Immigration Policy a Driver of Child Poverty Rate

Kay S. Hymowitz, Manhattan Institute, October 29, 2017


Articles about America’s high levels of child poverty are a media evergreen. Here’s a typical entry, courtesy of the New York Times’s Eduardo Porter: “The percentage of children who are poor is more than three times as high in the United States as it is in Norway or the Netherlands. America has a larger proportion of poor children than Russia.” That’s right: Russia.

Outrageous as they seem, the assertions are true — at least in the sense that they line up with official statistics. Comparisons of the sort that Porter makes, though, should be accompanied by an asterisk pointing to a very American reality. Before Europe’s recent migration crisis, the United States was the only developed country to routinely import millions of very poor, low-skilled families, from some of the most destitute places on Earth — especially from undeveloped areas of Latin America — into its communities, schools and hospitals. Let’s just say that Russia doesn’t care to do this — and, until recently, Norway and the Netherlands didn’t, either.

Pundits prefer silence on the relationship between America’s immigration system and poverty, and it’s easy to see why. The subject pushes us into the sort of wrenching trade-offs that politicians and advocates prefer to avoid. Here’s the problem in a nutshell: You can allow mass low-skilled immigration, which many consider humane. But if you do, it becomes a lot harder to pursue the equally humane goal of reducing child poverty in this country.


At first, immigration did not affect child-poverty figures. The 1924 Immigration Act sharply reduced the number of immigrants from poorer Eastern European and southern countries, and it altogether banned Asians. The relatively small number of immigrants settling in the United States tended to be from affluent nations. According to the Migration Policy Institute, in 1970, immigrant children were less likely to be poor than were the children of native-born Americans.

By 1980, the situation had reversed: immigrant kids were now poorer than native-born ones. Why? The 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act overturned the 1924 restrictions and made “family preference” a cornerstone of immigration policy. In consequence of that move, as well as large-scale illegal immigration, a growing number of new Americans hailed from less-developed countries. As of 1990, immigrant kids had poverty rates 50% higher than their native counterparts. At the turn of the millennium, more than one-fifth of immigrant children were classified as poor.

Perhaps the most uncomfortable truth about these statistics is that a large majority of America’s poor immigrant children — and, at this point, a large fraction of all its poor children — are Latino.

The United States started collecting separate poverty data on Latinos in 1972. That year, 22.8% of those originally from Spanish-language countries of Latin America were poor. The percentage hasn’t risen dramatically since then; it’s now at 25.6%. But because the Latino population in America quintupled during those years, these immigrants substantially expanded the nation’s poverty rolls. Latinos are now the largest U.S. immigrant group by far — and the lowest-skilled. Pew estimates that Latinos accounted for more than half the 22-million-person rise in the official poverty numbers between 1972 and 2012.

At the same time, then, that America’s War on Poverty was putting a spotlight on poor children, the immigration system was steadily making the problem worse. Between 1999 and 2008 alone, the United States added 1.8 million children to the poverty total; the Center for Immigration Studies reports that immigrants accounted for 45% of them.

Latino immigration is of course not the only reason that the United States has such troubling child-poverty rates. Other immigrant groups, such as North Africans and Laotians, add to the ranks of the under-18 poor. And even if we were following the immigration quotas set in 1924, the United States would be something of an outlier. Perhaps the nation’s biggest embarrassment is the alarming number of black children living in impoverished homes, about 3.7 million (compared to 5.1 million poor Latino kids).


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