Wall Street cheered and stock prices rose when the US Labor Department announced last Friday that employers had expanded their payrolls by 262,000 positions in February.
But it wasn’t entirely good news. The statisticians also indicated that the share of the adult population holding jobs had slipped slightly from January to 62.3 percent. That’s now two full percentage points below the level in the brief recession that began in March 2001.
Why the apparent contradiction? Reasons abound: population growth, rising retirements. But one factor that gets little attention is immigration.
In the past four years, the number of immigrants into the US, legal and illegal, has closely matched the number of new jobs. That suggests newcomers have, in effect, snapped up all of the new jobs.
“There has been no net job gain for natives,” says Andrew Sum, an economist at Northeastern University.
Something similar has happened in Western Europe. Each year, about 500,000 to 800,000 illegal immigrants enter the 15 member nations of the European Union (not including the 10 new members as of last May), estimates Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. While it’s more difficult for immigrants to get into Europe legally, once in they have more social and labor rights and protections than legal immigrants in the US do, says Mr. Papademetriou. And in Europe, illegal immigrants have a relatively bigger underground economy in which to find work.
If anything, the job outlook for native Europeans is bleaker than for Americans. Unemployment remains high in most of Europe. It hit 12.6 percent in Germany last month, the highest since World War II.
Most immigrants take jobs at the bottom of the ladder, jobs which many natives won’t seek because they are considered too hard, pay too little, or have lost status, Papademetriou notes.
And the people they do displace often have little political clout. Sum sees immigrants as one factor behind today’s historical low employment rate among US teenagers. Barely more than a third hold jobs. Over the past four years, the number of employed teens has declined by nearly 1.3 million.