This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 13th (it will be out in January 2020), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Guest Workers and Putting Americans to Work

As I write this, the second Republican candidates debate is still playing on CNN (it is a three-hour extravaganza). The immigration issue is not the single most important topic in the discussion, but it has come up. Among the salad bowl of ideas floating around are: (1) we don't need amnesty for undocumented immigrants, but we do need a guest worker program; and (2) we need to create more jobs for Americans, although that should not be accompanied by a higher minimum wage. Don't these ideas clash with each other? We ended our major guest-worker program with Mexico (the Bracero program), just before the massive new immigration law was enacted in 1965 that increased the legal quota of immigrants from the western hemisphere, as from most other places in the world. The idea was that we were no longer going to need a guest worker program. That immediately turned workers crossing the border to work in the US from legal guest workers to undocumented immigrants. We have continued to need those workers, however, because US-born workers tend not to want to do the jobs that the immigrants are taking. Part of this is because the jobs are hard and crummy, and also because wages in these jobs are so low--they are exploitative.

At the same time, many jobs--especially manufacturing jobs--in the US have gone "off-shore" because global population increase since WWII means that there are a lot of people elsewhere in the world who will work for a lot less than the current US minimum wage, even as low as it is. And that is why we are able to buy so many things--our standard of living has risen because we can afford to buy things that are made by people who work for very low wages. So, we have to reckon with the fact that a rise in wages will increase our cost of living, and implicitly lower our standard of living. Now, the first people who feel this effect of a mandatory rise in wages are the owners of businesses. Oftentimes, however, they are making so much more money than their workers that the resultant income inequality is also a major societal problem.

These are issues that have evolved over the past several decades, and they are not amenable to easy answers. Anyone who has an easy answer simply hasn't thought this through.


  1. Prof. Weeks. Excellent thoughts. I agree completely. The xenophobic attacks on Latinos during the current GOP race are absurd, and misplaced. Indeed ... these people are doing a LOT of jobs that Americans wouldn't dream of doing!

    The USA is on the horns of a dilemma, Not only have we outsourced manufacturing jobs overseas ... but to a large extent ALL services can now be performed overseas. Americans were able to command "better wages" provided we provided high-level services ... such as finance, technology, medicine, banking. But now these professional skills are available to the rest of the world ... and the high wages of US workers cannot be justified on a competitive basis. The explosion of debt in America ... represents the efforts of the USA to continue living a lifestyle that is no longer compatible with the true global economy. But that's a message the GOP debate does NOT want to give to voters.

    Pete, Redondo Beach

    1. No, they do not want that message of unsustainability to reach voters' ears. For example, Marco Rubio seemed clearly to accept the fact of global climate change. But he disagrees with "liberals" that we should do something about it, because it will harm the economy in the short-term if we spend money trying to save the planet in the long-term.