Summary: Immigration into many western countries has grown rapidly since the 1990s and it has now become one of the most contentious issues in today’s political debates. Public opposition to immigration was, for instance, central to Brexit and to the electoral success of Donald Trump. The main motivation underpinning this project is to seek to better understand why immigration is such a polarising topic. In doing this, we moved beyond an examination of objective indicators of well-being (e.g. wages and unemployment) and considered the impact of immigration for people’s overall sense of well-being (e.g. self-reported mental well-being and life satisfaction). Considering the population as a whole, immigration does not appear to be particularly impactful but this masks considerable heterogeneity across socio-demographic groups. For some groups, such as relatively older individuals (e.g. over 60s), those with below average household incomes, those without any formal educational qualifications and/or the unemployed, we find the estimated impact to be negative and much more substantive than observed when looking at the population as a whole. It is worth noting that these ‘well-being’ differences across socio-demographic groups correspond with voting patterns observed in the recent UK referendum on EU membership.
One possible reason for why immigration may have negative consequences for the self-reported well-being of certain sub-groups could be due to flawed economic reasoning. The intuition here being that while immigration may not impose economic costs, it could be a source of psychological distress for some host-country residents based on the belief that migrants are an economic threat, irrespective of whether this is true or not. In support of this premise, we find that the negative association between immigration and subjective well-being is more pronounced in times of economic stress (e.g. when GDP is relatively lower).
Another important factor seems to be patterns of attachment to national identity. Studies of national identity commonly distinguish between two forms, namely ethnic and civic and we know from existing survey research that people with an ethic as opposed to civic form place a greater weight on ancestry as a criterion for national belonging. Fortunately, we can at least partly capture this ethnic v civic distinction in our work based on whether one thinks of themselves as English or British. Of note here is that we find that any negative estimated impact of immigration for people’s subjective well-being is concentrated on individuals who feel English. In sharp contrast, we found some evidence to suggest that the life satisfaction of people who feel British may be positively enhanced by inflows of migrants into their local area.