Job gains are going to immigrants, and keeping young US-born men out of the workforce

By Steven A. Camarota on February 13, 2024

New York Post, February 13, 2024

We keep hearing that the US economy is strong, especially the job market.

At first glance, this perspective seems to be spot-on. Compared to the fourth quarter of 2019, right before COVID-19 hit, the fourth quarter of 2023 shows 2.7 million more people working.

Except all those gains are among immigrants.

The number of immigrants working over this period is up by 2.9 million, while 183,000 fewer US-born Americans are working.

Put simply, compared to 2019, all the net job growth has gone to immigrants.

To be clear, employment for both groups has rebounded significantly since the depths of the COVID-19 recession in 2020. But the number of US-born workers has not returned to the level it was before the pandemic, while immigrant employment (legal and illegal together) has ballooned.

How do we know this? The government collects the Current Population Survey (CPS) each month specifically to measure employment. It asks people where they were born and if they are US citizens.

Of the 2.9 million additional immigrants holding jobs, it is hard to say what share are in the country illegally. Both the Census Bureau, which collects the data, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which analyzes them, are clear that illegal immigrants are included in the CPS, but they don’t break it down by illegal and legal status.

However, we do know that 1.7 million — or six out of 10 — were not American citizens. The rest were naturalized US citizens.

Based on this and some other information in the data, it is very possible that half the net increase in jobs went to illegal immigrants.

Maybe that isn’t so bad, because don’t we need the workers?

Put aside for a moment how illegal immigrant employment flouts our laws. There are enormous costs associated with illegal immigration, as New York City and other sanctuary jurisdictions are discovering. Most illegal immigrants have low levels of education, and people with that skill profile generally earn modest wages, pay relatively little in taxes, and consume a lot of means-tested benefits.

Low-wage US-born workers also create significant costs, but they are already here, while immigrants represent new costs.

It also matters whom these recent immigrants are shutting out of the job market — specifically, men without a college degree.

One of the most serious social problems we face as a country is the decades-long decline in the labor force participation of US-born men.

Labor force participation is the share of people either working or looking for work. The unemployment rate measures only those who have looked for a job in the prior four weeks; those not looking do not show up as unemployed.

Today, the labor force participation rate of US-born men without a bachelor’s (ages 18 to 64) stands at 75.6% — still below the 76.3% rate it was in the fourth quarter of 2019.

And both those figures are far below the 80.6% rate in 2006 and 82.6% in 2000.

Back in the 1960s, nearly 90% of these men were in the labor force.

This decline matters because the list of negative outcomes for individuals, their families, and society associated with being out of the labor force is extreme. Not working is linked with higher rates of crime and social isolation, as well as so-called “deaths of despair,” including suicide, drug overdose and alcoholism.

Reducing illegal immigration and allowing wages to rise for jobs performed by those without a college degree would help coax Americans back to work.

To be sure, many factors other than immigration have contributed to the decline in labor force participation, including overly generous welfare and disability programs, a long-term fall-off in wages for jobs that require modest levels of education, and changing social norms.

But allowing millions of immigrants into the country to fill lower-wage jobs means we have little incentive to undertake the difficult task of getting more men back into jobs.