The Matloff Hamburger Theory of Immigration — Updated

Is it true that “immigrants do jobs Americans won’t do”, as immigrant advocates (including pro-immigration researchers) claim? Or do immigrants “steal” jobs of those already here (native or not), to use the unbecoming language of some who advocate for lesser levels of immigration?

I’ve often mentioned my Hamburger Theory. I’ll review Parts A and B of the theory below, and then add a new one, Part C.

Please note before continuing: I am using “white” and “black” as a proxy for “native” and “Latino” for “immigrant.”That of course is a simplification. And of course, it doesn’t mean one race is preferred to another, just a mechanism for analyzing the impact of immigration on the labor market.

Part A:

Some years ago, I suggested a drive along I-5 from San Diego to Seattle, checking out the local McDonald’s in various spots along the way. You would find, give or take some shades of gray:

  • In California, the workers, both in the kitchen and at the counter, would be all Latino.
  • In Oregon, the counter people would be white, with Latinos in the kitchen.
  • In Seattle, McDonald’s would be all white.

In all these cases, the whites would be mainly teenagers, learning the value of money, and retired people on a limited income, who knew the value of money only too well.

The theme, of course, is that the smaller the size of the local Latino population, the more whites are hired. (What about blacks?  See below.)

Again, it would be a gross oversimplification to say that the whites are natives and the Latinos are immigrants, but my point should be clear: If immigrants aren’t available, somehow natives can be found.

Part B:

Instead of varying region, now vary level of the product. Specifically, within a given region, say the Bay Area, compare McDonald’s and In ‘N Out. The latter is a bit more upscale, and pays higher wages. And the contrast is stark: Almost all the workers at In ‘N Out are either white or black teenagers, or older whites. McDonald’s is all Latino.

Conclusion: Even if immigrants are available, Americans can be hired as long as the wage is somewhat higher.

Part C, 2018:

In the last few months, the demographics of workers at McDonald’s, Jack in the Box, Chipotle and so on in my region have “In ‘N Out-ized,” i.e. they are now white and black teenagers and some older whites. And most such stores have prominent “Now Hiring” signs, such as in the picture enclosed below.

Conclusion: Well, it’s too early to tell, but a tentative explanation is that the sudden change is due in signficant part to the ending of DACA.

I must note: 

With this change in the last few months, frankly, the quality of service has gone down a lot. Teenagers in their first job are not only new to procedures but also may not yet understand issues like “People are waiting” and “What you do matters to the customers.” (When I was a kid, there was often a sign in kitchens of such stores, “If you wouldn’t eat it, don’t serve it.)

I was in fact at a local Jack in the Box today, and the scene was rather touching. The Latina manager was patiently explaining procedures to the earnest young black kid working the counter — “OK, now you call out, ‘Number 462 is ready'” — with her manner being downright motherly.

I’m sure the kid will be fine after a few more days on the job. And more to the point: Whatever one thinks of immigration in general and the DACA program in particular, the fundamental truth remains, no matter how many slogans like “Immigration is not a zero-sum game” the immigrant advocacy groups bandy about:

High levels of immigration do indeed reduce opportunities — jobs, education, political influence — for the black underclass.

None of this means that Congress should come up with a draconian policy on DACA. But were we ever to have a sincere national conversation on immigration policy, this must be one of the major aspects to be considered.