National Data | Cuban Immigration and the Myth of Miami
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Even immigration skeptics rarely challenge the role of Cuban immigrants in reviving Miami's economic fortunes. For example, Samuel (Who Are We and The Clash of Civilizations and the remaking of World Order) Huntington writes:

"The elite and entrepreneurial class fleeing from the regime of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro in the 1960s started domestic economic development in South Florida. Unable to send money home, they invested in Miami. Personal income growth in Miami averaged 11.5 percent a year in the 1970s and 7.7 percent a year in the 1980s." The Hispanic Challenge By Samuel P. Huntington, Foreign Policy,March/April 2004

Certainly a whole lot of Cubans immigrated. Prior to 1960 Cubans made up just 5 percent of metro Miami's population. Over the next 20 years more than 500,000 migrated to Miami. The earliest arrivals were the political and military elite, followed by physicians, lawyers, and other professionals. Later arrivals, while generally less educated and of lower occupational status, were far better off than the typical Cuban.

And note that Miami's post-1960 Cuban immigrants were granted refugee status—making them eligible for federal training, cash, and resettlement programs not available to other immigrant groups.

But despite these advantages, Miami did not in fact fare as well as other major Sun Belt cities. Here are real per capita income growth rates for selected metropolitan areas over the 1959 to 1979 period: (Table 1.)

  • Miami: 63.5 percent


  • Houston: 88.2 percent


  • Dallas: 71.0 percent


  • Atlanta: 70.7 percent


  • Phoenix: 71.6 percent

Cuban entrepreneurship did not prevent income of the average Miamian from falling behind the U.S. average. In 1959, for example, Miami's per capita income ($7,915 in 1989 dollars) was 9 percent above the U.S. average. By 1979 it was 5.8 percent above; by 1989 Miami was 5.1 percent below the U.S. average.

Miami's relative decline stands in sharp contrast to other Sun Belt locales. Here are metropolitan area per capita incomes as a percent of the U.S. average in 1959 and 1979: (Table 2.)

  • Miami: 109.0 percent; 105.8 percent


  • Houston: 109.8 percent; 122.7 percent


  • Dallas: 114.8 percent; 116.5 percent


  • Atlanta: 104.0 percent; 105.4 percent


  • Phoenix: 103.8 percent; 105.7 percent

What gives with Miami? Two things, both important when we think about immigration and the economy.

First, the Sun Belt was beginning to boom anyway when the Cubans arrived. One reason, as Steve Sailer has argued: is air conditioning. The Cubans jumped, very effectively, on a band wagon that was already rolling—just as the 1880-1920 "Great Wave" of immigrants did with the U.S. economy at large. We are regularly told that they "built America", but in fact, as Richard A. Easterlin pointed out in his essay "Immigration: and Social Characteristics" in the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, "All these conditions [for economic growth] existed prior to the vast 19th-century immigration, and would have continued to operate even in the absence of that immigration."

Second, immigration has a redistribution effect. There is no denying the economic success of Miami's Cubans. In per capita terms, they've surely gotten richer faster that the average U.S. citizen. But they function within an "enclave economy" that confers benefits primarily on individuals who speak their language and share their culture. Native-born Americans are arguably worse off than they would have been if Miami's growth weren't so ethno-centric.

Particularly American blacks. Professor Harold Rose has described describes the economic downside Cuban culture has meant for Black residents:

"The prevalence of Spanish as an important language of commerce should not be underestimated as a barrier making Black access to selected sectors of the economy difficult. As important as language has become in announcing to the world the importance of Cuban culture, it is the outlook, attitude, and world view of the exile population itself that does most to hamper support for policies that might best address issues of primary Black concern." [ Blacks and Cubans in Metropolitan Miami's Changing Economy Harold M. Rose University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee , 1988]  

Another immigration myth bites the dust.

Edwin S. Rubenstein (email him) is President of ESR Research Economic Consultants in Indianapolis.

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