Skip to content

The best way nobody’s talking about to help Haitians

The following post is by Michael Clemens, a research fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington, DC, and an affiliated associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University.

The U.S. coast guard interdicts a boat of Haitians on the high seas, 2004

The earthquake two weeks ago hit Haiti hard because Haiti is poor. The rich U.S. had similar earthquakes with far less carnage. So, what would do the most to lift Haitians out of poverty?

Start here: What has done the most, to date, to lift Haitians out of poverty? That answer is easy. Leaving Haiti brought more Haitians out of poverty than anything else that has ever been tried: any aid project in Haiti, or any trade preference for Haiti. See my note and video posted the day before Haiti’s catastrophe.

Of all the Haitians who live either in the United States or Haiti, and who live on more than $10 per day—at U.S. prices, adjusted for the fact that things are cheaper in Haiti—how many live in the U.S.? (That’s a barebones poverty standard, just one third of the U.S. “poverty line” for a single adult.)

82 Percent of Haitians above this poverty line are here in the United States. (I calculate this with Lant Pritchett here, ungated version here.) Only the top 1.4 percent of people in Haiti had that living standard even before the quake, and there is no evidence that Haitian emigrants come primarily from the extreme tip-top of the income distribution. So for most of Haitians who left, leaving Haiti was the cause of leaving poverty.

The Obama administration decided that for the next 18 months it will not deport any Haitian. But the U.S. has only been deporting about 1,000 Haitians per year recently. More importantly, the U.S. has forcibly stopped and repatriated about 5,000 Haitians per year for the past 20 years—people who never made it to the U.S. And this policy surely deterred thousands more each year from even trying. When Gallup asked people in Haiti last year if they would leave permanently if given the opportunity, 52 percent said yes. The U.S. is actively blocking the most effective poverty reduction strategy for Haitians.

When I talk about leaving Haiti as a development strategy for Haitians, some thoughtful people argue that this “can’t be the solution for Haiti.” Compared to what we all wish for in Haiti—rapid emergence from poverty for everyone there, in their homeland—leaving Haiti is a terrible solution. But compared to what is actually likely to happen in Haiti, continued poverty for decades at least, leaving Haiti is the principal solution to poverty. This is the right comparison, not the comparison to a prosperous Haiti that must remain a fantasy for now.

The best thing the United States could do for Haitians would be to let them in, either temporarily or permanently. We are now accepting about 21,000 permanent Haitian immigrants per year, and just a few hundred temporary workers per year. If we really wanted to raise Haitians out of destitution, we could absorb many times more than this. To say that we shouldn’t because it wouldn’t be the end-all solution is like saying that a lifeboat shouldn’t fill its ten empty seats just because there are 100 people in the water.

This entry was posted in Aid policies and approaches, Disaster relief, Migration and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. Cody wrote:

    Why invest so much time, funds, and energy with ineffective aid programs when the United States government could simply import the populations of sub-Sahara Africa, Haiti, Southeast Asia, and other troubled spots to Texas, Ohio, and Idaho. The United States is a big country and has a lot of space in which the billions of the world’s desperately poor could inhabit.

    There are only upsides to masively mass immigration: 1) there will be hundreds of ethnic restaurants from which one could choose to spend an afternoon for lunch. 2) There will be a massive decrease in the cost of labor, thereby allowing the United States to compete once again with mighty China for cheap labor.

    Posted January 25, 2010 at 1:14 am | Permalink
  2. Julian H wrote:

    Excellent points, well made. Great guest post.

    Posted January 25, 2010 at 3:36 am | Permalink
  3. Benjamin wrote:

    Hey everybody,

    nobody can argue that media coverage and the amount of discussions around Haiti is overwhelming and also sometimes disturbing these days.

    Is he having an emotional outcry or does his demand for shutting up the yadayadayada make sense?

    Posted January 25, 2010 at 7:52 am | Permalink
  4. Didier wrote:

    Can’t say “nobody is talking about it” when both the Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for Global Development are propagating the same idea and the Washington Post is featuring it in its coverage in both the op-ed section and regular news.

    Makes sense in all ways except for the politics and those are probably the people who would rather not talk about it.

    Posted January 25, 2010 at 10:59 am | Permalink
  5. Michael Clemens wrote:

    @Cody: These are interesting points. Whether or not the US could absorb all of the low-income people who wish to come here, it could clearly absorb more. Letting in more doesn’t need to mean letting in everyone.

