov --

The assumption that undocumented aliens do not pay taxes is not borne out by the facts. The assumption that 11 million workers will be replaced by Americans coming out of early retirement, late schooling, or chronic laziness is a facile pipe dream.

Certainly there are pressures on social services created by low wage undocumented workers, but these pressures pale in comparison to the pressures from other segments of society that have huge numbers of unwed mothers, absent fathers, and males who have no record of lawful employment, many of whom are either in prison or engaging in conduct that will get them there.

John McG --

And the problem with a quality, affordable product from a strong American industry that is supported by willing and hard-working employees is ....?

I keep waiting for the argument from one of my fellow non-Native Americans that explains why these immigrant workers pose a problem so severe that they should be excluded. I have no problem with increasing border security. I have no problem with expelling those who violate our laws. I have no problem with establishing a more efficient system of tracking who enters the country and what they do here. But I see no reason to exclude people engaged in legitimate work when no one else stands ready to replace them. I see no reason, but I do note the acrid stench of prejudice.
4.12.2006 1:32am

Here is some more data for you.

Adult (18-64) native unemployment for those with less than a high school education is 14% in 2005 compared to 10% in 2000. Moreover, the labor force participation rate of this group also declined during this period from 59.1% to 56.3%.

But we have no Americans to fill these low, skill and low paying jobs?

Again check it all out over at CIS.
4.12.2006 1:32am
stealthlawprof (mail) (www):
Challenge --

And so the "discouraged workers" will all flock to pick the strawberries John McG is willing to leave in the fields rotting? That is not consistent with my experience, nor do I believe it is consistent with anyone else's.

I resided once in a very depressed region. We advertised an unskilled, minimum wage position and received about 500 applications. When I suggested to applicants that there were other parts of the country where employers were paying a premium to get workers in comparable positions, they had no interest.

The spirit of our ancestors who moved to earn a better life for themselves and for us their descendants is reflected far more in the working immigrant than in the citizen who sits on his couch waiting for the government to deliver him a job. If we expel the former and cater to the latter, we will make Europe look like a model of efficiency.
4.12.2006 1:43am
anonymouse2 (mail):
"Jobs Americans won't do" is not shorthand for "Job Americans won't do for those wages."

It implies somethings are beneath us—like backbreaking working in fields. But there are far more jobs that are no longer done by legal aliens or citizens because of the glut of illegal aliens in the market.

While anecdotal, I'm sure many people can substantiate that this anecdote is in line with their other rational perceptions. In suburban CT, near Manhattan, it is essentially *impossible* to find a legal nanny or legal maid. Why? Because they don't exist. They've been driving out of the market by the illegal immigrant population. The nanny market was so much cheaper with illegals; as a result, not enough people were willing to pay the taxes and SocSec/Medicare as well as the wages to maintain those who wanted legal work at the going rate; now, the going rate for a nanny is 1800-2200 there, under the table.

Are there no women interested in nanny-ing? Of course there are. Just as many women would be happy being maids. But not at the current rates—it isn't worth it. It isn't possible.
4.12.2006 1:45am
stealthlawprof (mail) (www):
Challenge --

The problems of less educated citzens are serious, but eliminating workers from the economy will not solve those problems. With perhaps a few rare exceptions, citizens who lack a high school education chose not to get one when it was offered to them without cost. Their track record is already suspect. To then eliminate 11 million workers in hopes that the drop-outs will rise to the occasion and rescue our economy from that severe wrenching of the labor market is a leap of faith I am unwilling to take.
4.12.2006 1:51am

95% of illegal immigrants work outside of agriculture. Can you formulate a better argument, one perhaps including construction or food service? I guess it just doesn't have the rhetorical zing, does it?

Illegals are working in construction, healthcare, restaurants, motels, etc. These are jobs Americans do everyday. In some cases a dollar or two increase will dramatically increase the number of Americans willing to take these positions.
4.12.2006 1:52am
"With perhaps a few rare exceptions, citizens who lack a high school education chose not to get one when it was offered to them without cost. Their track record is already suspect."

You seem to be moving the goal posts.

You say there aren't enough Americans to fill the positions. I show you there are. You say these Americans are worthless and they won't take the jobs even if they pay more. How am I supposed to respond to what amounts to an insult? If there is any "stench" of prejudice in this discussion, I think it's emanating from your corner.
4.12.2006 1:59am
stealthlawprof (mail) (www):
I do not condone anyone violating the laws relating to minimum wage or the collection of payroll taxes.

