Rural Immigrants More Likely to Be Working but Poor

A new study of foreign-born rural residents finds that “economic equality is out of reach for many rural immigrants.” But immigrants who have become citizens fare much better.

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Immigrants who live in rural America are just as likely to have jobs as members of the native-born population, but they are far more likely to live in poverty, according to a new report.

Nearly one in six rural immigrants is defined as “working poor,” meaning they have a job but don’t earn enough to pull their household income above the federally defined poverty level.

For native-born rural residents, 8 percent are members of the working poor, about half the rate for immigrants.

This finding is part of a research brief – produced by the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire – that paints a tough economic picture for many of the 1.6 million immigrants who call rural America home.

“Our findings on the working poor suggest that economic stability is out of reach for many rural immigrants, particularly those without U.S. citizenship,” wrote Andrew Schaefer and Marybeth J. Mattingly, whose research at Carsey School focuses focuses on economically vulnerable families.

But other data in the report shows immigrants can be a demographically steadying influence in rural areas. Rural immigrants are more likely to be married and have children than native-borns. And they are also more likely to be of working age. That’s a switch for rural America, which overall has a higher percentage of children and retirees than urban areas do.

The report was issued in advance of an October 6, 2016, panel and discussion to help people working on rural social and economic issues understand “newcomers.” The event is sponsored by the Community Strategies Group of the Aspen Institute.

Other findings in the study include the following:

  • Rural immigrants are more likely to live in poverty. The poverty rate for foreign-born residents was 23.7 percent, nearly 6 points higher than the rate for native-born residents.
  • Immigrants who have become citizens are doing much better economically than non-citizens. “Approximately 31.6 percent of rural non-citizen immigrants are poor, compared to just 13.7 percent of citizens,” the report said. “Among rural non-citizens who are working, over one-fifth (21.5 percent) are poor, as are close to one-fifth (18.7 percent) of those working full time.”
  • Rural immigrants have lower educational attainment than native-born residents. They also have lower education levels than immigrants who live in urban areas.
  • The poverty rate for foreign-born rural residents was consistently higher in all age groups than for urban immigrants. But the biggest gap was for working age immigrants. Immigrants aged 18-64 had a poverty rate of 24 percent in rural areas and 17.7 in urban areas.

The report used the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey five-year estimates. It defined rural as areas as counties that are not within a metropolitan statistical area, or MSA.

Immigrants constitute a smaller part of the population in rural areas, with 4.8 percent being born outside the U.S. In urban areas immigrants constitute 16.6 percent of the overall population.

Rural immigrants are more ethnically diverse than the overall rural population, with about half being Hispanic and 14.3 percent being Asian. The overall rural population is 81.6 percent white.

Rural immigrants were slightly less likely to be U.S. citizens – 43.2 percent of rural foreign-born residents were citizens, while 49.3 percent of urban immigrants were.

Nine out of every 10 rural immigrants speaks some English, about the same rate as with urban immigrants.

More than half of rural and urban immigrants arrived in the United States between 1990 and 2009.



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