Limited English Limits Job Prospects

Miriam Jordan, Wall Street Journal, September 24, 2014

Almost one in 10 adults of working age in the U.S. has limited proficiency in English, more than 2.5 times as many as in 1980, curbing their job prospects and ability to contribute to the economy.

Two-thirds of the 19.2 million people who have limited English are Spanish speakers. However, Asians and Pacific Islanders are most likely to have limited proficiency relative to their size of the overall population, according to a new report produced by the Metropolitan Policy Program of the Brookings Institution.

Immigrant workers and their children will account for most of the growth in the U.S. labor force in the coming decades, independent projections show. Therefore, investing in English instruction is “critical to building and maintaining a skilled workforce,” the study by the progressive Washington-based think tank says.


About 45 million people in the U.S., or more than 20% of working-age adults–defined as those 16 to 64 years old–speak a language other than English at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. While more than half of them speak English very well, many of them struggle.


While most English-limited adults live in large metropolitan areas, traditional magnets for immigrants, their numbers have grown markedly in smaller metropolitan areas that more recently began to absorb Latin American immigrants and refugees from Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

In Los Angeles and Miami, about a quarter of the working-age population has limited English. In greater New York, limited-English residents account for 18% of the population.

Smaller cities, such as Indianapolis and Omaha, Neb., are for the first time facing the challenges of a sizable group with limited English. In Indianapolis, the limited-English population jumped 99% between 2000 and 2012; in greater Omaha, that population surged 95% during that period, the study showed.


Demand for free or low-cost English classes outstrips supply in Boston, Los Angeles and many other cities. Educational access is a barrier for immigrants who can’t afford to pay for classes, and federal and state funding hasn’t kept pace with the influx of immigrants, the report says.


Because not all immigrants have limited English and proficiency improves over time, the population that isn’t proficient hasn’t grown as rapidly as the overall foreign-born population. Despite the fact that the share of the foreign working-age population climbed to 16% in 2012 from 7% in 1980, the proportion with limited English was 9.3% in 2012, the report says.


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