Robert Putnam on Immigration and Social Cohesion

Interview by Molly Lanzarotta on February 11, 2008

At a time when the U.S. public and U.S. leaders alike are wrestling with the right approach to immigration policy, a five-year study by Professor Robert D. Putnamshows that effective immigration policy must be about more than numbers and borders. Putnam is the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy and founder of the Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America.

Q. Your research indicates that at least initially, our fear of what is new and different means that increased immigration and diversity reduce trust, social solidarity, and social capital. What does this research indicate for public policy?

Putnam: The short run effect of being around people who are different from us is to make all of us uncertain – to hunker down, to pull in, to trust everybody less. Like a turtle in the presence of some feared threat, we pull in.
The purpose of public policy in this context must be to try to make everyone – both new folks and old folks – feel comfortable with this new diversity in their environment. That generally means creating a more encompassing sense of “we” – some sense of identity that cuts across the salient lines of race and ethnicity. This requires an emphasis on making sure everyone can speak to each other; language training is really important.

Some people who are worried about immigration in America for some reason believe that this new wave of immigrants doesn’t want to speak English, but the level of language acquisition by this current wave of immigration is just about what it was 100 years ago when people were coming here from Russia, Poland, Italy or Germany. Then, we had a lot of concern about whether the country was going to become German-speaking. Most people who lived in St. Louis, Cincinnati or Milwaukee in those years spoke German, not English. But of course their kids learned to speak English and the grandchildren of those immigrants spoke only English.
But we don’t have enough classes for English language training now to meet all of the demand from the immigrants. So the first important plank in a platform for successful immigration policy would be to provide more English language training and to do it in a context in which the immigrants can get to know one another and get to know native born American citizens. That means doing this in a social context and in a setting where people can learn about the customs of this country – the same kinds of things that we did a hundred years ago.

Schools are important for civic integration and symbols of national unity are important. It’s crucial to identify interests and values that are shared by both the immigrants and the people who have been here longer. That’s certainly something that can be done by local governments; it can be done by community organizations and churches.
Q.Some see immigration policy as “something that happens at the border.” What are the limitations of this approach, and how can policy makers move beyond it?
Putnam: Control of the border is important, but that’s all we’ve been talking about in America in recent years in terms of immigration policy. No matter how many immigrants we have, no matter what we do about those who’ve arrived without documents, what’s most important is to figure out how we create a unified country out of this new mix.

That doesn’t mean “they’ve got to become like us.” That’s not actually what we did the last time we went through this, years ago. We didn’t make “them” – the Italians or the Irish – become like us WASPs. We created a new “us” that embodied a lot of the gifts, talents, interests, tastes and food of the newcomers. It’s a new, richer mix.

So it’s not a matter of how many people are coming through the door; it’s a matter of what we do once they’re here to make them part of a new “us.” That occurs in countless little ways – in churches, in schools, in the workplace, in politics and in bowling leagues. There are many, many places where we begin to develop a more welcoming and a more capacious sense of this new, diverse “we.”

Q. How do successful immigrant societies like the U.S. overcome the fragmentation your research describes?

Putnam: In the recent history of the world, the U.S. is one of a very few successful immigrant societies. One of the reasons I’m fundamentally optimistic about how America will respond to this new wave of immigration is that we have done it before. All advanced societies are going to become more diverse; it’s inevitable and it’s going to be basically good. But the U.S. has an advantage as a society since we actually have some national experiences in the recesses of our collective memory about how you go about becoming a successful immigrant society.

In the successful cases – like the United States, like Canada, and to some extent Australia – the first step is that the immigrant groups often form organizations on their own: the sons of Ireland or the sons of Norway. Now those may look initially to the receiving society like, “Oh, they don’t want to join us, they want to have their own separate group.”

But what’s going on is that these people are in a new place and they’re trying to find some group with which they have something in common and can begin to form friendships –any of us would do that in a new setting. Those organizations historically prove to be steps toward becoming involved in America. So the first step would be to join the Sons of Italy and the second step would be to join the Rotary Club or the Kiwanis or the Lions. So successful immigrant societies learn to become comfortable and relaxed about these steps, to moving from being an isolated immigrant who doesn’t speak their language into being – over the course of their lifetime and over the course of their kids’ lifetime – a fully integrated member of a new, more interesting country.

Q. Some might view this research as reflecting negatively on immigration in the U.S. How do you see it?

Putnam: The initial social psychological reaction of people – all of us – to diversity is to hunker down and pull in. And that means that collectively there is often an initial reaction in a period of immigration to a sense that, “wouldn’t it be better if we just didn’t have these immigrants?” That would be exactly the wrong reaction because, in fact, immigration for the United States has been an enormously important national asset. We wouldn’t be anything like as successful a society as we are if we weren’t an immigrant society. A vast and disproportionate number of American Nobel Prize winners are actually immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants. The economy is actually helped on average by immigrants. I don’t mean to imply that every single American benefits because there is added competition, to some extent, in some labor markets. But the net benefit of immigration for the economy is quite strong.

