Immigration and well-being

The general public (both here and elsewhere) appear to be polarised on the topic of immigration. A natural question to ask is why is immigration a topic of such concern for many? The typical reasons cited revolve around job losses and pressure on public services. Thanks to the availability of high-quality local-area data on immigration flows and labour market statistics, economists and indeed other social scientists have extensively studied the economic impacts associated with immigration. This literature suggests that while there is some uncertainty, particularly regarding short-run effects in the US, immigration does not negatively impact the job prospects of host-country residents. One reason for this is that although migrants enter the labour market, they create jobs too by using the wages they earn to support economic activity in the local economy. Another reason is that migrants tend to complement, as opposed to compete against, existing workers by often doing the tasks others don’t want to do. When it comes to wages, the evidence would also suggest that immigration has little or no impact overall, but may place some small downward pressure on the wages of the low-skilled, while the impact on the rest of the distribution is positive. The overall conclusion is that while immigration may have a small negative impact on the wages for relatively low-skilled cohorts; relative to other factors (e.g. technological change, tax policies, the National Minimum Wage) the impact (if there is one) is minimal.

Another source of concern that is often raised has to do with the idea that migrants may increase pressure on current public services, such as the NHS while benefiting from a generous welfare system. This worry is also misplaced as migrants, who have acquired education elsewhere, tend to be younger and healthier than native populations. Hence, they are net contributors to the fiscal budget. Of course migrants may be net contributors to the public purse but if government policy reduces per capita expenditure on public services over time then natives may perceive migrants as restricting their own access to public services.

While there is a lack of evidence to suggest that immigration negatively affects the welfare of host-country residents, it is still often associated with hostile political reactions. Much of the rhetoric underpinning debates surrounding the UK referendum on EU membership, for instance, revolved around ‘taking back control’ over immigration policy. Similar divisions on the topic of immigration are evident in the US where Donald Trump promised to ‘build a wall’ between the US and Mexico.

What about subjective well-being?

Focusing on subjective as opposed to economic indicators of well-being could offer a useful framework when it comes to better understanding anti-immigration attitudes in the UK and indeed the rise of this sentiment throughout Europe and the US. While immigration may not impose economic costs, it could be a source of psychological distress for natives based on the belief that migrants are an economic or cultural threat, irrespective of whether this is true or not. With this idea in mind, the main aim of this project was to move beyond ‘objective’ measures of welfare such as wages and unemployment, and examine to what extent immigration impacts the subjective (self-reported) well-being of the UK-born population (either positively or negatively). In sharp contrast to the rich and varied literature exploring economic indicators of well-being, comparatively little evidence is available relating to the impact of immigration for subjective indicators of well-being.

The main indicator of subjective well-being we use in this work is the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-12). It is a widely used measure of subjective well-being which consists of a 12 item aggregated scale designed to measure a variety of components of individuals’ mental well-being such as anxiety, social dysfunction and general happiness. Some examples of the types of statements included in this measure include: ‘Have you recently felt unhappy or depressed’, ‘Have you recently lost much sleep over worry?’; and ‘Have you recently been able to enjoy your normal day-to-day activities?’ A second indicator of well-being we used related to “life satisfaction”, and it is based on the following question: “How dissatisfied or satisfied are you with life overall?”. Respondents give a single reply on a Likert scale with options ranging from 1 (completed unsatisfied) to 7 (completely satisfied).

Our methodological approach (see papers below) involves spatially linking large-scale household longitudinal datasets such as the UK Household Longitudinal Study which records individuals subjective well-being with immigration statistics and indicators of diversity from the Office of National Statistics. Using the resulting dataset meant we were able to examine the relationship between inflows of migrants into local areas and the subjective well-being of UK-born residents, using a variety of panel-data analytical techniques.

Key findings

Main effects

The main population estimates are discussed in more detail here. In essence what we found is that considering the population as a whole, inflows of migrants into local authority areas may have some negative implications for the mental well-being of UK-born residents. These estimated population level impacts are however small. To illustrate, we can use the mean level increase of migrants into local authority areas experienced by respondents in our sample during the period 2000 to 2017 as a reference point (just under 27,000). The estimated negative subjective well-being impact of such a change in the inflows of migrants in local authority areas would be equivalent to just 18 and 4% of the estimated disutility associated with divorce and unemployment. We use divorce and unemployment as a point of comparison as they are amongst the most commonly explored determinants of subjective well-being in the wider economics of happiness literature.

These estimated population level impacts did mask considerable heterogeneity however. Specifically, there appears to be certain socio-demographic sub-groups where the effects are negative and much more substantive. The sub-groups we identify as being most likely to experience a more substantive reduction in mental well-being in response to inflows of migrants into their local area include relatively older individuals (e.g. over 60s), those with below average household incomes, those without any formal educational qualifications and/or the unemployed. As an illustration of these estimated impacts, after restricting our analysis to those in the lowest quartile of household income, we found that the estimated mental well-being losses associated with a mean level increase came to 43% and 10% of the estimated wellbeing losses associated with divorce and unemployment, respectively, for the population as a whole. For the unemployed, the estimated effects are somewhat larger, and equivalent to 99% and 23% of the estimated impact of divorce and unemployment. A similar picture is observable for the over 70s where again the estimated well-being losses were found to be broadly equivalent to that associated with divorce for the population as a whole (96%) and 23% of the estimated well-being effects from unemployment.

Taken as a whole, these figures suggest that the overall estimated mental well-being impact of immigration for the population as a whole is relatively modest (at most) but that there are more substantive negative impacts for certain subgroups. It is notable that there is a significant degree of similarity between these wellbeing differentials across distinct cohorts of the population, and voting patterns (e.g. see Ipsos MORI, 2016) observed in the recent UK referendum on EU membership (commonly referred to as Brexit). In short, those individuals most likely to vote ‘leave’ are those groups we identify as being most likely to be negatively impacted in subjective well-being terms by immigration.

See Howley, P., Waqas, M., Moro, M., Delaney, L., & Heron, T. (2020). It’s Not All about the Economy Stupid! Immigration and Subjective Well-Being in EnglandWork, Employment and Society. DOI: 10.1177/0950017019866643

What can explain these findings?

Flawed economic reasoning

Inflows of migrants could be a source of psychological distress for UK-born residents based on the belief that it lowers their economic opportunities, as opposed to actually having any tangible impact. In support of this premise, we find that the negative association between immigration and subjective well-being is much more pronounced in times of economic stress (e.g. when GDP is relatively lower). The intuition here being that in times of economic stress (e.g. negative or low GDP growth), natives may see net inflows of foreign-born individuals as more of a threat to their own economic security.

See Howley, P., Waqas, M., Moro, M., Delaney, L., & Heron, T. (2020). It’s Not All about the Economy Stupid! Immigration and Subjective Well-Being in EnglandWork, Employment and Society. DOI: 10.1177/0950017019866643

‘Us’ vs ‘Them’

We also draw on both social identity theory and identity economics in helping to better understand and explain why inflows of migrants into local areas may have a deleterious effect for some cohorts of UK born residents. Social identity theory postulates that individuals are naturally inclined to self-categorise into an “ingroup” (us) versus “outgroup” (them). The consequences associated with this division derives from the fact that people often boost the status of their own in-group and so a favourability gap emerges between their own in-group members who are the beneficiaries of a sense of kinship and an out-group perceived as being less trustworthy. In support of this in v outgroup idea, we observe that in contrast to some cohorts of UK-born residents, inflows of migrants into local areas appear to be beneficial for the well-being of residents born outside the UK, and substantively so. Relative to UK-born individuals, residents born outside the UK would we suggest be more likely to see migrants as part of their own ingroup as opposed to a competing outgroup.

