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


  • Thirty-one percent of immigrant families in Los Angeles are poor (with incomes below 100 percent of the federal poverty level), and 61 percent have low incomes (below 200 percent of the poverty level). In New York City, 30 percent are poor and 53 percent have low incomes. These poverty rates are more than twice as high as rates for native citizen families in California and New York State.
  • Legal immigrants who entered the country since 1996 are poorer than those who arrived earlier, despite new policies requiring their sponsors to demonstrate incomes over 125 percent of the federal poverty level. The share of legal permanent residents (LPRs) entering after August 1996 with incomes below poverty is 30 percent in Los Angeles and 40 percent in New York City, compared to 27 percent and 29 percent in the two cities, respectively, for LPRs entering before August 1996.
  • The 1996 welfare reform law imposed the most severe eligibility restrictions for federal benefits such as welfare, food stamps, and Medicaid on legal immigrants entering after the law was enacted; yet, these immigrants are poorer than those entering before enactment.
  • Over three quarters of immigrant adults in Los Angeles (about 1.9 million people) and nearly two thirds in New York (1.1 million) are limited English proficient (LEP), using a conventionally accepted definition (not speaking English very well). Using a more conservative, restrictive definition (not speaking English well or at all), 51 percent of immigrant adults in Los Angeles (1.3 million) and 38 percent in New York City (670,000) are LEP. The large share of LEP respondents may be partially attributable to the fact that the survey was conducted in five languages.
  • Limited English proficient adults are also poorer than immigrant adults overall: their poverty rate is 33 percent in Los Angeles and 34 percent in New York City, compared to 13 and 14 percent in the two cities, respectively, among immigrant adults speaking only English or speaking English very well.
  • Immigrants tend to have lower incomes despite high labor force attachment. Overall, labor force participation rates among immigrant adults in both New York and Los Angeles (nearly 80 percent) are comparable to those among native-born adults. But labor force participation is higher among low-income immigrants (73 percent in both cities) than among their low-income native-born counterparts (64 percent in California and 58 percent in New York State). Since immigrants often take low-wage jobs, however, their incomes are generally lower than those of native citizens in the labor force.

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