Sunday, November 25, 2012

Can happiness surveys predict the desire to migrate?

The Gallup organization has found in its surveys that about 15 per cent of the world’s adults would like to move to another country permanently if they had the chance. The rate varies substantially between different parts of the world, with about 38 per cent of adults in Sub-Saharan African countries saying that they would like to move permanently if they were able.

About 80 per cent of those who wish to leave low-income countries would like to go to high-income countries, with the United States the most popular destination in terms of absolute numbers. The desire to move tends to be higher in countries with medium to low human development, according to the UN’s Human Development Index.

Gallup has constructed a Potential Net Migration Index (PNMI) which relates the desire to move into and out of particular countries to their population. The PNMI is the estimated number of adults who would like to move permanently into a country if the opportunity arose, subtracted from the estimated number who would like to move out of it, as a percentage of the total adult population. There are a substantial number of countries with a PNMI score above 100 per cent (which implies that the population would more than double under free migration) and a substantial number with a PNMI score below 50 per cent (which implies that the population would fall below half current levels under free migration).

Can PNMI scores be viewed as indicators of the perceived wellbeing in different societies? Unless we have reason to believe otherwise, it would be reasonable to expect societies with high PNMI scores to have potential to provide high levels of wellbeing and societies with low PNMI scores to provide low levels of wellbeing.

On that basis, we might expect that happiness levels (i.e. indicators of subjective wellbeing) in different countries would predict PNMI scores. If indicators of subjective wellbeing are not good predictors of PNMI scores, we would need to consider the possibility that PNMI scores reflect factors other than wellbeing levels in different countries and/or that wellbeing indicators are biased by cultural or other factors.

The subjective wellbeing indicators that seem most relevant are the Gallup estimates of the percentage of people thriving and suffering in each country. Gallup classifies survey respondents as thriving, struggling or suffering, depending on their evaluations of their current and future lives using the Cantril ladder. The percentages thriving could reasonably be viewed as a ‘pull factor’, encouraging immigration, while the percentages suffering could be viewed as a push factor, encouraging emigration.

I have been able to match the PNMI and life evaluation data for 111 countries. There is some correspondence between countries in which a relatively high proportion of the population is thriving and high PNMI scores. The top 10 countries on both criteria include four countries in common (Sweden, Australia, New Zealand and Canada). Among the countries not included in the top 10 in terms of percentage thriving is Singapore, ranked first in terms of PNMI scores, but with only 34 per cent of the population classified as thriving. Of the countries included in the top 10 in terms of percentage thriving, Brazil had the lowest PNMI score (ranked 59th ) even though 58 per cent of the population of that country was classified as thriving.

At the other end of the scale, there is no correspondence among the 10 countries with highest levels of suffering and lowest PNMI scores. The 10 countries with lowest PNMI scores are Haiti, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Liberia, El Salvador, Comoros, Senegal and Ghana (all with scores below -40 per cent). Of the countries included in the top 10 in terms of percentage suffering, Bulgaria (with 45 per cent classified as suffering) had the highest PNMI score (ranked 32nd i.e. well above Brazil).

For those who are technically minded, the estimated coefficients of a regression analysis explaining PNMI in terms of percentage thriving and percentage suffering had the expected signs, but only the coefficient on the thriving variable was significantly different from zero at the 95 per cent level.

This analysis suggests that happiness levels in different countries are better at predicting the attractiveness of different countries as destinations for migration than at predicting the desire to emigrate. That is consistent with Gallup’s research findings suggesting that people who want to migrate are disproportionately young and educated and more likely to have relatives or friends who have lived in foreign countries.

However, the analysis doesn’t do much to improve my confidence in subjective wellbeing indicators. If 59 per cent of people are thriving in Brazil, why isn’t it a desired destination for migration? Again, if only 34 per cent of the population of Singapore are thriving, why would so many people want to move there?

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