In 1970, poverty rates of children of immigrants were lower than among children of natives. But by 1980, only ten years later, this pattern had reversed itself. During the 1980s, poverty rates continued to diverge between immigrant and native families. In both 1990 and 2000, poverty rates among children of immigrants were 50 percent higher than among children of natives. As of 2000, over one-fifth of children of immigrants compared with 15 percent of children of natives and only nine percent of non-Hispanic white children were classified as poor. Among children of Mexican immigrants, the largest and most disadvantaged national origin group, one-third were poor.
Child Poverty Rates, Age 0-17
These data on child poverty rates in the United States, drawn from the U.S. Census, have the key advantage of enabling comparative analysis over time. For the purposes of this article, "poverty" is a situation in which a person's family income falls at or less than the official federal poverty threshold. To understand the data in context, however, one must be also be aware of their limitations. The following context should be kept in mind:
First, the size and characteristics of the U.S. immigrant population changed dramatically in the wake of the Immigration and Nationality Act amendments of 1965. Immigrant flows went from being small and relatively highly skilled and educated to a much larger and more geographically heterogeneous group, many of them (e.g., refugees) with fewer personal resources and weaker social support networks. This means that experience of immigrants who arrived in the years leading up to 1970, in the broadest of terms, are difficult to compare to that of immigrants who arrived later because of legislation and composition changes.
Second, the United States shifted from an industrial to a service-based economy during this period. Many plentiful, well-paid jobs that lent themselves to immigrant skills and provided opportunities for social mobility had disappeared by 2000, with a negative impact on the income and life chances of immigrants and their children.
Third, related to the issue of measuring poverty, it is important to acknowledge that this measure does not completely capture the depth or multidimensional qualities of poverty. The number of American-born individuals living in poverty has declined over time, but research also suggests that poverty has become "deeper" and complex, especially for African Americans (e.g., changing access to employment, housing, education, public transportation, health care, etc.
Official Poverty Definition
Fourth, these data include children of mixed immigrant/non-immigrant households. Roughly 80 percent of children of immigrants is U.S.-born, and many have at least one U.S.-born parent.
It may seem that child poverty—particularly among immigrants—does not warrant much concern because immigrant families tend to be better off in the United States than the countries in which they used to live. But from the perspective of American society as a whole, the growth in immigrant child poverty is no small matter. Children of immigrants (a group that includes both the foreign-born and U.S.-born children of immigrants) are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population under age 18 and now comprise 20 percent of the school-aged population. Whether immigrant or native, child poverty poses a significant social problem because childhood poverty is linked to a number of long-lasting developmental and schooling problems that often translate into poor socioeconomic outcomes in adulthood. It is important to understand why immigrant child poverty has increased because today's children of immigrants will make up a large and growing portion of the U.S. labor force in the coming decades.
Why Immigrant Child Poverty Increased
In the United States, child poverty tends to be strongly linked to parental marital status and parental employment patterns. While these factors are important for all children, other explanations unique to the immigrant experience are critical for understanding the growth in immigrant child poverty. One such explanation focuses the fact that the types of immigrants who come to the United States have changed over the past few decades, while another focuses on how the social and economic environment immigrants encounter once they arrive in the United States has changed. Research conducted by myself with Susan L. Brown and Maxwell Kwenda at Bowling Green State University suggests that there are elements of truth in both perspectives.
Changes in Immigrants. Some scholars point to changes in the characteristics of the immigrants coming to the United States as an explanation for the increase in immigrant child poverty. Economist George Borjas argues that the United States has increasingly attracted large numbers of low-skilled workers with low levels of education due to changing criteria for immigrant admissions based on family reunification, a growing welfare state, and amnesties that legalized over one-million unauthorized immigrants in the 1980s. This perspective suggests that increases in immigrant child poverty may be associated with declines in the education, experience, and skill levels of immigrant parents.
The evidence on this view is mixed. Average educational levels of immigrant parents actually increased following 1970 (although not as quickly as among native parents). The percentage of immigrant parents with a college degree increased from 20 to 29 percent between 1970 and 2000, and the percentage without a high school degree declined from 34 to 30 percent. The growth in poverty among immigrant children could not have resulted from declines in immigrant parent's education because, very simply, immigrant parents' education did not decline.
