How Are Immigrants Faring After Welfare Reform?. Income and Employment

03/04/2002

In both Los Angeles and New York City, there is great diversity among immigrants in terms of national origin, legal status, and socioeconomic status. Nonetheless, on average, immigrant families are poorer than native citizen families and face more financial difficulties, for a variety of reasons, including language barriers and low educational attainment.

Figure 1.5 and Table 1.5 show that immigrant families were substantially poorer than native citizen families in both California and New York, based on annual incomes for 1998: 31 percent of immigrant families in Los Angeles and 30 percent in New York City had incomes below the federal poverty level, compared with 15 percent of native citizen families in California and 14 percent in New York State. Similarly, immigrant families were more likely to have incomes between 101 and 200 percent of the poverty level and less likely to have incomes between 201 and 300 percent or above 300 percent of poverty.(24)

Figure 1.5.
Income Distribution of Immigrant and Native Citizen Families
Figure 1.5. Income Distribution of Immigrant and Native Citizen Families

Table 1.5.
Poverty among Immigrant Families,
with Comparison to Native Citizen Families in California and New York State
  Share of families in income range
0 - 100% of Poverty Level 101-200% of Poverty Level 201 - 300% of Poverty Level Over 300% of Poverty Level
Immigrant families in Los Angeles
All immigrant families 30.6% 30.2% 14.8% 24.4%

Naturalized citizen families

19.7% 18.5% 19.3% 42.5%

All noncitizen families

36.5% 36.4% 12.5% 14.5%

All LPR families

27.5% 36.1% 14.7% 21.7%

Pre-enactment (Aug. 1996)

27.3% 36.2% 14.5% 22.0%

Post-enactment (August 1996)

30.1% 35.8% 16.4% 17.8%

Refugee/asylee families

37.3% 45.4% 12.4% 4.9%

Other legal immigrant families

55.7% 10.3% 10.5% 23.5%

Undocumented families

45.9% 38.4% 10.0% 5.7%

Native citizen families in California*

15.1% 12.6% 16.6% 55.7%

Immigrant families in New York City

All immigrant families

30.4% 22.5% 17.8% 29.3%

Naturalized citizen families

24.3% 17.0% 19.4% 39.3%

All noncitizen families

34.4% 26.0% 15.8% 23.7%

All LPR families

31.0% 25.2% 20.8% 23.0%

Pre-enactment (Aug. 1996)

29.3% 22.2% 21.9% 26.6%

Post-enactment (August 1996)

39.6% 40.2% 15.3% 4.9%

Refugee/asylee families

44.8% 26.4% 6.4% 22.4%

Other legal immigrant families

43.9% 1.0% 4.3% 50.7%

Undocumented families

36.9% 35.0% 9.3% 18.8%

Native citizen families in New York State*

13.6% 15.6% 12.8% 58.0%

* Comparison group data at state level from the 1999 National Survey of America's Families (NSAF II).
All immigrant data from LANYCIS.
Note: For definition of family immigration status, see Appendix 2.

Immigration and economic status are linked. Naturalized citizen families were the least likely to be poor and were the closest to native citizen families in income levels. By contrast, refugees, other legal immigrants and undocumented aliens had relatively high rates of poverty. They were all about three times as likely as native citizen families to be poor.

In addition, Figure 1.6 shows that post-enactment legal immigrant families were poorer than pre-enactment immigrant families in New York City (40 versus 29 percent) and just as poor in Los Angeles (30 versus 27 percent).(25) In Los Angeles, post-enactment LPR families were twice as likely to live below the poverty level as native citizen families. In New York, they were three times as likely as natives to be poor.(26)

Figure 1.6.
Income Distribution of Pre- and Post-Enactment Legal Permanent Residents

Figure 1.6. Income Distribution of Pre- and Post-Enactment Legal Permanent Residents

These data are consistent with other research about the process by which immigrants become integrated - both economically and socially - in American society (Fix and Zimmermann 2000; Portes and Rumbaut 2000; Passel and Van Hook 2000; Smith and Edmonston 1997). It takes time for immigrants to become established in their communities, to get better jobs and to improve their English language skills  all of which can eventually lead to higher incomes. On average, the longer they stay in America, the more that immigrants' incomes rise. Urban Institute analyses of Census data indicate that LPRs who have been in the U.S. for ten or more years have incomes that are roughly equal to those of native-born citizens (Fix and Zimmermann 2000). Moreover, the research also shows that immigrants generally become integrated over generations, since immigrants' children often have higher incomes than immigrants themselves.

The gap in the economic status of recent and longstanding immigrants is relevant because legal immigrant eligibility for public benefit programs is based on date of admission to the United States: those who entered recently are largely barred from federal TANF, food stamps, SSI, and Medicaid. Ironically, these LPR families are barred from the federal public benefit programs during an early part of their residence in the United States when they are poorer and may be more in need of assistance, and become eligible later, when they are somewhat better off. (Immigrants who have been in the United States for a somewhat longer time period, e.g., five to ten years, still have relatively low incomes, however.)

