Does immigration cause poverty in the UK?

Over the last 10 years migrants have contributed £20billion net to the UK economy.

Despite this, many migrants in the UK are forced to live below the poverty line, in low-wage jobs, with language barriers and a lack of support networks; these are only a few of the disadvantages that they face.

Although there are some indications of the impact of migration on UK society, inconclusive research does much to convey that it is a complex issue, one that we will need to delve into with future nuanced research to really address poverty reduction in the UK head on. What we can do is begin to try and understand what research already exists, and where we might have to look further to really impact change in the future.

Evidence from a 2011 Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) report suggests that increased migration leads to a decrease of already low-wage jobs, which has a negative impact on poverty. However the same report shows evidence of small decreases in cost of living via goods and services such as take-away food, washing/dry cleaning and hairdressing due to migration. Therefore policies centered on reducing low skilled migration may lower the risk of wage losses in low-wage jobs in the short term, but could also increase the cost of certain goods and services that low-wage individuals consume.

In addition it is our government’s approach to these sectors, which have lead to representation of migrants in particular industries. “Low investment in certain public services, such as social care, has led to low-wage jobs that are relatively unattractive to UK workers. Meanwhile, the lack of high-quality vocational training in certain fields, such as construction, may have encouraged demand for migrants rather than UK workers.” This is supported by additional reporting from the LSE Migration Unit that explains that if migrants are not perfect substitutes with natives “they may cluster in “hard to fill‟ jobs at the bottom of the labour market.”

And then there is securing the work to begin with; in some cases people that have come to the UK as refugees experience employment levels as low as 29%. Barriers to entering the labour market are plentiful and are of no fault of the individuals and families striving for a better life. Lack of English fluency, absence of UK work and references, childcare obligations and fear of loosing benefits or housing all prevent refugees coming to the UK in even establishing themselves as contributors to the economy. The reality is that some migrants groups are earning more than £5 per hour less than their UK counterparts, which makes a huge difference in already low-wage positions, and makes poverty, whether in or our of work, a much closer reality.

Although there are some indications of the impact of migration on UK society, inconclusive research does much to convey that it is a complex issue, one that we will need to delve into with future nuanced research to really address poverty reduction in the UK head on.

And what of measurement and the impact on the UK economy? Getting deeper than low earners and what they do but that is about as far as we can currently go. Firstly we will struggle in measurement of migration itself. Secondly, we cannot identify people with harder-to-measure characteristics, such as communication skills or numeracy. So we cannot see an accurate picture about how those groups are being directly affected.

An additional barrier is education. In regards to migrants coming to the UK, whether or not the individual is educated carries less gravitas than you would think. In a 2015 Labour force survey it showed that foreigners were overall more educated than UK counterparts. However, one-third of those from the EU were in low-skilled jobs in comparison to 10% of people born in the UK.

Contrary to many discussions had about immigration in the UK and its public services, the majority are in work contributing to the economy, and access to public services is extremely limited in some cases, especially before migrants are granted their stay in the UK. A 2013 European Commission report showed that –specifically EU unemployed migrants made up less than 5% of migrant claimants across the bloc and that fewer than 38,000 were claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance. According to the previously cited JRF report, migrants in the UK are also younger than the average UK population, making them less likely to need certain public services.

In terms of non-EEA migrants they are not actually allowed access to publish funds, such as Jobseekers Allowance (JSA), child benefit, or child tax credit – unless they are granted refugee status. Asylum seekers are also not eligible for welfare benefits while their claims are still pending; though they may in some cases be given a subsided financial support by the home office to sustain themselves during this period. To bring to light further injustice, unlike traditional benefits, which are uprated every year to take inflation into account, welfare payments to asylum seekers are increased at the discretion of politicians. For a nation committed to reduce poverty – these policies seem incongruous.

The unfortunate affect of these challenges faced, is that more children fall into poverty. As well as suffering similar struggles as to those in the UK, they also deal with disruption of their education and support network. According to the Child Poverty Action Group migrant children over-represent the amount of UK children living in poverty. And almost all undocumented children are living in poverty with sub-standard temporary and substandard accommodation. Worse yet is that due to their immigration status, and barriers previously discussed in this piece, prevent their parents from moving out of poverty.

In terms of the relationship between poverty and immigration in the UK, whether we are discussing the poverty of UK born individuals or migrants themselves, it is a multifaceted issue that cannot simply be attributed to one thing. Although we can observe some areas where immigration is affecting the UK labour market, and using public services, neither are impactful enough, or detailed enough to be responsible for poverty in the UK.

Further reading…

Joseph Rowntree Foundation: Impacts International Migration Poverty UK

LSE: Migration Studies Unit: The long term impacts of migration in British cities: Diversity, wages, employment and prices

Full Fact: Migration and welfare benefits

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