Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

Washington’s immigrants more likely to live in poverty

clip_image004Earlier this year the U.S. Census Bureau released a report about the more than 10 million non-citizen immigrants under age 35 residing in the United States. The data show more than half of these individuals came to the U.S. as children, and nearly 60% have lived in the U.S. for at least five years.

While Washington does not have the sizable immigrant populations of California and Texas, it is among the top 15 states with the highest numbers of immigrant residents. Today, immigrants make up a larger proportion of our workforce and our electorate than in decades past. In 1990, foreign-born residents made up 6.6% of the population. By 2011, that rate had doubled to 13.3%.

Washington’s foreign-born residents are better educated than those across the U.S., but they are also more likely to live in poverty – with nearly 18% of the state’s immigrant residents living in poverty, compared to 12% of U.S-born residents. This is likely related to the type of jobs held by immigrants in our state.

Although labor force participation rates for Washington’s immigrants are on par with those across the country, there are some notable divisions in the data when we take a closer look. Washington’s immigrants are both more likely to hold very low-wage jobs and very high-wage jobs. While this is a recent trend of Washington’s non-farm jobs – growth concentrated in both low-wage and high-wage sectors – this bifurcation in occupations seems to be exacerbated for foreign-born workers.

Here, immigrants are much more likely to work in low-paying agriculture and high-paying technology jobs. Across the U.S., immigrants make up 50% of farm workers and 31% of computer software developers. In Washington, the share of immigrant workers in those occupations is 76% and 36%, respectively. Farm worker is the number one occupation for immigrants in Washington, which helps to explain the increased risk of poverty among our state’s foreign-born. Case in point: in Yakima County, which has a migrant farm-worker population, nearly one in three immigrants lives below the federal poverty level.

So what does this mean for our economy? According to the Immigration Policy Center, immigrants add tens of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs to Washington’s economy. These residents make up more than 16% of our workforce and contribute $1.5 billion in tax revenue to the state economy.

Yet, opportunities for upward mobility remain scarce for the state’s immigrant residents. Policies that promote economic security for these workers would no doubt bring further tax revenues into our state and enhance health and well-being for all of our communities. Without a solid floor that ensures a secure standard of living, as well as abundant opportunities to climb the ladder, Washington’s workers of color will continue to face both lower chances for upward mobility and higher chances for downward mobility.

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