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Whites aren’t as prosperous as Trumpers seem to think

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist

The Trump administration’s top immigration official, Ken Cuccinelli, has suggested that white immigrants from Europe are more economically responsible than nonwhite immigrants from elsewhere. Yet whites are the largest group of welfare recipients in the United States, while immigrants are far more entrepreneurial than native-born Americans.

Cuccinelli ignited a cable-news firestorm when he proposed modifying the famous poem on the Statue of Liberty so it reads: "Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge." (Here’s the original verse, for anybody seeking an assist: "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore….)

An America flag flies near the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island on August 14, 2019 in New York City.(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Cuccinelli went further by arguing that the Liberty poem, written in 1883, referred to immigrants from Europe, as if those huddled masses were more industrious and deserving than other huddled masses. His comments are racially charged because the Trump administration is trying to scale back access to safety-net benefits by migrants hoping to become legal U.S. residents. Most migrants to the United States today aren’t white Europeans, but non-whites coming from Latin America and Asia.

Cuccinelli is suggesting white immigrants, or maybe whites in general, are more economically self-sufficient than other groups. Yet whites represent the largest racial group living in poverty, and the largest group of food-aid recipients under the federal SNAP program. Here are the numbers:

Graphic by David Foster

Blacks and Hispanics receive food aid and struggle with poverty in higher proportions than their representation in the overall population, for well understood reasons, including the long legacy of slavery and the underdeveloped nations many Hispanic immigrants come from. In terms of overall numbers, however, whites are the biggest group in both categories. At an average cost of $254 per household per month, Uncle Sam spends about $2 billion per month for food aid to white households, compared with $1.3 billion for blacks and $610 million for Hispanics.

The Trump administration’s campaign against legal immigration is also economically self-defeating. In a well-functioning economy such as we have, growth in population and the labor force boost economic growth and improve living standards. A boost in legal immigration is the most obvious way to offset slowing population growth in the United States. Yet Trump is pushing in the opposite direction, which many economists say will lower growth.

Immigrants are also more entrepreneurial than native-born Americans. Immigrants start businesses at nearly twice the rate of natives, according to the Kauffman Foundation. Some of those businesses are high-fliers like Tesla (TSLA), Google (GOOGGOOGL) and Intel (INTC), but most are traditional small businesses that politicians love to praise as the backbone of the U.S. economy. With American headed for minority-majority status in a couple of decades, it would be prudent to harness the power of immigration instead of denying it.