Indiana slow growing, but portion of population gain due to immigrants

The research center where I work just released a study on immigration in Indiana.

Sociologist Emily Wornell was the lead author of a work that most Hoosiers will find interesting. Part of the study reported surprising data, but there was also some analysis that should clarify many misunderstandings about the issue. Let me explain.

So far this century, a full quarter of all the population growth across Indiana has come from immigrants. This is important in a state that is now growing at well beneath the national average. More critically, across the 32 Indiana counties losing population last year, a full 29 saw net immigration from immigrants. None saw growth in native-born citizens.

Despite what many would think as a flood of immigrants, Indiana is only at about one-third of its peak immigration of the late 19th century. From what this study can tell, immigration may be the single biggest source of population growth for Indiana in the coming decades. Again, that is not a new development. Roughly 150 years ago, when my most recent immigrant ancestor, Michael Joseph Young, arrived from Wales, nearly one of every 11 Hoosiers was foreign born.

It is fair to say that the big decline in immigration to Indiana accompanied our state’s long, slow relative economic decline. The absence of immigration did not cause it, but immigrants seek opportunity. Declining opportunity in the late 20th century caused immigrants to move elsewhere. The uptick in immigration to Indiana in this century signals better opportunity. We must hope to sustain it.

New immigrants in Indiana should be especially welcomed. On average, they are better educated than the typical Hoosier adult, and unlike the state as a whole, educational attainment among immigrants is growing briskly. Immigrants to Indiana are, on average, a major benefit to the state, and contribute more in tax dollars than they receive in benefits. There is little doubt about that conclusion, despite political rhetoric to the contrary.

The benefits and costs of immigration, however, are not equally distributed. The costs are very isolated, while the benefits are spread more uniformly across households.

Like other researchers, we found immigrants affect labor markets. On average, immigrants boost wages by buying more goods and services. For workers with a high school degree or less, however, immigration reduces starting wages by roughly 2 percent. While that amounts to as much as $70 a month, which is not a trivial amount, the effect is limited to starting wages. The effect of immigrant competition is erased after three months on the job.

For workers with college experience or degrees, the effect is wholly positive. Working in places with a greater share of immigrants boosts wages. That should not be surprising, since proximity to better-educated workers broadly boosts wages. Moreover, the services produced by better-educated workers appears to be in higher demand across immigrant households.

We also examined the potential negative consequences of immigrants on student learning. This is the one place where the costs for the state would be most impacted. Fortunately, the state keeps close tabs on the number of English Language Learners, or students for whom American English is a second language. Over the past four years for which we have uninterrupted data, there is no effect of different shares of English language learner students on school performance.

Perhaps the most interesting finding detailed in the study is the more rapid pace of immigrant assimilation that accompanies current waves of immigrants. A century ago, language and cultural institutions were slower to adjust than today. This part of the study was also interesting in pointing out that immigrant assimilation is partially a two-way street. But, that should be obvious in a state where burritos and curry are becoming as common as potato salad, bratwurst and pierogi.

It is unfortunate that such a straightforward issue should be so politicized, but I suppose that is a residual of our times. I hope readers will come to to read this analysis. It will erase any misgivings you may have about immigration in Indiana.

Michael J. Hicks is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and an associate professor of economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University. Send comments to [email protected].