By Michael A. Fletcher Washington Post Staff Writer Thursday, September 2, 1999; Page A2
Immigrants are a large and growing factor in the stubborn level of poverty seen in the United States over the past two decades because newcomers to the country are more likely to be poor and to remain so longer than in the past, according to a new study.
The report, to be released today by the Center for Immigration Studies, says the number of impoverished people in the nation's immigrant-headed households nearly tripled from 2.7 million in 1979 to 7.7 million in 1997.
During that same period, the number of poor households headed by immigrants increased by 123 percent while the number of immigrant households increased by 68 percent, according to the study. The share of immigrants living in poverty rose from 15.5 percent to 21.8 percent, the report notes, a change that some analysts say holds troubling implications for the nation's future. About 12 percent of the nation's native-born population lives in poverty, a figure that has hardly changed in 20 years.
"Each successive wave of immigrants is doing worse and worse," said Steven A. Camarota, the report's author. "Each wave of immigrants has a higher poverty rate, and a much larger share of their children will grow up in poverty."
The report by the center, a Washington-based research group that advocates reduced immigration, uses information compiled in the 1980 and 1990 censuses, as well as information contained in the March 1998 Current Population Survey, to make its case that poverty in the United States is increasingly being driven by the nation's immigration policy.
The report says immigrants are more likely to be poor because they have higher levels of unemployment, have lower education levels and have larger families than native-born families. And much of their economic slide has come despite the fact that the nation's economy has been in good shape for much of the past 20 years, the report notes.
The report is rekindling the sharp-edged debate over whether high levels of immigration benefit the nation. The number of immigrants living in the United States has almost tripled since 1970, dramatically altering the nation's demographic and social mix because the vast majority of current immigrants are either Hispanic or Asian. Overall, immigrants now account for nearly 10 percent of the nation's residents, the highest level since the 1920s. About one in four Californians and one in three residents of New York are foreign-born.
But while many advocates credit immigrants with filling jobs that few others want, revitalizing previously neglected city neighborhoods from New York to Los Angeles and engendering a level of ambition and enterprise often unmatched by native-born residents, others see high levels of immigration as a burden the country can no longer bear.
If current levels of immigration remain in place, an estimated 10 million new immigrants will settle in the United States within the next decade, the report says. Increasing the number of poor people through immigration complicates current anti-poverty efforts, it adds. Moreover, if immigrant children grow up in poverty, they will be more likely to turn to crime, to have higher teenage pregnancy rates and to do poorly in school, the report says. Thus, the report calls for restrictions on the number of "low-skill" immigrants allowed into the country.
"This report clearly illustrates the foreignization of poverty in the United States," said George J. Borjas, a professor of public policy at Harvard University. "Nowadays, the economic structure is very different. The economy isn't creating many new jobs for unskilled people."
Immigration advocates objected to the report's conclusions, saying they overlook the proliferation of low-wage jobs in the U.S. economy as well as the contributions that immigrants have historically made to the nation, frequently through sheer enterprise and hard work. Studies have found that immigrant families have a higher propensity for home ownership and for starting small businesses.
"What really matters here is the growth in low-wage jobs," said Sonia Perez, a deputy vice president of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group. "Many working people are still in poverty."
The report's author, however, pointed to other research that indicates that many immigrants and their descendants are having a difficult time making economic progress. A study released last month by the California Senate found that Hispanic workers in that state lag far behind all other groups in wages and educational attainment, even through the third generation.
"Even if we make the most optimistic assumptions about how the kids of [immigrants] will do, the fact remains that we have grown our poor population and that has implications for societal stability," said Camarota. "We are potentially creating a new underclass in America."