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Does Immigrant Skills Gap Exist in U.S.? Report Finds Immigrants Score Below U.S. Born in Literacy & Numeracy – Even as U.S. Adults Overall Lag OECD
Press Release
Thursday, February 12, 2015

Does Immigrant Skills Gap Exist in U.S.? Report Finds Immigrants Score Below U.S. Born in Literacy & Numeracy – Even as U.S. Adults Overall Lag OECD

WASHINGTON — Immigrant adults in the United States lag their native-born peers in literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills, with resulting effects on their income, employment, education and health, according to Migration Policy Institute (MPI) analysis of an innovative international survey that tests skills needed for full participation in today’s increasingly knowledge-based world.

Still, while the United States lags most other countries on the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) test, a new MPI report finds that immigrants’ impact on the overall scores and international standing is minimal. Taking immigrants’ scores out of the equation would not boost the United States to a higher ranking among the 24 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries that administered the 2012 test.

The report, Through an Immigrant Lens: PIAAC Assessment of the Competencies of Adults in the United States, finds that immigrants are over-represented among low-skilled adults: accounting for 33 percent of U.S. adults with low literacy skills and 24 percent with low numeracy skills even as they are 15 percent of the U.S. adult population (ages 16 – 65). Roughly 40 percent of immigrant adults lacked basic English literacy and 48 percent lacked basic numeracy. And U.S. adults overall scored low on literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills compared to adults in most other OECD countries.

“Our analysis of the PIAAC results, which reveals wide ethnic and racial gaps in scoring, underscores deep U.S. social inequalities,” said MPI President Michael Fix, who co-authored the study. “The PIAAC test provides a rather disheartening portrait of the skills of the current U.S. labor force in which between half and two-thirds of working-age adults were not proficient in literacy and numeracy.”

The report suggests that the rising skills of new entrants to the United States, patterns of intergenerational progress and the high workforce participation of immigrants could offer levers for future improvement. In particular, the report notes that work-based language and skills training programs—which are proven to significantly improve participants’ employment prospects and increase their earnings—could reach many adults with low literacy levels. Yet low-skilled individuals, regardless of their birthplace, are less likely to have access to these programs for a number of reasons, including cost, language barriers, lack of information and competing work and family demands.

“Our findings identify the severe wage penalty imposed by low education and low English skills,” said co-author Jeanne Batalova, an MPI senior policy analyst. “To close this nativity wage gap, it is essential to raise the skills and education of immigrants. Doing so is a daunting task, but a shared commitment at all levels—by employers, federal and state government, adult education and immigrant service providers and adult learners themselves—can result in an effective response.”

The report also notes that while the scores of first-generation immigrants (those born abroad) lagged those of natives, the test results of second-generation adults (born in the United States to immigrant parents) had caught up with those of U.S.-born adults without immigrant parents (the third and higher generations), indicating significant intergenerational progress. Further, the authors point out that the PIAAC competency tests are administered in English, leaving non-English speakers at a disadvantage—regardless of their skills in their native language.

The PIAAC test represents the largest direct assessment of working-age adults’ literacy and numeracy undertaken to date, and permits detailed analysis of the U.S. population, including the foreign born, in ways not available with U.S. surveys, which rely on self-reporting of English proficiency and other aptitudes.

The MPI report finds that adults’ skills varied by age, race/ethnicity, time of arrival, education, place of education and other demographic and social characteristics. For example, younger immigrants had stronger skills than older immigrants even as younger natives barely outperformed their older U.S.-born counterparts. And higher shares of Hispanic and black adults of all origins performed at low levels on literacy and numeracy tests, making up 53 percent and 21 percent respectively of respondents scoring at the lowest levels of English literacy while comprising 14 percent and 13 percent of survey takers.

And while higher educational attainment is associated with higher numeracy and literacy scores, a college education is no guarantor of skills: 22 percent of natives and 54 percent of immigrants with a college degree scored below proficient in literacy.

Among other key findings:

  • Immigrants with low literacy and numeracy scores were significantly more likely to be employed than natives with the same skill levels; but to be paid on par with the U.S.-born, they required higher levels of English competency.
  • Regardless of origin, adults with low literacy scores were more likely to report poor health.
  • Immigrants with foreign-earned academic credentials had lower English literacy and numeracy scores than those with U.S.-earned credentials.

The report can be downloaded at www.migrationpolicy.org/research/through-immigrant-lens-piaac-assessment-competencies-adults-united-states.


The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, D.C. dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels. For more on MPI, visit www.migrationpolicy.org.