View all Articles
Commentary By Kay S. Hymowitz

The Hidden Driver of High U.S. Child-Poverty Rates

Culture, Culture, Economics Children & Family, Poverty & Welfare, Immigration

Articles about America’s high levels of child poverty are a media evergreen. Here’s a typical entry, courtesy of The New York Times’ 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. But the lousy child-poverty numbers should come with a qualifying asterisk: Before Europe’s recent migration crisis, the United States was the only developed country consistently to import millions of very poor, low-skilled families, from some of the most destitute places on earth — especially from undeveloped areas of Latin America. Let’s just say that Russia doesn’t care to do this — and, until recently, Norway and the Netherlands didn’t, either.

“Policymakers and pundits prefer silence on the relationship between America’s immigration system and poverty, and it’s easy to see why.”

Policymakers and pundits prefer silence on the relationship between America’s immigration system and poverty, and it’s easy to see why. You can allow mass low-skilled immigration, but if you do, pursuing the equally humane goal of substantially reducing child poverty becomes a lot harder.

In 1964, close to 23 percent of American kids were poor. Currently, about 18 percent of kids are below the poverty line. Other Anglo countries have lower child-poverty rates.

Up until 1980, immigrant children were better off than native born. At that point, chiefly because of the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, the situation reversed. The law made “family preference” a cornerstone of immigration policy — and, as it turned out, that meant a growing number of new Americans hailing from less-developed countries and lacking skills.

The income gap between immigrant and native children widened. As of 1990, immigrant kids had poverty rates 50 percent higher than their native counterparts. At the turn of the millennium, more than one-fifth of immigrant children, compared with just 9 percent of non-Hispanic white kids, were classified as poor.

Today, according to Center for Immigration Studies estimates, 31.1 percent of the poor under 18 are either immigrants or the American-born kids of immigrant parents.

A large majority of America’s poor immigrant children — and, at this point, a large fraction of all its poor children — are Hispanic. The US started collecting separate poverty data on Hispanics in 1972. That year, 22.8 percent of those originally from countries of Latin America were poor. The percentage hasn’t risen that dramatically since then; it’s now at 25.6 percent.

But because the Hispanic population in America quintupled during those years, these immigrants substantially expanded the nation’s poverty rolls. Ironically, then, at the same time that America’s War on Poverty was putting a spotlight on poor children, the new immigration system was steadily making the problem worse. In 1980, only 9 percent of American children were Hispanic.

By 2009, that number had climbed to 22 percent. Nowadays, 31 percent of the country’s Hispanic children are in poverty. That percentage remains somewhat lower than the 36 percent of black children who are poor, true; but because the raw number of poor Hispanic kids — 5.1 million — is so much higher (poor black children number 3.7 million), they make up by far the largest group in the child-poverty statistics. As of 2016, Hispanic children account for more than one-third of America’s poor children.

“A large majority of America’s poor immigrant children — and, at this point, a large fraction of all its poor children — are Hispanic.”

Hispanic immigration isn’t the only reason that the U.S. has such troubling child-poverty rates. Other immigrant groups, such as North Africans and Laotians, add to the ranks of the under-18 poor.

Even if we were following the immigration quotas set in 1924, the U.S. would be something of a child-poverty outlier. The nation’s biggest embarrassment is the alarming percentage of black children living in impoverished homes. Immigrant poverty, though usually lumped within a single “child-poverty” number, belongs in a different category.

Other affluent countries have lots of immigrants struggling to make it in a postindustrial economy. But the background of the immigrants they accept is very different.

Canada, New Zealand and Australia are probably the best points of comparison. Like the United States, they are part of the Anglosphere and historically multicultural, with large numbers of foreign-born residents.

However, they all use a points system that considers education levels and English ability, among other skills, to determine who gets immigration visas.

Outcomes like these suggest that immigration optimists have underestimated the difficulty of integrating the less-educated from undeveloped countries, and their children, into advanced economies.

A more honest accounting raises tough questions. Should the United States, as the Trump administration is proposing, and as is already the case in Canada and Australia, pursue a policy favoring higher-skilled immigration? Or do we accept higher levels of child poverty and lower social mobility as a cost of giving refuge and opportunity to people with none?

This piece originally appeared at the New York Post


Kay S. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor at City Journal. She is the author of the book, The New Brooklyn. This piece was adapted from City Journal.

This piece originally appeared in New York Post