Nightcap

  1. The two afflictions that enhance the challenge for returning vets David French, National Review
  2. The varieties of Muslim faith become a vital form of diplomacy Bruce Clark, Erasmus
  3. How the Inkas governed, thrived and fell without alphabetic writing Christopher Given-Wilson, Aeon
  4. Qatar’s progress on its improbable World Cup David Conn, Guardian

Legal Immigration Into the United States (Part 9): Non-Economic Objections to Immigration; Assimilation and Stubborn Language Facts

In my area of central California, there are many people with ascendants from Mexico. You are normally in daily contact with some of them. As is the case with most immigrations (plural) of long standing though (notably, North African immigration into France), people of Mexican origins occur at various level of cultural integration. Some live with a foot in the Old Country; others, generations, from their immigrant forebears, only look Mexican, speak only a few practical sentences of Spanish but understand more, and they have Spanish last names. A few only have Spanish surnames and, perhaps, distant cousins in Mexico. I know one dark-skinned utmostly “Mexican looking” man whose acquaintance with the Spanish language is a good ability to pronounce Spanish words. This stratification of people identified as “Mexican” creates a kind of optical illusion with consequences on the native-born’s attitudes toward immigration.

Many conservatives, friends of mine included, are fully convinced that Mexican immigrants don’t “try” to assimilate and, in particular, that they don’t want to learn English. In addition, they often add that this resistance contrasts badly with former immigrants, from another era – usually their own ancestors – from Italy, or Greece, or Eastern Europe – who made the effort to learn English quickly, perhaps in six months or so. This common imagery is based on a fallacy and on a half-truth.

The most casual observation in my area is enough to contradict the view that Mexican immigrants reject assimilation into American life. There are people with Spanish first and last names, and a Spanish accent in all the restaurants (on both sides of the counter), in the movie theaters, at the gym I patronize. The same is true in the churches I don’t patronize, I am told. My granddaughter plays soccer with other girls that include the right proportion of Hispanic girls. Local Hispanic parents (mostly Mexicans) don’t fail to send their children to public school, except when they send them to religious schools alongside Anglo Catholics and Anglo evangelicals.

At the heart of the widespread suspicion that “Mexicans” reject assimilation are several myths, endlessly repeated on conservative talk radio, about immigrants and language. They include the idea that Mexicans, and also Central Americans, fiercely resist learning English. This is an important charge because using the language with ease is obviously a necessary condition to any degree of assimilation. In fact, Hispanics don’t resist learning English because they are mostly rational economic actors. They are perfectly aware that their incomes jump up when they know English. My first housekeeper was a vivacious and fully credentialed Mexican secondary school teacher. With good English, she would have quickly become a teacher in California and doubled her income overnight. She told me she knew it. In fact, offers to teach English in miracle time dominate Spanish language radio advertising. The inexpensive English as a Second Language classes in community colleges are chronically oversubscribed.

It’s fairly easy to form an impression of unwillingness to assimilate in connection with contemporary Mexican immigrants, for two reasons. The first is the seemingly permanent existence of a Spanish speaking population. For those who don’t think much about it, there is the easy illusion that the same individuals who spoke only Spanish in 1970 are those who don’t speak anything but Spanish in 2018. It’s in part an auditory misconception, if you wish.

People of Mexican origin have been present in significant numbers in parts of the US, especially in California, for a long time, since WWII, at least. For the past thirty years and until 2010, Mexicans kept coming into the US in large numbers. They are always within earshot of Anglos, who thus hear Spanish spoken ceaselessly. Every time a fresh batch of Latin-Americans lands, including Mexicans, the pool of Spanish monolinguals is replenished. Those who arrived twenty years earlier and left the pool of the strictly Spanish speaking  did it one at a time, without fanfare or announcement. They are not especially noticeable; they are also taken for granted. Since the second generation usually retains the ability to speak some Spanish, any shrinking of the strictly monolingual pool is not self-evident. This process may account by itself for a widespread impression that Mexicans perversely refuse to learn English. If all Mexican and Hispanic immigrants suddenly stopped using Spanish, it would still take something like thirty years for all people with Spanish surnames to know English well. That’s pretty much an adult lifetime and many Anglos would be able to preserve their misapprehension in the meantime, a lifetime.

