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Poverty Declines Among Immigrants, USC Study Finds

From left to right, those who worked on the immigrant study: Hae Ran Shin, Jane Chung (administrator/coordinator), Noel Hacegaba (in the back), Roxanne Tanemori, Julie Park (research manager), Dowell Myers (project director and co-author), Liang Wei, and Zhou Yu. Not shown: John Pitkin (co-author) and Scott Mangum. Shin, Park, Wei and Yu are doctoral candidates. Hacegaba and Tanemori are graduate students.

Photo by Irene Fertik

Poverty among California’s immigrant population is on the decline after a 30-year rise, according to a USC demographic study that has implications for New York, New Jersey, Florida, Texas and other states with large immigrant concentrations.

“Over the last three decades, the immigrant population has increased substantially in California,” said Dowell Myers, a USC demographer and the study’s co-author. “A quarter of all Californians were born abroad – more than any other state, and far above the national average of 10 percent.

“Unfortunately, these population gains were accompanied by rising poverty levels that placed a burden on welfare, health care and other community services. However, both trends – growth in immigrant population and immigrant poverty – have turned down,” Myers said.

The reversal, Myers said, can be attributed to growth in prosperity as immigrants become assimilated into their communities, a process that evolves with time.

“Newcomers are, on average, less well-off than those who have settled in and adapted for 10 or 20 years,” Myers said. “The growing number of long-term immigrants, and the resultant stabilizing of the percentage of foreign-born in the overall population, has many positive financial implications for California.”

Myers, a professor of urban planning and demography in the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development, wrote the report with economist and demographer John R. Pitkin, a research associate at USC and a principal of Analysis and Forecasting Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., consulting firm.


The comprehensive study, “Demographic Futures for California,” is designed to support policy analysis and planning in California, said Daniel A. Mazmanian, C. Erwin and Ione L. Piper Dean of the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development.

“The Golden State’s large immigrant population has emerged in recent decades as a particular obstacle to problem-solving in many policy areas, particularly in poverty, health insurance, tobacco use, public transportation and housing needs or homeownership.”

The significance of the turning point in poverty rates should not be overlooked, Pitkin said. “Two studies released earlier this month by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies both mention the 2000 poverty rate for foreign born, but neither study places this in relation to the long-term trend.

“The 2000 poverty rate was neither a statistical accident attributable to the small sample size of the survey on which it is based nor a reflection of temporarily favorable economic conditions in California and the nation,” Pitkin said.

The USC study measured poverty rates over three decades, utilizing the censuses of 1970, 1980, and 1990, and the Current Population Survey of March 2000, Myers said. “By chance, each of these measurements has been conducted at a similar peak of the economic cycle when unemployment was low. This made it possible for us to approximate a full employment poverty rate. The differences between decades are not attributable to annual fluctuations in the economy.

“This long-term measurement gives us confidence to forecast a deep-seated turnaround in poverty that will be long lasting,” he added, “although future fluctuations in the economy could produce temporary annual upturns in poverty.”

The Myers-Pitkin study calls attention to the temporal processes of immigrant arrival and adaptation. Their finding that the upward trend in overall poverty rates for the foreign-born population began reversing before 2000 should be confirmed when the 2000 census results on income and immigration are released next year, said the researchers.

To increase their value for policy purposes in California, the USC projections are controlled for age and race totals produced by the Demographic Research Unit in the California Department of Finance. Those projections are the official figures produced by the state of California for state and local planning. The USC projections also consider nativity and immigrant duration.

The report “Demographic Futures for California” was supported by the USC Office of the Provost, the USC Transdisciplinary Tobacco Use Research Center (with funding from the National Cancer Institute) and the Fannie Mae Foundation.

Poverty Declines Among Immigrants, USC Study Finds

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