Researcher: Immigrant Child Poverty Studies "Overstate the Issue"

By Chris Hoenig

Scholars who argue that the increase in children from immigrant families has a large impact on the national poverty level for children are wrong and “overstate the issue,” according to a Rutgers University researcher.

Study author Myungkook Joo, an Assistant Professor at the university’s School of Social Work, challenged the popular belief that children of immigrant parents pose a hurdle to the U.S. economy and push the child-poverty rate higher. “As the national debate on immigration has grown stronger, including immigrants’ use of many social services, some have argued that the reason for the high child-poverty rate has mostly been due to the large number of children in low-skilled, poor immigrant families,” Joosaid. “Although the share of children in immigrant families did affect the child-poverty rate in the analyses, the findings suggest that media coverage and public discussion on the effects of immigration on child poverty do not seem to correspond with the empirical evidence and are likely to overstate the issue.”

Instead, Joo said other factors, like high unemployment, parental-education levels and a change in the family structure, carry the highest blame.

The child-poverty rate spiked in 1994, when 22 percent of all kids lived in poverty. It fell over the next several years but began to rise again in 2001, reaching 17.6 percent in 2003. Despite the overall drop in the child-poverty rate, the actual number of immigrant children in the U.S. nearly doubled between 1990 and 2007, making up 82 percent of the total increase in the child population during that time period.

The poverty rate for children of immigrant parents did rise between 1994 and 2003, going from 43 percent of foreign-born children to 54 percent, but it also rose for the children of U.S.-born parents, reaching 36 percent in 2003.

“The findings indicate that the strength of the economy and parental-employment status account for most of the decline in the child-poverty rate from 1993 to 2001 and most of the increase from 2001 to 2010,” Joo writes. “Compared to the contributions of these economic factors, the increase of children in immigrant families as a share of the child population appears to play a very minor role in the child-poverty rate.”

Neither the citizenship status of immigrant parents (whether they’re naturalized or noncitizens) nor the length of time they’ve been in the U.S. played a role in the child-poverty rate, according to Joo.

“Because the majority of children in immigrant families, including those in noncitizen families, are currently U.S. citizens by birth and are likely to remain in the country throughout their lives, investing in their human capital and economic outcomes should be an important national agenda,” Joo said, making it a key point in the ongoing debate over immigration reform in Washington.

“The findings do not mean that immigration does not contribute to the rise and fall of the child-poverty rate. The present analyses suggest that the share of children in immigrant families is related to the child-poverty rate but is not the root of child poverty, as is suggested in public discourse.”

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