I don't know why agriculture should have any particular rhetorical zing. Of course, there are undocumented workers in an array of industries. Substitute any one of them you want for the strawberry fields.

The only evidence of displaced workers consists of statistical ruminations about "discouraged workers", not of people with sleeves rolled up being left on the sidelines. What employer is going to favor hiring an illegal immigrant who may not speak English and whose hiring can lead to legal sanctions when there are willing legal workers available? The unemployment rate is so low that the economy is readily absorbing anyone willing to work and willing to move to get work. We already have absorbed 11 million workers beyond what is supposed to be available to us.

The displaced American worker is a myth. But if we trash our economy by forcing at least 11 million jobs out of our economy, then the displaced American worker will be very real, in every neighborhood, on every street corner, giving us all a full color view of another Great Depression.
4.12.2006 2:09am
A. Zarkov (mail):

"The assumption that undocumented aliens do not pay taxes is not borne out by the facts."

What facts are those? How does an illegal pay income tax and FICA without a social security number?

The main point is we don't have a labor shortage. There is no need at present to import foreign workers to lower the wages of Americans. We have no obligation to provide foreigners with jobs. The problem is not only with low paid workers. The non-immigrant visa programs such as H1-b lower wages and cause employment for middle class Americans as well, especially in the IT industry. It starts with the bogus assertion that we have a shortage of say programmers or engineers. But we don't. It's a lie propagated to reduce labor costs for the IT industry.
4.12.2006 2:11am
stealthlawprof (mail) (www):
No. The goalposts did not move. You want to eliminate 11 million workers, and your replacements come equipped only with a pulse. That's not good enough. There is no prejudice, just an acknowledgment of choices made and adhered to. Jobs are available for workers, any and all of them; but if we eliminate the workers the jobs will have to leave, too.
4.12.2006 2:18am

I am tired of quoting statistics to you to disprove your personal opinions.

There are more discouraged workers. There are more unemployed individuals. The rate for unemployed high school dropouts is 14% (not discouraged workers).

There are millions of workers ready to take these jobs--jobs that Americans are already performing. Here are a few facts, which I think are bit more substantial than "ruminations" about the laziness of poor Americans.

Looking first at all workers shows that between March 2000 and March 2005 only 9 percent of the net increase in jobs for adults (18 to 64) went to natives. This is striking because natives accounted for 61 percent of the net increase in the overall size of the 18 to 64 year old population.

• As for the less-educated, between March of 2000 and 2005 the number of adult immigrants (legal and illegal) with only a high school degree or less in the labor force increased by 1.6 million.

• At the same time, unemployment among less-educated adult natives increased by nearly one million, and the number of natives who left the labor force altogether increased by 1.5 million. Persons not in the labor force are neither working nor looking for work.

• In total, there are 11.6 million less-educated adult immigrants in the labor force, nearly half of whom are estimated to be illegal aliens.

• Of perhaps greatest concern, the percentage of adult natives without a high school degree who are in the labor force fell from 59 to 56 percent between March 2000 and 2005, and for adult natives with only a high school degree participation in the labor force fell from 78 to 75 percent.

• Had labor force participation remained the same, there would have been an additional 450,000 adult native dropouts and 1.4 million adult natives with only a high school degree in the labor force.

• Data collected since Hurricane Katrina, in January 2006, show no improvement in labor force participation for less-educated natives. It shows a modest improvement in unemployment only for adult native dropouts, but not for natives with only a high school degree.

• The decline in less-educated adult natives (18 to 64) in the labor market does not seem to be the result of more parents staying home with young children, increased college enrollment, or early retirement.

• There is some direct evidence that immigration has harmed less-educated natives; states with the largest increase in immigrants also saw larger declines in natives working; and in occupational categories that received the most new immigrants, native unemployment averages 10 percent.

• While most natives are more educated, and don't face competition from less-educated immigrants, detailed analysis of 473 separate occupations shows that 17 million less-educated adult natives work in occupations with a high concentrations of immigrants.

• Some of the occupations most impacted by immigration include maids, construction laborers, dishwashers, janitors, painters, cabbies, grounds keepers, and meat/poultry workers. The overwhelming majority of workers in these occupations are native-born.

• The workers themselves are not the only thing to consider; nearly half of American children (under 18) are dependent on a less-educated worker, and 71 percent of children of the native-born working poor depend on a worker with a high school degree or less.

• Native-born teenagers (15 to 17) also saw their labor force participation fall — from 30 percent in 2000 to 24 percent in 2005.

