How Are Immigrants Faring After Welfare Reform?. Poverty Rates among Immigrant Families

03/04/2002

The population represented by LANYCIS includes about 1.9 million families in Los Angeles County (with 4.8 million people). Thirty percent of these families are poor, and 61 percent have low incomes (below 200 percent of the federal poverty level). In New York City, the survey represents 1.5 million immigrant families (3.5 million people), of which 30 percent are poor and 54 percent have low incomes. In Los Angeles a larger share of immigrant families are undocumented (26 percent) than in New York (15 percent). New York has slightly higher shares of legal immigrant and naturalized immigrant families. Refugee families compose 5 and 7 percent of immigrant families in Los Angeles and New York, respectively.(43)

Poverty rates are highest for undocumented families in Los Angeles (46 percent) and refugees in New York (49 percent). In both cities, less than a third of either undocumented or refugee families have incomes twice the federal poverty level or higher. Legal immigrant families are better off in both cities, yet less than half have incomes twice the poverty level. Naturalized families have the highest incomes: only 20 percent in Los Angeles and 24 percent in New York have incomes below the poverty level (Table 2.1).

Table 2.1.
Poverty among Immigrant Families, by Citizenship and Legal Status

Citizenship and Legal Status

Population (thousands) Share of all families Percent of Federal Poverty Level
200 and Below 100 and Below Above 200

Los Angeles County

All Immigrant Families

1,846 100% 61% 30% 39%
Naturalized 648 35% 39% 20% 61%

Legal Immigrant

630 34% 65% 28% 35%

Legal Immigrant Only

406 22% 78% 36% 22%

Legal Immigrant and Refugee

18 1% x x x

Undocumented and Naturalized

206 11% 36% 11% 64%

Refugee

85 5% 73% 36% 27%

Refugee Only

66 4% 76% 37% 24%

Undocumented and Naturalized

19 1% x x x

Undocumented

483 26% 84% 46% 16%

Undocumented and Naturalized

35 2% x x x

Undocumented and Legal Immigrant

57 3% 94% 33% 6%

Undocumented and Refugee

19 1% x x x

Undocumented Only

372 20% 86% 50% 14%

New York City

All Immigrant Families

1,539 100% 54% 30% 46%

Naturalized

597 39% 41% 24% 59%

Legal Immigrant

605 39% 56% 30% 44%

Legal Immigrant Only

433 28% 65% 36% 35%

Legal Immigrant and Refugee

10 1% x x x

Undocumented and Naturalized

161 10% 30% 15% 70%

Refugee

110 7% 68% 49% 32%

Refugee Only

96 6% 69% 50% 31%

Undocumented and Naturalized

14 1% x x x

Undocumented

227 15% 72% 37% 28%

Undocumented Only

187 12% 81% 41% 19%

Undocumented and Legal Immigrant

10 1% x x x

Undocumented and Refugee

3 0% x x x

Undocumented and Naturalized

27 2% x x x

Sample Size: 3363

Notes: x denotes a sample size of under 50.
Source: Urban Institute, LANYCIS

Poverty rates also vary by country of birth, English proficiency, and tenure in the United States. In Los Angeles the poverty rate is highest for Armenian adults (49 percent), followed by Mexicans and Central Americans. Mexico is the most common country of birth for adult immigrants (38 percent), followed by El Salvador (8 percent). In New York, Mexican immigrants are the poorest group (60 percent below the poverty level) but represent only 4 percent of the total. Seventeen percent of adult immigrants were born in the Dominican Republic, and no other country represents more than 6 percent of the total (Table 2.2).

Table 2.2
Poverty among Immigrant Adults, by Country of Birth

Top Ten Countries of Birth

Population (thousands) Share of All Immigrants Percent of Federal Poverty Level
200 and Below 100 and Below Above 200

Los Angeles County

2,645 100% 60% 28% 40%

Mexico

1,004 38% 81% 39% 19%

El Salvador

220 8% 73% 32% 27%

Vietnam

169 6% 57% 20% 43%

Guatemala

145 5% 75% 28% 25%

Philippines

132 5% 33% 3% 67%

China

119 4% 39% 21% 61%

Korea

75 3% x x x

Taiwan

60 2% x x x

Iran

51 2% x x x

Armenia

40 2% 69% 49% 31%

Other countries

630 24% 36% 18% 64%
New York City 2,058 100% 50% 28% 50%

Dominican Republic

340 17% 59% 37% 41%

Russia

129 6% 48% 29% 52%

Ecuador

118 6% 46% 21% 54%

China

113 6% 46% 32% 54%

Jamaica

107 5% 51% 23% 49%

Mexico

88 4% 92% 60% 8%

Ukraine

80 4% 69% 53% 31%

Colombia

69 3% 54% 17% 46%

Trinidad

67 3% x x x

Guyana

53 3% x x x

Other countries

894 43% 40% 23% 60%

Sample Size: 5001

Note: x denotes a sample size of under 50.
Source: Urban Institute, LANYCIS

In Los Angeles County, 77 percent of immigrant adults are limited English proficient (LEP), as are 64 percent of immigrant adults in New York City, using a standard 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 and 38 percent in New York are LEP. In both Los Angeles and New York, a third of LEP adults are poor, more than twice the rate for proficient adults. In Los Angeles, 48 percent of immigrant adults who cannot speak English at all are poor (Table 2.3).