That was the fallacy. Second, the half-truth. People of Mexican descent live in those same areas in large numbers. Residence of long standing and large numbers both facilitate the formation of relatively ethnically homogeneous, partly self-sufficient areas. For recent immigrants, living in such areas eases greatly the transition via a culturally and linguistically intermediate sphere. It provides the new immigrants with familiar food, shelter, transportation information, and other practical information, directly and thanks to the presence there of Spanish-language media. It’s a rational choice for immigrants to live there, from the standpoint of short term usefulness. It helps considerably their economic and logistical integration into American life. Note that the current dominant mode of immigration based on kinship greatly helps implement this choice. Relatives easily provide temporary room and board, even small loans. Immigrants have always congregated with their own in this manner whenever they could.

At the same time, living in homogeneous immigrant enclaves must actually retard assimilation, the (obligatory) acquisition of the indigenous language, and a good understanding of the culture, in complex ways. Favoring the extended family for both cultural and practical reasons, Mexicans and their descendants often gather three generations under the same roof. Spanish-only immigrants cohabit with their children who arrived at an early age and who are consequently bilingual although often in  severely limited ways. They also usually live close to the children’s children who were brought up in Spanish at home because that was the convenient thing for all though they attend school completely in English. These patterns of settlement for Mexican immigrants ensure that their descendants take a fairly long time to become Americans indistinguishable from others.

In my personal observation, the third generation is often struck between bad Spanish and bad English but they are able to function superficially with both. (Paradoxically, the grandchildren of monolingual literate immigrants may thus end up nearly illiterate in two languages.) Since they mostly go to public school, this is noticeable to all. That is big news and it’s bad big news. The solution is some forms of bilingual education but all bilingual education is anathema to many conservatives in spite of some shining successes. I know personally of one elementary school that offers a track where all the children -Anglos included – seem to me to be competently bilingual, including in writing and reading, in which they are only a little behind their English-only counterparts. So-called “bilingual education” acquired a bad reputation in California about 20 years ago and it’s very difficult to erase it. Courses of study are like teenage girls living in small villages! Rigorously monolingual native-born tend to believe that sudden immersion in the local language is the best policy. (It’s like teaching a child out to swim: Throw him in the deep water; if he does not drown, he can swim.) This belief is simply unfounded. If you don’t think so, try learning Algebra in Mandarin.

At any rate, there appears to be Spanish-mostly towns within sight of mainstream Anglo areas. Individuals who live there do not resist learning English as many would believe; they are learning, albeit slowly and often not very well. The false impression that immigrants stubbornly resist learning English is much fortified by the fact that the overwhelmingly proudly monolingual native-born Anglos have no idea of how time consuming it is to learn a second language. I am sure -from a good number of spontaneous statements – that many are confident that they would become “fluent” in Spanish in six months or so if they cared to. (Whatever “fluent” means; it’s a fluid concept!) One of the most charitable things I have done in my life is to re-assure dozens of Anglos that it was not shameful to be unable to hold a conversation in French even after studying the languages “for two year” in high school!

The native-born’s language delusion persists although they have been sending their children to college, and now, to high school expensive, “semester abroad,” for thirty years with no palpable results. In my experience, based on 25 years of close and careful observation, undergraduates come back from a school stay abroad – almost always on an American campus – having learned in the relevant foreign language only such rare words as “anti-freeze,” “ski wax,” and “suntan lotion.” Americans being overwhelmingly courteous people, they also know ordinary forms of salutation and several ways of saying “Please” and “Thank you.” I must add that this pessimistic assessment does not exclude the possibility that the experience did the young people some good intellectually, in other, non-linguistic ways. Learning a language is a bit like lifting intellectual weights. It’s good for you even if it’s functionally useless.

