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May 05, 2013 5:08 PM Does immigration undermine support for public spending? The answer might surprise you.

By Kathleen Geier

Does immigration hurt the welfare state? Today at Wonkblog, Georgetown poli sci professor Dan Hopkins explores this complicated question. The traditional belief of many historians and social scientists was that America’s diversity, including its racial diversity and large immigrant population, has weakened public support for social welfare programs. The theory has been that diversity undermines social solidarity, and that white Americans tend to be reluctant to see public largesse going to nonwhite “others.” Indeed, our country’s diversity has been offered as one of the answers to the great historical question of “why is there no socialism in the United States?”

But what was true in the past may not hold any more, and now might be a good time to start re-examining that theory. Our country is becoming increasingly diverse, but it appears as though our growing diversity may be increasing support for a more generous welfare state, rather than undermining it. After all, diversity has improved the fortunes of the Democratic party, which tends to favor more social spending, and hurt the Republicans, which opposes it.

Hopkins’ own research finds that “the striking thing about the United States […] is that increasing ethnic and racial diversity hasn’t dampened our public investments.” While conservative voters may respond to growing diversity by withholding support from such investments, “political leaders respond by building broader coalitions in support of public projects,” says Hopkins. He concludes:

A long tradition of research has shown that changing demographics can shape voters’ attitudes. But that’s only part of the equation. To assess the impact of ethnic and racial diversity, it’s critical to account for the views of the newcomers as well as the reactions of local politicians. In the contemporary U.S., growing diversity often means growth among Democratic-leaning groups, and it can lead local politicians into broader alliances. In recent decades, there has been undeniable pressure on city budgets. But that pressure isn’t more acute in the cities that are diversifying. Demographics are not destiny.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee