Immigrants are a resource – not a burden

The purchasing power of immigrants is rising, yet immigrants are still wrongly portrayed as a drain on resources. Hardly surprising therefore that the xenophobic socialists in the Sweden Democrats are winning votes, writes Billy McCormac of think-tank Timbro

Southern Sweden has seen a sharp increase in immigration in recent years. More precisely, 28,000 people immigrated to the region between 2001 and 2005, accounting for roughly 85 percent of overall population growth. In fact, Statistics Sweden has forecast that immigrants will account for 90 percent of total population growth up to 2020. Racist thugs and political miscreants depict immigrants as a threat to and a strain on Swedish society. Don’t believe it.

As author Philippe Legrain argues in his latest book, Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them, immigration generally coincides with economic expansion rather than contraction. The United States, for instance, witnessed stunning economic growth between 1870 and 1920 following the arrival of tens of millions Europeans. More, a recent study of fifteen European countries found that a one percent increase in population by way of immigration resulted in economic growth of up to 1.5 percent.

Yet immigration is seldom portrayed as positive or enriching. Sweden’s immigration narrative is at times menacing, stressing its perceived societal burdens such as high joblessness, crime, government handouts and cramped living conditions. Unsurprisingly, this influx has come to be viewed with grave concern in some quarters. And while the relative success of the Sweden Democrats – a blatantly xenophobic socialist party – in the 2006 general elections signaled a particularly unsavory political development, it was scarcely shocking given the timbre of the public conversation.

But let’s leave the ravings of the fever swamp socialist xenophobes to one side. A recent report on Sweden’s multicultural marketplace – authored by Anja Alemdar of Veritas Communication and commissioned by my employer, Timbro – found that total 2005 immigrant purchasing power in southern Sweden had surged to 20 billion kronor. In fact, the inflation-adjusted purchasing power of foreign-born individuals has climbed 33.4 percent between 2001 and 2005, compared to just 12.8 percent for homegrown Swedes.

These are genuinely striking numbers, and may hint at ways to help resolve some of Sweden’s integration problems. In order to tap into this vast market, Swedish businesses will need the skills, expertise and know-how that only immigrants possess. A hiring spree could have several effects. In addition to lowering unemployment and easing the associated taxpayer burden, a job is the fastest route to genuine integration.

The news magazine Fokus recently ranked the Swedish city of Värnamo number one in integration. One in five inhabitants is foreign born and 71 percent are employed. This stands in stark contrast to the city of Malmö, where only 44 percent of the immigrant population has a job. Immigrants relocating to Värnamo are immediately put in touch with the department of employment services and similar networks. Finding work for new arrivals is a top priority, which is as it should be.

While the market is an imperfect integration tool, it is far more effective than most policies conceived by politicians looking for a quick fix and enough votes to get reelected. Let’s hope that Swedish businesses recognize and seize this enormous opportunity, for it will profit all of us.

Billy McCormac is head of publishing and communications at the free-market think tank Timbro.