We also uncover substantive differences in the degree to which the subjective well-being of individuals is impacted by inflows of migrants based on national identity. Individuals in the UKHLS are asked: What do you consider your national identity to be? The two most common were English and British and a significant number also reported being both. To explore the role of patterns of attachment to national identity in shaping the relationship between immigration and subjective indicators of well-being we simply divided the population into three distinct groups, namely people who more commonly ascribe to being English, British or both. In summary, we find that the stronger the attachment to an English identity, the larger the estimated adverse subjective well-being effects associated with inflows of migrants are. Indeed, there is little if any evidence to suggest that immigration negatively influences the subjective well-being of individuals who think of themselves as British as opposed to English. If anything there is some evidence of migrants adding to the life satisfaction of those who identify as ‘British only’. Social identity theory again offers a platform for helping us to understand these results. In keeping with this theory, we suggest that migrants may be more likely to be seen as a competing outgroup for those who identify as English as opposed to British. This is because we know from existing survey research that people who identify as English place a greater weight on ancestry as a criterion for national belonging.

The identity economics framework popularised by Akerlof and Kranton (2000) offers another explanation for these differences. This identity framework illustrates how norms for how people “should look, act, and interact, shape economic life” (Kranton 2016). The argument here in essence is that individuals well-being/utility can be impacted by the extent to which others (e.g. migrants) behaviour and characteristics depart from the prescribed ‘idealised’ behaviours associated with social categories, such as being English or being British. For individuals who categorise themselves as English, migrants may be less likely to conform to the normative behavioural ideals associated with being English, and so immigration may in turn be more likely to diminish the subjective well-being of this group.

See Howley, P. and Waqas, M. (2020) National identity and Brexit. Available at:

Underlying psychological dispositions

As a supplement to the previous analysis involving national identity we also looked at the role of underlying psychological dispositions in shaping the degree to which people feel impacted (in subjective well-being terms) when faced with inflows of migrants into their local area. Fortunately, the UKHLS records a number of personality measures which we posit will help determine the degree to which (if they do at all) UK residents will feel impacted by immigration when it comes to their subjective well-being. For some groups, such as those with high scores on constructs measuring importance of ethnicity to one’s self concept, and low scores on openness and particularised trust, the negative estimated impacts associated with inflows of migrants can be substantive. On the other hand, we find that immigration is positively associated with the subjective well-being of individuals with high scores on openness and particularised trust. This highlights the importance of invisible, in addition to the more commonly examined visible differences between people (e.g. socio-demographic differences), in explaining the sharp public divide on immigration issues.

See Howley, Peter and Waqas, Muhammad and Ocean, Neel (2020) Open Minds, Open Borders: Immigration and the Mental Well-being of Natives. Leeds University Business School Working Paper. DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.3321720

Going forward

Overall this project has highlighted how focusing on subjective as opposed to just economic indicators of wellbeing can help us better understand the forces underpinning the sharp variation in public attitudes towards immigration. For some groups, such as those who are relatively older, less well-off, comparatively lower education levels and/or unemployed, inflows of migrants appears detrimental to their self-reported well-being, despite the estimated positive economic benefits. There are likely a myriad of reasons for this. Two that we point to as being particularly important are perceived economic or labour market threats and patterns of attachment to national identity.

If certain cohorts of the population feel negatively impacted in terms of their subjective well-being when faced with inflows of migrants into their local areas then this can pose challenges for the successful integration between migrants and UK-born residents in certain communities. That being said, it is important to note that for many other groups, immigration does not appear significantly related with subjective well-being and indeed for some such as those who identify primarily as British may be welfare enhancing. These findings suggest that the appropriate question is not whether immigration affects people’s subjective well-being, rather for whom is it harmful and for whom is it beneficial and why. Going forward, we suggest that tackling misleading stereotypes (such as “job-stealing immigrants”) and appealing to ‘national self-interest’ motives by drawing people’s attention to the economic and social contribution of migrants (e.g. to an ageing society and Covid-19 relief efforts) may be an effective strategy for lessening the negative impact of immigration for some people’s sense of overall well-being. Such efforts in turn may help foster integration between migrants and host-country residents.