Read the full analysis at CIS, Stealth.
4.12.2006 2:25am
stealthlawprof (mail) (www):
Zarkov -- Actually, many undocumented workers operate with a false SS number. They pay the taxes but cannot collect the benefits. Of course, the visa programs that you note address documented aliens. I do not doubt some problems exist in those programs (it is the government running it), but these are not issues with undocumented workers.

I am not advocating a do nothing stance; I am cautioning that the rapid elimination of 11 million workers would do irreparable harm to the economy. Secure the borders; document workers; enforce payroll taxes and minimum wage laws; improve and encourage education in underserved populations; create incentives for having children in marriage and staying married. Do not assume that you can fix all of these problems with the simple expedient of tossing 11 million workers out of economy.
4.12.2006 2:29am
"What employer is going to favor hiring an illegal immigrant who may not speak English and whose hiring can lead to legal sanctions when there are willing legal workers available?"

I dont know, maybe an employer that wants to avoid paying social security or employment insurance. Maybe one that wants to avoid labor or safety laws.

And even if there were no discrimination, the exit of these workers would raise the wage, which would induce many Americans to accept the position they refused to take before.
4.12.2006 2:30am
"No. The goalposts did not move."

Yes, they did. You cited the overall unemployment rate as proof that the labor market was tight. When overwhelming evidence was presented that the unskilled labor market is anything but, you maligned these individuals as lazy-good-for-nothings (all while claiming the other side is prejudiced).

That's moving the goal posts.
4.12.2006 2:33am
Oh, and on the 11 million number. I don't think that is workers. That is the total number of illegal aliens (estimated). The number of jobs occupied by illegals is around 5 or 6 million, I believe.
4.12.2006 2:36am
stealthlawprof (mail) (www):
Challenge --

The statistics are interesting. They certainly show problems with the less-educated native population. (No surprise.) Connecting those problems to immigration requires a leap from correlation to causation. Correcting those problems by eliminating immigration requires a further leap. Both leaps strike me as unsupported.

On that note, I must leave our discussion for the evening so that I can be a productive member of society at my own place of employment tomorrow.
4.12.2006 2:42am
Erik Voeten (mail):
"illegal immigrants just do the jobs Americans won't do for the same low wages that illegal immigrants will take, and it helps our economy to have the jobs done at those low wages"

Maybe, but this phrasing doesn't acknowledge that only SOME of these jobs would exist at higher wages for Americans. Others would not get done because they are not viable at the higher cost (think of many landscaping costs.

The bottom line is that "illegal immigrants do the jobs Americans won't do" is at least as accurate if not more so than the counterpoint "illegal immigrants steal American jobs."
4.12.2006 10:46am
Paul Gowder (mail):
I don't think anyone is seriously claiming (assuming McCain's comments were hyperbole) that there isn't some price at which an American would take, e.g., the sort of farm fieldwork commonly done by undocumented immigrants today. At some price, you can find someone to take almost any job, be it dangerous, hard, miserable whatever. (Consider miners, big firm associates, drug mules.)

But isn't the argument that the price would go through the roof perfectly convincing? We're talking about the food industry, in large part. Do you think the American people really want to see their grocery prices skyrocket like their gas prices?
4.12.2006 2:54pm
"We're talking about the food industry, in large part."

No, we're not. 95% of illegals are not employed in these areas. In large part we are talking about construction, maintenance and cleaning, landscaping, etc. These are jobs Americans not only would do, these are jobs Americans do everyday in every city in America.
4.12.2006 4:39pm
Paul Gowder (mail):
Challenge: Let me rephrase. "We are talking about a large part of the food industry." Better? Relevant factor isn't percentage of undocumented immigrants that are in an industry, it's percentage of an industry that relies on undocumented labor. I don't have specific statistics, but according to the USDA, 34% of hired farm workers (i.e. cherry pickers) are noncitizens. Also: "Hired farmworkers who are not U.S. citizens are more likely than all hired farmworkers to be Hispanic, male, younger, less educated, located in the West, and full-time workers (work 35 or more hours per week). They are also more likely than all hired farmworkers to be employed in crop production (table 7)."

I don't think there's any question that a very significant portion of these numbers are undocumented.

And then there's food service. Even on your "percentage of" undocumented immigrants notion, according to this , 12% of new immigrants are in food preparation.

You get the picture. The point is: it's significant, and it would cause massive economic upheavals.
4.13.2006 2:22pm
Massive economic upheavals? Uh, no. The total impact on GDP would not be much at all, but the prices of some goods and services would rise--along with wages. So what? That's how markets work, if you let them.
4.13.2006 5:20pm