New Research Shows Immigrants Working in Rural America are More Likely to Live in Poverty

Alex McLeeseNovember 17, 2016

While much atten­tion has been giv­en to rur­al America’s chang­ing demo­graph­ics, lit­tle is known about how con­di­tions for rur­al immi­grants com­pare to those for their native-born neigh­bors or for immi­grants liv­ing in cities. But a new study from the Uni­ver­si­ty of New Hamp­shire Carsey School of Pub­lic Pol­i­cy hopes to shine some light on the sub­ject. It reveals that work­ing rur­al immi­grants are almost twice as like­ly to be poor as their non­im­mi­grant counterparts.

Accord­ing to Daniel Lichter, a soci­ol­o­gy pro­fes­sor at Cor­nell, Rur­al areas tend to get ignored by pol­i­cy-mak­ers con­cerned about immi­gra­tion, we tend not to think of rur­al areas as a des­ti­na­tion for immigrants.”

Uni­ver­si­ty of New Hamp­shire researcher Andrew Schae­fer, who co-authored Demo­graph­ic and Eco­nom­ic Char­ac­ter­is­tics of Immi­grant and Native-Born Pop­u­la­tions in Rur­al and Urban Placeswith his col­league Mary­beth Mat­ting­ly, saw an oppor­tu­ni­ty in the absence of avail­able infor­ma­tion. We looked at a num­ber of dif­fer­ent stud­ies to try to see if we were repli­cat­ing work already done or if there were gaps in the lit­er­a­ture, and we found that there wasn’t as much stuff on immi­grants in rur­al places. Work often had just a His­pan­ic focus or a Mex­i­can immi­grant focus, and there was a lot on urban immi­grants, so we found a hole we could fill,” he says. There was no com­pre­hen­sive project com­par­ing rur­al immi­grants to oth­er peo­ple in rur­al places or to urban immi­grants, and it’s use­ful to have some­thing like that all togeth­er in one piece with the most recent data.”

What the study reveals

The data employed by the study came from the Cen­sus Bureau’s Amer­i­can Com­mu­ni­ty Sur­vey five-year esti­mates from 2010 to 2014

The study shows that rur­al immi­grants are more like­ly than native-born rur­al res­i­dents to live in pover­ty, at 23.7 per­cent com­pared to 17.9 per­cent. Immi­grants who obtain cit­i­zen­ship fare bet­ter than non-cit­i­zens. The pover­ty rate for rur­al non-cit­i­zen immi­grants is 31.6 per­cent, com­pared to 13.7 per­cent for cit­i­zens. In 2014, for a fam­i­ly of four includ­ing two chil­dren, the pover­ty thresh­old was $24,008.

Espe­cial­ly among rur­al immi­grants work­ing full time, the pover­ty rate for that group is sur­pris­ing­ly high,” says Schaefer.

Accord­ing to the study, pover­ty among work­ing rur­al immi­grants stands at 15.6 per­cent. By com­par­i­son, the rate for the work­ing rur­al native born is just 8 per­cent, and the fig­ure for work­ing urban immi­grants is 10.7 percent.

(Image: carsey​.unh​.edu)

In all age groups, the pover­ty rate for rur­al immi­grants exceeds the rate for their urban counterparts.

Experts offer sev­er­al rea­sons for this dif­fer­ence. Urban immi­grants are more skilled, with dif­fer­ent jobs, and are more like­ly to be in an eth­nic com­mu­ni­ty that might pro­vide resources in times of need,” says Lichter. There’s also infor­ma­tion about job pos­si­bil­i­ties, and bet­ter edu­ca­tion with Eng­lish lan­guage as sec­ond language.”

Uni­ver­si­ty of New Hamp­shire soci­ol­o­gy pro­fes­sor Ken­neth John­son says that in urban areas bet­ter jobs are preva­lent, with high­er incomes, so the younger immi­grant pop­u­la­tion is like­ly to move to those areas. Immi­grants can feel less iso­lat­ed in urban areas, with more com­pa­tri­ots. They don’t stick out the way they do in rur­al areas, and they have more social net­works in urban areas, which gives them more eco­nom­ic access.”

