Could Immigration Reform Aid Nation's War on Poverty?
Data suggests high number of undocumented means more Hispanics among nation's poor
Where do most Hispanics, citizen or undocumented, live in the U.S.? California. Which state has the highest rate of poverty, according to newly released census data? California. And which state is one of the most expensive to live in? Cali…
Okay, you get the point. California is a case study for how lawmakers’ willingness to drag their feet on meaningful immigration reform seems to have only exacerbated the nation’s growing poverty problem.
According to the U.S. Census “Supplemental Poverty Measure” (SPM), California’s poverty rate of 23.5 percent is the highest of any state. That’s almost 1 in every 4 people in the Golden State. The year-old measuring standard adjusts for cost of living to reflect geographic differences, deducts state taxes and payroll taxes from income, and, most importantly, adds in the number of assistance programs, like food stamps, that contribute to a family’s net annual income.
When adjusted using the SPM, Hispanics have the highest rate of poverty of any ethnic or racial group in the nation, at 28 percent. But the rate also is pushed higher due to the number of Hispanics whose undocumented status makes them ineligible for a number of anti-poverty programs. That begs the question, why isn’t an overhaul of the immigration system and creating a path toward citizenship for undocumented adults and their children a top priority?
The answer to that question isn’t California; it’s Washington, D.C., which coincidentally has the second largest rate of poverty in the nation at 23.2 percent. Legalization for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. could greatly benefit the political party that delivered it. Until that happens, those among the heavily undocumented Hispanic populations in California, Florida, Texas and Arizona are living in the worst kind of limbo.
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Policy experts say some Hispanics are living in unnecessary conditions of poverty, as their U.S.-born children are qualified for some anti-poverty programs.
“There’s been a lot of anti-immigrant restrictions ensuring [a] family won’t use programs they are eligible for,” said Leticia Miranda, associate director for the National Council of La Raza’s Economic Policy Project, in a phone interview.
“And you need to have a valid Social Security number to claim the earned income tax credit” that is helpful for people who live below the poverty line, Miranda added.
For example, in 2010, only 53 percent of eligible Hispanics received food stamps, compared to 63 percent of eligible whites and 80 percent of eligible blacks, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services figures.
Miranda says the SPM might actually help economists and policy makers stress the effectiveness of such anti-poverty programs for Hispanics and people in urban locales.
After this month’s election, in which Hispanics showed overwhelming support for President Barack Obama, giving him 71 percent of their vote, according to national exit polling, the way forward might seem obvious for strategists. Except it’s not, given the unpopularity of immigrant amnesty among the larger population and positive, but inconclusive, research on the effects amnesty might have on the U.S. labor market.
Neither liberals nor conservatives have shown the Hispanic voting bloc much on the issue: Obama, a Democrat, issued an executive order to defer deportation on certain young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. without documentation by their parents – although he promised and failed to deliver comprehensive reform in his first term; and Republicans are only now, post-election, talking about taking up immigration reform, largely in hopes of building a winning coalition and avoid being beaten so badly in the next election.
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Andrew Wainer, a senior immigration policy analyst at Bread for the World Institute, in a recent Huffington Post column, argued that reform has more positives than negatives both politically and economically.
“Most research indicates that immigration -- both legal and illegal -- benefits the economy and global development,” Wainer wrote. “Legalization also increases economic opportunity for unauthorized immigrants who disproportionately live in poverty.”
Ah, there’s that poverty word again. The poverty rate likely will lag in California, with a 14 million Hispanic population, according to census figures. When adjusted for SPM, the national poverty rate is 16.1 percent, and last year, the ranks of America’s poor edged up to a high of 49.7 million people.
All indicators point to poverty being a problem that can be tackled through immigration reform, whoever gains from it politically.