Immigration and Compassion
The beggars on a street in Moscow unwittingly played a part in a study bearing on some of the most urgent questions in the social sciences. Are ethnically diverse societies less generous to the poor? Does immigration undermine support for welfare programs by increasing diversity?
The question is overlooked but important as the nation debates how to deal with estimated 9 million illegal aliens in the United States, and the millions more struggling to make their way here at almost any cost.
Some of the Moscow panhandlers were Russians, just like the vast majority of the pedestrians. Others were dressed in the distinctive garb of Moldova, a small former Soviet republic that gained independence in 1991. Finally, some of the beggars were darker-skinned Gypsies (also known as Roma), who are visibly of South Asian origin.
Unbeknownst to them, the beggars were being monitored by a team of ethologists (students of the science of behavior). They were led by Frank K. Salter, an Australian political scientist at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, and Marina Butovskaya of the Russian State University for Humanities, who may be Russia’s most prominent human ethologist.
The researchers counted each time a passerby gave money to a beggar. A pattern soon emerged. The Russian pedestrians preferred to give to their fellow Russians, with the Moldavians, their fellow Eastern Europeans, as their second choice. The Asiatic Gypsies were so unpopular that they had to resort to a wide variety of tactics to scrounge spare change, ranging from
singing and dancing, to importuning tightwads, to dressing up their children in crutches and eye-patches.
The huge United Way charity of America seldom capers for alms on street corners, yet a similar human tendency to give more to the needy when they are members of one’s race has been observed among its donors, too.
Salter said, “The more homogenous a county, the more they gave to the United Way.”
Further, the generosity of the welfare programs in democratic countries is significantly correlated with ethnic homogeneity.
Salter has edited for publication in 2002 a book titled “Welfare, Ethnicity, & Altruism: New Data & Evolutionary Theory” (Frank Cass Publishers). In it, 16 academics discuss the growing evidence that diversity and compassion don’t mix.
For example, the welfare state originated and still flourishes best in the highly homogenous lands of North Central Europe. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck invented modern social programs in late 19th century Germany. Since then, the spiritual home of the welfare state has become Scandinavia.
Among Nordic peoples, welfare programs might be most popular of all in Iceland, which has had no significant immigration in about 1,000 years.
Icelanders are so genetically homogenous that deCODE Genetics has chosen Iceland as the perfect place to look for disease-causing genetic mutations, as there is so little random variation in Icelanders’ genomes to confuse the search. Genealogist Fridrik Skulason, head of the project to create the Icelandic national family tree, estimates that two random Icelanders would be, on average, sixth or seventh cousins to each other.
In contrast, the United States has always had a large non-white population and has frequently had a high proportion of immigrants. It has also traditionally offered the lowest welfare payment levels of any rich democracy. Interestingly, most American social programs came into existence during the long period from 1924 to 1968 when immigration was largely shut
While transfer payments to the elderly remain popular in America, welfare payments to the poor, who tend to be minorities, were allowed to decline in real terms through most of the last quarter of the 20th century. This culminated in 1996 when Aid to Families with Dependent Children was radically reduced.
In an interview this summer at a human ethology conference that he and Butovskaya organized in Moscow, Salter argued that while the specific history of race relations in the United States played a role in the 1996 welfare reform, “Blaming welfare cutbacks in the United States on white opposition to blacks doesn’t explain the global correlation.”
Switzerland, with three major ethnic groups (German, French, and Italian), makes an interesting test case. Overall welfare payments are lower in Switzerland than in most European countries, especially the neighboring Alpine state of Austria, which might seem similar, but is highly homogenous ethnically.
Interestingly, homogenous states also tend to give more foreign aid. Denmark is the biggest giver in the world on a per capita basis, while the United States is far down the list. Perhaps, generalizing from their own satisfactory experience with transfer payments at home, they tend to be more trusting than Americans that foreign welfare will be well spent by the recipients.
According to Salter, “Ethnic solidarity is due to individuals conceiving of their ethnic groups as extended families.” He argued, “As ethnic heterogeneity increases, society resembles less and less an extended family due to accumulating cultural and racial differences. As a result, public altruism declines across the society as a whole, but survives within ethnic groups.”
This may seem highly esoteric, but Salter’s perspective has some highly down-to-earth implications for the popularity of welfare — and how attitudes toward it might change as immigration increases and the United States becomes ever more diverse.
In the United States, for example, blacks are more likely than whites to have close relatives who would qualify for welfare. Not surprisingly, blacks tend to favor welfare more than whites, who often see welfare as a giveaway to people unrelated to them.
In Iceland, by contrast, welfare payments to the poor are generally viewed as favorably as Medicare entitlements for the elderly are in the United States.
Icelandic voters see poverty assistance as a safety net that could help anybody’s extended family at some point.
Salter argued, “The liberal left supports generous welfare but also policies that add to ethnic heterogeneity, such as high levels of immigration. It does not seem to have occurred to them that they must choose between maximizing the two.”