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.


37 thoughts on “The Matloff Hamburger Theory of Immigration — Updated

  1. I believe your theories about DACA discussions impacting fast food restaurants, while enjoyable, are premature. A more likely impact could be historic lows in unemployment, tougher illegal immigration policies, and / or an outflow of West Coast inhabitants that can’t afford life here.

    I enjoyed your McDonald’s observations, though I have found their service lacking for years, with a big problem with dirt and poor restrooms. Try Chic Filet, essentially In-an-Out 2.0. Bright, welcoming staff who are the American rainbow. What you miss with these two establishments, beyond wages 20% or so higher, is the “cool factor”. Both are seen as hip. Movie chains seem to have no problem luring teenage workers, also a cool job with perks (free movies). Fast food places in Folsom, as well as the cool Five Guys, Smash Burger, other hip places hire Americans. Starbucks does OK. Does McDonalds not use eVerify?

    I also perceive food at many restaurants not matching the tastes I recall. Something is not right. Maybe my taste buds have changed, I love ethnic food. I believe part of the problem is immigrants cooking food they didn’t grow up with; rote, by formula cooking. Like an American attempting to match a grandmothers recipes from Mexico or Thailand. Not the same.

    Try your observational skills on the home remodel shows. Rock bottom prices in Southern California and Texas, despite 7 day a week work, nights, weekends. Indiana prices a little more. Seattle and Canada (Holmes on Homes) shows higher quality and 3-4x the cost. SoCal and Texas primarily Latino workers, others American or Canadian.

    Any honest conversation should also include an honest estimate on the real illegal immigrant population (30-45 Million?); the impact on housing costs and homelessness for lower-skilled Americans; the impact on schools and hospitals; and the impact on middle class jobs and wages. “The Trades”- a former bastion of middle class jobs – have been eviscerated in large sections of the West Coast.


    • The Jack in the Box in question has had a “We use e-Verify” sign for a couple of years at least. Of course, DACA beneficiaries pass that test, which is why I think the current change in workers come from ending the program.


    • A big reason for the change in taste over the years is that Big Food has been changing the ingredients to cut costs. The cooking oils, the level of salt, the sourcing of the ingredients, the recipe for the bread — all of these are much different from when I was a kid.

      What’s more, check out the ingredients list on a bag of chips at the grocery store. Often you will see “may contain one or more of the following: “. This is a sign that the food factories change their cooking oils whenever the price goes up or down — so even from week to week the food taste can change.

      Ominously, so can allergic reactions and digestive problems.


    • ““The Trades”- a former bastion of middle class jobs – have been eviscerated in large sections of the West Coast.”
      Same in the south, so says friend in Louisiana.
      Same in Florida, so says brother living there.
      Same in North East, so says Boston Globe.


      • Good point. Friend of a friend said wages were hammered in Miami due to large influx of immigrants. I think a journeyman mechanic was making $15 an hour?!

        Big business wins, Democrats win votes, middle and lower classes hammered.

        I had a CEO of a small tech firm go on and on about why he set up development in Thailand, “had nothing to do with wages”. I just gave him the eye. Finally, he says, “Well, I can’t ignor the lower cost.”

        Liked by 1 person

  2. “None of this means that Congress should come up with a draconian policy on DACA…”

    Personally, I would be stunned and amazed if either the congress or the White House were ever able to formulate or articulate ANY policy on DACA. It’s a lose-lose for them all. Whatever they do, some group is going to be REALLY unhappy.

    I am reminded of an episode of “Yes, Prime Minister” (The Bishop’s Gambit) in which Prime Minister James Hacker confesses that there are a number of topics (abortion, contraception for the under-sixteens, sex education, pornography, Sunday trading, easy divorce and bad language on television) about which it is the government’s fervent desire to utterly avoid having -any- policy.


    • DACA swings in the breeze because Ds say DACA but mean DACA+DAPA+chain migration+no wall, and Trump says okay, DACA, but with no chain migration+no DAPA+no wall.
      “Polls say Americans support DACA”. Likely true, but not the +, +, +,

      Liked by 1 person

        • They’re radically changed their stance, as have the Republicans. The more they suppress wages, the fewer and fewer kids people have, the more they increase foreign workers, the more they suppress wages, etc. etc.


