Reconsidering the DREAM Act

The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act) is a piece of legislation which aims to provide paths to permanent residency for undocumented youth. Organizations like United We Dream and the United States Student Association have come out in support of the legislation, arguing primarily that not providing permanent residency for undocumented youth is manifestly unjust. Penalizing immigrant youth for being undocumented — something they had no control over — runs against the basic tenets of fair and equitable treatment.

The DREAM Act is supposed to remedy this injustice by creating two specific paths to residency. There have been various versions of the bill over the years, but the present version in the senate basically lays out a two step process. Undocumented individuals under 35 years of age with a high school diploma or GED will be eligible in most circumstances to apply for conditional permanent residency. Once individuals are granted that status, they have 6 years to either complete a two-year post-secondary degree, complete 2 years of a four-year post-secondary degree, or enlist in the military for 2 years. After doing so, they can apply to have the conditional status removed from their permanent residency.

Advocates of the DREAM Act have focused much more attention on the education track of the bill than on the military track. The defenses of it tend to rely on conjuring up the idea of students getting a college degree while also getting out from under their unjust second class status. However, in reconsidering the DREAM Act, I think it is important to determine what percentage of undocumented youth would even make it through the much praised education track provided in the bill. Given that Latino immigrants are the primary constituency that will be affected by the DREAM Act, I will focus on them.

According to a report from the Pew Hispanic Center, 18 percent of Latino immigrants do not graduate from high school. Of those non-graduates, 57 percent have not passed the GED by the age of 26. So, slightly more than 10 percent of Latino immigrant youth receive neither a high school degree nor a GED, and would thus be ineligible for even the initial process of receiving conditional residency status.

As far as I know, there is no reliable data on the percentage of Latino immigrants who obtain post-secondary degrees. Those numbers would not be helpful in any case because they are certainly skewed downward due to the difficulties of attending college as an undocumented student. Nonetheless, there are numbers for the overall Latino population which should approximately reflect how Latino immigrants would fare if they were given the same opportunities to attend college as non-immigrant Latinos already have.

According to another report from the Pew Hispanic Center, 82 percent of Latinos who graduate from high school go on to college. Of those who attend college, 36 percent go on to achieve a bachelor’s degree, certificate, or associate’s degree. These are the types of degrees that are required to complete the second step of the permanent residency process under the DREAM Act.

With these numbers, a rough estimate of the reach of the DREAM Act’s education track can be derived. If we generously assume that all of those who receive a GED fare as well as high school graduates in obtaining post-secondary degrees, a representative group of 100 undocumented Latino youth would achieve the following on the education track:

  • 10 — No GED or high school degree — permanent residency denied
  • 16 — GED or high school degree, but no post-secondary education — permanent residency denied
  • 48 — Post-secondary education attempted, but no certificate, associates degree, or bachelor’s degree achieved — permanent residency denied
  • 26 — Post-secondary degree achieved — permanent residency granted

So on the education track, the DREAM Act, even when making generous assumptions, will only provide permanent residency to 26 percent of undocumented Latino youth. Admittedly this is an approximation, and challenges to the effect that it is too low or too high can certainly be brought against it. It could be challenged, for instance, that the incentive of permanent residency will drive undocumented Latino youth towards education more than documented Latino youth, and so using data from the latter generates an estimate lower than it should be. On the opposite side, it could be challenged that the lack of Pell Grant access and other difficulties associated with being undocumented might actually generate hardships that documented Latino youth do not face, making the 26 percent number too generous.

With those objections noted, it appears that 26 percent is at least somewhere near what the actual number will be. This number, I think, poses challenges for the DREAM Act campaigners. For 10 percent of undocumented Latino youth, the Act provides no help at all; for 64 percent, the Act forces them into an unjust position where they must choose between deportation, living life undocumented in a permanent underclass position, or joining the U.S. military.

Forcing nearly 3 out of 4 undocumented Latino immigrants to make a choice like that is as equally unjust as the problem the DREAM Act is set up to remedy. Putting someone into an extraordinarily loaded situation like that for reasons totally outside of their control — their immigration status — is exactly the kind of thing that proponents of the DREAM Act criticize in the status quo.

Instead of fixing the injustices the immigration system forces on undocumented youth, what the DREAM Act primarily does is set up an easy road for military recruiters to fill the ranks of the armed forces with vulnerable populations that have no other option. In a candid reconsideration of the legislation, it is hard to see how one could support it. The education track is great — even if limited in reach — but if coupled with the military track, the bill as a whole slants heavily towards encouraging the exploitation of the overwhelming majority of undocumented youth.

Enormous productive potential being wasted as unemployment creeps higher

The Bureau of Labor Statistics released their June employment report today, and almost all of the findings recorded in the report were awful. Unemployment is up to 9.2 percent, more than 0.4 percent higher than it was two months ago. This puts the total number of unemployed people — a term which only includes those who are actually looking for jobs — at 14.1 million. An additional 8.6 million people are underemployed, working part-time because no full-time work can be found.

The reaction to the report — at least in the mainstream outlets — has been predictably narrow. Article after article has been published speculating on the impact it will have for a presidential election which takes place 17 months from now. This speculation, in addition to being totally without merit as Nate Silver explains over at Five Thirty Eight, demonstrates the completely misguided way that political commentators typically handle these kinds of reports. Either out of laziness or a lack of creativity, the slant taken on news of this sort almost always involves discussing its relevance to some forthcoming election, even ones so far out as to make the commentary border on the absurd.

More substantive analysis would ask the questions that really matter. What does long-term unemployment actually mean for those who are made to endure it? What impact does it have on a family when one or both of the parents cannot find a job? In short, how much suffering does this massive amount of unemployment and underemployment impart on the people in the country?

