Paul Ryan's Exclusionary Take on the American Idea

By refusing to take up immigration reform, the House speaker stands at odds with the nation’s fundamental principle of opportunity.

Andrew Harnik / AP

One of Paul Ryan's last acts as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee was to tweet out a blog on his committee page that highlighted “[t]he American idea: the notion that the condition of your birth doesn’t determine the outcome of your life.” One of his very first moves as House speaker was to take immigration reform off the agenda during the remaining months of President Obama’s term. Ryan appears not only to be contradicting himself through these acts, but also ignoring the extent to which where you are born determines your outcome in life. If the newly minted speaker really cared about the American idea, he would be ensuring that equality of opportunity didn’t stop at the water’s edge.

In Ryan’s defense, the Ways and Means blog adds that the committee’s view of the American idea is that every American should have an equal chance at independence and success. But from the very beginning, the “idea of America” has been linked to providing opportunity to disadvantaged individuals not just at home but also abroad—through expanded immigration to the United States.

The Declaration of Independence attacked King George III on the grounds that “he has endeavored to prevent the population of these states; for that purpose obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raising the conditions of new appropriations of lands.”

And when independence was on the verge of being secured, General George Washington emphasized that victory was particularly sweet for those who had yet to arrive to America. On April 18, 1783, his General Orders, at the cessation of hostilities between the U.S. and Great Britain, said of his troops: “happy, thrice happy shall they be ... who have assisted in protecting the rights of humane nature and establishing an Asylum for the poor and oppressed of all nations and religions.” Emma Lazarus’s sonnet engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty echoed a belief held ever since then: that the idea of America is wrapped up in the welcoming of huddled masses through its golden door, so that they can live a better life.

Today, an individual’s place of residence is more important than ever in determining their opportunity. That’s because some countries (including the United States) have seen significant economic and social advance, while other countries have witnessed far slower progress. The gap between the richest and poorest nations has fallen over the past 20 years, but it still remains close to historically unprecedented highs.

As a result, inequality within countries is simply dwarfed by inequality across countries—and that applies to both outcomes and opportunities. Take education, an important determinant of success in the work marketplace. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an internationally comparable test of student learning in high school. According to Lant Pritchett, the average student in Peru scores the same on PISA as someone in the 6th percentile score in Denmark. The average student in Brazil is at the 9th percentile of Danish scores. The hardest working child in Latin America starts at a massive disadvantage compared to a student in Europe or the U.S. simply because of location. Students in the world’s poorest countries are even further behind.

When it comes time to finding a job, it again pays to be in the right country. For the vast majority of people worldwide, a formal sector job—not setting up as an entrepreneur, nor operating in the grey economy—is the secret to a comfortable life. But only 40 percent of the working population in the world has formal sector employment—and those jobs are concentrated in rich countries. For all the recent horror of a 10 percent unemployment rate in the U.S., the shortage of good jobs in the country is nothing compared to their all-but-total absence in the world’s poorest countries.

And as far as simply living long enough to enjoy the fruits of opportunity, while the bottom and top fifths of the income distribution within developing countries often see a twofold difference in child mortality, once again that inequity is dwarfed by the differences between rich and poor countries. For example, the risk of dying under 5 years old averages below 0.5 percent in most developed countries compared to above 10 percent in countries like Nigeria and Angola.

And return to liberty. The privileged can sometimes buy themselves freedoms—think of the Saudi princes who drink and party in their palaces, making a mockery of national laws, while the average Saudi citizen can be beheaded and crucified for suggesting the country needs reform. But even if the costs of rights abuses are unequally distributed, they accrue to all residents in a right-abusing state.

More than two thirds of the variation in people’s incomes across the world, as the economist Branko Milanovic has shown, is predicted by which country people live in. That suggests effort, talent, luck, and inequality of opportunity within countries only account for one third of the variation in global outcomes.

Take the example of Tanzania and the U.S.: According to the World Bank, the average monthly consumption of the bottom 10 percent of Tanzanians was $25 in 2012, compared to a top-decile average of $251. In the U.S., the lowest decile sees an average income (which tends to be lower than consumption amongst poor people) of $326 and a top 10 percent of $5,789. That suggests the luckiest 10 percent in Tanzania are considerably less well off than the least fortunate 10 percent of Americans. This is in part the result of the incredibly grueling life represented by subsistence farming on a small plot of near-barren soil that is the lot of Tanzania’s poorest, which will never produce enough to support a decent lifestyle. But however hard an individual tries to climb to the top of the ladder of opportunity in Tanzania, that top is still below the first rung of America’s ladder.

Such massive variation in opportunity by geography is why, when you let people move to where the opportunities are high, their incomes skyrocket. Nothing else can account for the fact that of all Haitian-born people in the U.S. or Haiti, 82 percent of those living on more than $10 a day are in the United States (compared to 18 percent still in Haiti). This also holds true for 43 percent of Mexico-born people and 27 percent of India-born people living above the $10 line, according to Michael Clemens and Lant Pritchett at the Center for Global Development.

If Ryan really was committed to reducing the advantage of birth on outcomes in life, the most important step he could have taken was to work on immigration reform, as he as done in the past. (Ryan was involved in efforts to provide a path to citizenship for undocumented workers as well as a push for immigration reform in 2013.) By not addressing the issue, Ryan has, unfortunately, put himself squarely at odds with America’s founding vision.