    • There was an excellent article,”Black Vs. Brown in LA” by Jack Miles in The Atlantic many years ago. But black leaders shut down that kind of talk, hoping for an alliance with the Latinos. I don’t think that alliance ever really materialized.


      • Check out the L.A. Times demographic series from a year or two ago. The South Central (traditionally black) zone was growing in Latino population for a while, and the burbs like Pasadena/Arcadia were mostly white. As more and more Latinos resettled in SoCal, the Latino population in South Central migrated to the nearby burbs, and the whites moved farther out. I recall a visit in 2003 when I noticed security gates had been added to churches in a previously mixed neighborhood that had become mostly Latino on the east side of Pasadena. A lot of people who live “in the shadows”, a Pres. Bush once said, make their own rules.


        • Yes,having grown up in the area, it is fascinating to me to see how radically immigration has change the demographics of various areas, e.g. San Gabriel Valley from white to Chinese, San Fernando Valley from Jewish to Latino, development of South Asian enclaves in places like Cerritos and so on.


    • At the core of every “I need illegal immigrants” claim, I find abusive employer practices – they “need” illegal immigrants because of the bad and often illegal work terms. This article, the same.


  3. Why this rarely fast food feasting family exclusively goes to In-N-Out or Chik-fil-A when we do partake of fast food.

    My wife, our son and I all had jobs at age 14 and appreciate companies who hire teenagers and get their minds set in the ways of working.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bravo! I read somewhere recently that the earlier youth start working, the better; later participation leads to negative work attitudes / desires. I must be getting old, I think chores are a preamble. Sadly, most parents I quiz don’t give or enforce them.


      • I’ve read that in Japanese elementary schools, the teacher eats lunch with the kids, and then all of them — teacher and kids — clean up the classroom. Seems so natural.


        • Sounds great. As many may know, Chinese and Indian Saturday or Sunday school has become commonplace in many Bay Area cities. And I had friends who had “Tiger Moms'” as wives. And other strategies Chinese and Indian families use in striving to get their children into Stanford, Harvard, etc. I admire their drive.


          • The Japanese are VERY different from the Chinese. I would not extrapolate in this instance.

            Sorry, I absolutely hate that drive, which I consider misguided and destructive. See the very first post I ever made to this blog.


      • Having lived with an exempt-from-effort youth, once I started in on him, he complained to his parent that they treat him like a baby. I suspect kids miss the respect of being taken seriously, and as competent, at whatever level they’re ready for. And that lack of respect, looks to manifest as lack of self-respect.
        Friends and neighbor’s kids complain about parental restrictions, which seems to start around 10 or 11, ready to start in on cooking, using hand tools, etc.


  4. George Borjas had a funny blog post (June 2017) about the “The New Narrative: Less Immigration Is Bad”. The old narrative was for persuading people that more immigration is good or at least not harmful for anyone.

    “We all know the party line by now: Immigrants do jobs that natives don’t want to do. As a result, natives do not lose jobs, and natives do not see their wages reduced. And anyone who claims otherwise is obviously a racist xenophobic moron. They obviously don’t like immigrants, and they obviously are not educated/credentialed enough to understand and appreciate expert opinion.”

    Borjas says he has spotted recent articles stating that less immigration drives up wages, which apparently is bad.
    Borjas: “The article starts off by noting that ‘Businesses in Maine that rely on summer help are hoping that Congress will come to the rescue.’ And what do these businesses have to be rescued from? Higher wages, of course.”

    Also, less immigration hurts Mexico, because the returnees will drive down wages.
    Borjas: “The point of the story, of course, was to imply that Trump’s deportation initiatives are bad because they are making Mexicans worse off. And how exactly are Mexicans made worse off? ‘More returnees means lower wages for everybody in blue-collar industries such as construction and automobile manufacturing, where competition for jobs is likely to increase, economists say.’

    Borjas: “There is no upper bound to the hypocrisy of experts. It might be a lot of fun to keep track of this over the next few years, watching the dominos fall and all those ‘immigration-does-not-affect-wages’ experts fall all over themselves as they switch to proving the economic awfulness of Trump’s actions because fewer immigrants mean higher labor costs, higher prices, more inflation.”

