While the overall unemployment rate for immigrants and the U.S.-born has returned to pre-pandemic levels, this obscures the low labor force participation rate of the U.S.-born, particularly those without a bachelor’s degree. The unemployed only includes those who have actively looked for a job in the prior four weeks, while labor force participation measures the share of all working-age people holding a job or actively looking for one. If the labor force participation rate for these less-educated Americans was the same in 2022 as it was 2000, then seven million more people would be in the labor force.
This analysis by the Center for Immigration Studies is based on the Current Population Survey (CPS), collected by the Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Although we provide information on all years since 2000, this report focuses on the peak years of economic expansion (2000, 2007, and 2019) as well as 2022 because it is the most recent first-quarter data available. Immigrants (legal and illegal together) in the CPS are often referred to as the "foreign-born" and include all persons who were not U.S. citizens at birth — primarily naturalized citizens, lawful permanent residents, long-term temporary visitors (e.g. guestworkers), and illegal immigrants.
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Among the findings:
- The unemployment rate of about 4 percent for both the U.S.-born and immigrants (ages 16-plus) in the first quarter of 2022 is similar to what it was before Covid-19, as is the total number (6.7 million) unemployed. (Tables 7 and 8)
- Perhaps more important than the 6.7 million unemployed are the 54.5 million working-wage (16-64) U.S. residents not in the labor force — neither working nor looking for work. (Tables 1 and 7)1
- Of all 61.2 million not working in the first quarter, 35.3 million (58 percent) were U.S.-born adults (18-64) without a bachelor’s degree. (Table 7)
- Covid-19 exacerbated the long-term decline in the labor force participation rate of less-educated U.S.-born adults (18-64). (Figures 1, 2, and 5-12 and Tables 5 and 7-10)
- The share of U.S.-born adults ages 18 to 64 without a bachelor’s degree in the labor force was 70 percent in the first quarter of 2022, down from 71 percent in 2019, before Covid; 74 percent in 2007, before the great recession; and 77 percent at the peak of the expansion in 2000. (Figures 1 and 5-12 and Tables 7-10)
- Among the U.S.-born, labor force participation is lowest and has tended to decline the most among the least-educated — dropouts and those with only a high school education, though it has also declined among those adults with some college. (Figures 5-36 and Tables 7-10)
- Focusing only on “prime-age” (25-54) men, who traditionally have the highest labor force participation, shows a large decline for the U.S.-born, but not so much for immigrants.
- Of U.S.-born men of prime working age without a bachelor’s degree, only 84 percent were in the labor force in the first quarter of 2022, compared to 89 percent in 2000. In contrast, 91 percent of less-educated prime-age immigrant men were in the labor force in 2022, compared to 92 percent in 2000. (Figures 3 and 13-20 and Tables 7-10)
- Prime-age women traditionally have lower rates of work than men, often because they care for children. Like their male counterparts, the labor force participation rate of less-educated U.S.-born women of prime age has declined — from 77 percent in 2000 to 72 percent in 2022.2 At 62 percent, the labor force participation rate for immigrant women is lower than their U.S.-born counterparts, but has not changed much since 2000. (Figures 4 and 21-28 and Tables 7-10)
- While less-educated U.S.-born blacks tend to have lower rates of labor force participation than U.S.-born whites and Hispanics, all three groups show a decline over the last two decades. (Tables 7-10 and Figures 5-36)
- Among prime working-age U.S.-born Americans (25-54) without a bachelor’s, labor force participation between 2000 and 2022 declined for whites from 84 percent to 79 percent; for blacks it declined from 79 percent to 75 percent; and for Hispanics it declined from 81 percent to 78 percent. (Figures 34-36)
Data and Methods
This report uses the public-use files of the Current Population Survey (CPS) from the first quarter (January, February, and March) of each year from 2000 to 2022 to examine the employment situation in the United States, with particular attention paid to differences between immigrants and the U.S.-born. The raw data used in this analysis comes directly from the Census Bureau’s website, which collects the data for the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Based on a monthly survey of 60,000 households, the CPS is the nation's primary source for the unemployment rate and other labor force statistics. The sample is weighted to reflect the actual size and demographic makeup of the civilian non-institutionalized population, so it does not include those in prisons and nursing homes.
