Analysis of immigrants' income in the United States typically focuses on the extremes: low-wage immigrants who often work in low-skilled jobs, and high-wage immigrants who also tend to be very highly skilled. This Spotlight provides an initial look at immigrant households in the middle of the income distribution, or middle-class immigrants.
The middle class is the focus of substantial attention from policymakers, the press, advocates, and scholars. The U.S. Census Bureau does not have an official definition of the middle class, and some observers argue that middle class status is relative, highly fluid, and often arbitrary. Most analysts agree the middle class vaguely includes households who are neither rich nor poor, but a more precise definition remains elusive.
Typically, middle-class households have incomes concentrated around the median household income. (Household income includes the incomes of all individuals who reside in a single household.) Other definitions may classify individuals by occupation or education, or they may be more descriptive.
Different authors have proposed different upper and lower limits around the median household income. The two most common are (1) the middle fifth (quintile) of households and (2) households with incomes ranging from 75 percent to 125 percent of the median. According to World Bank economist Martin Ravallion, the second definition is increasingly used in studies of the middle class in developed countries.
In this Spotlight, we use data from the U.S. Census Bureau's 2007 American Community Survey (ACS) to examine the size and distribution of middle-class immigrant households in the United States.
ACS is an annual sample survey of 3 million U.S. households that asks respondents age 15 and older to report their total monetary income during the previous 12 months. The annual incomes of all respondents residing in the same household are then summed to yield household income.
We consider the middle class to include all households whose income lies between 75 and 125 percent of the median income for all households. Following this approach, middle-class households reported total incomes ranging from $45,535 to $75,893 in the 2007 ACS. We exclude households who reported negative or zero income.
Following widespread convention, we consider any household where the household head or spouse is foreign born to be an immigrant household. If both the household head and the spouse were U.S. citizens at birth, we consider the household to be a native household.
The household head is the first person listed on the Census Bureau questionnaire and could be any household member in whose name the property is owned or rented. If no such person was present at the time of interview, any adult could have been selected as the household head. According to Census Bureau policies, any individual identified as a "spouse" must be the opposite sex of the household head.
Using these definitions, we calculate that the United States has 112.4 million households of which 17.5 million (16 percent) include a foreign-born household head, spouse, or both. Native households had an average of 2.4 people per household compared to an average of 3.2 people per immigrant household.
Defining the Foreign-Born Population
Size and Distribution
Demographic and Socioeconomic Profile
Size and Distribution
Nearly one-quarter of immigrant households were middle class in 2007.
About 4.1 million immigrant households qualified as middle class in 2007 — 23.6 percent of the total 17.5 million immigrant households. Almost the same share of native-born households (24.0 percent, or 22.8 million of 94.8 million) was middle class in 2007.
About 15 million people resided in middle-class immigrant households in 2007.
In 2007, about 14.7 million people — including immigrants and their native-born spouses, children, and other relatives — resided in middle-class immigrant households. The middle class accounted for 25.3 percent of all residents of immigrant households.
One of every five middle-class U.S. residents lived in an immigrant household.
Of the 74.2 million U.S. residents who were middle class in 2007, 14.7 million (19.9 percent) resided in immigrant households.
Immigrant households were more likely than native households to have incomes below the middle-class threshold.
About 39.7 percent of residents of immigrant households had incomes below the middle-class threshold (i.e., less than 75 percent of the median household income in 2007) compared to 35.5 percent of residents of native households (see Figure 1).
Immigrant households were less likely than native households to have incomes above the middle-class threshold (i.e., more than 125 percent of the median household income in 2007) — 35.0 percent compared to 40.1 percent.
More than half of all residents of middle-class immigrant households lived in four states: California, Texas, New York, and Florida.
Over half (56.3 percent) of all residents of middle-class immigrant households lived in California (26.9 percent), Texas (10.7 percent), New York (9.7 percent), and Florida (9.0 percent).
This closely mirrors the distribution of all residents of immigrant households, which were located in California (27.1 percent), Texas (10.9 percent) New York (10.4 percent), and Florida (8.5 percent).
Nearly two of every five residents of middle-class immigrant households were native-born U.S. citizens.
About 5.7 million native-born U.S. citizens resided in middle-class immigrant households in 2007, making up 38.4 percent of all residents of middle-class immigrant households.
Most native-born residents of middle-class immigrant households were children.
Of the 5.7 million native-born U.S. citizens who resided in middle-class immigrant households, 69.6 percent were the children of one or more immigrant parent, and 18 percent were native-born spouses. Grandchildren and other relatives (including stepchildren, parents, parents-in-law, siblings, and siblings-in-law) accounted for 9.2 percent. The remaining 3.3 percent included unmarried partners; housemates or roommates; roomers, boarders, or lodgers; foster children; and other nonrelatives.
Over three-quarters of all children in middle-class immigrant households were native-born U.S. citizens.
About 5.5 million children lived in middle-class immigrant households (including children, stepchildren, grandchildren, and foster children) in 2007. Over three-quarters (76.9 percent) of these children (or 4.2 million) were native-born U.S. citizens.
