Immigration And Poverty

AS A NATION, WE ARE IMPORTING POVERTY. THAT IS the clearest consequence of the surge in immigration that began in the early 1970s. I do not say this to be alarmist or to advocate any type of immigration legislation. I say it merely to highlight an important truth that's usually overlooked in our political discussions of other social issues, ranging from poverty to the lack of health insurance. We deceive ourselves by discussing these matters as if immigration has had little effect on them.

The silent assumption is that the population is static. If poverty hasn't declined, then something must be making it harder for people to escape poverty. If more people lack health insurance, then insurance must be much less available. If income inequality has risen, then something must be widening the gap between the ""haves'' and ""have-nots.'' But the population isn't static. Many people at the bottom are immigrants, and because they arrive poor, they instantly aggravate all these problems. They take lousy jobs with low wages and no insurance.

In any one year, new immigrants (about 800,000 of them legal and perhaps 300,000 illegal) don't much alter social conditions. But the cumulative impact is significant. Between 1970 and 1994, immigrants rose from 4.8 percent to 8.7 percent of the population. Counting their American-born children amplifies the effect. And the new immigrants come from different countries than the old. In the 1950s, two thirds of a much smaller number came from Europe and Canada. By the 1980s, nearly half came from Mexico, other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean; almost 40 percent came from Asia.

It is not simply that many new immigrants are desperately poor and don't speak English. That's often been true. More important, many don't achieve the rapid income gains of some earlier immigrants. Wages of many European immigrants approached (or even exceeded) the levels of native-born Americans after 10 or 15 years. A new study by the Rand Corp., a research organization, shows that this is still true for Europeans and also applies to many Asian immigrants. In 1990 wages for European immigrants who arrived in the late 1970s were 10 percent above those of American-born workers; for Asians who arrived in the late 1970s, wages were 15 percent higher in 1990.

But the picture for Mexican and many other Hispanic immigrants is much different, reports Rand. Mexicans arriving in the late 1970s received wages half the level of natives; by 1990 their wages were still about half. Simply as a matter of arithmetic, all these poor workers worsen our poverty indicators. Unfortunately, gauging the effect is hard, because the subject hasn't been rigorously studied. Immigrants are examined in isolation: how fast do they assimilate? Do economic benefits outweigh costs?

By contrast, I have tried -- from various government reports -- to estimate the broader impacts. To do so, I used the classification ""Hispanic'' as a substitute for ""immigrants,'' because most reports don't identify immigrants separately. Admittedly, this is crude. All Hispanics aren't immigrants, and all immigrants aren't Hispanic. Still, immigration has propelled the rise of the Hispanic population, and so the connection -- though loose -- is real. Here's what the reports imply:

Perhaps a quarter to a half of the increase in poverty since the early 1970s reflects immigration. Between 1973 and 1994, the number of people with incomes below the government's official poverty line rose by 15 million. Of those, 6 million (or 40 percent) were Hispanic.

The impact is similar. Between 1987 and 1994, the number of Americans without health insurance rose by 8.7 million; of these, 3.3 million (38 percent) were Hispanic. (The Census Bureau has data before 1987 but says that it isn't exactly comparable with later figures.)

Immigration has aggravated it, though by how much is hard to say. In 1994 nearly one in eight households among the poorest fifth of Americans was Hispanic. In 1974 the Hispanic share was only one in 20. And as the Rand study shows, average wages for immigrants have fallen compared with those of natives.

Don't misunderstand me. Immigration didn't cause these problems. It simply made them worse -- as it has crime and student test scores. Nor am I saying that the ill effects can easily be erased by legislation. Many poor immigrants arrive illegally. If we could halt that, we would already have done so. Indeed, some anti-immigration measures could backfire. For example, one proposal now before Congress would allow states to deny schooling to children of illegal immigrants. That's unwise. Thousands of children (more than 300,000 in California) could be ejected. And because many might stay in the United States, they could ultimately end up poorer.

Finally, I'm not predicting a new permanent underclass. Though that's a possibility, it's only one of many. Just because people arrive poor does not mean their families stay poor forever. Later generations of Mexican-Americans do better than immigrants, reports a study by economist Stephen Trejo of the University of California, Santa Barbara. Among men, average wages for second- and third-generation Mexican-Americans rise to about 80 percent of those of whites. That's the good news; the bad news is that the gap hasn't yet vanished altogether.

America's powerful tides of assimilation may work as they have in the past -- or they may not. No one can say, because the surge in immigrants is too recent to permit sweeping conclusions. Absorbing them is clearly one of the great challenges we now face. My aim here is more modest. It is not to predict the outcome of this struggle but to contest the convention of viewing immigration separately from many other social problems. My message is less about immigrants than about how we judge our condition.

It's unreasonable to think that so many poor newcomers could be assimilated instantly or effortlessly. Immigration inevitably depresses our indicators of national well-being. If we ignore that, we'll wrongly conclude that we're doing worse than we are.