Immigration and Child Poverty

By Mark Krikorian on July 12, 2010

A few days ago, Reihan Salam at National Review Online questioned whether David Frum was correct that one of the reasons we have a higher rate of child poverty than other developed countries is immigration. As Reihan wrote, "I personally think our immigration policy should change. But I don't think child poverty rates are the reason."

As I point out in my book, all the reasons are really just different facets of the one reason: Mass immigration is incompatible with a modern society. So my assumption was that David was right, but since I couldn't expect Reihan just to take my word for it, CIS's Director of Research, Steven Camarota, ran some numbers from the latest data. And, in fact, the results show pretty clearly that immigration plays a significant role in child poverty. Data gathered by the Census Bureau in 2009 (about income earned in the prior calendar year) show that in 2008, a total of 14.1 million children (under age 18) lived below the official federal poverty threshold. Of this 14.1 million, 4.4 million (31 percent) were either immigrants themselves or U.S.-born with at least one immigrant parent. The poverty rate for the children of immigrants is 26 percent, compared to 17 percent for the children of native-born parents.

The same data show that another 1.6 million Hispanic children with U.S.-born parents also live in poverty; most of these kids are the grandchildren of post-1960 immigrants. Looked at this way, the children and grandchildren of the current wave of immigration account for perhaps 43 percent of all children in poverty, compared to 32 percent of the nation's total child population.

The impact of immigration on the overall child poverty rate is also significant. In 2008 the child poverty rate was 19 percent. If you exclude the children of immigrants, it would be 17 percent, the rate for the children of natives. If we exclude Hispanic children with U.S.-born parents, it would be 16 percent. This is comparable to the 3.4 percentage-point increase caused by the growth in the number of female-headed households, something Reihan pointed to as a possible alternate explanation.

We can also consider the impact of immigration on the growth of child poverty. In 1999 there were 12.3 million children in poverty, a number that by 2008 increased by 1.8 million (to the 14.1 million total cited above). The children of immigrants accounted for 800,000 (45 percent) of that increase. Growth in poverty among Hispanic children with U.S.-born parents added another 900,000 children to the poverty population. In short, almost all of the increase in child poverty in the last decade is due to increases in poverty among the children of immigrants and the children of Hispanic natives. There's just no question that David was correct: one of the significant reasons for the persistently high level of child poverty is our immigration policy.

It's worth noting that the vast majority of the children of immigrants live in households with at least one worker; in other words, the reason so many of these kids live in poverty is not because their parents are unwilling to work. Rather, the main reason for their high poverty rates is that so many adult immigrants arrive here with little education, and education, you won't be surprised to learn, is the single best predictor of income in the modern American economy. Large-scale unskilled immigration — legal or illegal, permanent or "temporary" — always and unavoidably increases the size of the poverty population. As a result, it also dramatically increases political pressure to redistribute income and spend more taxpayer money on social services. Employers may love a steady stream of unskilled workers, but mass unskilled immigration has enormous consequences that all of us end up paying for.