Demographic and Socioeconomic Profile
This section provides a demographic and socioeconomic profile of the heads of middle-class immigrant households.
Nationwide, the wage and salary income of the heads of middle-class households accounted for half (50 percent) of total household income in 2007. By contrast, the wage and salary income of spouses in middle-class households accounted for less than one-third (29 percent) of total household income. (In addition to the wages and salaries of household heads and spouses, households may also receive some income from the wages and salaries of dependents age 15 and older, investments, public assistance, and other income transfers.)
As a result, the demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of household heads are particularly important in determining a household's total income.
Compared to middle-class native households, a smaller share of middle-class immigrant households were headed by women.
Women headed 42.1 percent of middle-class native households but just 34.6 percent of middle-class immigrant households. Men headed 65.4 percent of middle-class immigrant households compared to 57.9 percent of middle-class native households.
One-quarter of the heads of middle-class immigrant households were born in Mexico.
In 2007, 24.5 percent of the 4.1 million heads of middle-class immigrant households (24.5 percent) were immigrants from Mexico. About 14.7 percent of middle-class immigrant households were headed by a native-born U.S. citizen (i.e., households with a native-born household head and a foreign-born spouse).
The Philippines (3.4 percent), India (3.2 percent), El Salvador (2.8 percent), and Vietnam (2.4 percent) were the next largest countries of origin of the heads of middle-class immigrant households.
Among all 17.5 million heads of immigrant households, 23.9 percent were born in Mexico and 13.1 percent were native-born U.S. citizens whose spouse was foreign born. The next leading countries of origin of the heads of immigrant households in 2007 were India (3.6 percent), the Philippines (3.4 percent), China (2.9 percent), and Cuba (2.6 percent).
A larger share of foreign-born household heads who arrived during the 1980s were middle class compared to foreign-born household heads who arrived during other periods.
Among all foreign-born household heads in 2007, 25.7 percent of those who arrived between 1980 and 1989 were middle class in 2007.
By comparison, 19.7 percent of those who arrived before 1970, 23.3 percent of those who arrived between 1970 and 1979, 23.0 percent of those who arrived between 1990 and 1999, and 22.5 percent of those who arrived in 2000 or later were middle class.
Immigrant households headed by a native-born U.S. citizen whose spouse is foreign born were more likely to be middle class than households headed by a naturalized citizen or noncitizen.
Over one-quarter (26.6 percent) of immigrant households headed by a native-born U.S. citizen whose spouse is foreign born were middle class compared to 23.3 percent of households headed by a naturalized U.S. citizen and 22.9 percent of households headed by a noncitizen.
Compared to the heads of all immigrant households, the heads of middle-class immigrant households were more likely to have completed high school but were less likely to have a bachelor's or higher degree.
About 24.7 percent of the heads of middle-class immigrant households completed high school (including those receiving a GED) and 23.6 percent had completed some college or an associate's degree. Among all immigrant household heads, 22.2 percent completed high school and 20.2 percent had some college or an associate's degree.
The heads of middle-class immigrant households were less likely than the heads of all immigrant households to have less than a high school education (23.2 percent versus 26.1 percent).
At the other end of the education spectrum, the heads of middle-class immigrant households were also less likely to have a bachelor's degree or higher compared to the heads of all immigrant households (28.5 percent versus 31.6 percent).
Almost half of the civilian employed heads of middle-class immigrant households worked in construction, extraction, and transportation; manufacturing, installation, and repair; and in service occupations.
Among the civilian employed heads of middle-class immigrant households (age 16 and older), 17.8 percent worked in construction, extraction and transportation. An additional 15.7 percent worked in service occupations, and 14.9 percent worked in manufacturing, installation, and repair (see Table 1).
Compared to the heads of middle-class native households, the heads of middle-class immigrant households were more likely to work in construction, extraction and transportation; manufacturing, installation, and repair; and in service occupations. They were less likely to work in management, business, and finance; education, training, media, and entertainment; and administrative support occupations.
About half of the heads of middle-class immigrant households were limited English proficient.
About 17.2 percent of the 3.5 million heads of middle-class immigrant households reported speaking "English only" while 34.1 percent reported speaking English "very well." In contrast, 48.7 percent reported speaking English less than "very well," slightly lower than the 49.9 percent reported among all heads of immigrant households.
(Note: The term limited English proficient refers to any person age 5 and older who reported speaking English "not at all," "not well," or "well" on their survey questionnaire. Individuals who reported speaking only English or speaking English "very well" are considered proficient in English).
Ravallion, Martin. 2009. The Developing World's Bulging (but Vulnerable) "Middle Class." World Bank, Development Research Group, Policy Research Working Paper 4816 (January). Available online.
U.S. Census Bureau. 2007. American Community Survey. Accessed from Steven Ruggles, Matthew Sobek, Trent Alexander, et al., Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 3.0. Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota Population Center, 2004.
U.S. Census Bureau. 2008. "Income Inequality (Middle Class)." Available online.