    In another blog post (September 2017), Borjas wrote “I’m confused. Haven’t we been told over and over and over again that higher levels of immigration do not lower the wages of American workers? So what’s this I read in Politico: ‘… Congress’ refusal to lift a cap on work visas meant many seasonal businesses had to hire American this summer — and pay their workers more. That’s good news for Trump, for U.S. workers, and for supporters of Trump’s “American First” agenda, but business groups complain that increased spending on wages will ultimately cost jobs and sap company profits.'”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I agree that high school students of today are not well prepared for the workforce. I believe this to be the case because:

    1. They are the “me” generation. They are so focused on themselves and self gratification that they have difficulties relating to others.

    2. The emphasis on college attendance for all means former life skills are no longer included in the K-12 program.

    3. The perception that a student needs to build his/her resume for college application emphasizes sports, creative arts and volunteer work experiences leaving little time for a young person who does not need to work to help support the family to participate in the workforce.

    4. Schools are preoccupied trying to educate the diverse student population – especially English Language Learners who are illiterate in their native language – that the traditional K-12 experience in which a student might gain work experience through school activities no longer applies.


    • The resume-building aspect is especially pernicious. It sends the message to students that the resume is all that counts, making the notion of learning for its own sake a totally foreign concept.


      • Yup. I read an article a few weeks ago about a high school student who wanted to build a robot for a competition (not sure if this was a high school course or a club activity). The student asked the teacher if the activity counted for college credit.

        A few years ago a newspaper writer commented about high school students traveling to Africa to work as volunteers in a soup kitchen for a week or two in order to build their resumes. The writer explained that the poor in Africa would be better off if the kids worked at McDonalds for the summer and then donated their paychecks to help the poor in Africa.


        • Many poor in Africa say all that “help” they’re getting is killing them. West’s excess clothing shipped there wipes out cotton farmers, textile makers, tailors and retailers. Haitians said, it’s not “help”, if they never leave.


    • I think culturally many parents have become lazy or overworked, especially with many Fathers absent. Mom’s are just trying to survive, very tough to be Mom and Dad. Electronics also consume a mammoth amount of time, 4-6 hours or more, per day, for teens.

      Lax parenting / Liberalism supports this race to the bottom. Many parents seem more interested in being their childs friend. Parents on electronics too, commuting, some getting high and or dating.

      I don’t buy the “there isn’t enough time” for many, as many don’t work, and participation in sports and religion has plummeted. I took the bus, walked miles every day, studied, and still had time to help at home. Yard work and chores on the weekend. 15-20 hours work per week when sports not in session, but no AP then. I know a teen who has 3 “screens” in his bedroom, we had zero. (I know I sound old.)

      I see some wealthy parents with highly scheduled days for children. There does seem to be less independence for some. But last week I had a delightful conversation with a young Latina HS student who is studying German and Spanish, volunteers, and is curious about history and movies. In contrast, I see a lot of children today manipulating their parents, and they allow it! A young man at Kinko’s didn’t know how to address an envelop!


  6. Great analysis, Norm. The latest Party Line now includes fear of inflation. There is talk that inflation will go way up if wages must be raised to hire Americans. If that’s true, then it implies that imported workers were depressing wages! The spinmeisters can’t have it both ways, although they will try to.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Don’t forget the back office. Farms for the vegetables and slaughter houses for the meat. The workers in the supply chain are probably disproportional latino even if the slaughter house is located in Iowa.


      • Originally in NYC, relocated to shed oversight and US workers. Busted for extreme abuse of illegal immigrants, recently granted presidential pardon, by Trump.
        Iowa rep on TV last week, we’re booming and we welcome all immigrants. Of course they do, they were gifted Mexico’s corn market with NAFTA, and need the farming hands – the 2 million Mexican corn farmers that were wiped out.


  8. Just saw an article by KTLA via Drudge Report. “Flippy the Burger Flipping Robot Is Now Cooking at the CaliBurger Fast Food Chain” in Pasadena. “Before Flippy can get started, it needs a little human help. A co-worker puts raw patties on the grill.” and “The device also learns through artificial intelligence – basically, the more burgers that Flippy flips, the smarter it gets. Right now, cheese and toppings are added by a co-worker.”


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