Coming to America: Immigrant Parents' Jobs Don't Allow for Investments in Children

Jun 18, 2014

By Liz Ben-Ishai and Christina Walker

Immigrants often leave behind their families, their communities, their cultures—their homes. It’s a wrenching experience, but parents make that sacrifice to give their children a better life in the United States. Yet a new study suggests that rather than finding a land of opportunity, immigrant families struggle to secure jobs that will allow them to invest in their children. Instead, they join a society marked by racial and ethnic inequality, and they too fall behind.  Significant policy changes, including two-generation strategies that target both parents and children, are required to address growing inequities.

Children of immigrants now account for one-quarter of all children in the U.S. While immigrant children experience more negative outcomes than their native-born peers, recent studies have shown how increasing access to early childhood programs and providing meaningful family engagement opportunities can decrease the achievement gap. The newest study, published in the Monthly Labor Review, sheds light on the key role of parents’ low-quality jobs in negative outcomes.

Conducted by researchers from Brandeis University, the study uses three indicators of job quality to evaluate whether a job will enable a worker to adequately invest in his or her children. These include (1) wages above an estimated family budget for an adult in a family with a school-age child and a teenage child (“a basic economic security wage”); (2) access to employer sponsored health insurance; and (3) access to a pension plan through an employer or union.  Based on these measures, the study finds major discrepancies in job quality between non-native-born workers (as well as some workers of color) and White, native-born workers. Specifically, the study finds that:

  • 43 percent of Hispanic working parents and 30 percent of Black parents have poor-quality jobs (those not meeting any of the three indicators above), while about 20 percent of White and Asian parents have poor-quality jobs.
  • Nearly twice as many foreign-born parents have poor-quality jobs than do native-born parents.
  • The odds of having a poor-quality job (versus a job with just one of the characteristics of low quality) are 115 percent higher for Hispanic parents and 55 percent higher for Black parents than for White parents.
  • The odds of Hispanic foreign-born parents having poor-quality jobs are nearly 40 percent higher than native-born Hispanic parents.
  • Discrepancies are lower for immigrants who have been in the U.S. for longer. Nonetheless, even 5 to10 years after arriving in the U.S., Hispanics are significantly more likely to have poor-quality jobs than are White, Black, or Asian immigrants (47 percent odds for Hispanics versus 31 percent for Whites).
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