As a society we need to learn how to transfer the benefits of the immigration – the greater economic growth, for example – to other parts of the society that are perhaps damaged by immigration in the short run.

The same thing is true with respect to the effects on the finances of the country. There’s a big advantage to American fiscal accounts to having immigrants. Largely the biggest effect of that is that immigrants are paying social security taxes, but they’re not actually going to be receiving social security benefits for a long time since, on average, immigrants are much younger. So the short term effect of a large wave of immigration at this point is to enable us to somewhat soften the challenge of financing the retirement of the baby boomers.

But of course, there is a cost of immigration. Immigrants bring with them additional expenses for medical care and education. Those costs fall on local governments, and therefore much of the net benefit of the immigrants is going into the coffers of the federal government and much of the net cost in budgetary terms is going to local governments. There’s a powerful case for significant fiscal transfers from the federal government to state and local governments that have been impacted by immigration. Years ago when I was growing up and there were lots of military bases around the country, there was a similar kind of transfer from the federal government to communities that had bases to help pay for the education of the children of the servicemen who were living there. That program has mostly now disappeared because we don’t have such a large military base structure domestically. But the same kind of thing – impact fees – should be provided to help offset the real costs to communities so that the local tax payers aren’t forced to bear the whole burden of what is on net for the country as a whole a major gain.

Q. Is there anything you’d like to add in summing up?

Putnam: The most certain prediction that we can make about any modern society is that it will be more ethnically diverse 30 years from now. That is true for the U.S. and it’s true for Sweden and it’s true for New Zealand, it’s true for Japan; it’s true for all of these modern countries, partly because of immigration, partly because immigrants tend to have larger families. And basically that’s going to be great. We are going to become more diverse and it’s going to be good. There are positive advantages in economic terms, in terms of creativity, in terms of innovation – Nobel Prizes and artistic creativity – so all of that, as well as food and culture in general, is enriched when we get this flow of diverse newcomers to a country.

But the short run effect, our research shows, of new, unfamiliar diversity, is to make everybody uncomfortable, to cause us to pull in and to kind of hunker down, to be less connected to our community, to trust everybody less – not just the newcomers, but to trust people who look like us less. All of us become a little bit like turtles, we pull into our shell in the presence of this new diversity. The challenge for a successful immigrant society is to, over time, over a decade or two, make people become more comfortable with diversity by creating a new sense of identity that cuts across these lines, a sense of shared identity – as Red Sox baseball fans, or as people who play soccer together, or as people who go to mass together – people who share something in common that overrides and that for a while trumps this sense of their ethnic diversity. That’s happened repeatedly in the past in the United States. It’s happening to an extent in America right now. If we don’t do anything about the problem, we’ll solve it still; it will just take a little longer. But I think if we pay attention to how to create this more encompassing sense of “we,” we can get through this process and we can reap the benefits of immigration much more quickly.

Answers to questions submitted via e-mail:

Questions submitted to Robert Putnam via e-mail:

Dear Prof. Putnam,

I really liked your article especially when you say that diversity will bring in new creativity and competitiveness to any country. I had one question though:

You said that in order to soften the short term effects of immigration, we have to create a sense of "we", like "going to the Red Sox game, or going to Mass together and so on".

But unfortunately all these examples that you give are very "American" things to do. I as an immigrant who does not necessarily come from a baseball playing country and who is not Christian, would hence never get an opportunity to take part in this "we" feeling. And this is exactly why immigrants are unable to mesh into the society completely. The only way that they can become "American" is by doing the very things that you mentioned. How about Americans going to a temple with some Indians?

This is the exact reason why fissures also erupt between the members of an immigrant community by dividing that community into the "whitewashed" ones, who choose to follow these activities, to be part of the American system and those who don't, who are seen as the "real immigrant," not only by the American society but also by their own community.

If we really want to see integration, Americans have to be ready to take two steps towards the immigrants and the immigrants will take two steps as well, instead of expecting the immigrants to take all the four steps.

I hope to hear back from you,

Pia M.
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Prof. Putnam's reply:

Dear Pia,

Many thanks for your thoughtful response and questions. I'm afraid you've caught me out with those two examples of cross-cutting identities, because I was trying to use examples that would be familiar to most readers/listeners. However, on the merits I entirely agree with your view that the "new we" that emerges from a period of heightened immigration is not identical to the "old we" prior the arrival of the new immigrants.

As I have said on many other occasions, American identity, which had been largely "WASP" (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) before 1900, was transformed by the assimilation processes of the first half of the twentieth century, as elements of the newly arrived cultures were integrated into (and thus changed) the previously WASP culture. Fifty years ago, for example, people spoke of "Jewish humor," because most stage and radio comedians were in fact Jewish, but today it would be odd to speak of Woody Allen's humor as "Jewish humor," because we all think of his work as "American humor." I'm not smart enough to predict which elements of Latino and Asian cultures will become similarly integrated into American identity over the coming several decades, but I'm sure that many will, thus transforming and enriching what it means to be "American."
Bob Putnam


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