Immigration and support for redistribution in an age of globalization

Endrer innvandring folks villighet til å omfordele inntektene fra de rike til de fattige? Ny studie undersøker norske, nederlandske og tyske borgeres holdninger til omfordeling. 

Av Elias Naumann og Lukas Stötzer*

Globalization – the free movement of goods, services, people and capital – is one of the megatrends of our time. One aspect of this trend is the increasing number of migrants. The number of international migrants — people living in a country other than where they were born — reached 244 million in 2015 for the world as a whole, a 41 per cent increase compared to 2000. It is thus of high relevance to understand how migration affects our societies. This includes the consequences of migration for the economy and the labour market but also for the cultural, political and social life of a society. In this blog post we report on research that examines how migration affects solidarity within a society. More specifically, we are interested in a specific form of solidarity: citizens’ support for redistribution. Does migration change the willingness of people to redistribute income from the rich to the poor?

Expectations on how migration affects support for redistribution
One strand of literature argues that increasing diversity leads to ethnic and linguistic heterogeneity, and that such heterogeneity undermines people’s sense of community and reduces solidarity within a society. Experimental evidence supports this claim as people are less willing to contribute to public goods in heterogeneous groups mainly because they want to prevent redistribution from the in-group (of natives) to the out-group (of foreigners). Moreover, people might reduce support for redistribution if migrants are perceived as a net fiscal burden. Migrants are usually less well educated than the native population, which increases their risk of being unemployed and the risk of relying on state welfare. This might lead to a decline in support for redistribution.

In contrast, an alternative argument suggests that immigration might also increase support for redistribution since people might demand protection against the risks associated with immigration. For example, immigration increases competition on the labour market and therefore also the risk of becoming unemployed for some employees. And even if these risks are not real for everyone, migration also increases the subjective perception of such risks. So, we might also expect that higher levels of immigration into a country increase the support for redistribution and state welfare.

Our experimental study
In 2014 and 2015, we asked a sample of citizens in Norway, the Netherlands and Germany about their attitudes towards redistribution. Respondents should say whether they agree or disagree with the statement that the government should take measures to reduce differences in income levels. Respondents could give their answer on a five-point scale ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”.

In order to explore the effect of migration on these attitudes, ideally, we would expose some of the respondents or some regions within a country to migrants and then compare their attitudes to other respondents with no exposure to migrants. As such a study design is not feasible, our design tries to mimic such an ideal in an experimental setting. We randomly choose some respondents of our survey and give them information about the real share of foreign-born living in the country before they are asked about redistribution. We assume that this information primes respondents to think about migration, in that it makes considerations and feelings more accessible in the subsequent attitude question about redistribution. By comparing responses to the manipulated question with the answers of the non-primed respondents, we can identify how increased awareness of migration affects redistribution attitudes.

Support for redistribution is strongest in Norway where the average support is about 4 on the five point scale. Support for redistribution is lower in the Netherlands and Germany, where the average support is around 3.4. Comparing respondents that were informed about the number of migrants before answering the redistribution question with those without such information gives us an idea how increased awareness of migration might affect support for redistribution. Our results show that priming respondents’ awareness of migration has no clear effect on the overall support for redistribution. The treatment leads to somewhat lower support for redistribution in Norway, it almost remains stable in the Netherlands and slightly increases in Germany. Given the uncertainty of our results, we cannot say that any of these observed differences really exists. We conclude that there is no clear average effect of migration on support for redistribution.

The contribution of our research is a potential answer to the puzzle posed by these null results: migration does not affect everyone within a society in the same way. In all three countries respondents with high incomes show lower support for redistribution if they are made aware of migration. We do not find such an effect for respondents with low income. Moreover, those respondents who are affected by high labour market competition as they work in occupations with a high share of migrants rather increase their support for redistribution in reaction to our treatment.

Summary and conclusion
In summary, our experiment permitted us to show that only individuals with high income and those working in occupations weakly affected by increased labour market risks withdraw their support for redistribution. In contrast, for those affected by strong migration induced labour market competition, the compensation motive is stronger than tax concerns and priming migration has rather a support enhancing effect on redistributive preferences. Our results thus confirm the rival pressures that both tax concerns and compensation motives can have on redistributive preferences.

The overall effect of migration on support for redistribution thus depends on which of these rival pressures dominate the attitude formation process. Whether compensation motives or efficiency considerations have a stronger impact on redistribution preferences possibly depends on how the consequences of migration are framed by political parties. It also depends on the social rights of migrants and their labour market access. In this vein, political discourse but also policy reforms aimed at better integrating migrants in the labour market affect how our society responds to increasing migration.


Kilde: Naumann, E. & L. Stoetzer (2018): Immigration and support for redistribution: survey experiments in three European countries. West European Politics, 41, 1: 80-101. doi:10.1080/01402382.2017.1344040

*Elias Naumann er postdoktor ved Universitetet i Mannheim

Lukas Stötzer er postdoktor ved Universitetet i Zürich

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