Self-Interest, Beliefs, and Policy Opinions

Published date01 March 2017
Date01 March 2017
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2017, Vol. 70(1) 155 –171
© 2017 University of Utah
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912916684032
A large body of research reveals that Americans’ attitudes
toward increased legal immigration are a function of
whether the immigrants in question are highly skilled or
low-skilled (Goldstein and Peters 2014; Hainmueller and
Hiscox 2007, 2010; Hainmueller, Hiscox, and Margalit
2015; Hainmueller and Hopkins 2015; Iyengar et al. 2013;
Malhotra, Margalit, and Mo 2013; Sniderman, Hagendoorn,
and Prior 2004). Across studies, the American public is
substantially more supportive of admitting additional
highly skilled immigrants than admitting additional low-
skilled immigrants. However, the reason for this difference
in attitudes is not clear.
In an important recent study, Hainmueller and Hiscox
(2010) argue that the strong preference for highly skilled
immigrants seen among both low- and highly skilled
respondents shows that highly skilled American work-
ers—those whose wages are expected to be most
adversely affected by additional highly skilled immi-
grants—do not act in their economic self-interest. While
this conclusion is consistent with their data, we argue that
without direct measurement of individuals’ perceptions
of both the labor market threat and other potential eco-
nomic consequences posed by these types of immigrants,
it is premature to rule out economic self-interest as an
explanation for observed policy preferences. More spe-
cifically, until we know citizens’ beliefs about all of the
different economic pathways by which expanding highly
skilled or low-skilled immigration may affect them, we
cannot assess the extent to which immigration policy
preferences are related to economic self-interest.
Building on public opinion research that measures eco-
nomic concerns, this paper presents results from a novel
new survey of Americans’ beliefs about the consequences
of immigration and immigration policy. In a survey experi-
mental design, we measure respondents’ policy prefer-
ences about admitting highly skilled and low-skilled
immigrants, as well as their beliefs about the multiple
potential economic consequences of admitting additional
immigrants of a particular skill level—not only labor mar-
ket effects but also effects on household tax burdens,
access to government services, and the costs of goods and
services that households consume. In addition, we ask a
variety of questions about the perceived cultural and social
684032PRQXXX10.1177/1065912916684032Political Research QuarterlyGerber et al.
1Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA
2University of California, Riverside, USA
3London School of Economics and Political Science, UK
Corresponding Author:
Gregory A. Huber, Department of Political Science, Institution for
Social and Policy Studies, Yale University, 77 Prospect Street, P.O.
Box 208209, New Haven, CT 06520-8209, USA.
Self-Interest, Beliefs, and Policy
Opinions: Understanding How
Economic Beliefs Affect Immigration
Policy Preferences
Alan S. Gerber1, Gregory A. Huber1, Daniel R. Biggers2, and David J. Hendry3
Research on how economic factors affect attitudes toward immigration often focuses on labor market effects,
concluding that, because workers’ skill levels do not predict opposition to low- versus highly skilled immigration,
economic self-interest does not shape policy attitudes. We conduct a new survey to measure beliefs about a range of
economic, political, and cultural consequences of immigration. When economic self-interest is broadened to include
concerns about the fiscal burdens created by immigration, beliefs about these economic effects strongly correlate
with immigration attitudes and explain a significant share of the difference in support for highly versus low-skilled
immigration. Although cultural factors are important, our results suggest that previous work underestimates the
importance of economic self-interest as a source of immigration policy preferences and attitudes more generally.
self-interest, immigration, public opinion, political economy, cultural threat
156 Political Research Quarterly 70(1)
consequences of immigration, which permits an analysis
of the relative predictive power of personal economic,
sociotropic, and cultural factors. Overall, these new data
allow us to understand differences in how Americans per-
ceive immigrants of particular skill levels, as well as how
those perceptions correlate with policy attitudes toward
admitting specific types of immigrants.
Our analyses reveal several important patterns not pre-
viously explored. First, attitudes toward additional immi-
grants depend on a respondent’s own skill level. In
accordance with most basic economic accounts (Borjas
2003; Borjas, Freeman, and Katz 1996), low-skilled
workers perceive a greater threat to their wages and
employment from low-skilled than highly skilled immi-
grants, while highly skilled workers perceive a greater
threat from highly skilled immigrants.1 When measured
directly, respondents appear to understand the likely labor
market consequences of different types of immigrants.
