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Miserable Migrants? Natural Experiment Evidence on International Migration and Objective and Subjective Well-Being

  • Stillman, Steven


    (University of Otago)

  • Gibson, John


    (University of Waikato)

  • McKenzie, David


    (World Bank)

  • Rohorua, Halahingano


    (University of Waikato)

Over 200 million people worldwide live outside their country of birth and typically experience large gains in material well-being by moving to where incomes are higher. But effects of migration on subjective well-being are less clear, with some studies suggesting that migrants are miserable in their new locations. Observational studies are potentially biased by the self-selection of migrants so a natural experiment is used to compare successful and unsuccessful applicants to a migration lottery in order to experimentally estimate the impact of migration on objective and subjective well-being. The results show that international migration brings large improvements in objective well-being, in terms of incomes and expenditures. Impacts on subjective well-being are complex, with mental health improving but happiness declining, self-rated welfare rising if viewed retrospectively but static if viewed experimentally, self-rated social respect rising retrospectively but falling experimentally and subjective income adequacy rising. We further show that these changes would not be predicted from cross-sectional regressions on the correlates of subjective well-being in either Tonga or New Zealand. More broadly, our results highlight the difficulties of measuring changes in subjective well-being when reference frames change, as likely occurs with migration.

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Paper provided by Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) in its series IZA Discussion Papers with number 6871.

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Length: 36 pages
Date of creation: Sep 2012
Date of revision:
Publication status: published in: World Development, 2013, [Online First]
Handle: RePEc:iza:izadps:dp6871
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  1. Knight, John & Gunatilaka, Ramani, 2010. "Great Expectations? The Subjective Well-being of Rural-Urban Migrants in China," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 38(1), pages 113-124, January.
  2. Joshua D. Angrist, 2003. "Treatment Effect Heterogeneity in Theory and Practice," NBER Working Papers 9708, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  3. Clemens, Michael A. & Montenegro, Claudio E. & Pritchett, Lant, 2009. "The Place Premium: Wage Differences for Identical Workers Across the US Border," Scholarly Articles 4412631, Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
  4. Ozden, Caglar & Parsons, Christopher R. & Schiff, Maurice & Walmsley, Terrie L., 2011. "Where on earth is everybody ? the evolution of global bilateral migration 1960-2000," Policy Research Working Paper Series 5709, The World Bank.
  5. Betsey Stevenson & Justin Wolfers, 2013. "Subjective Well-Being and Income: Is There Any Evidence of Satiation?," CAMA Working Papers 2013-21, Centre for Applied Macroeconomic Analysis, Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University.
  6. McKenzie, David & Gibson, John & Stillman, Steven, 2006. "How Important Is Selection? Experimental vs. Non-Experimental Measures of the Income Gains from Migration," IZA Discussion Papers 2087, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  7. Beegle, Kathleen & Himelein, Kristen & Ravallion, Martin, 2012. "Frame-of-reference bias in subjective welfare," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 81(2), pages 556-570.
  8. Angus Deaton & Arthur A. Stone, 2013. "Two Happiness Puzzles," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 103(3), pages 591-97, May.
  9. John Gibson & Steven Stillman & David McKenzie & Halahingano Rohorua, 2010. "Natural Experiment Evidence on the Effect of Migration on Blood Pressure and Hypertension," CReAM Discussion Paper Series 1024, Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (CReAM), Department of Economics, University College London.
  10. Steven Stillman & David McKenzie & John Gibson, 2006. "Migration and Mental Health: Evidence from a Natural Experiment," Working Papers in Economics 06/04, University of Waikato, Department of Economics.
  11. Gibson, John & McKenzie, David & Rohorua, Halahingano, 2008. "How pro-poor is the selection of seasonal migrant workers from Tonga under New Zealand's recognized seasonal employer program ?," Policy Research Working Paper Series 4698, The World Bank.
  12. Rafael Di Tella & John Haisken-De New & Robert MacCulloch, 2007. "Happiness Adaptation to Income and to Status in an Individual Panel," NBER Working Papers 13159, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  13. Angus Deaton, 2008. "Income, Health, and Well-Being around the World: Evidence from the Gallup World Poll," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 22(2), pages 53-72, Spring.
  14. Angus Deaton, 2009. "Instruments of development: Randomization in the tropics, and the search for the elusive keys to economic development," Working Papers 1122, Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Research Program in Development Studies..
  15. Borraz, Fernando & Pozo, Susan & Rossi, Máximo, 2008. "And What About the Family Back Home? International Migration and Happiness," Proceedings of the German Development Economics Conference, Zurich 2008 2, Verein für Socialpolitik, Research Committee Development Economics.
  16. Lokshin, Michael & Ravallion, Martin, 2005. "Rich and powerful?: Subjective power and welfare in Russia," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 56(2), pages 141-172, February.
  17. Akay, Alpaslan & Bargain, Olivier & Zimmermann, Klaus F., 2012. "Relative concerns of rural-to-urban migrants in China," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 81(2), pages 421-441.
  18. John Gibson & David McKenzie & Halahingano Rohorua, 2008. "How Pro-Poor is the Selection of Seasonal Migrant Workers from Tonga under New Zealand’s Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) Program?," Working Papers in Economics 08/08, University of Waikato, Department of Economics.
  19. McKenzie, David & Gibson, John & Stillman, Steven, 2007. "A Land of Milk and Honey with Streets Paved with Gold: Do Emigrants Have Over-Optimistic Expectations about Incomes Abroad?," IZA Discussion Papers 2788, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  20. Ilana Redstone Akresh, 2008. "Occupational Trajectories of Legal US Immigrants: Downgrading and Recovery," Population and Development Review, The Population Council, Inc., vol. 34(3), pages 435-456.
  21. Russell Smyth & Ingrid Nielsen & Qingguo Zhai, 2009. "Subjective Well-Being Of China'S Off-Farm Migrants," Development Research Unit Working Paper Series 02-09, Monash University, Department of Economics.
  22. John Knight & Ramani Gunatilaka, 2010. "The Rural-Urban Divide in China: Income but Not Happiness?," Journal of Development Studies, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 46(3), pages 506-534.
  23. repec:pri:cheawb:deaton_income_health_and_wellbeing_around_the_world_evidence_%20from_gall is not listed on IDEAS
  24. Yaohui Zhao, 1999. "Leaving the Countryside: Rural-to-Urban Migration Decisions in China," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 89(2), pages 281-286, May.
  25. David Bartram, 2011. "Economic Migration and Happiness: Comparing Immigrants’ and Natives’ Happiness Gains From Income," Social Indicators Research, Springer, vol. 103(1), pages 57-76, August.
  26. Ravallion, Martin & Lokshin, Michael, 2002. "Self-rated economic welfare in Russia," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 46(8), pages 1453-1473, September.
  27. Karin Amit & Howard Litwin, 2010. "The Subjective Well-Being of Immigrants Aged 50 and Older in Israel," Social Indicators Research, Springer, vol. 98(1), pages 89-104, August.
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