In point of fact, I believe that hardly any adult learns a language well outside of a school setting, or  of some other regimented setting. (Again, see my essay on this narrow topic: “Foreign Languages and Self–Delusion in America,” referenced in Footnote Four.) And, for what it’s worth, of the twenty most accomplished bilingual individuals I now know in the US, more than half are Mexican immigrants; none is a native-born Anglo (or, as they say in Spanish, “ningún.”) They do want to learn English, at least, some do!

As I have remarked, to make matters worse, anti-immigrant rants often contrast explicitly the Mexicans’ putative unwillingness to assimilate or to learn English with the attitudes of imaginary, exemplary former immigrants, from a hundred years ago or more, often the ranters’ own forebears. Those, we are told, learned English almost overnight, never looked back at the Old Country, or much lapsed back into its language. This is a romantic tale with no basis in fact, as much American literature tells us. On the East Coast and in Chicago, American newspapers in languages other than English lasted for two or more generations after the wave of new immigrants of the relevant languages slowed to a trickle. They existed much beyond the 1920s when immigration was essentially shut off. (see footnote 5)

A word of caution to end this segment. One must weigh my words with an understanding of my California parochialism. Of course, I don’t know a lot first-hand about other kinds of immigrants in other parts of the country (the US). Dominicans are not Mexicans; Canadians who move to Florida for good are not Chinese; the Detroit area may make different accommodations for its immigrants than Silicon Valley for its own. Nevertheless, on the whole, I doubt that the broad processes by which immigrants are incorporated into American society differ much because they are so broad, precisely. I am open to contradiction, all the same.

Irrespective of willingness, immigrants differ in their capacity both to become integrated and to assimilate. This cold-hearted observation should be at the core of any wholesale immigration reform. I deal with the topic, of immigration reform at the end of this essay. I do not approach here what might be an important facet of the whole legal immigration phenomenon. Today, with fast and inexpensive transportation available, would-be immigrants  often have several opportunities to reconsider, to decide whether they are really immigrants or just visitors. (I spent, myself, two separate years working in France before my final decision to try and stay in the US for good.) A one-way flight to Europe costs only $400 in the low season. A flight back to  anywhere in Mexico costs even less; a bus fare less than half of the latter. It follows that real immigrants, those who remain for good are more self-selected than was true in the past. I expect that the self-selection pertains largely to the subject’s compatibility with American society. Would-be immigrants who have too hard a time in the US go home voluntarily, I expect. American reform efforts are directed at confirmed volunteers. It should matter.


Footnotes

5  You can trust me on this. I know quite a bit about newspapers longevity. A co-author and I practically invented the concept! See: Carroll, Glenn and Jacques Delacroix. “Organizational mortality in the newspaper industries of Argentina and Ireland: an ecological approach.” Administrative Science Quarterly. 27:169-198. 1982, and: Delacroix, Jacques and Glenn Carroll. “Organizational foundings: an ecological study of the newspaper industries of Argentina and Ireland.” Administrative Science Quarterly. 228:274-291. 1983.

[Editor’s note: in case you missed it, here is Part 8]

Immigration Into the United States (Part 3)

Substituting Immigrant Labor for Native Workers: A Mental Experiment

Although the area where I live is not representative of the US in general, it’s exemplary in important respects. What happens here often happens later, elsewhere in the country, in attenuated form. Santa Cruz, California is separated from Silicon Valley by a chain of hills that takes 25 minutes to cross at the right time of a good day, and up to 90 minutes at other times. On my side of the hills is a rich agricultural zone, probably the main vegetable and strawberries garden of America, plus some resort areas and several well-respected schools of higher education. I taught in an MBA program in Silicon Valley, on the other side of the hills, for 25 years. I have been the owner of needy houses in Santa Cruz for just as long, and thus a habitual user of various kinds of labor. On both sides of the hills, high-tech industries and high-margin industrial agriculture powerfully attract immigrants – although, mostly, somewhat different kinds of immigrants.

