Farfetched? Does Illegal Immigration Facilitate Teenage Obesity?

By David North, September 19, 2010

Can we logically link the following three phenomena:

  • massive illegal immigration,
  • historic high rates of teenage unemployment, and
  • historic high rates of teenage obesity?

My colleague Steven Camarota's recent backgrounder entitled "A Drought of Summer Jobs: Immigration and the Long-Term Decline in Employment Among U.S.-Born Teenagers" made it clear that illegal aliens and U.S. teenagers play much the same, low-skilled roles in the U.S. labor markets, and that a flood of the illegals has led to the drought in jobs for resident teenagers. So the first two phenomena are clearly linked.

What joins the second and the third?

Let's look at that question from both a macro and a micro (neighborhood) focus.

The big picture, which Dr. Camarota captured, is that government statistics show that the kinds of jobs that teenagers don't have any more are largely those requiring strong backs and low skill levels, the kinds of jobs that are often physically taxing and thus obesity-shrinking.

As he pointed out: "The summer of 2009 was the worst summer ever experienced by U.S.-born teenagers (16-19) since citizenship data was first collected in 1994. Just 45 percent were in the labor force, which means they worked or were looking for work. Only one-third actually held a job."

Now working, even in an office, involves at least some physical activity, if only the trip to work; most teenage jobs require a lot of it, and I think it fair to say that most work is more demanding than most leisure. Some teenagers spend the summer playing tennis, but most of them relax in a less active way.

Thinking about it on a neighborhood level, what has happened to the casual and summer jobs that so many older Americans (such as this one) remember? When I was a kid I delivered newspapers from a bicycle, and my youngest son did the same thing a generation later.

How are papers delivered now? In my suburban area (Arlington, Va.) they are delivered by immigrant adults driving cars.

Teenagers used to mow many of the lawns in the area. Now it is small teams of guys from Central America – generally slim guys – using power mowers, and, regrettably, leafblowers. I suspect many of them lack legal status. I have little firsthand contact with them because I mow my own lawn.

Mowing lawns, working in the neighbors' gardens, and delivering papers all helped hold down the waist size but our teenagers don't do that much anymore. At least not in the suburbs familiar to me.

Ms. Obama's efforts on the obesity front, according to this account never were expressed in policy terms (like suggesting higher taxes for fatter food), so it is no surprise that the White House made no link between enforcing the immigration law, on one hand, and encouraging teenage exercise, on the other.

Maybe someone in Congress should think about the relationships among the phenomena of expanding immigration, shrinking teen-age jobs, and the broadening mid-sections of our teens.