In last week’s column comparing median income numbers from country to country, we found that, by the measure the OECD uses, median incomes in the US are the seventh highest in the world (not counting some tiny city states.)
Even after including income from welfare programs, the median income of the US is about equal to that of Austria and Denmark.
These numbers include incomes from welfare programs, so it may very well be that the US’s relatively pro-market institutions really do lead to higher incomes for many millions of people — even including people in the lower third of incomes. Breaking out states showed that some regions of the US compare even more favorably.
The response to the article, of course, was predictable. Advocates for converting the US even more into a European style welfare state chimed in — in social media and in the comments section — with claims that European countries have higher life expectancy, lower crime, and are just generally better places.
This is often true, although comparisons don’t favor European welfare states nearly as much when we break out the US by states. Many US states compare quite well in terms of crime and life expectancy.
“On paper” comparisons, often favor the European welfare states.
When it comes to making comparisons of this nature, however, it’s always important to take a look at where people actually choose to live.
This has long been a useful tool in comparing US states, of course, and there’s been a long trend of people moving from high-tax states in the US to low-tax ones. When choice exists, many people vote with their feet.
And while it’s much more difficult and expensive to move from, say, Belgium to the United States than from California to Texas, the choices migrants make nevertheless can provide us with useful information. These moves tell us the demonstrated preferences of the migrants.
So, how many Western Europeans are moving to the United States, compared to migration in the opposite direction? A new report from the Pew Research Center titled “Origins and Destinations of the World’s Migrants, 1990–2017,” gives us some of the answers.1
According to Pew’s helpful interactive map, Western Europeans move to the US in far greater numbers — both proportionally and in absolute terms — than Americans move to Western Europe.2
Using Pew’s numbers, there are now 2.9 million people living in the US who were born in Western Europe. It’s imprecise, but for the sake of ease, we might say that as of 2017, Western Europe has sent 2.9 million Western-Europe-born people to the US. But during the same period, the US sent only 690,000 people to Western Europe.3 Part of this could be attributed to the fact that the overall population of Western Europe is 30 percent larger than that of the United States. (There are 419 million Western Europeans, and 323 million Americans.)4 But when we adjust for population, the difference is far larger than a mere 30 percent.
There are 6.9 Western-European migrants (to the US) per 1,000 people living in Western Europe today. By contrast, there are only 2.1 US migrants (to Western Europe) for every 1,000 people living in the US today.
These numbers vary considerably by country:
To make the method here clear, let’s use Ireland and Spain as examples.
According to Pew, 140,000 people now living in the US were born in Ireland. That’s a pretty small number in the big scheme of things, but compared to the total number of people in Ireland (4.7 million), it’s really quite large. This comes out to 29.4 Irish migrants (to the US) per 1,000 Ireland residents.5 At the other end of the spectrum is Spain. There are now 110,000 people living in the US who were born in Spain. But Spain has a much larger population of 46 million people. So, there are only 2.3 Spanish migrants (to the US) per 1,000 Spanish residents.
How does this compare to Americans living in Europe? Broken out by country, the results look like this:
(Taking all destination countries in Western Europe combined, there are 2.1 US migrants (to Western Europe) per 1,000 US residents.)
We can see, not surprisingly, that these migrants are not distributed evenly. The country with the most US-born migrants in Europe, both proportionally and in absolute numbers, is the United Kingdom. There are 190,000 US-born migrants in the UK, which comes out to about 0.5 per 1,000 US residents. The only other country that comes close is Germany with 0.4 US-born migrants (to Germany) per 1,000 US residents. All other Western European countries come in far behind Germany.
But even when Western Europe is combined together, we find that Americans move to Western Europe overall far less frequently than Western Europeans move to the US.
The UK case especially stands out as an example of the lopsided differences in US-Europe migrant exchanges.
With an overall population of 65 million, the UK is the birthplace of 750,000 current US residents. In contrast, with a population of 323 million, the US is the birthplace of only 190,000 people living in the UK.
Put another way, the UK has sent 3.9 people to the US for every one person the US has sent to the UK.6
Expanding the Picture
Our conclusions don’t change much if we add in other wealthy countries that are likely to be attractive to Americans. If we include Australia and Canada in our analysis, the situation remains the same — even though these countries pose no language barrier to Americans. According to the Pew report, Canada has sent 890,000 migrants to the US. But the US has sent only 310,000 people to Canada in return. Meanwhile, the US population is about nine times as large as Canada’s population. Australia has sent 90,000 people to the United States. But, even though the US population is 12 times larger than Australia’s, the US has only sent 120,000 people to Australia.
These numbers, of course, can be affected by factors other than a mere desire to move from one place to another. It may be that, due to legal reasons, it is especially difficult for an American to move from the United States to, say, France. It may very well be that Western European governments go out of their way to keep American migrants away. Or the prevalence of English as a second language throughout Europe may make it easier for Europeans to move to the United States, than vice versa. It stands to reason that far more Germans receive English-language instruction than Americans receive German-language instruction.
Ultimately, however, if Americans were truly motivated to emigrate from the US and take advantage of Europe’s allegedly far-more-humane institutions, then the language barrier would not be sufficient to hold back the enormous numbers of Americans clamoring to escape the US. And certainly, this rationale doesn’t apply at all to Americans looking to move to Canada, Australia, Ireland, or the UK. And yet, we find that the flow of migrants from the wealthy non-US parts of the world is significantly larger than the flow of migrants in the opposite direction.
None of this, however, should be interpreted to mean the United States is a paradise or without blemish. After all, far from proving perfection, comparisons like these could merely be illustrating that the United States is only relatively less awful than other places — at least in the opinion of the people who actually migrate to the US. Those who don’t migrate, of course, have demonstrated a preference for staying where they are. Moreover, its also abundantly clear that some areas of the United States are far more pleasant to live in than others. And that reality certainly leaves plenty of room for improvement.
But if Americans are going to be lectured on how much more wonderful life outside the US is, these critics at least ought to be asked to comment on why it is that so many more Europeans are moving to the United States, compared to the other way around.