Wednesday, October 5, 2011

TL:DR - I got a newspaper called "BORING TIMES"

I heard a story this morning about illegal immigration in the US, and how it's on the decline because of the lagging economy.  This got me thinking about immigration in general, and the perception of emigrants to America by friends and family who are left behind in the countries that they leave.

My in-laws have friends and family who still live in Belarus and Ukraine.  Whenever we discuss the possibility of going to visit, (something I'm really looking forward to, but we can never seem to put the pieces together) they will always sigh and grumble over the fact that we need to bring a suitcase full of gifts for the people we were going to go and see.

This is not an acceptable gift.
There are two reasons for this.  First, as a token of gratitude for letting us come and eat and drink and relax at that person's place.  I get this - it is a simple sign of human decency to show gratitude for hospitality.  But the second reason is because most people think that if you leave to go to America, you get out of the plane and money rains down on you so much that you can barely stand from having to carry all the extra money in your pockets.  Thus, it is your obligation to spread that inevitable wealth with your unfortunate friends whom you left behind in the economic travesty that is the former USSR. 

She used to be your college roommate

And every time I bring up the conversation with my in-laws, they cite examples of friends who are living off of $100/month in a city where a pair of pants can cost $50.  But to me, this is a skewed statistic, because a) who could live off such a tiny salary, b) who counts Belorussian salaries in US dollars, and c) who can convert rubles to dollars so quickly and accurately?

Being a skeptic and a data-whore, I looked at some figures this morning.  And I haven't come to any real conclusions yet, as I'm sort of researching and writing this post at the same time.  But here's what I've found.

But first, a note about the statistics and facts: I wanted to use median household income, but couldn't find any really reliable numbers.  I instead used per capita GDP, which admittedly doesn't adjust for distribution of wealth, but for our purposes, we'll just assume that per capita GDP is roughly equivalent to what someone in that country would earn on average. Also, the majority of this information has been pulled from wikipedia and, so...yeah - take the data with a grain of salt.  This is mostly for gross generalization purposes.  I'm not submitting a paper to the Harvard Review here.  If I were, I wouldn't say "balls" or "fart".  because that would be unprofessional.  

Country Per Capita GDP      Cost of Living      Adjusted Income
US 46860 76.19 $61,504.13
Ukraine 6698 45.14 $14,838.28
Russia 15612 63.98 $24,401.38
Belarus 13874 47.89 $28,970.56
Norway 51959 139.53 $37,238.59
Sweden 38204 100.68 $37,945.97
Los Angeles 57500 96.11 $59,827.28
Chicago 56300 88.55 $63,579.90
NYC 67700 100 $67,700.00
Philadelphia 58200 78.55 $74,092.93
San Fransisco 75200 101.43 $74,139.80

All data I found used NYC as a base, so in the information above, if the US cost of living is 76.19, that means prices across the US are on average 76.19% of NYC prices.  So, if you were to normalize all of this and put each GDP per capita in NYC dollars, an average Belorussian citizen would have to live in New York City off of $28,970, not an easy thing to do.  For a Russian, it would be $24,401, even WORSE than Belarus.  A Ukrainian?  $14,838.  But an average American would have to live in NYC off of $61,504.  Almost double that of the Belorussian and FOUR times that of the Ukrainian.  Not too shabby.I just threw Norway and Sweden in there because they're usually the model of oppressive taxation and outrageous cost of living.

But the problem with this, of course, is that you can't say that the income distribution across the entire country is equal (obviously).  This doesn't take into account that people in Moscow or Minsk or Kiev might make more money (or have a higher cost of living).  Additionally, it doesn't take into account that the salaries of those in American cities are generally lower than those people who can afford to live in the suburbs and commute into the urban areas.

Another interesting thing to look at is the distribution of immigrants from Eastern Europe.  The data's a little stale, but I found data from 2000 showing that of the 890,530 immigrants from the former USSR, 233,724 found themselves in New York, 181,800 in California (likely in San Fran or LA) and 44,998 in PA (probably Philly). 

So I found the per capita and cost of living information for those cities, and it was a little more revealing.  A person in Philly or San Fran is living off of almost 5 times more than someone in Ukraine.  The worst city is LA, where they only make 4 times that of the after person in Ukraine.  And the average people in these two cities beat the pants off of anyone from the Scandinavian countries. 

Ok, I'll admit - I've spent a bit too much time on Memebase.

So it would seem that the obvious solution is to come to America to quadruple your income, but what the statistics don't tell you is that there are HUGE and rather obvious issues with immigrating, beginning with being allowed in the country in the first place, and including such non-trivial things like, "hey, you're in your 40s or 50s and have to struggle with having an education that isn't recognized, oh and by the way, you've gotta start learning a language you've never even had the chance to be properly exposed to."  So you're likely to not get a job that is anywhere near what your true qualifications are, thereby significantly decreasing your earnings potential (which sort of flies in the face of everything I've said above) because you're now delivering pizzas instead of working for Lockheed Martin as a Fluid Dynamics specialist.  Also: your children and grandchildren will likely shun your language and culture, isolating you from your own family by making you "the weird grandparent with the creepy accent". 

Ok, one last meme to wrap up the post:


  1. Yeah, but you still better bring some peanut butter home though.

  2. I remember reading a journal entry from someone who came into the US sometime in the early 19th century. Somewhere along the way, he found a $5 gold piece on the ground & picked it up, thinking that it's never a good idea to leave money around.

    Not to long later, he ran across a beggar, so he gave the gold piece to the person, knowing he'd just find another one soon.

    Whenever comparing salaries & costs of living, I've always used the salary of a general-practice doctor. Society almost always dictates that these people are comfortable in their environments -- while salaries in, say Laos are so cheap that you can afford to take manufacturing operations there, the people who work at those factories make about 40% of what their doctors do . . . which isn't too far off from what we have here. When that grows much further than that, though (say, um, China), then the discussions about "more difficult to live" are more valid.

  3. We live near San Francisco. Homes cost about 750,000 for something modest. I have a sister who lives in Sacramento. She has a rented apartment for $500 a month. She complains about her low income, but never takes into account her low cost of living. It's really so often apples and oranges. My husband is Navajo. A lot of his family live on the Navajo Reservation. They think we are millionaires. Apples and oranges, my friend.


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