    @Didier: I agree, it was hyperbole to say that nobody is talking about. But the CGD stuff and the Washington Post piece you reference are by me, so it’s not wrong to say that very few people have been talking about it. When you ask almost everyone what Haiti needs to have less poverty, they’ll tell you it’s aid. Very few grasp that emigration has been far and away more successful as a poverty reduction strategy, and many would prefer not to grasp that.

    Posted January 25, 2010 at 11:14 am | Permalink
  6. Justin Kraus wrote:

    In general I am a great proponent of the US having more open borders and so the idea of allowing more Haitians to immigrate is certainly a good one. But we are kidding ourselves if we think it is going to do much to improve the development of Haiti as a nation either in the short or long term. That requires working in Haiti with Haitians, not shipping them abroad.

    Posted January 25, 2010 at 11:25 am | Permalink
  7. Didier wrote:


    Didn’t see your piece in the WaPo, I was referring to today’s article by Amy Goldstein and Peter Whiriskey and to the Op-Ed piece from Elliot Abrams on Friday where he affiliated himself with the Council on Foreign Relations.

    Strange bedfellows…but the more the better.

    Posted January 25, 2010 at 11:48 am | Permalink
  8. Wayan wrote:

    Happy to increase the number of Haitians allowed into the USA.

    As the son of an immigrant, I firmly believe the US can support more immigrants, and it will make our country stronger in the long run (as it has for the past 200+ years).

    Yet, to do that we’d need:
    1. recognition that immigration is good for everyone, Haitians immigrants specifically (hard in a recession, harder for South Florida)
    2. an increase in all immigration numbers (Haitians aren’t the only ones who see gains by USA residence)
    3. an orderly process that recognizes those who’ve already immigrated (legal or not)
    4. continued deterrence to un-orderly land/sea migration, lest we have a Mariel boatlift 2, but with much less order or success

    Posted January 25, 2010 at 12:20 pm | Permalink
  9. Michael Clemens wrote:

    @Justin Kraus: This is a legitimate point. The fact remains that emigration has been far and away the number one source of poverty reduction for Haitians. Everyone wants the other methods to work, but they haven’t worked as well as emigration, and people have been trying those other things in Haiti for a very long time. Perhaps we’re kidding ourselves if we think those other “solutions” are suddenly going to start working better than emigration, for some reason.

    @Didier: Thanks. The Post piece I’m referring to is this one:

    @Wayan: These are very thoughtful, substantive points, and I’m really glad you posted them. A breath of fresh air, especially compared to the disgusting, threatening hate mail that my inbox has been flooded with today. Thank you.

    Posted January 25, 2010 at 12:46 pm | Permalink
  10. Ira Stoll wrote:

    I made a similar point about immigration and Haiti here.

    Good to see it expressed on this site.

    Posted January 25, 2010 at 1:25 pm | Permalink
  11. Phil Cafaro wrote:

    As people have already suggested, one problem with throwing open our doors to mass Haitian immigration, is that it would drive down wages for poor Americans, and make it harder for them to find jobs in the first place.

    I’m not surprised to find such a proposal on his blog, however. Progressives are pretty much out to lunch on the impacts mass immigration has on poor workers in the US.

    Posted January 25, 2010 at 1:29 pm | Permalink
  12. Michael Clemens wrote:

    @Phil: This post talked about whether or not we can handle more than 21,000, not “throwing open the doors”. If you have any evidence that the US cannot possibly handle somewhat more than 21,000 Haitians per year without big sacrifices by US workers, please post that evidence. You won’t, because there isn’t any.

    Prof. Giovanni Peri at the University of California at Davis has the best economic research on this subject. He calculates that 20 years of immigration — many millions of people — cumulatively lowered the wages of a high school dropout in the U.S. by a few percentage points. The Haitians among those immigrants typically raised their living standards by several *hundred* percent. A high-school dropout in the U.S. earns *eight times* the living standard of the typical Haitian. Americans are astonishingly privileged compared to some of the migrants we’re talking about, even the lowest-skilled Americans.

    Your comment defends the interests of the U.S. poor, a goal I admire, but I urge you and others to keep global poverty in perspective.