Second, for all dimensions of economic conse-
quences apart from the labor market, Americans believe
low-skilled immigrants will be worse for their house-
holds than highly skilled immigrants. Once we measure
beliefs about the full range of potential economic effects
of immigration, the preferences of highly skilled respon-
dents for highly rather than low-skilled immigrants
appear consistent with perceived economic self-inter-
est.2 Although others have examined economic influ-
ences outside of the labor market, this paper is to our
knowledge the first to measure citizen perceptions of all
these factors.3 Thus, despite perceiving similarly skilled
immigrants as more threatening to their labor market
positions, differences across individuals in negative
assessments of the overall household economic effects
of low-skilled immigration are more strongly correlated
with fears about their fiscal burden for both highly and
low-skilled respondents.
Third, measures of perceived economic self-interest
correlate with attitudes toward immigration policy and, in
part, explain differences in support for admitting addi-
tional highly or low-skilled immigrants. While our reli-
ance on survey data requires us to exercise caution when
describing the relationship between beliefs and policy
attitudes as causal, we continue to find that these percep-
tions explain policy attitudes after accounting for cultural
and sociotropic concerns. Overall, although cultural fears
and sociotropic economic factors play an important role
in explaining immigration attitudes, personal economic
concerns are also valuable for understanding variation
across both individuals and types of immigrants in sup-
port for additional immigration.
This work contributes to the literature about the role of
self-interest and symbolic considerations in shaping
immigration policy attitudes. Some previous research has
concluded that economic self-interest plays little role in
explaining mass attitudes toward immigration (Burns and
Gimpel 2000; Card, Dustmann, and Preston 2011;
Chandler and Tsai 2001; Citrin et al. 1997; Hainmueller
and Hiscox 2007, 2010; Hainmueller, Hiscox, and
Margalit 2015; Hainmueller and Hopkins 2015; Iyengar
et al. 2013; McLaren and Johnson 2007; but see Malhotra,
Margalit, and Mo 2013), a finding that is adduced as evi-
dence that economic self-interest fails to explain mass
attitudes toward public policy more generally (but see
Scheve and Slaughter 2001). Our findings suggest that
one reason for the apparent small role of self-interest in
explaining immigration policy attitudes may be measure-
ment problems. When economic self-interest is not con-
fined to labor market concerns alone, beliefs about
economic effects play a larger role in our understanding
of citizen attitudes about immigration than previously
Our results also provide guidance for policymakers. In
particular, politicians and elites must grapple with the
fact that citizens have beliefs not only about the labor
market and cultural effects of immigration, but also about
its non-labor market economic consequences. Dancygier
(2010) highlights the key role of local economic consid-
erations in explaining immigration policy conflict in
Europe, and several U.S. studies (e.g., Hopkins 2010;
Newman 2013) point to the role of changing local demo-
graphics in exacerbating local anti-immigrant concerns.
Our work shows that Americans appear to distinguish
between low- and highly skilled immigrants in forming
their beliefs about these other effects. In addition, these
data may help us understand the reason that changing
local conditions have large effects, because the effects of
new immigrants on local service use and access to exist-
ing services are likely readily visible to many natives.
Finally, and most generally, theoretical models of eco-
nomic self-interest rest on the critical assumption that
agents understand their own respective roles in the econ-
omy. However, past studies that assess the efficacy of
economic models as they relate to immigration policy
attitudes and other domains often rely on proxies of per-
ceived economic self-interest rather than citizens’ subjec-
tive perceptions of the ways in which policy can affect
personal economic concerns. Our argument is that an
appropriate measurement of economic self-interest must
assess citizens’ beliefs about their personal economic sit-
uations across the multiple dimensions in which policy
can affect economic well-being. In other policy domains,
where efforts are made to distinguish economic self-
interest from other explanations for policy preferences, a
key task is therefore to measure beliefs about the myriad
ways that policy can shape self-interest. That is, scholars
must measure beliefs about how the mechanisms they
propose are affected by interventions to properly evaluate
those models.

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