The claim that immigrants of all kinds take work from citizens is a constant background noise in my area. In general (only in general; it happens) I am skeptical of the notion that immigrants directly take jobs from the native-born, or that they threaten to do so. This is based on my parochial, local, but not insignificant experience. Employers on both sides of my hills have been complaining of a labor shortage for seven or eight years. Booming Silicon Valley employers require more engineers, more software writers, but also more of a little bit of everything, because industrial growth generates demand for all kinds of ancillary services, including dish washing. There was not a sufficient rush of diversely qualified labor while the unemployment rate was fairly high, right after 2008. It’s unlikely to happen now that it’s ultra-low (September 2018).

Big farmers on my side of the hills regularly lament their inability to pick crops in the field in timely fashion because of a perennial dearth of the requisite kind of labor. Many think that the requisite kind of labor has to be cheap. In fact one habitual user of farm labor declares publicly that he pays $26 an hour on average. This would mean, of course, that some of his laborers earn more than three times the federal minimum wage.(This is embarrassing but I cant find the reference for this item. It’s from a recent article – 2018 -. I am 95% certain that it’s from the Wall Street Journal. I looked at the article carefully when I came across it and assessed it as trustworthy.) This figure would add up to about $50,000  annual for a full time farm worker. The Economic Policy Institute only assigns a yearly full time wage of $35,000 in 2015. (“Farm worker wages in California: Large gap between full-time equivalent and actual earnings.” Posted March 21, 2017 by Philip Martin and Daniel Costa.) That’s for the best paid farm workers, those in vegetable growing and picking. Assuming a 5% rise in wages yearly because of labor scarcity, still leave farm workers much below that $50,000 figure. I read locally that the labor shortage is so acute that some farmers switch to crops not especially suited to the climate or to their skill-set but that are less labor-intensive. The lament has not lessened in several years, although there is an abundant supply of potential labor nearby, in the form of college students.

Local housing rents are high; the cost of living is also high; tuition keeps increasing. Most of the farm work that goes begging requires little more than a basic work ethic and good health. Yet the thousands of college students in nearby Santa Cruz and Monterey compete for a handful of low-paying barista positions rather than going for far more lucrative seasonal farm work. (I must say that my perverse heart is waiting for a real-life experiment in which farmers explicitly bid up dormant student picking talent: I would like to find out how high the remunerations offered can go without eliciting a response.) The cliché that there is some work that Americans reared in a soft society won’t do, is not completely absurd, it seems to me. The lack of exposure to hard physical labor of most Americans who have been students in the past ten years may play a role, possibly a preponderant role. And yes, I admit that at $60 an hour, for example, growers would probably find all the local unskilled labor they wanted. Yet, I doubt that this is what commentators mean when they complain about immigrants taking work from the native-born.

And, of course, I have to notice that very high wages paid for the production of ordinary goods corresponds to a pay cut for everyone. Nevertheless I do believe that in agriculture the pay cut would probably amount to little, in most cases. Take local strawberries retailing at $2.00/lb. Suppose field labor accounts for a full ten per cent of this retail cost. If this labor cost goes up by 100% net, the same strawberries will retail at about $2.25, at most. It seems to me that’s probably not enough to affect sales much. Farmers would have to agree among themselves to raise wages and prices which may be illegal or of dubious legality.

