Evan Ramstad
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Do immigrants hurt Minnesota's economy before they help it? Is the University of Minnesota offering enough money to attract Ph.D. students?

These are some of the questions readers have posed — either online in the comments section or in email directly to me — in response to my first month of business columns at the Star Tribune.

It's hard to respond to everyone who writes me, but I absorb and appreciate the feedback. And I thought I should develop a habit of responding publicly to reader feedback, particularly when readers highlight ideas I left out or didn't consider. I try to be thorough, but I'm not perfect.

My first column on Jan. 1, in which I raised the question about whether Minnesotans will be able to stay rich without growth, generated the most responses of the month. This is a dilemma for the entire U.S., and I've seen other columnists and media write about it in recent weeks. Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist, last Sunday took it on at a global level.

A lot of the reaction to my take zeroed in on the diversification of Minnesota's population and workforce, with readers pushing the hot buttons of immigration and race. Some readers asked me to prove my assertion that immigrants have been "most responsible" for economic growth in Minnesota in recent years.

Economies grow in three ways: more people, more resources or greater productivity. In the 20 years ending 2019, Minnesota's foreign-born population grew 81% while its U.S.-born population grew 11%. In the 2010s, that change ratio was closer to 3-1 due in part to immigration restrictions in the Trump years.

As well, non-Hispanic whites have declined as a portion of the state's workforce. Minnesota had the nation's seventh-most rapidly diversifying workforce during the 2010s. While of course there have been gains in resources and productivity, the number of people working and consuming is more important.

In that first column, I also suggested that immigration was a remedy to the plunge in the size of Minnesota workforce since the start of 2020. That led one reader to comment that immigration proponents "conveniently dismiss the social liabilities of an influx of the unskilled, untrained and indigent."

"Nobody is providing any statistics on the median income of legal immigrants in their first decade of residence, much less numbers showing how many end up on welfare to various extents," the reader added.

Census data shows that, as of 2019, foreign-born Minnesotans who arrived since 2010 had a median income of $49,700 while those here since before 2000 had a median income of $68,400. The poverty rate of the most recent arrivals was 26%, while it was just 11% for those who had been in Minnesota for 20 years.

"Immigrants do have a cost when they first come here. Refugees in particular might need some serious health care assistance or housing assistance. So there is a cost to this," said Laura Bordelon, a senior vice president at the Minnesota Chamber, which advocates for welcoming more immigrants. "But the facts also show that over time these folks contribute in a meaningful way just like any other citizen does when they build wealth."

Contrary to what a lot of people hear, immigrants — legal or undocumented — are not immediately entitled to U.S. welfare benefits, though some Democrats have suggested offering some. Legal immigrants can get food stamps and other benefits under certain circumstances, chiefly if they've spent five years as lawful residents.

My column last Sunday about the small number of American Ph.D. students at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management touched on immigration and workforce diversification from a different perspective.

One commenter said the piece "would be more useful had the author supplied applicant numbers broken down by domestic vs international." I should have thought of that. The Carlson School told me last week that it had more than 300 applicants, predominantly international students.

The admittance rate for Americans was 81% and 48% for international students. Less than half the admitted international students enroll, while about three-fourths of the Americans do.

One reader suggested the U wasn't paying enough to attract American Ph.D. candidates. "International students often have access to different funding or fewer options to choose between," the reader wrote.

When I asked the Carlson School about that notion, a spokesman said, "Private schools are able to offer more when it comes to pay. However, our comprehensive package [pay, combined with covering health care, research and teaching stipends, small grant opportunities, and more] make us a competitive choice for Ph.D. candidates."

Let's keep the conversation going.