Study Finds Poverty & Welfare Common Among Immigrants

A new study from the Center for Immigration Studies uses Census Bureau data from 2010 and 2011 to provide a detailed picture of the nation’s immigrant population (legal and illegal) by country of birth, state, and legal status. A key finding is that immigration has dramatically increased the size of the nation’s low-income population. In general, immigrants make significant progress the longer they live in the country. But even with this progress, immigrants who have been in the country for 20 years are still much more likely to be poor, lack health insurance, and access the welfare system than native-born Americans. The large share of immigrants with little education partly explains this phenomenon.

“There is considerable concern about issues like poverty and the large uninsured population. But what has generally not been acknowledged is the impact of immigration on these problems,” notes Steven Camarota, the Center’s Director of Research. “Absent a change in policy, 11 to 15 million new immigrants are likely to settle in this country in the next decade and may exacerbate present problems.” The study can be found at: Press releases specific to the top immigrant receiving states can be found at

Among the study’s findings:

Immigrants and their U.S.-born children (under 18) account for one-fourth of all persons in poverty and nearly one-third of the population lacking health insurance.

In 2010, 36 percent of immigrant-headed households used at least one major welfare program (primarily food assistance and Medicaid) compared to 23 percent of native households.

Of immigrant households with children 57 percent accessed one or more welfare programs, compared to 40 percent of native households with children.

The high rates of poverty, uninsurance and welfare use are not due to an unwillingness to work. The share of working-age immigrants (18 to 65) holding a job in 2011 was the same as natives — 68 percent. Immigrant men actually have higher rates of work than native-born men.

The primary reason for high immigrant poverty and welfare use is the large share of immigrants who arrived as adults with relatively little education.

Of adult immigrants (25 to 65), 28 percent have not completed high school, compared to 7 percent of natives.

The share of immigrants (25 to 65) with at least a bachelor’s degree is somewhat lower than that of natives — 29 vs. 33 percent.

Among the top states of immigrant settlement, immigrants tend to be the poorest and least educated in Arizona, North Carolina, Minnesota, Texas, Georgia, Colorado, and California. Immigrants tend to be the most educated and prosperous in Virginia, New Jersey, Maryland and Massachusetts.

There is a very significant variation across sending-countries and regions. Immigrants from East Asia, India and Europe tend to be the most educated and have the highest incomes, while those from Mexico and Latin American tend to be the least-educated and have the lowest incomes.

Many immigrants make significant progress the longer they live in the country. However, as a group, immigrants who have lived in the United States for 20 years have not come close to closing the gap with natives.

The poverty rate of adult immigrants who have lived in the United States for 20 years is 50 percent higher than that of adult natives.

The share of adult immigrants who have lived in the United States for 20 years who lack health insurance is twice that of adult natives.

The share of households headed by an immigrant who has lived in the United States for 20 years using one or more welfare programs is nearly twice that of native-headed households.

The share of households headed by an immigrant who has lived in the United States for 20 years that are owner occupied is 22 percent lower than that of native households.

Most immigrants are not recent arrivals. Nearly two-thirds have been in the United States for more than 10 years and their average length of residence in the U.S. is 19 years.

There are 10.4 million students from immigrant households in public schools, accounting for one in five public school students.

Overall, one in four public school students now speaks a language other than English at home.

Of immigrant households, 53 percent are owner-occupied, compared to 68 percent of native households.

In 2010, 13 percent of immigrant households were overcrowded, compared to 2 percent of native households. Immigrant households account for half of all overcrowded households.

Immigrants and natives have very similar rates of entrepreneurship — 11.7 percent of natives and 11.5 percent of immigrants are self-employed.

Illegal immigrants. Our best estimate is that 28 percent of the nation’s immigrants are in the country illegally. Illegal immigrants and their U.S.-born children (under 18) account for 5 percent of the nation’s overall population, 10 percent those in poverty, 15 percent of the uninsured and 7 percent of the school age population.

Data Source: The data for this paper come primarily from the public-use files of the 2010 American Community Survey (ACS) and the March 2011 Current Population Survey (CPS). In some cases, for state-specific information, we combine the March 2010 and 2011 CPS to get statistically robust results. In this report, the terms foreign-born and immigrant are used synonymously. Immigrants are persons living in the United States who were not American citizens at birth. This includes naturalized American citizens, legal permanent residents (green card holders), illegal immigrants, and people on long-term temporary visas such as foreign students or guest workers.

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The Center for Immigration Studies is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit, research organization. Since its founding in 1985, the Center has pursued a single mission – providing immigration policymakers, the academic community, news media, and concerned citizens with reliable information about the social, economic, environmental, security, and fiscal consequences of legal and illegal immigration into the United States.

[FYI — Mark Krikorian] – CONTACTS: Marguerite Telford, Steven Camarota (202) 466-8185

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