The Hidden Cost of Cheap Labor: Missed Mechanization

Somehow, one of the hidden costs of the importation of inexpensive labor seldom comes up in discussions of immigration. Inexpensive labor is often an invisible substitute for mechanization. As discussions amplified in 2017-2018 about a national $15 an hour minimum wage, the media produced numerous examples of employers of inexpensive labor, such as fast food restaurants, quickly increasing their reliance on robots. In those media stories, the causality was seldom well established, but it stands to reason that the relative scarcity or dearness of labor is a spur to mechanization. Conversely, the routine availability of inexpensive labor must prevent decision-makers from adopting new tools of automation, and inhibit inventors from creating others.

This relationship is demonstrated in one kind of farming after another. The European Union is a live laboratory in this respect. As the EU’s heavy fringe benefits, including its high social insurance costs, were imposed on new member countries, cheap labor turned correspondingly expensive, and mechanical ingenuity was quickly unleashed. French grape growers who swore for 200 years that their precious wine grape demands the incomparable dexterity of the human hand found themselves happily riding newly invented vine cultivating machines.

Faced with the same compensation hardships, Greek olive growers relinquished manual picking for crude tree shaking machines designed to drop the fruit onto a tarp spread on the ground. Turns out, there is actually an effective olive tree shaking device that is also deft enough to avoid endangering trees that are sometimes a hundred years old. Mechanical agricultural inventions notably now move from the Old World to the New, a historically rare pattern that tests the notion of labor substitution. As labor becomes quickly more expensive in the European Union, its farmers mechanize, while American farmers slumber in the comfort of an abundance of reasonably priced labor from Latin America. In the eighties, I helped a French fruit-drying entrepreneur sell his trailerable, self-contained, stainless steel, gleaming modern machine to California plum processors still relying on a 19th century, fixed, brick, drying tunnel. It was like standing next to a state of the art sports car while chatting with a hay wagon. As expected, much of the superiority of the French machine resided in its labor efficiency that was several times better than that of the old-fashioned brick tunnels.

A Localized Cost: Schooling Expenditures

As we saw, the first qualification to the thesis that immigration enhances economic growth is that it is simply a form of population growth. It does enhance growth, but this sounds almost trivial (except to draw attention to the fact that the native-born are not taking on the vigorous job of increasing the population). The second qualification is a little more complex. A positive effect of immigration on the overall (national) economy does not exclude negative localized effects. The GDP, a national quantity, rises but some local school districts, for instance, are fiscally overwhelmed by the influx of immigrant children. The economic benefits associated with population growth through immigration may be mostly diffuse, even imperceptible, but the localized costs of immigration are obvious and often dramatically painful. The schooling of immigrant children is a good example of a painful localized cost that gives immigration a bad name.

Internal domestic migrations would also cause local problems, but the effect would usually be of a different magnitude. Today, the bulk of immigrant children often (not always) bring significant special educational needs with them that are rarely found among domestic migrants. First, they may not know English; in fact, most don’t, although there are bright exceptions. Second, foreign immigrants may come from the poorest, most rural parts of poor countries, with inferior schools. (That is certainly the case for Mexican immigrants, the largest group in recent years.) Both conditions, ignorance of English and the family’s low educational status on arrival, require expensive remedial measures, the cost of which is borne largely by local taxing entities.

To make matters worse, the usual academic remedies often just don’t work. The public schools may be so utterly unable to teach immigrant children anything in a foreign language – English – that the standards for all children degrade and local Anglo children fall drastically behind, in reading comprehension, for example. Over several years, the cumulative deficiency can force some Anglo parent to switch their children to private schools. Native-born parents who are college graduates, or even merely high school graduates, often don’t accept with equanimity the news that their children are two or three grades behind in any subject. They frequently become bitter and, why not? If they complain, they are frequently charged with racism. (It happened to my brown-skinned wife.) Those who make the move to private school end up with both high local taxes and the need to pay tuition for their children, all as an indirect but obvious financial burden of immigration. Note again that this burden is borne by local families, with little help from those who make immigration decisions, at the federal level.

