Magazine article Foreign Policy

Linked Out: The Case for Sending America's Unemployed Abroad

Magazine article Foreign Policy

Linked Out: The Case for Sending America's Unemployed Abroad

Article excerpt


ALTHOUGH NORTH AMERICA and Europe have finally emerged from the darkness of the global financial crisis, and although the stratospheric growth rates of Brazil, China, and India have come clown to Earth, the economies of the West still lag behind those in the rest of the world. That's particularly the case when it comes to jobs. The unemployment rate in the United States, for example, remains stubbornly around 7 percent. In Chile, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Mexico, and South Korea, however, the official unemployment rate is way lower. Faster growth is key to high employment just as recessions produce dole queues.

So here's a novel solution to America's problem: Move the people to where the jobs are.

Exporting the unemployed may sound radical, even cruel, but the quest for jobs has been a driving force behind global migration--and population growth in the New World--for centuries. More than 55 million Europeans, many desperate and poor, migrated to the Americas between 1846 and 1940, for example--often with a "good riddance" from their home governments. And in the past few years, those movements have started up again. When crippling unemployment throttled Spain, some 30,000 Spaniards upped and moved to Argentina between June 2009 and November 2010. The Portuguese, meanwhile, beset by debt and slow growth at home, are heading to Brazil and oil-rich Angola. Between 2008 and 2011 alone, more than 1 percent of the Portuguese population moved to just that one African country. (In terms of relative population, that would be the same as 3 million Americans packing up and shipping off to their country's ex-colony, the Philippines, in search of a better life.)

But Americans haven't been searching for a better life somewhere else on nearly the same scale. According to the State Department, only about 6.3 million U.S. citizens live abroad, or around 2 percent of the domestic population. In relative terms, that's pathetic. About 5.5 million British people live permanently abroad, almost five times the U.S. level in per capita terms. Maybe they're trying to escape the lousy weather, but it isn't like Brits have natural advantages over Americans as travelers. British people are almost as bad at speaking other languages as Americans are, and in terms of haughty isolationism and disdain for foreigners, surely Brits are worse. (I'm allowed say this--I'm British.)

So why shouldn't America send out some huddled masses for once? Of course Americans want a young, employed workforce to help support their aging society as it pays for rising Medicare and Social Security bills, but it would be far better for everyone if they were employed abroad rather than sitting idly at home. And many of the country's unemployed are demographically well placed for a change of scene precisely because they're disproportionately young and footloose. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that, as of October 2013, the unemployment rate among those ages 16 to 19 was 22 percent; among those 20 to 24, it was 12.5 percent. And the rate among men never married in all age ranges is around 12 percent. Nothing's tying them down. Go East, young men! (I'm allowed to say this--I'm married.)

Some might wonder, though: Would other countries really want America's wastrel youth, with their lack of language skills and poor education? It is tree that Gallup polls suggest only 14 percent of U.S. citizens claim they can speak Spanish well enough to hold a conversation. Look at any other language and the numbers become truly dire. Around 4 percent can parler in French, and a little less than 3 percent sprechen Deutsch. And though teaching Mandarin to toddlers is now de rigueur in suburban nursery schools from Scarsdale to Santa Monica, fewer than one in 100 Americans can converse in China's lingua franca. …

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