    Posted January 25, 2010 at 3:02 pm | Permalink
  13. George wrote:

    “I’m not surprised to find such a proposal on his blog, however. Progressives are pretty much out to lunch on the impacts mass immigration has on poor workers in the US.”

    Agree with Easterly’s analysis but this comment is highly pertinent. Why NO discussion of these effects, or at the very least the crucially important perceptions regarding these effects?

    Posted January 26, 2010 at 5:32 am | Permalink
  14. George wrote:

    Apologies/correction to above post – Michael Clemens’ analysis.

    Posted January 26, 2010 at 7:16 am | Permalink
  15. Michael Clemens wrote:

    @George: Concern for US workers is an admirable sentiment. Brevity is at a premium and I was asked to make one point only when I wrote this post. I did address your question in my above response to Phil. There are more links to the relevant literature here:

    The best recent work on this subject is Prof. Giovanni Peri’s. All immigration over the past twenty years, many millions of people, had almost no effect on average workers’ wages, and lowered high school dropouts’ wages cumulatively be a few percentage points. The 21,000 Haitians who annually received legal permission to immigrate in the past several years are a miniscule flow. I know this research literature very well and there is zero evidence that double or triple that number of Haitians would substantially affect US workers’ typical working conditions.

    By comparison, one Haitian who comes here immediately increases his or her real earning power by hundreds of percent. For how many destitute people is it legitimate to forcibly deny life-changing increases in income, in order to save US high school dropouts from a cumulative change of a few percent in their incomes over two decades?

    Posted January 26, 2010 at 8:23 am | Permalink
  16. Joseph wrote:

    Is there any evidence that a liberalized immigration policy like what Mr. Clemens suggests actually has had a positive/negative macroeconomic effect on a foreign nation? I want to help 21,000 more Haitians, but it would make your case stronger if we knew that we could improve the welfare of Haiti itself by allowing more Haitians into the states. Otherwise, we risk just kicking the can down the road further.

    Posted January 26, 2010 at 1:54 pm | Permalink
  17. George wrote:

    Thanks to Michael Clemens for engaging. Personally I don’t doubt that it would benefit Haitians to emmigrate to the US – I trust (many of) their personal choices in attempting to do so repeatedly, with little regard for the odds of success as a sign that its probably a good strategy. For roughly the same reasons, I don´t disregard the many of those in the working class in the developed world who greatly fear immigration, and at least think their views deserve engagement.

    On macroeconomic evidence, I dont know about the US, but here´s what the UK House of Lords had to say about the UK (nicely abstracted in the first few pages):

    I’m no expert in the economics of immigration but I do feel I know enough about politics and opinion polls to know that rapid increases in immigration would involve significant expenditure of progressive political capital which is currently a relatively scarce resource in both the US and UK, and without which the whole aid movement wont last long. Ignoring these issues makes the anlaysis look incomplete.

    I feel ashamed about pinning my views to a post on Haiti here but I do believe that these issues are important.

    Posted January 26, 2010 at 6:15 pm | Permalink
  18. Michael Clemens wrote:

    @Joseph: I agree absolutely that the ideal is to find something that raises people’s incomes in Haiti. That hasn’t worked for the past 30 years, a period during which average income per capita in Haiti has *declined* by 50%. This means that every strategy tried to raise growth in Haiti for generations has failed. We should keep searching for a solution within Haiti, of course, but this sad track record should suggest to any realist that such a solution will not be found for a very, very long time. I discuss these issues in a piece in Foreign Policy, out today:

    Posted January 27, 2010 at 7:19 pm | Permalink
  19. Peter Schaeffer wrote:

    There are billions and billions of people living in countries poorer than the U.S. who would benefit from living in the U.S. So what? Are we going to let them all in? What will be left of our country if we do? Research has repeatedly shown that low-skill immigrants impose very large net burdens on the U.S. Haitians are (generally) a low-skill group.

    I find the references to Peri highly ironic. If you actually read Peri’s papers you find that they show massive declines in the wages of unskilled workers in California. Of course, Peri denies any linkage. Worse, Peri actually claims that unaffordable housing is a “benefit” of immigration. Nice.

    However, probably the most serious point (in this context) is that immigration to first world countries has enabled any number of failing countries to avoid the internal reforms they need to be genuinely viable. Mexico comes immediately to mind along with many other nations. The time has come for the U.S. and other developed nations to end mass migration and force these counties to confront their own problems.