There are perhaps two reasons why the poor educational status of some, or many, immigrants is seldom discussed. First, the bulk of the host population may not be clearly aware of the educational backwardness of the immigrants. They may vaguely think of Mexico, for example, as 40 or 50 years behind the US educationally; yet the commonness of illiteracy in remote Mexican villages puts them more than 100 years behind the US in this respect. (Nevertheless, I have much respect – based on personal experience – for Mexican public education as delivered in small and medium-size towns.) When it comes to the many immigrant children from Asia, school authorities appear even more at sea. They don’t know what to make of the fact that a middle-class Chinese boy of 12 may not seem to be able to explain what he can and cannot read.

The second cause of timidity regarding the educational status of new immigrants is, of course, far-reaching political correctness. To say, “Luis can’t read English” passes for racist in many quarters, although it’s obvious that Luis actually can’t read English, or any language (See below). Discussion is further discouraged by the fact that in some areas, such as mine, immigration includes both broad categories of low educational achievers and of exceptionally high achievers, both farm hands and engineers with superior training. The existence of the latter grants verisimilitude to charges of prejudice regarding the former.

Here are anecdotes about the low level of preparedness of some immigrants. On two occasions widely separated in time, I had prolonged interaction with Mexican immigrants I had hired to help me work on my houses. I had opportunities to judge each of them to be intelligent, practical-minded, full of initiative, and flexible–real finds, in other words. Both times, I discovered fortuitously that they were illiterate in Spanish. I left them simple written instructions in that language, and none of the required work was done by the time I checked, although some other necessary work I had not explicitly requested had been performed.

The men were thus not shirking; they just did not know what I wanted done. (No, don’t blame my Spanish. It’s very good. I can read anything in that language except a chemistry textbook. I also write it with ease. After all, it’s just another debased Latin, like my native tongue, French.) Of course, this is a story about a tiny sample, hardly a sample at all. Yet the two episodes took place ten years apart, and I suspect they illustrate a common condition among Mexico-born men in my area. (I refer to immigrants, not to Mexicans in generals. The large and growing Mexican middle class seldom wanders across the border without a solid job and a gringo salary. I also know some of its members.) My illiterate journeymen’s children would be difficult and expensive to educate, even if they, the children, knew English well. There is just not much book learning in their households and it’s not likely to be well respected there.

In my otherwise bookstore-rich and library-rich area, books in Spanish were nearly impossible to find for twenty years. I think there is almost no demand for such articles. What little demand there is appears to be for Spanish translations of American books with television ties. This is more evidence of the low literacy status of Mexican immigrants in the area. (see footnote 4)

It’s also true that immigrants’ children who are truly bilingual may be an asset to the local economy as well as to the national economy. In my observation as a college professor, that’s a tiny number, and their usefulness can only be a long-term proposition.  It’s a tiny number because knowing a language well requires reading and, I think, writing. There are few opportunities (few, not none) for native Spanish speakers to learn to read and write, in addition to their normal schooling in English. So called “bilingual education” in public schools does not seem to do the job. I base my judgment on the tiny number of readers and writers of Spanish I encountered in local colleges where you would expect them to congregate.

Few Anglos perceive advanced bilingualism as an asset; I am guessing, (guessing) that it’s because they see it associated with individuals of low socioeconomic status. Nevertheless, it’s useful, obviously, for lowly jobs catering in part to a non-English speaking public. My daughter tells me that it’s impossible to get a job as a medical receptionist in my area if you don’t know English and Spanish. As for well-paid occupations, I have never heard this asset mentioned except, ironically, in connection with the Border Patrol. I don’t doubt that it’s also sometimes put to use in the diplomatic service, and in the armed forces. But bilingual children of immigrants have to compete there with recent immigrants who know English well.