The higher level of poverty among immigrants entering since 1996, especially in New York, is also relevant because of the changes in the law that sought to limit the admission of low-income immigrants whose sponsors' income did not exceed 125 percent of the poverty level and that made sponsors more responsible for the immigrant's welfare. Despite these policies, it appears that a large number of recent immigrants continue to have low incomes.

Even though immigrants tend to have low incomes, they participate in the labor force at levels comparable to natives. As shown in Table 1.6, seventy-eight percent of all adult immigrants in Los Angeles and 80 percent in New York City were in the labor force, meaning that they were either working or seeking work. Among those in the labor force, almost 10 percent of the immigrants in both areas were unemployed. The labor force participation levels were comparable to native citizen adults in California and New York (80 to 81 percent), but native citizens had somewhat lower unemployment rates (6 to 7 percent). Self-employment rates for immigrants are comparable to those of native citizens in Los Angeles, but a few percentage points higher in New York.

Table 1.6.
Labor Force Characteristics of Immigrant Adults, with Comparison to Native Citizen Adults in California and New York State
  Labor Force Participation Share of adults in the labor force
Unemployed Working Part Time Working Full Time Self- Employed
Los Angeles County
All incomes
All adult immigrants 78.1% 9.8% 15.9% 73.4% 17.7%

Naturalized citizens

82.9% 7.6% 19.0% 72.6% 22.6%

Lawful permanent residents

75.8% 10.4% 12.4% 77.1% 18.3%

Refugees or asylees

81.4% 11.3% 12.4% 76.4% 15.6%

Other legal immigrants

x x x x x

Undocumented aliens

76.7% 12.4% 16.3% 69.0% 10.3%

Native citizen adults in California*

81% 6.7% 18.2% 74.6% 16.8%

Below 200 percent of poverty

All adult immigrants 72.8% 12.8% 17.9% 68.8% 13.0%

Naturalized citizens

75.9% 12.0% 26.0% 60.1% 18.7%

Lawful permanent residents

72.4% 12.8% 13.8% 73.3% 13.7%

Refugees or asylees

82.1% 14.2% 14.6% 71.2% 9.5%

Other legal immigrants

x x x x x

Undocumented aliens

72.5% 13.0% 17.6% 69.2% 9.7%
Native citizen adults in California* 64.3% 20.9% 27.2% 49.5% 12.5%

New York City

All incomes

All adult immigrants 79.7% 9.7% 15.0% 75.2% 19.2%

Naturalized citizens

79.5% 5.2% 16.9% 77.9% 18.8%

Lawful permanent residents

80.7% 16.2% 14.5% 69.2% 19.6%

Refugees or asylees

75.1% 6.9% 8.1% 85.0% 11.6%

Other legal immigrants

x x x x x

Undocumented aliens

80.4% 6.0% 14.9% 79.1% 23.9%

Native citizen adults in New York State*

80.1% 6.3% 14.7% 78.8% 15.7%

Below 200 percent of poverty

All adult immigrants 73.0% 12.5% 18.2% 69.2% 19.5%

Naturalized citizens

62.1% 14.7% 21.0% 64.1% 16.8%

Lawful permanent residents

78.5% 13.7% 19.4% 66.8% 20.1%

Refugees or asylees

63.2% 13.2% 12.4% 74.4% 22.0%

Other legal immigrants

x x x x x
Undocumented aliens 79.7% 7.8% 12.8% 79.4% 22.0%
Native citizen adults in New York State* 58.2% 21.3% 20.9% 56.7% 16.6%
*Comparison group data from the 1999 National Survey of America's Families (NSAF II).
All immigrant data from LANYCIS.
Note: "x" denotes small sample size.

However, low-income immigrants  those with incomes below twice the poverty line  have higher levels of labor force participation than low-income native citizens and lower unemployment rates. Among low-income adults in both cities, 73 percent of immigrants are in the labor force, compared with 58 to 64 percent of native citizen adults. And about 13 percent of low-income immigrants in the labor force are unemployed, compared with 21 percent of low-income native citizens.

Immigrants are typically working, but still have low incomes. They often take low-wage, jobs that are less likely to provide benefits like health insurance. As mentioned above, immigrants' income and wage levels rise over time, as they stay in the United States for a longer period. But  at any given point in time  they tend to fare worse than their native-born counterparts. Thus their need for working-poor support programs such as Medicaid and Food Stamps is generally as high or higher than the need among natives in the workforce.

View full report

Preview
Download

"report.pdf" (pdf, 2.23Mb)

Note: Documents in PDF format require the Adobe Acrobat Reader®. If you experience problems with PDF documents, please download the latest version of the Reader®