Long before the calamity in Haiti, many Haitians and their families benefited from working abroad, and many, including me, have suggested allowing more Haitian immigrants into the United States as a way to help the country's economy recover.
It might seem strange that the best solution to Haiti's woes lies outside its borders, but migration and remittances have been responsible for almost all of the poverty reduction that has happened in the island country over the past few decades. They have done enormously more good than any policy intended to reduce poverty inside Haiti during that time. Any poverty-reduction strategy for Haiti going forward that does not include what has been Haitians' most successful poverty-reduction strategy to date is not a serious one.
This idea is a no-brainer if we take a minute to look at the numbers.
First, Haitians have already emigrated in droves. There are around 535,000 Haitian-born U.S. residents at the Census Bureau's last count, out of roughly 1 million in total living abroad.
The vast majority of Haitians who have escaped poverty have done so by leaving the country. Pick any reasonable poverty line for Haiti; the vast majority of Haitians above it no longer live there. In a study I did with Harvard's Lant Pritchett, we chose a bare-bones poverty line of $10 per day (measured as a living standard at U.S. prices). That's total destitution -- just a third of the $30 per day that the United States considers "poverty" for a single adult. Eight out of 10 Haitians above that line currently live in the United States.
Most of this represents the effect of emigration on poverty. Only 1 percent of people in Haiti live on more than $10 per day, and there is no evidence that most Haitian emigrants come from the extreme tip-top of the income distribution, so very few people who emigrated would have an income that high if they had been forced to stay home. A typical low-skill male Haitian in the United States earns at least six times what he could earn in Haiti. And all of this just accounts for Haitians in the United States. Include the roughly 100,000 more who are in Canada and Western Europe, almost all of whom live on over $10 per day, and it's even starker: The vast majority of Haitians who escaped poverty did so by leaving Haiti, not as a result of anything that happened in the country.
What about Haitians who did not emigrate? A limited number of these have emerged from poverty, but many were lifted out of poverty by remittances from abroad. They, too, should be included in any accounting of the effect of migration on poverty. Dilip Ratha, a top expert on remittances, estimates that a full accounting would show that Haitians abroad send home $1.5 billion to 1.8 billion per year or higher. That is much more than all the foreign aid that Haiti receives. The middle of Ratha's range suggests that remittances account for more than one quarter of Haiti's GDP. This is conservatively low because remittances have a multiplier effect on local GDP.