Table 2.3.
Poverty among Immigrant Adults, by English Proficiency

English Proficiency*

Population (thousands) Share of All Immigrants Percent of Federal Poverty Level
200 and Below 100 and Below Above 200
Los Angeles County 2,476 100% 60% 28% 40%
English Proficient 575 23% 33% 13% 67%

English at Home

120 5% 12% 5% 88%

Very Well

455 18% 38% 15% 62%

Limited English Proficient

1,901 77% 69% 33% 31%

Well

644 26% 52% 23% 48%

Not Well

869 35% 71% 33% 29%

Not At All

387 16% 92% 48% 8%
New York City 1,787 100% 50% 27% 50%
English Proficient 645 36% 34% 14% 66%

English at Home

222 12% 41% 14% 59%

Very Well

423 24% 30% 14% 70%
Limited English Proficient 1,142 64% 59% 34% 41%

Well

466 26% 41% 25% 59%

Not Well

512 29% 70% 39% 30%

Not At All

164 9% 75% 40% 25%

Sample Size: 4309

*Respondents were first asked if they primarily speak a language other than English at home. Those who primarily speak another language (the vast majority of samples in both cities) were then asked whether they speak English "very well", "well", "not well" or "not at all." We categorize people speaking only English or English very well as proficient, and those speaking English well, not well or not at all as limited English proficient (LEP).
Source: Urban Institute, LANYCIS

Poverty rates are relatively high for those adults who entered the United States after welfare reform was enacted in August 1996 (39 percent in Los Angeles and 46 percent in New York). Poverty is also high among those entering during the five years prior to welfare reform (1992 through 1996), but lower for those arriving before 1992. Immigrants arriving before 1982 have the lowest poverty rates (Table 2.4).

Table 2.4.
Poverty among Immigrant Adults, by Year of Arrival to the United States

Year of Arrival*

Population (thousands) Share of All Immigrants Percent of Federal Poverty Level
200 and Below 100 and Below Above 200

Los Angeles County

All Adult Immigrants 2,486 100% 60% 27% 40%

After August 1996

223 9% 77% 39% 23%

1992 to August 1996

352 14% 70% 44% 30%

1987 to 1991

506 20% 72% 32% 28%

1982 to 1986

356 14% 54% 22% 46%

Before 1982

1,049 42% 48% 19% 52%

New York City

All Adult Immigrants 1,959 100% 51% 28% 49%

After August 1996

239 12% 78% 46% 22%

1992 to August 1996

409 21% 67% 39% 33%

1987 to 1991

395 20% 56% 25% 44%

1982 to 1986

249 13% 43% 26% 57%

Before 1982

667 34% 33% 17% 67%

Sample Size: 4743

* Year of Arrival is the latest date the adult last came to stay in the United States.
Source: Urban Institute, LANYCIS

Consistent with a vast body of poverty research, family composition has a great impact on poverty, with highest rates among single-parent families with children, and lower rates among two-parent families and families with no children. One third of all immigrant families with children in Los Angeles are poor, and two-thirds have incomes under 200 percent of the poverty level. In New York, 31 percent of immigrant families with children are poor, and 55 percent have low incomes. But among single-parent families with children, the poverty rate is 46 percent in Los Angeles and 54 percent in New York. Four-fifths of all single-parent immigrant families with children have low incomes in both cities. By contrast less than 30 percent of two-parent families and families without children are poor in both cities (Table 2.5).

Table 2.5.
Poverty among Immigrant Families, by Family Composition

Family Composition*

Population (thousands) Share of all families Percent of Federal Poverty Level
200 and Below 100 and Below Above 200

Los Angeles County

All Immigrant Families

1,846 100% 61% 30% 39%
Families without Elders 1,713 93% 62% 30% 38%

Working-age adult(s) without Children

858 46% 56% 28% 44%

One Adult with Children

139 8% 81% 46% 19%

Two or More Adults with Children

716 39% 64% 30% 36%
Families with Elders 133 7% 55% 25% 45%

Elders without Adults

58 3% 60% 29% 40%

Elders with Adults

75 4% 50% 22% 50%
All families with Children 869 47% 67% 33% 33%
New York City

All Immigrant Families

1,539 100% 54% 30% 46%
Families without Elders 1,333 87% 53% 29% 47%

Working-age adult(s) without Children

786 51% 53% 28% 47%

One Adult with Children

119 8% 80% 54% 20%

Two or More Adults with Children

428 28% 46% 23% 54%
Families with Elders 205 13% 57% 37% 43%

Elders without Adults

121 8% 66% 47% 34%

Elders with Adults

85 5% 44% 24% 56%
All families with Children 570 37% 55% 31% 45%

Sample Size: 3363

* Children are under age 18. Working-age adults are ages 18 to 64, and elders are over age 64.
Source: Urban Institute, LANYCIS

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