Is Sweden failing on immigration?

Tyler Cowen poses a question:

“There is a Swedish election on Sunday [September 9], and to counter the Sweden Democrats many of the other Swedish parties are moving to the right on immigration, the median voter theorem in slow motion, so to speak. Exactly what kind of institutional failure is this? Political? Intellectual? Democratic? The absence of real democracy? I should stress that I am happy to live near Somali and Yemeni women in hijab (and not) in northern Virginia, and I believe American assimilation continues to work reasonably well, including for Muslims and in fact especially for Muslims overall. But the formula seems to work less well in Sweden, with its tighter social structures and more generous welfare benefits. What exactly went wrong? What is the final equilibrium? Will anyone ever be able to say again ‘if only they had a Nordic-style social welfare state’?”

He’s right that Sweden is struggling with this. If you want to know more, I found James Traub’s “The Death of the Most Generous Nation on Earth” and Sasha Polakow-Suransky’s Go Back to Where You Came From particularly helpful.

Comparison with the United States is problematic. Sweden’s refugee inflow since 2000 has been the largest among the rich democratic countries, and it has dwarfed America’s.

Refugee entrants
Asylum seeker inflow as a share of the population. Data source: OECD. The other 19 countries are Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea (South), the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

From 2000 to 2016, a total of 1.2 million refugees entered the United States. Had the refugee inflow in the US matched that of Sweden, the number would have been 21.6 million. That’s more than the population of Nevada, New Mexico, Nebraska, West Virginia, Idaho, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, Montana, Delaware, South Dakota, North Dakota, Alaska, Vermont, and Wyoming combined.

Is Sweden doing badly on immigration? If the benchmark is its own performance in other areas — poverty, employment, health, happiness — or its successful absorption of refugees from World War II through the 1990s, then the answer, at least as of 2018, may be yes. What if the benchmark is US immigration performance? Here are a few relevant indicators:

Employment rate among immigrants with less than secondary education

  • Sweden: 53%
  • US: 65%
  • 2012. Data source: OECD, Indicators of Immigrant Integration 2015, figure 5.2.

Share of immigrants with income below 60% of the country’s median household income

  • Sweden: 27%
  • US: 37%
  • Data source: OECD, Indicators of Immigrant Integration 2015, table 8.1.

Immigrant life satisfaction

  • Sweden: 7.2
  • US: 6.9
  • 2005-2017. Average response to the question “Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?” Data source: Gallup World Poll, via the World Happiness Report 2018, online appendix.

Migrant acceptance index

  • Sweden: 7.9
  • US: 7.3
  • 2016-17. Three questions: “I would like to ask you some questions about foreign immigrants — people who have come to live and work in this country from another country. Please tell me whether you, personally, think each of the following is a good thing or a bad thing? How about: Immigrants living in [country name]? An immigrant becoming your neighbor? An immigrant marrying one of your close relatives?” “Bad thing” response is scored 0, “it depends” or “don’t know” is scored 1, “good thing” is scored 3. The three items are added together, so the index ranges from 0 to 9. Data source: Gallup World Poll, via Neli Esipova, John Fleming and Julie Ray, “New Index Shows Least-, Most-Accepting Countries for Immigrants,” Gallup, 2017.

Vote share for the anti-immigrant party or candidate in the most recent national election

  • Sweden: 20% (2018, Sweden Democrats, projected)
  • US: 46% (2016, Donald Trump)