How Immigration Affects Child Poverty Rates

By Jason Richwine on December 6, 2017

The latest issue of City Journal features Kay Hymowitz's essay "Why America Can't Lower Child-Poverty Rates", in which she argues that low-skill immigration swells the ranks of the poor and makes poverty harder to tackle. She is refreshingly forthright about the trade-offs involved in setting immigration policy:

Both policymakers and pundits prefer silence on the relationship between America's immigration system and poverty, and it's easy to see why. The subject pushes us headlong 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 on the left and the right — and probably most poverty mavens—consider humane and quintessentially American. But if you do, pursuing the equally humane goal of substantially reducing child poverty becomes a lot harder.

Hymowitz is careful to acknowledge that immigration is hardly the only reason that the United States suffers from a high child poverty rate compared to other Western nations. Nevertheless, the impact does reveal itself in government statistics. According to 2017 data from the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey, about 13 percent of American children live in low-skill immigrant households, but those children account for 27 percent of all child poverty in the country. (I am using the "supplemental poverty measure" here, which considers transfer payments and local cost of living.) Excluding low-skill immigrant households would drop the national child poverty rate from 15.3 percent to 12.8 percent, with considerable variation across states.

The table below shows how child poverty rates decline in the most heavily impacted states after excluding households headed by low-skill immigrants. ("Low-skill" is defined here as having a high school diploma or less.)

Child Poverty Rates
State Overall Excluding
California 22.5% 16.5% 6.0
Arizona 20.2% 16.0% 4.2
Minnesota 7.4% 3.4% 4.0
New Jersey 14.7% 10.7% 4.0
Florida 18.4% 15.0% 3.4
Maryland 13.0% 9.7% 3.3
Oklahoma 12.8% 9.5% 3.3
Washington 14.2% 11.2% 3.0
Oregon 14.8% 11.9% 2.9
Nebraska 11.2% 8.3% 2.9
Tennessee 15.2% 12.3% 2.9
Texas 15.4% 12.5% 2.8
New York 15.3% 12.7% 2.6
New Mexico 13.5% 11.2% 2.3
North Carolina 16.1% 13.9% 2.2
Virginia 16.0% 14.0% 2.0
Illinois 15.0% 13.0% 2.0
Idaho 7.0% 5.2% 1.9
Colorado 9.3% 7.6% 1.7
Georgia 18.9% 17.2% 1.7
Massachusetts 10.8% 9.2% 1.6
Delaware 12.7% 11.2% 1.5
Kansas 8.5% 7.2% 1.3
Pennsylvania 12.2% 10.9% 1.3
Alaska 14.4% 13.3% 1.2
Utah 8.4% 7.4% 1.0

Source: 2017 Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement, Supplemental Poverty Measure.
A "low-skill" household is headed by someone with a high school diploma or less.
States where the difference is less than one percentage point are omitted.

The impacts vary depending on both the number of immigrants and the severity of the poverty they experience relative to natives. In Arizona, a prime immigrant destination, the child poverty rate would be four percentage points lower — a reduction in the overall rate of about one fifth — if not for low-skill immigrant households. Minnesota, by contrast, is not a high-immigration state, but the immigrants it has received (who include many Somalis) are relatively poorer. As a result, Minnesota's child poverty rate would decline by more than half in the absence of its low-skill immigrant households. States with minimal immigrant populations or disproportionately high-skill immigrants see much smaller impacts.

Sitting conspicuously at the top of the list is California, which serves as a preview of sorts for what the rest of the country might expect if mass immigration continues. Last May I wrote an essay for Real Clear Policy showing that California suffers from some of the worst inequality, school performance, and social cohesion in the country. I could have mentioned child poverty as well. Low-skill immigrant households account for 25 percent of the children in California but 45 percent of the children in poverty. As the table above indicates, California has the highest rate of child poverty at 22.5 percent, but excluding low-skill immigrant households would drop the rate to 16.5 percent.

If any state should heed Kay Hymowitz's warning that low-skill immigration hinders our ability to reduce child poverty in the United States, it should be California. Nevertheless, Governor Jerry Brown declared in his most recent State of the State speech that immigration is one of the issues on which "California is not turning back. Not now, not ever." On the poverty-immigration trade-off that Hymowitz identifies, it is clear where the governor comes down.