Other Locally Borne Social Costs of Immigration

I have pointed out that schooling, though heavily affected by national immigration policies, is financed locally. Here is a roundup of other largely locally financed services:  various  social services for the poor, (“welfare,” “public assistance”), health care, jail and prison resources (some of which are funded by the Federal Government). When evaluating the cost of these resources as allocated to immigrants, it seems to me that a reasonable  baseline is to assume that immigrants consume such resources in quantities appropriate to their sex, age distribution, economic and educational levels, and marital status. In the US, men commit more crimes than women, especially violent crimes; women are more likely to be in charge of children than men and thus in need of help to maintain them; the poor commit more crime overall than the rich, except perhaps, white collar crime. The semi-literate are also less likely than the better educated to engage in white-collar crime. Married men commit fewer serious crimes than do single men.

Loud voices on the right proclaim that immigrants go on welfare and have dealings with the judicial system more frequently than do the native born.

Adopting the baseline I propose, even if only mentally, slows down the tendency to stigmatize immigrants, including unconsciously. Imagine (made up figures) that the median age of American men is 38 while the median age of a certain group of immigrants is 23. If you observe a crime rate among the latter 25 %  above the rate for native-born Americans, you may have discovered nothing about the immigrant group propensity toward crime, just that they are young. The use of such a baseline does not exclude the possibility of making policy inferences from the social costs of various immigrant groups based on their collective economic, age, and marital status characteristics, like this: We don’t need to import young men from Central America who are just about certain to increase the frequency and the gravity of crimes in our country.


Footnotes

4  I allow myself to be a bit of a bully on matters of bilingualism because the bulk of native-born Americans – who remain proudly monolingual – carry a ton of absurd ideas in their minds about the ease of language learning. Listen to me because I am able to do everything I know how to do in two languages, and because I am able to operate very well in a third –  Spanish – while I read yet two others. (Most are related languages, of course, different varieties of bad Latin.) Naturally also, like all Frenchmen, I know a little German too, just in case. Just kidding! Read my shocking essay on language learning: “Foreign Languages and Self–Delusion in America.”

Nightcap

  1. Don’t say that to me Stephen Cox, Liberty Unbound
  2. Misconceptions about religiously radicalized women Chelsea Daymon, War on the Rocks
  3. Ukrainian autocephaly Bruce Clark, Erasmus
  4. Why liberalism’s critics fail Deirdre McCloskey, Modern Age

Nightcap

  1. Iran’s Afghan fighters, in Syria Ahmad Shuja Jamal, War on the Rocks
  2. The Africans of 16th Century Britain David Dabydeen, New Statesman
  3. What Books Did American Blacks Read Before the 1960s? Jonathan Rose, History News Network
  4. Padmaavat loathed by fundamentalists of all stripes Barkha Dutt, Washington Post

When (Where and Why) Women Were More Literate than Men

For most of history, men tended to be more literate than women. In essence, illiteracy was widespread but even more so for women. There is one exception: the French-Canadians. For most of the 19th century, literacy rates were greater for French-Canadian women than French-Canadian men.

literacy

This is a fascinating piece of economic history and somewhat of a puzzle (given that it is an oddity). It also shows how important institutions are to determining paths of development. In a 1999 article in the Journal of Economic History, Gillian Hamilton indicates that the more “liberal” institution of marriage contracts for the French-Canadians probably induced this result :

Quebec’s unique legal institutions offered the opportunity to draw up a prenuptial contract to couples who could benefit from a different property structure than the law provided. Not surprisingly, a prenuptial contract was unnecessary for most couples. Within this transaction cost-competitive marriage market framework, contracts generally were desirable only in cases of mismatch, either due to an exceptional woman or a relatively productive husband whose job did not entail a significant component of family participation. Their contracting decisions are consistent with terms that would have provided them with more appropriate incentives for work and the production of jointly produced goods, and at least the potential for greater utility and wealth than they otherwise would have accumulated. The use of contracts likely provided Quebec with higher overall wealth and a wider income distribution than it would have experienced without contracts (because the skilled disproportionately signed agreements).