California's Labor Force: Immigration, Fertility, and the Post-industrial Economy

By B. Meredith Burke on July 1, 1998

pp. 1, 6-10 in Immigration Review no. 32, Summer 1998

Social science has conclusively established a strong and consistent association between parental education and both the educational achievement (i.e., school performance) and the educational attainment (i.e., the number of years or level of schooling completed) of their children. Other studies have shown a positive association between family income and educational aspirations and attainment. Conversely, researchers have demonstrated an inverse correlation between family size and close child spacing and the educational performance of the children.

In addition, the educational demands of the typical job and the median schooling of the typical native worker have both risen monotonically in the twentieth century. After the 1965 and 1970 changes in immigration legislation, however, both the number and diversity of legal immigrants increased dramatically and since the mid-1980s the number of illegal entrants has also soared. Many legal and most illegal immigrants enter the United States with levels of schooling far below that now typical of American working-age adults. This is particularly true for illegal entrants legalized by the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, predominantly Mexican nationals from rural areas. Those who entered the United States before 1982 had a median of 6.0 years of schooling and those who were agricultural workers (from generally younger cohorts) had a median of 7.1 years.

California, as the preeminent recipient of both legal and illegal immigrants, has seen a dramatic change in its population in the past 25 years, a change which bodes ill for the future skill level of the labor force. This includes the nativity and consequently the age and educational attainment distributions of the women giving birth in the state. The percentage of Mexican-born mothers with no more than a grade school education was last seen among American-born mothers before the 1920s, nearly four generations ago; the percentage with at least high school completion is equivalent to American mothers in the 1930s. Because Mexican-born women, who bore one quarter of the children born in California in the nineties, exerted the major foreign influence, I will focus on that group in this article.

Given the strong parent-child educational attainment link, California's 21st century labor force entrants will include many with parents ill-equipped to foster post-industrial skill levels. The same linkage is already resulting in vastly different educational outcomes among different ethnic/nativity groups, outcomes frequently attributed to bias and discrimination rather than to underlying demographic attributes. Californians can anticipate increased inter-ethnic strife in the ensuing decades and a labor force with large pockets of low-productivity workers. This will continue if not exacerbate current inequalities in income distribution and tax burden distribution.

California's Changing Population

There has been a sharp change in the demographics of California's population since 1970, a period that coincides with the sharp increase in immigration. In fact, while live births dropped during the 1970s, they rebounded by 1980 solely due to the contributions of foreign-born women, peaking at 612,000 in 1990. Mexican-born women accounted for 146,643 of these births, 24 percent of the total. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) and the 1988 Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (OMBRA) data indicate that the sharp increase in these births from 1985 to 1990 paralleled the sharp increase in the entrance of illegal aliens from Mexico. At the same time, the proportion of births to U.S.-born women fell from nearly 90 percent in 1970 to 56 percent in 1992, remaining there through 1995. A consequence of this increase in births to foreign-born women was a major transformation in California's ethnic composition.

White non-Hispanic births, nearly 70 percent of all births in 1970 and hence both the modal and majority category, descended below 40 percent by 1991. Hispanic births, a mere 20 percent of all births in 1970, had meanwhile risen to over 40 percent, becoming the modal but not the majority category in 1991. In 1995, the racial/ethnic composition of California births was: Hispanic, 46 percent; white, 36 percent; black, 7 percent (down from about 9 percent in 1970); and "others" (mainly Asians), 12 percent, up from 4 percent in 1970. Mexican-born women bore 26 percent of all births in California in 1995 — 57 percent of all Hispanic births, down from 59 in 1990 — while 91 percent of white and 94 percent of black mothers were native-born.

In 1990, there were just under two million Hispanic women of childbearing age in California compared to about four million white. The number of Hispanic women has risen since then, while the number of white women has declined. That half as many Hispanic women have more babies than a group twice its size implies that they have a total fertility rate (TFR) twice that of white women. During the "baby bust", of the 1970s, Hispanic fertility began to decline later than did white, and from a much higher level. It continued to decline until 1980, later than for other ethnic groups, and then reversed its course. In the five-year period 1985 to 1990, it increased over three-quarters of a child, returning to its 1970 level. It continued to rise after 1990 and reached a peak in 1993 with a TFR of 3.551.

Immigration explains this turnaround of Hispanic fertility in California because a majority of the Mexican-born now living in the United States entered after 1980. This is especially the case in California, home to the vast majority of Mexicans legalized by IRCA and presumably to the influx of illegal entrants that has continued unchecked since then. The questions to ask are: What is the present TFR for Mexican-American women and how much of the increased Hispanic TFR is due to the effect of the foreign-born women? While fertility estimates for Mexican-American women are not readily available, extrapolating from pre-1985 decreases I posit a 1990 TFR for native-born Hispanics of 2.4 to 2.6, if not lower. Data from the 1992 Mexican Demographic Survey show that in rural areas, the source of most illegal entrants to the United States, women age 45-49 reported 6.8 children ever born while the TFR for women age 15-49 inclusive was 4.9. To achieve a California Hispanic TFR of 3.5 in 1993 when a 30 percent contribution comes from a subgroup with a TFR of 2.5 and a 10 percent contribution from other Hispanics of perhaps 3.5, yields an estimated TFR for Mexican entrants of 4.0. This is a half child above that now prevailing in all of Mexico, doubtlessly due to the over representation of women of rural origins. Assuming a lower TFR for Mexican-Americans of 2.3 would yield a Mexican TFR of 4.1.