Perhaps more important have been declines in parental employment among immigrants. Immigrant parents with low levels of education, particularly mothers, have become less likely to be engaged in steady, full-time employment. Among immigrant married couples with a high school education or less, the percentage with at least one full-time-full-year job declined 14.5 percentage points (from 77.2 percent in 1970 to 62.7 percent in 2000), and the percentage in which both parents work (at least 1.5 full-time equivalent jobs between the two parents) declined by 5.4 percentage points.
Another notable change is immigrants' shifting race/ethnic composition. Many more immigrants come from Latin American and Asian countries than in the past, and many fewer are of European origin. In the context of persistent racial discrimination, immigrant parents today may find it more difficult to gain employment and good wages due to their non-European origins. Again, the evidence for this perspective is mixed. On the one hand, child poverty levels have been and continue to be higher among racial and ethnic minority groups than among non-Hispanic whites even after accounting for differences in family structure, work patterns and educational attainment. Because belonging to racial or ethnic minority constitutes a disadvantage and a much higher proportion of immigrant parents are of non-European origin than before, this change may contribute to the growth in poverty among immigrant families.
On the other hand, the disadvantages associated with race and ethnicity diminished substantially over the last three decades. In this case, the positives offset the negatives. Based on our analysis of several decades of Census data, my colleagues and I estimate that the increases in poverty that resulted from changes in immigrants' race/ethnic composition were counterbalanced by declines in poverty that resulted from reductions in the disadvantage of being non-white.
Predicted Percentage in Poverty (vertical axis) by Race/ethnicity and Year
The New Economy. Another explanation for the increase in immigrant child poverty relates to the fact that economic returns to education, employment, and work experience have declined. Since 1979, earnings growth has been confined to those with a college degree. Those who did not complete high school experienced a 30 percent decline in real wages. Rising wage inequality has been attributed in part the formation of an "hourglass" economy, in which jobs for skilled and semi-skilled workers in manufacturing have declined relative to both highly paid professional occupations at the top and dead-end service-sector jobs at the bottom of the pay scale.
The "hourglass" structure of today's economy has made it more difficult for new arrivals—many of whom start out with low levels of education—to work their way up the job ladder. It takes more education, employment, and experience in the United States to lift children out of poverty today than 30 years ago. For example, even after accounting for other factors, poverty levels tend to be much higher for children of parents with a high school education or less than for children of parents who went to college. Even more important, poverty levels among those with low education increased significantly in the past three decades, particularly during the 1980s.
Predicted Percentage in Poverty (vertical axis) by Education and Year
It is important to keep in mind that the challenges of the new economy have hit immigrants especially hard because of their comparatively low educational attainments and maternal labor force participation. Despite slow improvement, immigrant parents fell behind native parents with respect to education. Furthermore, among immigrant parents with low levels of education, employment hours declined. In an economy that increasingly values higher education and in which mothers' employment has become important for keeping households financially afloat, the lack of rapid change in education and employment constitutes a severe and growing impediment for a growing number of immigrant families. Poverty increased among children of immigrants and not children of natives because native families tended to adapt more successfully to the rapidly changing economic environment.
The Policy Debate
Current debates about immigration tend to be divided between those advocating changes in immigrant admissions criteria and border policy as a means of increases in the economic well-being of immigrants and their children, and those advocating increasing the level of economic and social support for new arrivals. On the one hand, it is difficult to find empirical evidence to support the idea that the increase in immigrant child poverty is a direct result of changes in the types of immigrants who move to the United States. Parental education among immigrants did not decline, and the effects of shifts in race/ethnic composition were offset by convergence in poverty risks across race/ethnic groups. On the other hand, immigrant families have fallen behind native families in parental employment and education, and the lack of rapid change in employment and education have contributed to the higher poverty rates of immigrant children.
An understandable policy goal might be to modify immigration admissions or border policy in ways that are more selective of immigrants with higher levels of education and parental employment, both of which have become increasingly important. However, such a strategy is almost certainly unrealistic. It would be difficult to alter the composition of immigrant flows given the strong and deeply imbedded social, economic, and political forces both in the United States and abroad that promote the in-flow of low-skilled labor and the reunification of immigrant families. A more workable strategy is to identify barriers to employment among immigrant parents (especially immigrant mothers) and educational attainment among immigrant children, and then develop and implement policies that seek to reduce these barriers.