Category Archives: european social survey

Diversity impedes redistribution

(Flickr photo by Maistora)

(Flickr photo by Maistora)

It has long been noted that in more diverse countries, it is harder to sustain wealth redistributive efforts, and public support for such programs wanes.  It has always been hard to disentangle culture from national wealth and diversity in understanding what causes this. 

A recent paper by HKS colleagues Erzo Luttmer and Monica Singhal (using European Social Survey data) gains traction on this issue by looking at immigrants to developed countries and finds that immigrants bring with them their attitudes about redistribution.  So immigrants, controlling for their wealth, education, etc., and their receiving country’s attitudes towards redistribution are more likely to support redistribution if they country that they come from supports redistribution. 

As the Economist summarized this:

Even after controlling for income, education and other relevant economic and social factors such as work history and age, views about redistribution in an immigrant’s home country are a strong predictor of his own opinions. Indeed, this measure of “cultural background” explains as much as income levels, and three-fifths as much as income and education combined. These results hold even for immigrants who moved 20 years before they were surveyed; they cannot be attributed to people not having had time to adjust their views.


And the results can not be explained by self-selection — which immigrants choose to migrate as these impacts would favor immigrants moving to countries that are more similar to the immigrants’ own views about redistribution.

Luttmer and Singhal found that these differences fade over time: the culture of immigrants has only about 2/3 of the effect on second generation immigrants as foreign-born immigrants.

The findings are consistent with some research done by John Helliwell about immigrants and their levels of social capital (social and civic engagement).
Helliwell describes the fact that trust levels are lower among Canadian immigrants than non-immigrants and that these differences persist even controlling for factors like education, income, time in community, etc. Tom Rice and Jan Feldman have noted the importance of immigrants’ home country trust in setting their trust levels when they emigrate. [“Civic Culture and Democracy From Europe to America” (1997).] Using this framework, Helliwell finds that these trust differentials disappear in Canada when one controls for average trust levels in the home country of the immigrants. Helliwell also asserts that contrary to the “footprint of imported trust” which lasts for many generations in the U.S., there is starting to be evidence in Canada that this it may disappear within one generation. Helliwell thus asks whether there are generalizable lessons about the win-win benefits to integrative governmental attitudes toward immigration in promoting better inter-racial attitudes and higher trust.

These findings are also broadly consistent with work done by Daniel Elazar on political culture in American states (in American Federalism: A View From the States), where he found, remarkably, that differences in “moral political culture”, especially in the upper midwest, were explained by broad migratory patterns of immigrants decades earlier from highly civic and trusting Scandinavian countries.

See “In the Blood: Attitudes towards redistribution have a strong cultural component” (Economist, June 4, 2009)

And Culture, Context, and the Taste for Redistribution by Erzo Luttmer and Monica Singhal, May 2009