Mexican-born mothers also tend to begin having children earlier and their influence makes the 20-29 age group the modal category for women giving birth. In addition, 27 percent of native-born Hispanic births are to teenagers. Interestingly, Hispanic teenagers seem to drop out of school before getting pregnant.

A later inception of childbearing generally permits a woman to acquire more education. Regardless of birthplace, nearly 90 percent of white mothers report at least high school completion and, weighted by the large proportion of mothers age 30 and above, the modal category for white women is at least one year of college. Mexican-born women who, as mentioned above, bore 57 percent of Hispanic children, had by far the lowest educational attainment for any major childbearing group.

Historically, a population evolves in a predictable pattern into a high educational attainment society. First, a small but growing proportion of students progress to the next level, then the others play "catch up." In a pre-industrial society, the vast majority of the population has little or no schooling while, in a postindustrial society, the vast majority is in the highest and second-highest categories. These figures have powerful implications for the educational system and labor force of the 21st century.


Both native-born Americans and immigrants were poorly educated in the early 20th century. For those with parents born around the turn of the century, eighth-grade graduation was the standard end point. Nearly 40 percent of all white parents and over three-quarters of blacks did not get even that far. Six decades — nearly three generations — later, over 80 percent of white mothers and fathers and black fathers of children born in the 1980s had at least completed high school. At least 25 percent of black mothers and 40 percent of white mothers had attended college. As a group, Hispanic parents lagged behind both other major racial/ethnic categories in parental education.

The connection between the educational attainment of parent and child has been amply documented by such researchers as Connelly and Gottschalk and Hernandez. This association continues strongly today as was confirmed by the 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey. Using unpublished data, Zill showed that 50 percent of young adults ages 20 to 29 whose parents had no more than grade school education had not completed high school themselves compared to 34 percent of those with parents with some high school and 4 percent of those with parents who had completed college. In addition, young adults with parents in the lowest educational category "were two to three times more likely than the offspring of high school graduates to score in the lowest category in the tests of functional literacy... [meaning] they lacked the skills to function effectively as citizens and consumers in modern society."

Zill also referred to the 1988 National Health Interview Survey on Child Health's finding that the grade repetition rate for persons ages 7 to 17 was one-third for those with parents with incomplete high school versus 20 percent for those with high school graduates for parents and 14 percent for those whose parents had some college education. While most parents, regardless of ethnicity or immigrant status, involve young children in activities that extend their knowledge, exposure to some activities is affected jointly by household income and parental education. Overall, for example, children of immigrants are less likely to be read to every day and Hispanic immigrants in particular are likely to feel that their children's school does not welcome their involvement.

Another factor affecting children's development is the number of siblings they have. In families with more children, parents have less time to speak to each child and have lower educational expectations for them. In addition, resources such as computers are not only less available as the number of siblings increases, the resources available also benefit the children less.

The combination of poor academic performance, low educational aspirations, and low family income means that Hispanic students, a major part of California's population, will have to struggle to succeed in the postindustrial economy.


California confronts social difficulties on at least two fronts. The sharp ethnic divide in parental characteristics and family resources guarantees very visible differences in the outcome of the children of these diverse groups. The Hispanic community will not understand why the Asian newcomers are picking the educational plums of the public system while their own children are so greatly underrepresented in prestigious institutions. There will be a similar inability to understand why there are so few Hispanic engineers and computer scientists. Over and above racial and ethnic discrimination are the very real and dramatic demographic differences. But sadly, few communities understand when traditional ways are counterproductive in a changed environment. Fewer still will voluntarily seek out and incorporate these changes. Ethnic clashes may well intensify.

The other crisis looms when the low-productivity labor force entrants begin to enter the work-place just as the Baby Boomers begin to retire and want to draw on their pensions — even as the immigration-derived demand for social welfare services grows apace. Clark and Schultz have followed in Thom's footsteps in demonstrating that the doubling of the number of children in poverty in the 1980s (an increase of about 440,000 children) arose solely from immigration, with Hispanics contributing 71 percent of the increase. It could also be argued that the increased number of black children resulted from the dislocations blacks have experienced in the labor market due to competition from immigrant newcomers.

Every study on educational progress finds that, with rare exceptions, children typically advance no more than one schooling level beyond that of their parents. A postindustrial society that requires workers to have at least some college training in order to generate tax revenues sufficient for the perpetuation of that society cannot wait four generations for children of parents who have at most completed grade school to reach that level. Yet we know of no way to hasten this process when the disadvantaged group is such a large part of the population. When the disadvantaged group is small, human social and intellectual capital can be acquired from the community. But when the better-endowed group is outnumbered, the resources and opportunity for this to happen are absent; role models are not available.

The composition of familial origins of children being born in California today assures that the critical mass for rapid and easy assimilation has been exceeded. High immigration will exacerbate the de-industrialization of the workforce. As Baby Boomers leave their jobs, whether through retirement or migration, the state's balance sheet will turn permanently red. Available public resources will prove inadequate to maintain services at the level demanded of a postindustrial society. California can anticipate a negative feedback loop as a poorer labor force under-in-vests in its children, resulting in another fall in worker productivity. Only an acknowledgement of demographic absorption limits, the adoption of an immigration policy consonant with such limits, and national subsidies so California can get through the inescapable economically-lean years to come will avert this implosion.