Schae­fer says that rur­al pol­i­cy-mak­ers face chal­lenges that are dif­fer­ent from their urban coun­ter­parts, and that his research could be rel­e­vant for pub­lic pol­i­cy deci­sions. My guess is that a lot of the poli­cies aimed at the immi­grant pop­u­la­tion in par­tic­u­lar are urban-cen­tric, and might work bet­ter in urban places,” he says. For exam­ple, he says, dis­trib­ut­ing social ser­vices in sparse­ly pop­u­lat­ed rur­al areas is par­tic­u­lar­ly challenging.

Accord­ing to Lichter, one effec­tive way to address rur­al pover­ty among rur­al immi­grants would be to change our nation­al immi­gra­tion polices. We need com­pre­hen­sive immi­gra­tion reform to pro­vide some sort of path­way to per­ma­nent res­i­dence, not nec­es­sar­i­ly cit­i­zen­ship but to make immi­grants legal and not in the shad­ows. Then they could find a way to invest in their own skills and pro­vide good care for their chil­dren, often U.S. cit­i­zens, who are born here,” he says, adding, It would be a good thing to think more about a guest work­er pro­gram that was care­ful­ly monitored.”

A clos­er look

The study also gath­ered infor­ma­tion about rur­al immi­gra­tion beyond pover­ty rates that shows major dif­fer­ences between rur­al and urban populations.

First, immi­grants make up a rel­a­tive­ly small part of the rur­al pop­u­la­tion — account­ing for 4.8 per­cent of the rur­al pop­u­la­tion, com­pared to 16.6 per­cent of urban residents.

Rur­al immi­grants are more like­ly than their urban coun­ter­parts to be His­pan­ic and non-His­pan­ic white. A major­i­ty, or 54.2 per­cent, of all rur­al immi­grants are His­pan­ic, and 25.9 per­cent are non-His­pan­ic white. In urban areas, 44.1 per­cent of immi­grants are His­pan­ic, and 20.2 per­cent are non-His­pan­ic white.

Rur­al immi­grants also tend to be less edu­cat­ed. 39.4 per­cent have obtained less than a high school diplo­ma or equiv­a­lent, com­pared to 29.2 per­cent among urban immi­grants. How­ev­er, Eng­lish lan­guage abil­i­ty is sim­i­lar for urban and rur­al immi­grants. 71.6 per­cent of rur­al immi­grants speak Eng­lish well, com­pared to 72.3 per­cent of urban immigrants.

(Image: carsey​.unh​.edu)

The study also includes data about fam­i­lies. Rur­al immi­grant fam­i­ly struc­tures are rel­a­tive­ly sta­ble. 60.1 per­cent of rur­al immi­grant adults are mar­ried, com­pared to 53.5 per­cent of rur­al native born. 35.2 per­cent of rur­al immi­grant adults have chil­dren under 18, com­pared to 23 per­cent of native-born rur­al adults.

While adding to the exist­ing body of work on immi­grant and rur­al pover­ty, the study’s authors ask an impor­tant ques­tion: What are the short- and long-term con­se­quences of an eco­nom­ic cli­mate in which full-time work doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly lead to eco­nom­ic sta­bil­i­ty and in which the safe­ty net doesn’t meet the needs of poor residents?”

Schae­fer answered his own ques­tion: It’s hard to imag­ine how out­comes could be pos­i­tive when we have vul­ner­a­ble groups in the Unit­ed States and the safe­ty net is not per­form­ing well in meet­ing the needs of these groups.”

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Alex McLeese is a 2016 edi­to­r­i­al intern at In These Times. He is work­ing on a paper about the social­ist philoso­pher John Dewey and is an activist with the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of America.
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