About the only reprieve from the endless horse race analysis — analysis that crops up even when a horse race is not present — is Ezra Klein’s blog over at the Washington Post. Filling in for him today, Dylan Matthews highlights the significance of unemployment, pointing to two studies which show the permanent negative effects of unemployment on a person’s long-term income and health. It suffices to say that unemployment’s actual significance lies not in its effects on polling, but in the ways it wreaks havoc on the country.

In addition to the long-term health and income losses it imposes on individuals, large-scale unemployment and underemployment results in an enormous waste of productive potential. Imagine what 14.1 million people working every day could produce, and what 8.6 million people working full-time instead of part-time could produce. With that labor, we could be building high-speed rail lines, wind turbines, and repairing existing infrastructure. That of course is just to name a few possibilities. However, instead of utilizing this massive labor force, the present economy is preventing it from being tapped at all, at least in the private sector.

With unemployment increasing, the highest levels of income and wealth inequality on record, and decades of total wage stagnation for the bottom 90 percent, it becomes harder and harder to take seriously efforts to preserve American-style capitalism. When large swaths of the population are forced to remain idle because the private sector cannot conceive of ways to make them profitable, we need some other way to put them to work. Perhaps a public jobs program like the Works Project Administration — an approach Paul Krugman has endorsed — is something that should be seriously considered.

Whether it is a new WPA or something else, inaction on the issue of unemployment should be totally out of the question. But instead of working overtime to address the unemployment problem, the political apparatus of this country has been hooked into a months long bit of political theatre centering around the debt ceiling. Once that theatre concludes in early August, even worse theatre will start to kick into high gear surrounding the upcoming presidential election.

These misplaced political priorities are fairly normal for the circus that is the federal government, and in some cases the theatre they generate is harmless and amusing. The lack of action on unemployment is not such a case. In a more level-headed political atmosphere, Obama and the national Republicans would be completely embarrassed about the productive potential high unemployment is leaving untapped. But in this political climate, almost no one seems to care.

Medicaid study provides support for the program

It almost goes without saying these days that America’s approach to providing health care is totally dysfunctional. The United States spends more money than any other country in the world while simultaneously insuring fewer people than every other industrialized nation. Meanwhile, it delivers poor outcomes, and the World Health Organization famously ranked it 37th in the world, this despite America’s enormous expenditures in the area.

Almost any analysis of the ways more successful countries go about meeting their health care needs points in the direction of implementing a single-payer system. Despite this, the United States is so far away from implementing such a reform that it is almost not worth talking about. In its place, advocates of universal healthcare are forced to defend piecemeal, sub-optimal, underfunded entitlements like Medicare and Medicaid as the only programs we have that even try to provide health insurance to vulnerable populations.

For those people, good news was delivered today in the form of a groundbreaking study on the impact of Medicaid from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

According to its authors, the study is uniquely positioned to analyze the effects of Medicaid because of a strange set of circumstances that recently played out in Oregon. The state government there decided that it was able to expand Medicaid coverage to non-disabled adults below the poverty line, but only up to 10,000 additional enrollees. A lottery was used to determine which 10,000 impoverished adults were lucky enough to warrant basic health coverage. As embarrassing as it is that we are having healthcare lotteries, the process generated the circumstances for a rigorously controlled experiment on the efficacy of the Medicaid program.

The study revealed very significant differences between those who won a spot on the Medicaid rolls and those who remained uninsured. Among the long list of findings in the study, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities highlighted that those who received Medicaid were:

  • More likely to receive doctor-recommended preventive care (for example, women were 60 percent more likely to have a mammogram);
  • 70 percent more likely to have a regular office or clinic where they could receive primary care;
  • 40 percent less likely to have to borrow money or leave other bills unpaid in order to cover medical expenses; and
  • 40 percent less likely to experience a decline in their health over the last six months.

The coverage in the New York Times, National Public Radio, The Atlantic, and Slate offers more statistical tidbits from the study not quoted above. The findings in a nutshell are that those on Medicaid utilize more medical services, are in a better financial position, and report feeling healthier than those who were left uninsured. The other significant finding was a lack of evidence for the speculative claim that providing insurance actually saves money by catching diseases early in their development. However, because the study is only in its first year of data collection, it is not clear how suited it is to weigh in on a claim like that which is necessarily more focused on the long-term.

In many ways, the findings seem fairly obvious. Of course individuals with Medicaid insurance — as poorly funded and inadequate as it is — are better off than those with no insurance at all. Despite the seeming obviousness of it, opponents of Medicaid have often been bold enough to claim the opposite. For examples of such over-the-top claims, one needs to look no further than the Wall Street Journal’s Scott Gottlieb whose article titled “Medicaid Is Worse Than No Coverage at All” says about all you need to know about his credibility.

Even The Atlantic’s Megan McArdle had to do some backtracking today on her previous comments about the “Myth Diagnosis” that a lack of health insurance killed people. In a column today, she tries to save as much face as she can in light of this new study, by drawing a line between utilization of health care services and not dying. Just because those on Medicaid utilize more health services, McArdle argues, that does not necessarily mean that lives were saved.

Of course, even just a single statistic from the study is enough to reveal the vacuous nature of this incredulous effort to defend the indefensible. Trying to deny that a 60 percent increase in mammograms wont save lives that would otherwise be lost to breast cancer is about as absurd an argument I have ever seen.

So for those who take an interest in defending the non-ideal efforts of Medicaid to provide some care to the disabled and poor, today has been a positive day. When the purveyors of specious arguments that have tried to undermine the call for universal health insurance are as frantically grasping at straws as McArdle was today, it can only mean good things.