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Journal Issue: Children of Immigrant Families Volume 14 Number 2 Summer 2004

Demographic Change and the Life Circumstances of Immigrant Families
Donald J. Hernandez

Summary

Several major demographic shifts over the past half-century have transformed who we are and how we live in this country in many ways. Most striking, however, is the fact that children today are much more likely to be members of ethnic or racial minority groups. Racial/ethnic minorities are destined, in aggregate, to become the numerical majority within the next few decades. This article presents a wide range of statistics reflecting cultural, family, social, economic, and housing circumstances across various racial/ethnic and country-of-origin groups. Key observations include:

• Children in immigrant families are much less likely than children in native-born families to have only one parent in the home, and they are nearly twice as likely as those in native-born families to be living with grandparents, other relatives, and non-relatives.

• Parental educational attainment is perhaps the most central feature of family circumstances relevant to overall child well-being and development, regardless of race/ethnicity or immigrant origins.

• Children in immigrant families were only slightly less likely than children in native-born families to have a father who worked during the past year, but many of their fathers worked less than full-time year-round.

• Official poverty rates for children in immigrant families are substantially higher than for children in native-born families (21% versus 14%).

The author concludes that these results point to a growing need for policies and programs to assure the health, educational success, and well-being of all children across the varied racial/ethnic and immigrant-origin groups who now live in this country.

Over the past half-century, our nation has experienced major demographic shifts that have transformed who we are and how we live. This is especially true for children. To start, proportionately, there are fewer of them. Children today make up only 25% of the U.S. population, compared with 36% in 1960. And children today are being reared differently. They are more likely to have a working mother, 67% compared to only 15% in 1950, and most spend significant amounts of time in out-of-home care. Many are also likely to live in or near poverty (26%), and to spend at least part of their childhood living with fewer than two parents (nearly 50%). At the same time, children today are healthier and have better-educated parents. Most striking, however, children today are much more likely to be a member of an ethnic or racial minority group, and the diversity of our nation's children is increasing at a dramatic rate.

Children in the United States are leading the way toward the creation of a new American majority. This transformation does not, however, reflect the emergence of a singular, numerically dominant group. Instead, it is characterized by a mosaic of diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural groups from around the world. Historically, racial/ethnic minorities, including Hispanics, African Americans, Asians, and American Indians, have accounted for substantially less than one-half of the American population. But taken as a whole, because they are growing much more rapidly than the non-Hispanic white population, they are destined, in aggregate, to become the numerical majority within 20the next few decades (See Figure 1). These new demographic realities pose enormous opportunities and challenges for public policies and programs aimed at assuring that the next generation of children reach their potential to become economically productive adults, nurturing parents, and engaged citizens.

This article presents a wide range of statistics (calculated from the Public Use Microdata Sample, or PUMS, file of Census 2000 , unless noted otherwise) reflecting cultural, family, social, economic, and housing circumstances of children in native-born and immigrant families—statistics that merit the attention of policymakers and service providers who are responsible for initiating, designing, and implementing programs that will fully meet the developmental needs of America's children.

The article begins by describing the nature and sources of the ongoing transformation in the racial/ethnic composition of the U.S. population, focusing especially on immigration as the most powerful force driving the current demographic change. Attention then turns to a description of the life circumstances of these immigrant families, including household composition, educational accomplishments of children and their parents, engagement in paid work, and poverty. Next, the barriers faced by immigrant families due to citizenship status and linguistic isolation are discussed. Finally, the article concludes with some observations concerning the implications for the future.