How Immigration Worsens Poverty-Related Problems in Minnesota

Immigrant households account for 35 percent of child poverty in the state

By Jason Richwine on October 26, 2020

One of the main critiques of post-1965 immigration to the U.S. is that it has worsened the problems of poverty, school dropout, and welfare dependency. Importing immigrants who suffer from these problems adds to the social burden and makes helping impoverished Americans more difficult.

The burden added by immigration varies widely across the U.S., but there is perhaps no state where it is more noticeable than Minnesota. With a population that is about 8.6 percent foreign-born, Minnesota is not a high-immigration state relative to the U.S. as a whole. Nevertheless, the socioeconomic divide found there between immigrants and natives is so large that the state's poverty-related problems still have a pronounced immigration component.

Table 1 compares the rates of poverty-related problems among immigrants and natives in Minnesota. The gaps are large. For example, 20.9 percent of working-age immigrants in Minnesota do not have a high school diploma, compared to just 5 percent of working-age natives. Furthermore, 40.1 percent of immigrant-headed households use Medicaid, compared to 17.9 percent of native-headed households.

Table 1: Rates of Poverty-Related Problems
in Minnesota, by Immigrant Status

  Rate Among
Rate Among
Rate Among
With More Than
10 Years in U.S.
Adults Who Are in Poverty 8.3% 16.2% 13.7%
Children* Who Are in Poverty 9.4% 25.9% 21.2%
Working-Age Adults
without a High School Diploma
5.0% 20.9% 23.5%
Households Receving Cash Welfare 5.6% 11.2% 11.7%
Households Receiving Food Stamps 6.5% 16.6% 16.3%
Households Receiving Medicaid 17.9% 40.1% 39.3%
Households that Are Overcrowded 1.2% 13.5% 11.4%

Source: 2018 American Community Survey.

Household nativity and residency are determined by the household head.

* Immigrant column includes all children in immigrant-headed households.

The last column of Table 1 shows that immigrants in Minnesota continue to struggle even after 10 years of U.S. residency. For example, the rate of adult poverty among long-term immigrants is still 13.7 percent. Meanwhile, welfare rates are essentially unchanged for long-term immigrants, and the percentage without a high school diploma is actually higher.

Because the native-immigrant divides shown in Table 1 are so pronounced, immigrants must cause a disproportionate share of the poverty-related problems in Minnesota. Table 2 demonstrates just how large that disproportion is. Immigrant-headed households account for 16.4 percent of the state's children overall, but they account for 35.2 percent of children who live in poverty. Furthermore, only 11.5 percent of working-age adults in Minnesota are immigrants, but immigrants make up 35.5 percent of the state's working-age adults who do not have a high school diploma.

Table 2: Immigrant Contribution to
Poverty-Related Problems in Minnesota

Category Problem Immigrant Share
of Category
with Problem
Immigrant Share
of Category
Adults Poverty 18.3% 10.3%
Children* Poverty 35.2% 16.4%
No high school diploma 35.5% 11.5%
Households Receiving cash welfare 16.0% 8.7%
Households Receiving food stamps 19.7% 8.7%
Households Receiving Medicaid 17.6% 8.7%
Households Overcrowded conditions 51.0% 8.7%

Source: 2018 American Community Survey.

Household nativity and residency are determined by the household head.

* Immigrant column includes all children in immigrant-headed households.

Health authorities have identified overcrowding as a major contributor to the spread of communicable diseases, including Covid-19. About 51 percent of overcrowded households in Minnesota are headed by an immigrant, even though only 8.7 percent of the state's total households are headed by an immigrant. Put another way, the problem of household overcrowding in Minnesota would be cut by more than half in the absence of immigration.

As noted above, the disproportionate impact of immigration is especially large in Minnesota compared to other parts of the U.S. One reason is that the state's native-born residents are famously high-achievers, helping to motivate Pat Moynihan's quip that "states wishing to improve their schools should move closer to Canada." Another reason is that Minnesota has attracted several groups of predominantly low-skill immigrants, including Mexicans and refugees from the Horn of Africa. The resulting socioeconomic disparity is notable both for its sharpness and its persistence. It is a stark illustration of how low-skill immigration can create significant problems for developed societies.

Methodological Notes

The source for both tables is the 2018 American Community Survey.

Poverty refers to living below the official poverty line, which is a function of income and family structure.

An immigrant household is one in which the "head" (or reference person) is foreign-born. The head also determines the years of U.S. residency for the household-level analyses in the last column of Table 1. When measuring child poverty, "immigrant" children are all of the minors who live in an immigrant-headed household, regardless of whether the children are themselves foreign-born.

"Working age" refers to ages 18 to 64.

A household is overcrowded according to the Census Bureau if, roughly speaking, it has more people than rooms. See the CIS report on overcrowding for more details.