When I was learning the journalistic ropes, one of the first lessons taught was never to present a piece of information totally devoid of context. So, for example, if you were writing about how much a national economy grew during a given time period, you’d also include something about how that growth compared with that country’s past performance, or with the performance of other countries. How else could the reader take anything useful away from such a report?
Apparently, however, CNN doesn’t always follow this practice. Or maybe more accurately, it doesn’t follow this practice when it covers immigration issues, and especially when even minimal context would cast doubt on widespread claims that America’s illegal immigrants are so valuable that Trump-like restrictionist policies are tantamount to economic suicide. How else could one interpret the May 18 post by Octavio Blanco on new legislation aimed at establishing California as a sanctuary state?
Blanco, for example, properly reported the claim of the bill’s sponsor that the illegal workforce “contributes some $180 billion to the state’s GDP.” I’d have liked some verification of this figure, or even a source, but at least Blanco associated the contention with a figure who’s clearly taken one side of the issue.
Other omissions are less justifiable. Is this a net figure? That is, does it include any costs resulting from the state’s illegal workforce, or families of these workers? The author doesn’t say. And what about some perspective about that $180 billion figure? Obviously the legislator who fed it to Blanco hoped to convey the impression that it’s a staggering sum. Yet it begs the question of how big that state GDP actually is. According to the U.S. Commerce Department, last year, it was a little over $2.6 trillion (unadjusted for inflation – and that took me four seconds to look up.) So if the $180 billion is unadjusted for inflation as well (something else the author doesn’t tell us), the illegal immigrant share is about 8.2 percent.
That still sounds like a lot. Except as the author also notes, another source pegs illegals as nearly 10 percent of the California workforce. So even if the $180 billion figure is accurate, that would mean that the state’s illegal workers are punching below their weight in terms of productivity.
That, however, wouldn’t be the last word, either. The $180 billion figure would be more impressive if it was a growing share of state output, and less impressive if it was shrinking or stagnant. But Blanco’s article gives readers no way to know.
Another statistic cited by Blanco sheds a little light on these questions, but not nearly enough, because it suffers the same shortcomings. The author reports that a “Washington, D.C.-based research group,” the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), has determined that “In 2014, almost $3.2 billion of California’s state and local taxes came from undocumented immigrants….”
Again, that “billion” word sounds like a major sum – but sharp-eyed readers might notice something that’s apparently eluded Blanco. If both ITEP and the lawmaker who introduced the Sanctuary State bill are right, then the tax revenue generated by California’s illegal workers amounts to about 1.78 percent of their contribution to the state economy. That looks distinctly unimpressive.
Just as unimpressive: the share of the state’s total annual tax haul represented by illegal immigrants, if ITEP is right. For according to the state government, the $3.2 billion claimed by ITEP for 2014 would come to 4.83 percent of personal income tax revenue. Remember – this is from nearly 10 percent of the state’s workforce, so that’s disproportionately low.
A least as important, when talking about illegal immigrants – the $3.2 billion figure is clearly not a net figure, in terms of the impact of this population on the state’s resources. Specifically, it omits illegal the use of state services by illegal immigrants and any family members who are legal (e.g., anchor children). This issue will keep looming larger and larger as the state pushes to extend eligibility for welfare and other state resources to illegals – which has already happened with in-state tuition to and financial aid for California public universities.
It’s true that income tax revenue isn’t the sum total of state tax revenue. The state government says the share was 65 percent in 2014. The remainder comes from corporate income taxes, sales taxes, and an “other” category. Illegal workers (and their families) are probably paying some of those types of taxes, too, but the article doesn’t provide any information on that score, either.
Give Blanco some credit: He reports that “not everyone agrees on the sanctuary state bill.” If only his article focusing on the legislation’s economic impact gave readers any sense that not every fact portrays it as an economic winner, either.