Key Concepts and Terms. The labor force includes all workers, plus those who are not working but have actively looked for work in the four weeks prior to the survey. There are three measures of labor force attachment used in this analysis. First, we report statistics using the standard unemployment rate, referred to by the BLS as the U-3 rate. It is calculated by dividing the number of people actively looking for work in the last four weeks by the number in the labor force (working or looking). Because of the way it is calculated, those not in the labor force are not included in the official unemployment rate. Second, there is the labor force participation rate, which is the share of people in the labor force, often confined to a particular age group such as 16 to 64. It is calculated by taking the share working or looking for work and dividing it by all persons in the age group of interest. Sometimes the BLS will report labor force participation for all persons, including those of retirement age. But such statistics do not measure the phenomenon of declining work among the working-age, which is our focus here. Third, there is the share of the population that is employed, which is referred to as the employment rate. It reflects the share of the population that is working divided by all persons (working and not working) in the age group of interest.
Definition of Immigrant. The term “immigrant” has a specific meaning in U.S. immigration law, which is all those inspected and admitted as lawful permanent residents. In this analysis, we use the term “immigrant” in the non-technical sense of the word to mean all those who were not U.S.-citizens at birth. Typically, the government refers to these individuals in surveys such as the CPS as the “foreign-born”, which includes all persons who were not U.S. citizens at birth. They include naturalized citizens, permanent residents (green card holders), temporary visitors, guestworkers, and illegal aliens.
Matching Published BLS Tables. In this report, all statistics covering the entire population, such as the unemployment rate, match those published by the BLS. However, the counts and percentages for sub-populations will in some cases be slightly different. The reason is that the Census Bureau adds "perturbations" to the public-use microdata to protect respondent confidentiality. Fortunately, the Census Bureau states that any differences between published figures and those calculated from the public-use data will be so small that they "fall well within the sampling variability associated with CPS estimates". In other words, there should be no meaningful difference between statistics calculated from the pubic-use data and those published by the BLS.
Seasonal Adjustment. The figures in this report are not seasonally adjusted. Unadjusted figures are conceptually simpler and easier for other researchers to replicate. Also, the limited number of statistics on the foreign-born published in the BLS monthly "Employment Situation" (Table A-7) reports are, like those reported here, not seasonally adjusted. Finally, comparing the first quarter of each year controls for seasonal differences and provides a larger sample and more statistically robust estimates. This is especially important when looking at smaller subpopulations.
Potential Problems with the Data. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports potential problems with the CPS since March 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic. First, interviewers who administered the survey miscoded some respondents as employed when they were on furlough, temporary layoff, or similar situations. They should have been considered temporarily laid-off and coded as unemployed. The number unemployed and the unemployment rate would be higher in March 2020 through December 2021 if these individuals were counted as unemployed. Second, the response rates for March 2020 through December 2021 were significantly lower than prior to Covid-19, though rates have improved since hitting a low in June 2020. These lower rates increase the sampling error of the survey. However, in June 2020, when the problem was most pronounced, BLS stated that “Although the response rate was adversely affected by pandemic-related issues, BLS was still able to obtain estimates that met our standards for accuracy and reliability.”
Neither the Census Bureau, which collects the data, nor the BLS has altered the data in response to these issues. Our analysis takes the raw CPS data as provided and our results match published non-seasonally adjusted figures, with the caveats about perturbations in public-use data discussed above.
1 Following the example of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment figures in this analysis include all persons who are actively looking for work, including a modest number over age 64, which was 351,000 in Q1 2022. The figures for those outside of the labor force include only those 16 to 64. If we focus only on those 16 to 64 who are unemployed and out of the labor force the total not working would be 60.9 million.
2 One might think that the decline in the labor force participation of women was due to more staying home to care for young children, but this is not the case. Among the U.S.-born in the first quarter of 2000, 80 percent of prime-age women without a bachelor’s degree and no children under age 13 were in the labor force compared to 73 percent in 2022. Even before Covid in 2019 it was 74 percent. For prime-age, less-educated women with children it declined from 73 percent in 2000 to 69 percent in 2022. Also, it must be remembered that the share of less-educated, prime-age women who even live with a child has declined as fertility has fallen. In 2000, 46 percent of these women lived with a child 12 and under, by 2022 it was 41 percent. Therefore, it is extremely unlikely that changes in child-rearing practices account for the decline in labor force participation among U.S.-born women.