Immigrants and Poverty

Robert Samuelson makes the point I made here:

The standard story is that poverty is stuck; superficially, the

statistics support that. The poverty rate measures the share of

Americans below the official poverty line, which in 2006 was $20,614

for a four-person household. Last year, the poverty rate was 12.3

percent, down slightly from 12.6 percent in 2005 but higher than the

recent low, 11.3 percent in 2000. It was also higher than the 11.8

percent average for the 1970s. So the conventional wisdom seems amply


It isn't. Look again at the numbers. In 2006, there were 36.5

million people in poverty. That's the figure that translates into the

12.3 percent poverty rate. In 1990, the population was smaller, and

there were 33.6 million people in poverty, a rate of 13.5 percent. The

increase from 1990 to 2006 was 2.9 million people (36.5 million minus

33.6 million). Hispanics accounted for all of the gain.


From 1990 to 2006, the number of poor Hispanics increased 3.2 million,

from 6 million to 9.2 million. Meanwhile, the number of non-Hispanic

whites in poverty fell from 16.6 million (poverty rate: 8.8 percent) in

1990 to 16 million (8.2 percent) in 2006. Among blacks, there was a

decline from 9.8 million in 1990 (poverty rate: 31.9 percent) to 9

million (24.3 percent) in 2006. White and black poverty has risen

somewhat since 2000 but is down over longer periods

This is not a ding on immigration, as readers will know I am a supporter of open immigration.  But it is an important context to have when evaluating poverty numbers.  The drop in black poverty in these numbers is an ENORMOUS piece of good news that I bet you have not read anywhere.


  1. TCO:

    Is the "drop in black poverty from 1990 to 2000" even statistically meaningful? The overall economy was way overheated in 2000. Maybe the difference in 1990 and 2000 poverty rates is just the economic cycle versus long term trends. The article cites longer periods giving a similar story, but with no details. Really some sort of normalized curve over time would be best to help understand this.

  2. Al Fin:

    No matter what you say, the politicos will still trot out these numbers in an attempt to sway elections and get more anti-poverty legislation passed. They simply cannot help themselves.

    But it is good for you and Samuelson to explicitly spell this out--something that many of us instinctively suspect when these figures are trotted out. Thanks for trying to keep the media and politicians honest.

  3. Tim:

    Where do these numbers come from? I don't see any sources anywhere, all the way back to the original article.

  4. Walter E. Wallis, P.E.:

    When we import more at the bottom, does that not influence the numbers?

  5. Ray G:

    The larger point is that those with a certain agenda are trying to manipulate the public opinion to create the perception that America's standard of living as a whole is getting worse, and that's simply not the case.

  6. Charles D. Quarles:

    Folks, please remember that the "poverty rate" calculation does not count the value of the benefits transfered from the productive to the, um, recipients. It only counts the income, and incidentally, there is the additional fact that said income is household income (which probably doesn't count all income) and that folks in this group typically do not work full time year round.

  7. John Dewey:

    "the "poverty rate" calculation does not count the value of the benefits transfered from the productive to the, um, recipients."

    I'm pretty sure the poverty rate includes all cash transfers. It omits food stamps and subsidized housing.

    Income included is actually "family" income, which may be even considerably less than household income. For example, income of two housemates are considered separately.

    Definition of poverty

  8. Patrick Trombly:

    The sole point to take away from Samuelson's article isn't about the immigration debate, it's about the debate over poverty, incomes and income gaps.

    We ARE importing our poverty - immigration does not make people poorer (actually it makes people richer - the poor immigrants come here to escape poverty, and over time most of them in fact do). But importing, legally and illegally combined, 1 million poor, uneducated, unskilled people per year, does increase the number of poor people within our borders. Importing 350,000 poor households per year also, though to a lower extent, drags down the median income, because the statistical middle household is 175,000 households lower than it otherwise would be. We import rich people too - but only at about the same rate at which we export them.

    The only retort to Samuelson's statistical analysis that I've read is that the poverty rate among US Latinos has declined over time. But that's not a retort - it just means that the poor Latinos who come here also move up over time - - right, that's why they come. It would have to be the case that the poor people who come here move up eventually, given that the rate at which poor people come here is over 4 times the rate at which the total number of poor people increases.

    There are valid points to be made on all sides of the immigration issue - but that's beside the point. The point is with respect to the naysayers about the economy, the folks who say it's great for Wall Street but lousy for Main Street, the folks who decry the growing "income gap" and the persistence of poverty.

    An analogy would be a school district in which there previously wasn't a kindergarten and then one was added. The median height would decline - even though nobody shrank. The gap between the tallest and shortest would increase - even though nobody shrank and everyone grew at the same rate they had previously. There would be more short kids - because there was a new class of kindergarteners.

    We have the Paul Krugmans and Robert Reichs of the world telling us that people are actually getting shorter and we have the New York Times and Boston Globe printing it.