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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 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.