Op-Ed

Why does the U.S. have such an outlier child poverty rate? Our immigration system has a lot to do with it

Articles about America’s high levels of child poverty are a media evergreen. Here’s a typical entry, courtesy of the New York Times’s Eduardo Porter: “The percentage of children who are poor is more than three times as high in the United States as it is in Norway or the Netherlands. America has a larger proportion of poor children than Russia.” That’s right: Russia.

Outrageous as they seem, the assertions are true — at least in the sense that they line up with official statistics. Comparisons of the sort that Porter makes, though, should be accompanied by an asterisk pointing to a very American reality. Before Europe’s recent migration crisis, the United States was the only developed country to routinely import millions of very poor, low-skilled families, from some of the most destitute places on Earth — especially from undeveloped areas of Latin America — into its communities, schools and hospitals. Let’s just say that Russia doesn’t care to do this — and, until recently, Norway and the Netherlands didn’t, either.

Pundits prefer silence on the relationship between America’s immigration system and poverty, and it’s easy to see why. The subject pushes us into the sort of wrenching trade-offs that politicians and advocates prefer to avoid. Here’s the problem in a nutshell: You can allow mass low-skilled immigration, which many consider humane. But if you do, it becomes a lot harder to pursue the equally humane goal of reducing child poverty in this country.

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In 1964, the federal government settled on a standard definition of poverty: an annual income less than three times the amount required to feed a family (size dependent) over that period of time. Back then, close to 23% of American kids were poor. Today, about 18% of kids are below the poverty line, amounting to 13,250,000 children.

At first, immigration did not affect child-poverty figures. The 1924 Immigration Act sharply reduced the number of immigrants from poorer Eastern European and southern countries, and it altogether banned Asians. The relatively small number of immigrants settling in the United States tended to be from affluent nations. According to the Migration Policy Institute, in 1970, immigrant children were less likely to be poor than were the children of native-born Americans.

By 1980, the situation had reversed: immigrant kids were now poorer than native-born ones. Why? The 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act overturned the 1924 restrictions and made “family preference” a cornerstone of immigration policy. In consequence of that move, as well as large-scale illegal immigration, a growing number of new Americans hailed from less-developed countries. As of 1990, immigrant kids had poverty rates 50% higher than their native counterparts. At the turn of the millennium, more than one-fifth of immigrant children were classified as poor.

Perhaps the most uncomfortable truth about these statistics is that a large majority of America’s poor immigrant children — and, at this point, a large fraction of all its poor children — are Latino.

The United States started collecting separate poverty data on Latinos in 1972. That year, 22.8% of those originally from Spanish-language countries of Latin America were poor. The percentage hasn’t risen dramatically since then; it’s now at 25.6%. But because the Latino population in America quintupled during those years, these immigrants substantially expanded the nation’s poverty rolls. Latinos are now the largest U.S. immigrant group by far — and the lowest-skilled. Pew estimates that Latinos accounted for more than half the 22-million-person rise in the official poverty numbers between 1972 and 2012.

At the same time, then, that America’s War on Poverty was putting a spotlight on poor children, the immigration system was steadily making the problem worse. Between 1999 and 2008 alone, the United States added 1.8 million children to the poverty total; the Center for Immigration Studies reports that immigrants accounted for 45% of them.

Latino immigration is of course not the only reason that the United States has such troubling child-poverty rates. Other immigrant groups, such as North Africans and Laotians, add to the ranks of the under-18 poor. And even if we were following the immigration quotas set in 1924, the United States would be something of an outlier. Perhaps the nation’s biggest embarrassment is the alarming number of black children living in impoverished homes, about 3.7 million (compared to 5.1 million poor Latino kids).

But immigrant poverty belongs in a different category from black poverty. After all, immigrants voluntarily come to the United States, usually seeking opportunity. These days, they don’t always find it.

Yes, some immigrant groups known for their devotion to their children’s educational attainment (Chinese immigrants come to mind) have a good shot at middle-class stability, even if the parents arrive in America with little skill or education. Researchers, however, have followed several generations of Latinos — again, by far the largest immigrant group — and what they’ve discovered is not encouraging.

Latino immigrants start off OK. Raised in the United States, second-generation Latinos go to college at higher rates than their parents, and they also earn more. Unfortunately, the third generation either stalls or takes what the Urban Institute calls a “U-turn.” Between the second and third generation, Latino high school dropout rates go up and college-going declines. Third-generation Latinos are more often disconnected — that is, they neither attend school nor find employment.

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Other affluent countries have lots of immigrants struggling to make it in a postindustrial economy. Those countries have lower child-poverty rates than we do — some much lower. But the background of the immigrants they accept is very different. Canada is probably the best comparison. Like the United States, it’s part of the Anglosphere and is historically multicultural. Unlike the United States, it uses a points system that considers education levels and English ability, among other skills, to determine who gets a visa. The Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project calculates that 30% of American immigrants have less than a high school diploma, while 35% have a college degree or higher. Only 22% of Canadian immigrants lack a high school diploma, while more than 46% have gone to college.

Sweden presents another illuminating case. For a long time, the large majority of Sweden’s immigrants were from Finland, a country with a similar culture and economy. By the 1990s, the immigrant population began to change as refugees arrived from the former Yugoslavia, Iran and Iraq — populations far more likely to be unskilled than immigrants from the European Union. By 2011, Sweden was seeing an explosion in the number of asylum applicants from Syria, Afghanistan and Africa; in 2015 and 2016, there was another spike. Sweden’s percentage of foreign-born has swelled to 17% — higher than the approximately 13% in the United States.

How has Sweden handled its growing diversity? Numbers from earlier this decade suggest that immigrants tend to be poorer than natives and more likely to fall back into poverty if they do surmount it. In fact, Sweden has one of the highest poverty rates among immigrants relative to native-born in the European Union. Most striking, a majority of children living in Sweden classified as poor in 2010 were immigrants.

Outcomes like these suggest that immigration optimists have underestimated the difficulty of integrating the less-educated from undeveloped countries, and their children, into advanced economies. A more honest accounting raises tough questions. Should the United States favor higher-skilled immigration? Or do we accept higher levels of child poverty and lower social mobility as a cost of giving opportunity to people with none? If we accept such costs, does it make sense to compare our child-poverty numbers with those of countries such as Sweden, which have only recently begun to take in large numbers of low-skilled immigrants?

Alternatively, we can fall back on shouting “racism” every time someone expresses concern about our immigration system. Remember Nov. 8, 2016, if you want to know how that will play out.

Kay S. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal, from which this essay was adapted.

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