A new study of migrants to Sweden found something that will surprise no one: immigrants from some countries end up making significantly more money, on average, than immigrants from others. Country of origin matters a lot, and it matters at least into the second generation.

Andreas Ek, a young professor at the University of Lund, reported earlier this year in the Journal of Political Economy that, if you ranked average incomes by country of origin, the average immigrant from a country at the 90th percentile earned three times as much as one who came from a country at the 10th percentile. In statistics jargon, that’s the “90/10 income ratio”—and a 3x wage difference is big. For reference, the 90/10 income ratio for IQ—a span of about 40 IQ points—predicts just a 1.5x to 2.2x wage difference.

To explain the country-of-origin results, Ek offers evidence that differences in national culture across countries drive a lot of these immigrant income disparities. He shows that these cultural differences persist into at least the second generation. Ek writes, “Corroborating the cultural interpretation is also the fact that differences persist for second-generation migrants,” so the drivers of these income gaps must “be not only embodied in the migrants but also susceptible to intergenerational transmission.”

Migration, in other words, creates a culture transplant, bringing attitudes from the old country to the new country, creating cultural changes that last for at least decades, perhaps centuries.

If, like me, you see immigration policy as a way for a country to find people who can improve it, it would be great to know which countries tend to crank out top economic performers. Scouts for college sports teams know that certain high schools or certain parts of the country are more likely to have those diamonds in the rough—or even cut and polished diamonds. Where you’re from isn’t the only predictor of success, of course, but it’s one that a country shouldn’t ignore when it comes to immigration.

So, which countries are typically the best producers of talent for Sweden? Unfortunately, we can only guess, because the University of Lund’s ethics review board stopped Ek from telling us. As he explains in the “read me” file for his dataset:

“When applying for [Swedish government] data that includes at least one variable deemed ‘sensitive’ (birth country and parental birth country in the case of this project), it is mandatory to have the research project approved by an ethics review board. In this particular case, it was approved by the Ethics Review board 3, in Lund (DNR 2015/52). To get this project approved, I agreed to the condition that I do not make any results available at the country level, but only present results related to average country characteristics. Therefore, I omit country names.”

Put simply, the university’s ethics board decided that reporting which countries immigrants were born in was forbidden. We’re not talking about hiding a person’s name or home address—that’s obviously the right thing to do, especially when you’re studying a person’s wages. Rather, we’re talking about hiding immigrants’ countries of origin in a study about immigrants’ countries of origin.

I can’t be certain what the board members’ motives were in suppressing this research. But it seems likely that they weren’t worried about people learning which nations generated the best-performing first- and second-generation immigrants. They were probably worried instead that people would learn which countries, on average, are the ancestral homes of lower-earning immigrants. The ethics board didn’t mind people knowing where the A and B students came from, but they obviously didn’t want people to know where the D and F students came from. That would be punching down.

But in a country like Sweden, with a massive, expensive social safety net, having migrants who earn a lot—or at least having migrants whose kids, on average, grow up to earn a lot—is important for the country’s long-run economic health. Sweden needs lots of citizens who pay more into government coffers than they take out. And it’s a safe bet that on average, migrants from countries at the 10th percentile, or their children, will be disproportionately represented in the net-taker group.

Even in the U.S., which doesn’t have much of a social safety net by rich-country standards, the lowest-skilled workers, whether migrants or not, are on average a net cost to the government. Jason Richwine of the Center for Immigration Studies dug deep into a National Academy of Sciences report on the issue, finding that in the U.S. “a high school dropout immigrant who arrives at the age of 25 will generate a lifetime fiscal cost of $186,000.” George Mason University economist and open-borders advocate Bryan Caplan agreed with Richwine’s assessment, also noting that so-called native high school dropouts—a group that includes second-generation immigrants to the U.S.—have an even bigger lifetime fiscal cost, $388,000.

I’ve been saying for years that many people doing research into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations are hiding the ball. In fact, I used the term “hiding the ball” three times in my recent book, The Culture Transplant. Usually, you have to look for hints, signs, or indirect signals that some researcher is concealing how immigration shapes the economy. But in this case, Ek tells us straight out: the University of Lund ethics board ordered him to hide the ball!

It’s not a very effective trick, though. An enterprising researcher could find it with a little work. Following the standard practice in the field, Ek provides all of his raw data and all of his statistical software here. A few people on social media have already connected the dots to figure out which country is which in Ek’s cross-county results, but it would take a little more work to link that up to the average incomes of migrants to Sweden who come from that diverse set of countries.

Perhaps it would violate academic ethics for me, personally, to do that work. I don’t know, and I’m not going to find out. But I’m glad to invite others, inside or outside of academia, to give it a try.

Photo: adrian825/iStock/Getty Images Plus


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