Immigration, Education and Income Disparity

Let us explore another aspect of the old class warfare theme invoked so often by my esteemed liberal counterpart on this blog: the increasing disparity of incomes between rich and poor.

Many possible causes have been invoked, mostly entailing the rapacity of the rich. One cause that gets relatively little attention is immigration. Because a large majority of immigrants into the United States are poor and ill-educated, they compete for, and drive down the wages of, lower level jobs for immigrants and native-born Americans alike. That much stands to reason. But the contribution to income disparity is more pervasive than that.

I draw from a recent policy brief, “The Future of Immigrant Children,” published by the Brookings Institution, a think tank that is, not, incidentally, funded by the “radical right-wing Koch Brothers.” The report dwells on a very real problem: the low level of educational achievement of Hispanic immigrants and its impact on their upward mobility and living standards.

As authors Ron Haskins and Marta Tienda explain, federal immigration legislation in 1965 changed the criteria for gaining admission to the United States from a quota system that favored European immigrants to one that gave priority to family reunification. The volume of immigrants surged, and newcomers’ countries of origin shifted from Europe to Asia and Latin America. Since 1990, the U.S. has admitted roughly 1 million immigrants per year, and another 500,000 have entered illegally.

For a variety of reasons, Latinos significantly under-perform Asians and whites in standardized test scores. They also are more likely to drop out of high school and less likely to attend college. Because education is a necessary credential for achieving upward income mobility in a knowledge-based economy, the income prospects of Latinos are stunted. Write the authors:

Latin American immigrants arrive in the United States with a strong work ethic and strong family values. But by the second generation, their work rates decline, their wage progress appears to slow, and both their nonmarital birth rates and their divorce rates rise. These social and economic trends bode ill for immigrant parents, their children, and the nation. Finding ways to boost achievement and help more Latinos complete high school and attend college or other postsecondary training should be high on the nation’s policy agenda.

This reinforces my long-held contention that much (not all, but much) of the increasing income disparity in the United States has sociological causes. When the ranks of the lower-income brackets are continually replenished by immigrants (whether legal or illegal), and when second-generation Latinos fail to thrive in school, suffer a diminished work ethic, and develop the social pathologies of divorce, illegitimacy and female-headed households, all other things being equal, income disparities will worsen.

Nearly one quarter of all schoolchildren in the U.S. are immigrants or the children of immigrants, Brookings says, and the majority of those are Latino. Of course, many of them will turn out to be successful, upwardly mobile contributors to American society. But on average, the flood of poor, ill-educated immigrants effectively depresses average incomes, especially for Americans in the lower income brackets.

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