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Journal Issue: Immigrant Children Volume 21 Number 1 Spring 2011

Poverty and Program Participation among Immigrant Children
George J. Borjas

Source of Differences

The previous sections documented substantial differences between children with two immigrant parents and other groups of children in poverty and program participation rates. I now examine the extent to which differences in socioeconomic and human capital characteristics explain some of this dispersion.

By one major indicator, immigrant children appear to have an advantage over native children. The presence or absence of parents in the household is well known to be perhaps the most important determinant of children's program participation and poverty status.19 The economic well-being of children is typically better in two-parent households, and immigrant children, regardless of where they were born, are far more likely to live in two-parent households than other children. If anything, the immigrant advantage has increased over time. By 2009, nearly 65 percent of native children and 69 percent of mixed-parent children lived in two-parent households, while about 75 percent of children with two immigrant parents lived in two-parent households.

The evidence, instead, points to a very different source for the higher rates of poverty and program participation observed among immigrant children relative to native children. Table 3 reports the difference in poverty rates and program participation between children with one or two immigrant parents and native children, after adjusting for a host of socioeconomic background characteristics. The first column of the table, reports the raw differences among the groups after adjusting for period effects. For example, the typical foreign-born child with two immigrant parents has a poverty rate that is about 15.4 percentage points higher than that of native children, while the typical U.S.-born child of two immigrant parents has a poverty rate that is 10.3 percentage points higher than that of a native child.

The second column of the table reports the adjusted differential after controlling for differences in such characteristics as state of residence, household composition, and the age of the head of the household. If anything, adjusting for these differences increases the relative disadvantage of immigrant children. The poverty rate gap rises from 15.4 to 16.9 percentage points for the foreign-born children and from 10.3 to 11.6 percentage points for the U.S.-born children.

Finally, the third column presents the adjusted differential after controlling for differences in the educational attainment of the head of the household. Not surprisingly, this variable plays a crucial role in generating differences among the various types of children. In fact, it cuts by at least one-third to one-half the difference in poverty rates between immigrant children and native children. The remaining rows of the table show that the adjusted gap in participation rates, regardless of whether Medicaid is included, falls to near zero after adjusting for differences in educational attainment among parents. In short, the evidence clearly suggests that human capital differences in the households of immigrant and native children account for a large portion of the observed disadvantage experienced by immigrant children.