David Green is a professor in the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia and an international fellow at the Institute for Fiscal Studies in London.
“When all you have is a hammer, all the world’s a nail.” This saying isn’t usually seen as a complimentary description of any policy approach but it appears to capture Canada’s immigration policy.
Immigration, undoubtedly, touches on nearly every aspect of our economy – from employment to output growth to health care to housing. And to hear the government speak, you would think it’s the right tool for the job in every one of them. The problem is, it’s at best an ineffective hammer for every one of them, and using it more will cause more problems than it will solve.
The size of the hammer is big and getting bigger. At the start of November, the federal immigration minister announced the new levels plan, taking Canada from receiving 405,000 permanent immigrants last year to 500,000 in 2025. Matching that is an expansion of the number of temporary foreign workers, to more than 770,000 in 2021 – almost double the high levels under the Harper government 10 years ago.
I am in favour of immigration at the levels of the recent past. But now the main argument made to ramp up immigration is that it will spur economic growth, and this is a tantalizing promise that turns out not to be true. Study after study after study shows that sudden expansions in immigration increase the size of the economy (the GDP) but don’t change GDP per person or the average wage – how well off people are. The research shows that immigration tends to lower wages for people who compete directly with the new immigrants (often previously arrived immigrants and low-skilled workers) and improves incomes for the higher skilled and business owners who get labour at lower wages. That is, it can be an inequality-increasing policy.
But isn’t this time different? Don’t we have such a high number of unfilled jobs that the economic machine is threatening to break down? First, the employment rate is now much higher than in the past and GDP per capita growth is strong. There is no evidence the machine is breaking down from lack of workers.
Second, the economy is not a machine that breaks down when parts are missing. It is an organic being that flows, guided by prices. If we didn’t bring in immigrants to match the vacancies, that does not necessarily lead to catastrophe.
When that happens, wages would have to increase to attract domestic workers. Some firms would not be able to pay the higher wages and might shut down or not undertake some projects. But those would be the least productive projects – the ones that don’t warrant the market wage. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s the way markets work.
Immigration thus keeps wages down in occupations in high demand, and that reduces incentives for firms and workers already here to invest in the skills needed to fill those positions, reducing opportunities, missing an opportunity to increase the skill level of the work force and getting in the way of training and education policies intended to help workers with those opportunities.
Using immigration to solve the labour crunch therefore has the potential to weaken productivity and lower wages.
Linked to the argument about labour shortages is the aging of our population. The retirement of the baby boom will lead to substantial increases in the ratio of non-workers to workers over the next decade. Surely, bringing in more immigrants is the right solution to this? The answer is that it will help a little bit but immigrants aren’t that much younger than the people already living here, and adding 100,000 more immigrants a year won’t move the age dial enough to seriously alter the dependency ratio.
And while it’s not solving these problems, a jump in immigration will put strains on other parts of our economy and society. Adding 100,000 more immigrants a year will mean a big increase in people looking for housing in our cities each year, where the housing markets are already at the breaking point.
The government’s response to this most obvious of problems is that immigrant trades workers will fill shortages in construction trades, increasing housing production. But the construction sector isn’t grinding to a halt because of lack of workers – employment in the sector is already above 2019 levels and there is plenty of activity. The problem in housing supply is rooted in municipal regulations around density and offshore buyers treating our housing as an investment. Immigration won’t hit those nails. It will make problems worse. And when it does, it will put a strain on Canadians’ much vaunted immigration-welcoming attitudes.
Further strains on the health care system are also concerning. A case might be made for bringing in the front-line health workers our system needs now. But the current system underutilizes foreign-trained immigrants, and the problem lies with rigid professional associations, not with the federal government. Bringing in more health workers without solving this problem is unfair to the people we are bringing in, adding them to the large number of frustrated foreign-trained health workers already here. Again, increasing the numbers is not the solution to the problem.
Immigration is both necessary and positive. Immigrants make our society more vibrant. And the evidence is they don’t lower standards of living. But neither do they raise them. Labour markets are finally poised to give workers the wage gains they have been waiting for. Housing markets are straining. Blocking the first and worsening the second in pursuit of pounding nails that immigration doesn’t even hit well isn’t wise policy. A sudden jump without better preparing housing markets and creating mechanisms to integrate the new immigrants is irresponsible.