Political economist Alberto Alesina discussed research on misperceptions of immigrants on Wednesday in Klarman Hall.

November 1, 2018

Harvard Economist Presents Research on Global Misperceptions of Immigrants

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According to political economist Alberto Alesina, people all over the world have intensely negative feelings about immigrants — thoughts that often make them less charitable.

Overall, citizens in each nation surveyed overwhelmingly misperceived immigrants as more Muslim, less wealthy, less educated and less employed than they actually were. American respondents in particular were vastly overestimating the percentage of immigrants in the population at 35 percent, while the actual number was closer to 13 percent.

Alesina, the Nathaniel Ropes Professor of Political Economy at Harvard University, described the conclusions from his latest study during the George Staller Lecture Series organized by Cornell’s Department of Economics.

Alesina and his team surveyed thousands of respondents in the United States and five European nations on their views on immigrants. Alesina noted that the countries in question — the United States, Great Britain, Germany, Sweden, Italy and France — were chosen because they are all countries where citizens believe immigration is a “major issue.”

According to Alesina, respondents in every nation thought that “there are many more [immigrants] than there actually are, and that [immigrants] are lower quality, in terms of education and employment, than immigrants actually are.”

Levels of these misperceptions vary among different groups.

“More educated people misperceive less,” Alesina said. “If you live in a diverse society, you tend to understand better the concept of a diverse society and you don’t overblow the sight of a few immigrants around you.”

However, the research showed that after people saw a video about a hardworking immigrant named “Emma,” a mother of two who worked two jobs and attended college at night, respondents were “more favorable to immigration policy and redistribution.”

Alesina and his team also asked respondents to think about immigration before asking them about redistribution programs like welfare and whether or not they would donate to charity.

The study concluded that there is a correlation between “misperception of immigration” and “strong opposition to immigration and strong opposition to redistribution policies.”

Alesina said those who were asked to consider immigration and then asked to contribute money to charity donated less than those who were not asked about immigration at all.

Noting currently inflamed political attitudes directed toward immigrants, Alesina acknowledged the public policy implications of the study, suggesting that anti-welfare politicians may want to use “immigration as a tool,” to turn people against redistribution programs.

Increasingly, “the perception of many whites is that a large portion of welfare goes to minorities,” Alesina said. For his next paper, Alesina plans to investigate the role of race in inequality and segregation in the United States.