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

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).

These job quality inequities are particularly troubling because foreign-born parents and parents of color are a large and rapidly growing segment of the population. That is, the study shows that more and more families are struggling to make ends meet in poor-quality jobs as they try to raise healthy, happy children.

We know that children whose parents struggle to get by are at a significant educational disadvantage in their early years, which can have lifelong repercussions. Worse, children of immigrant parents have less access to high-quality child care and early education, exacerbating the effects of poverty. In fact, children whose parents have Limited English Proficiency (LEP) are about half as likely to receive financial assistance for child care. Increasing a family’s access to high-quality early childhood programs, including child care and preschool, will further promote a young child’s healthy development while allowing parents the ability to work or go back to school.   

Because researchers were limited to data available through the Current Population Survey, they were unable to address another important criterion of job quality: access to paid leave. For parents without paid sick days and paid family and medical leave, a sick child can mean losing a day’s pay or even their jobs. Further, many cannot afford or do not have access to unpaid leave after the birth of a child or when a family member is serious ill. Many low-wage workers also struggle with volatile schedules, which can make finding child care a nightmare and place strain on many other aspects of family life. While research suggests that workers of color are more likely to lack paid leave, further study is necessary to better understand non-native-born parents’ access to paid leave and scheduling challenges.

Improving parents’ job quality is a critical aspect of addressing the needs of children. To honor families who have made the difficult decision to seek a better life in the U.S.—and to remedy long-entrenched inequities—it’s crucial we pursue public policies that create fair labor standards.