Frances Woolley is a professor of economics at Carleton University, where she teaches public finance
When Canadians are asked, “How satisfied are you with your life in general?” more than 90 per cent respond “satisfied” or “very satisfied”.
Yet one group has a significant satisfaction deficit: immigrant children, and their parents.
A recent working paper by Peter Burton and Shelley Phipps of Dalhousie University studies the life satisfaction of youth who immigrated to Canada as children, plus immigrant parents. They used data on thousands of recent immigrants and Canadian-born families collected through the Canadian Community Health Survey from 2002 to 2008.
Immigrants’ lower satisfaction comes down, in part, to economics. The immigrant families Burton and Phipps studied had incomes approximately one third lower than those of comparable Canadian families. These income differences explained more than one quarter of the satisfaction gap between Canadian-born and immigrant youth. For parents, the loss of life satisfaction due to low income was even greater, perhaps because parents make sacrifices to shield their children from economic hardship.
Yet no one expects immigration to be easy. Coming to a new country, not speaking the language, and being separated from family and friends is hard. For girls in particular, ethnicity and language appear to explain a significant portion of the satisfaction gap between immigrants and non-immigrants.
Language and ethnicity are important to parents too. Burton and Phipps found that 43.5 per cent of the gap in satisfaction between immigrant and Canadian-born mothers could be explained in terms of language and ethnicity differences, with East Asian and Black parents (but not South Asian ones) experiencing lower levels of life satisfaction.
But does it get easier over time?
Burton and Phipps answered this question by looking at people’s sense of belonging, how they answered the question ““How would you rate your sense of belonging to your local community?”
Immigrants felt less of a sense of belonging than the Canadian-born. For youth, feeling like you don’t belong is a better predictor of being less satisfied with life than being an immigrant. Indeed, once Burton and Phipps controlled for people’s sense of belonging, the gap between immigrant and comparable non-immigrant youth went away. (That was not true for parents, however -- even immigrant parents who felt like they belonged to their local communities were still less satisfied than non-immigrants).
But is feeling like you belong just a matter of time, something that builds the longer you’re in Canada? For parents, the answer is yes: the longer immigrant mothers and fathers live in Canada, the more they feel like they belong to their local communities.
For teenage girls, however, the answer is no -- girls who have been in Canada for longer are less likely to feel a strong sense of belonging to their local community.
After reading Burton and Phipps’ paper, three things struck me.
The first was the sheer magnitude of the satisfaction difference between immigrant and Canadian-born mothers: 22.9 per cent of immigrant mothers -- those who have been in Canada 17 years or less -- are very satisfied with life, compared to 48.5 per cent of Canadian-born mothers. I wonder: are there policies that would reach out directly to immigrant mothers, getting people involved in the local community, whether that’s coming to meet the teacher nights, or joining school councils? Or is it just economics: immigrant mothers are shouldering the burden of making ends meet.
The second thing that struck me about Burton and Phipps’ was the pain of not belonging. How will immigrant girls who find themselves caught between different sets of cultural expectations sort it all out?
Finally, it’s not all bad news for immigrants. Immigrants are, on average, more likely to be in excellent health than the Canadian born. Researchers call this the healthy immigrant effect, and attribute it to diet. Immigrants are also more likely to live in two-parent families. By making good lifestyle choices, like instilling healthy eating habits, immigrant parents may be building the foundation for future life satisfaction.
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