Immigration, Poverty and Gumballs

A long time reader (hi David!) forwarded this video and asked what I thought of it:

It’s pretty short, but if you don’t feel like watching it, essentially it’s a video put out by a group attempting to address whether or not immigration to the US can reduce global poverty.  He uses gumballs to represent the population of people in the world living in poverty (one gumball = one million people), and ultimately concludes that immigration will not solves global poverty.

Now, I’m not the most educated of people when it comes to immigration issues, but I was intrigued by his math based demonstration. At one point he even has gumballs fall all over the floor, which drives home exactly how screwed we are when it comes to fixing global poverty. But do I buy it? Are the underlying facts correct? Is this a good video? Well, lets take a look:

First, some context: Context is frequently missing on Facebook, and it can be useful to know the background of what you’re seeing when there’s a video like this.  I did some digging, so here goes:  The man in the video is Roy Beck, who founded a group called Numbers USA, website here. Their tag line is “for lower immigration levels”, and unsurprisingly, that’s what they want.  The video, and presumably the numbers in it, are from 2010.  I thought the name NumbersUSA sounded ambitious, but I did find they have an “Accuracy Guarantee” on their FAQ page promising they would take down any inaccurate numbers or information. I don’t know if they do it (and they have not responded to my complaint yet), but that was cool to see.

Now, the argument:  To start the video, Mr Beck lays out his argument by quantifying the number of desperately poor people in the world. He clarifies that “desperately poor” is defined by the World Bank standard of “making less than two dollars a day”. He begins to name the number of desperately poor people in various regions of the world, and stacks gumballs to represent all of these regions. The number is heartbreakingly high and it worsens as he continues….but when his conclusion came to about half the globe (3 billion people or 8 larger containers of gumballs) living at that level, I was skeptical. I’ve done some reading on extreme poverty, and I didn’t think it was that high. Well, it turns out it isn’t. It’s actually about 12.7% or 890 million. That’s only about 30% of the number he presents….maybe about 3 containers of gumballs instead of 8.

Given that that the video was older (and that extreme world poverty has been declining since the 1980s) I was trying to figure out what happened, so I went to this nifty visualization tool the World Bank provides. You can set the poverty level (less than $1.90/day or less than $3.10/day) and you can filter by country or region.  Not one of the numbers given is accurate. They haven’t even been accurate recently, as far as I can tell. For example, in 2010, China had 150 million people living on under $2/day.  In the video, he says 480 million, where China was in the year 2000 or so.  For India, he uses 890 million, a number I can’t find ever published by the World Bank.  The highest number they list for India at all is 430 million. The best I can conclude is that the numbers he shows here are actually those living under the $3.10/day level, which seem closer. Now $3.10/day is not rich by any means, but it’s not what he asserted either. He emphasizes the “less than 2 dollars a day” point multiple times.  At that point I figured I wasn’t going to check out the rest of the numbers….if the baseline isn’t accurate, anything he adds to it won’t be either. [Edit: It’s been pointed out to me that at the 2:04 mark he changes from using the $2/day standard to “poorer than Mexico”, so it’s possible the numbers after that timepoint do actually work better than I thought they would. It’s hard to tell without him giving a firm number. For reference, it looks like in 2016 the average income in Mexico is $12,800/year .]  It was at this point I decided to email the accuracy check on his website to ask for clarification, and will update if I hear back. I am truly interested in what happened here, because I did find a few websites that gave similar numbers to his….but they all cite the World Bank and all the links are now broken. The World Bank itself does not appear to currently stand by those statistics.

So did this matter? Well, yes and no. His basic argument is that we have 5.6 billion poor people. That grows every year by 80 million people each year. Subtract out 1 million immigrants to the US each year, and you’re not making a difference.  Even if those numbers are wildly different from what’s presented, the fundamental “1 million immigrants doesn’t make much of a dent in world poverty” probably stands.

But is that the question?

On the one hand, I’ll grant that it’s possible “some people say that mass immigration in to the United States can help reduce world poverty”, as he says to open his video. I do not engage much in immigration debates, but I wasn’t entirely sure that “reduce world poverty” was the primary argument. NumbersUSA puts out quite a few videos on many different topics, so it’s interesting that this one appears to be their most viral.  It currently has almost 3 million views, and most of their other videos don’t have even 1% of that. Given that “solve world poverty” is not one of the stated goals or arguments of the immigration organizations I could find, why was this so shared? I did find some evidence that people argue about immigrants sending money back to their home countries helping poverty, but that is not really addressed in this video. So why did so many people want to debunk an argument that is not the primary one being made?

My guess is the pretty demonstration. I covered in this post about graphs and technical pictures, that these sorts of additions seem to make us think an argument is more powerful than we would have otherwise. In this case, it seems a well demonstrated about magnitude and subtraction is trumping most people’s realizations that this is not arguing a point that is commonly made.

Now if the numbers aren’t accurate, that’s even more irritating (his demonstration would not have looked quite as good if it had 3 containers at the start instead of 8), but I’m not sure that’s really the point. These videos work in two ways, both by making an argument that will irritate people who disagree with you, and by convincing those who agree with you that you’ve answered the challenges you’ve gotten. It’s a classic example of a straw man…setting up an argument you can knock down easily. My suspicion is when you do it with math and a colorful demonstration, it convinces people even more. Not the fault so much of the video maker, as that of the consumer.  While it’s possible Mr Beck will reply to me and clarify his numbers with a better source, it looks unlikely. Caveat emptor.

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4 thoughts on “Immigration, Poverty and Gumballs

  1. Was I that David? I recall seeing that video, but not being that overwhelmed. Perhaps I was taken by it for a moment and could not suppress the urge to pass it on.

    I did also think “But solving world poverty is not what the immigration people seem to be about.” Their focus is usually on the idea that it will make Americans nicer, and it will help out some poor people. Both of which may be true, but they do not address world poverty. I thought the video was a good corrective for that thinking, but not so persuasive of anything more than that.


    • Nope, different David. You’re not forgetting anything.

      Yeah, I thought the same thing when I saw it. I had thought it was really always a supply issue, as in “we have lots of people who want to come here and we have to decided who gets in”. For those individuals they might be arguing they want to escape poverty, and it will likely be true. However, as the video shows this is not a scaleable strategy.

      I do wish he’d get back to me with a source. I don’t feel like the numbers came from nowhere for the poverty part, but I’ll be damned if I can find them. I’ve got a whole sub-point to those who share the video that date checking is important on the internet. Just because something was right once doesn’t make it correct in perpetuity.


    • Thanks! I found a couple of similar sources, but my concern is the actual World Bank website doesn’t stand by those numbers:

      It says it was only about 900 million in 2012, and cites 1.99 billion in 1980.

      It looks like they changed their estimates at some point, though I can’t find why that happened. The result seems to be a lot of different numbers floating around.


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