    Posted January 28, 2010 at 2:06 pm | Permalink
  20. Peter Schaeffer wrote:

    For a detailed post on this subject, I suggest “Immigration from Haiti is a terrible way to help” ( Note that the author is a Swede of Kurdish ancestry.

    Posted January 28, 2010 at 3:58 pm | Permalink
  21. Wayan wrote:


    I see the debate is still at my point #1 – “recognition that immigration is good for everyone, Haitians immigrants specifically (hard in a recession, harder for South Florida). ”

    As I expected, the anti-immigration crowd is out in force. I’m only surprised that we’re still at net impact of immigration on low-skilled USA workers. At this point I always enjoy tossing some reality into the conversation….

    @Joseph & @Phil: Just who are these Americans whose jobs are threatened by (assumed to be) low-skilled Creole-speaking Haitians? If anyone, its other just-arrived immigrants. Those born here should have infinite number of advantages, a lifetime head start, over any recent immigrant. Especially one who comes from a (literally) shattered homeland. And shouldn’t those who are already here but possible threatened by a Haitian have a fire lit to get them farther up the economic ladder?

    Now a better question is posed by @Phil: do immigrants to the USA significantly contribute to the increase in economic development of their home country? And beyond remittances, which can just prolong inaction by those receiving remittances.

    Posted February 1, 2010 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

10 Trackbacks

  1. By Haiti-related links of the day « Whirled Citizen on January 25, 2010 at 4:06 am

    […] Leave a comment Go to comments Michael Clemens argues again for more Haitian migration in a blog post, following up on his […]

  2. By Prose Before Hos on January 25, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    All You Need To Know About The Global Economy…

    This is about all you need to know about the global economy and the structure of capitalism: Bonuses paid out to Goldman Sachs executives in 2009: 20 Billion Dollars Total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Haiti: 7 Billion Dollars That’s $20 billio…

  3. By Get Out! - Plasma Pool on January 25, 2010 at 4:02 pm

    […] Clemens says the United States is actively blocking the most effective poverty reduction strategy for Haitians: immigration to the United States. “Compared to what we all wish for in Haiti—rapid emergence from poverty for everyone […]

  4. […] decades of aid and trade preferences for Haiti. Emigration from Haiti, as Lant Pritchett and I have calculated, has been by far the number one source of poverty reduction for Haitians to date. People mock the […]

  5. By uberVU - social comments on January 26, 2010 at 1:57 am

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by istartupnow: The best way nobody’s talking about to help Haitians: By Guest Blogger | Published January 25, 2010. The fol…

  6. By The Let ‘Em In Club « Scarcity and Inequality on January 26, 2010 at 8:09 am

    […] agree with Bill Easterly and Henderson that open borders are best for alleviating poverty on net.  Therefore, emigrating to […]

  7. By Saving Haitians vs Saving Haiti « peter in mali on January 26, 2010 at 11:02 am

    […] infeasible. Over at Aid Watch, however, Michael Clemens from the Center for Global Development proposes lifting Haitians out of poverty by lifting them out of Haiti. He writes: The earthquake two weeks ago hit Haiti hard because Haiti is poor. The rich U.S. had […]

  8. By Best Aid to Haiti? « Down That Other Path on January 26, 2010 at 10:59 pm

    […] Haiti. This link, however, caught my interest among the wave of other Haiti links. Posted by Kate: The best way nobody’s talking about to help the Haitians. It’s a short article that pretty much says, the only way to really help Haitians escape […]

  9. By The Forum Launches India Bureau « The Forum on January 31, 2010 at 7:43 pm

    […] Like most young people, I’m full of good intentions about helping to lift people out of poverty and put them on the path to economic prosperity. Unlike most young people, I’m cynical about the ability of foreign aid to help poor people; while charities have the best intentions in the world, many of them don’t actually measure whether the money they spend is making a meaningful difference. Furthermore, if aid groups work through the local government and aid makes up a significant percentage of GDP, aid may actively harm countries, by providing an incentive for local government officials to stay in power, to keep the faucet of aid flowing into their pockets. Many people are trying to fundraise to give money to Haitians, but the best thing we can do for Haitians right now has nothing to do with giving them money. […]

  • About Aid Watch

    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

    "Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking." - H.L. Mencken

  • Archives