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Journal Issue: Immigrant Children Volume 21 Number 1 Spring 2011

Poverty and Program Participation among Immigrant Children
George J. Borjas


Researchers have long known that poverty in childhood is linked with a range of negative adult socioeconomic outcomes, from lower educational achievement and behavioral problems to lower earnings in the labor market. But few researchers have explored whether exposure to a disadvantaged background affects immigrant children and native children differently. George Borjas uses Current Population Survey (CPS) data on two specific indicators of poverty—the poverty rate and the rate of participation in public assistance programs—to begin answering that question.

He finds that immigrant children have significantly higher rates both of poverty and of program participation than do native children. Nearly half of immigrant children are being raised in households that receive some type of public assistance, compared with roughly one-third of native children. Although the shares of immigrant and native children living in poverty are lower, the rate for immigrant children is nonetheless about 15 percentage points higher than that for native children—about the same as the gap in public assistance. Poverty and program participation rates among different groups of immigrant children also vary widely, depending in part on place of birth (foreign- or U.S.-born), parents (immigrant or native), and national origin.

According to the CPS data, these native-immigrant differences persist into young adulthood. In particular, the program participation and poverty status of immigrant children is strongly correlated with their program participation and poverty status when they become young adults. But it is not possible, says Borjas, to tell whether the link results from a set of permanent factors associated with specific individuals or groups that tends to lead to "good" or "bad" outcomes systematically over time or from exposure during childhood to adverse socioeconomic outcomes, such as poverty or welfare dependency. Future research must explore the causal impact of childhood poverty on immigrant adult outcomes and why it might differ between immigrant and native families. Developing successful policies to address problems caused by the intergenerational breeding of poverty and program participation in the immigrant population depends on understanding this causal mechanism.