The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

On Hunger and Immigration in the United States


One of my great regrets in writing about immigration is that the data we have tends to track national origin and ethnicity rather than skill level. So though I’d prefer to stick to making observations about less-skilled immigrants, I more often encounter data about, for example, Asian Americans or Latinos. In a forthcoming article, Graeme Wood identifies a startling statistic from a group called Feeding America, which describes itself as the nation’s leading hunger-relief charity. In a section on Hispanic/Latino poverty, Feeding America notes that 26.2 percent of Latino households are food insecure, and that 34.5 percent of Latino children live in food insecure households. Moreover, Latino households are disproportionately represented among households that receive emergency food assistance. An extraordinary 29 percent of Latino children are served by the Feeding America network. In addition, 10.5 percent of Latinos live in deep poverty, i.e., in households with incomes less than 50 percent of the U.S. poverty threshold. The numbers are similar for children of immigrants: just under 35 percent of the children of immigrant mothers experience food insecurity, as opposed to just under 15 percent for the children of native-born mothers.

It is also true that immigrants households are less likely to access SNAP benefits than native-born households, in part because SNAP eligibility is limited for recent immigrants. Some, including Shikha Dalmia, suggest that this means that a foreign-born less-skilled workforce is  less burdensome than the native-born less-skilled workforce. She recognizes, however, that regularizing the status of less-skilled immigrants will tend to increase their reliance on means-tested transfers. Sara Quandt reports that among low-income immigrant children, the children of foreign-born, non-citizen mothers experience a level of food insecurity twice as high as that of native-born mothers; the children of foreign-born citizen mothers, in contrast, experience a level of food insecurity that is the same as that of native-born mothers. (See also this 2009 article from the American Journal of Public Health.) This suggests that creating a path to citizenship for less-skilled unauthorized immigrants will tend to reduce food insecurity, which is a good thing. Yet this will occur in part via the channel of an increase in the number of SNAP-eligible households.

A 2009 Child Trends research brief provides further evidence:

New analyses presented in this research brief indicate that levels of food insecurity are higher among infants and toddlers with immigrant parents than among those with native-born parents. Among these young children, food insecurity is more likely when immigrant parents are less acculturated, for instance when they are noncitizens, arrived more recently, or have limited English skills. When multiple background characteristics are considered simultaneously, parental citizenship in particular is strongly associated with food security—i.e., infants whose immigrant parents are citizens are more likely to be food secure than infants whose parents are not citizens. This research provides new insights into the prevalence and factors associated with food insecurity among households with young children of immigrants. [Emphasis added]

The authors also make reference to parental education among immigrant parents:

Higher parental education is associated with food security among infants with foreign-born parents. Infants with parents who lack a high school education, or who have a high school education but not a college degree, are less likely to live in food secure households than infants whose parents have at least a college education. Previous research suggests that food insecurity is lower in households where adults are better educated and our results provide additional support for this association when focusing specifically on immigrant households with infants. Thus, investment in immigrant parents’ education might yield better labor market outcomes as well as better knowledge of more cost-efficient food sources and better dietary practices for their children. [Emphasis added]

One approach is, as the authors to suggest, to invest in immigrant parents’ education. Another approach is to select immigrants with at least a college education, on the grounds that they are far more likely to form food secure households than less-skilled immigrants. This perspective is not widely embraced among scholars studying food security, for perhaps obvious reasons. The solution to the food insecurity problem among less-skilled immigrants is generally that we ought to expand eligibility rather than that we ought to think harder about whether U.S. immigration policy should emphasize the capacity for self-support. 

Regardless, it appears that one of the main reasons the U.S. has a high incidence of food insecurity by the standards of rich democracies is that food insecurity in the U.S. immigrant population is extremely high. This is not the only reason, obviously, as a rate of food insecurity of 15 percent for the children of native-born mothers is by all means higher than we’d like it to be. But given that the U.S. is in a position to select immigrants, as there is a large number of foreigners eager to live and work in the U.S., does it make sense to select immigrants who are likely to experience a substantially higher incidence of food insecurity than the native-born population, or might we instead select immigrants likely to experience a substantially lower incidence of food insecurity?

Some will no doubt conclude that the implicit moral perspective I’m introducing is distasteful in the extreme, as low-income, less-skilled immigrants experiencing food insecurity are almost certainly better off than they would be in their native country, and that the only humane policy is to welcome them in large numbers. And then advocates of less-skilled immigration split between those who also believe that the only humane thing to do once they arrive is to provide them with means-tested transfers, including SNAP, while others will suggest that less-skilled immigrants should not be eligible for SNAP and other means-tested benefits but rather that we ought to be indifferent, as a policy matter, to the food insecurity that will result. 

To understand why this alternative view might not be quite right, considering a brilliant recent article by Catherine Rampell of the New York Times, in which she argues that the cost-of-living in cities like New York is to some extent misleading for high-income professionals, drawing on research by Wharton economist Jessie Handbury:

Highly educated, high-income New Yorkers are surrounded by equally well-educated and well-paid people with similar tastes. More vendors compete for their business, which effectively lowers prices and provides variety. There’s also a high fixed cost to distributing a niche product to an area; if there’s more demand for that product, then the fixed cost can be spread across more customers, which will justify bringing the product to the market in the first place. That’s why companies go through the expensive hassle of distributing, say, St. Dalfour French fruit spreads in rich cities but not in poor ones and why New York can support institutions like the Metropolitan Opera.

Of course, not everything that wealthy New Yorkers spend money on is cheaper here. Housing, after all, is absurdly expensive, even for the rich. Complex zoning regulations and limited land make it all but impossible for supply to grow alongside demand. Still, it’s somewhat unfair to compare housing costs here to those in a place like Buffalo, or even Atlanta, since perks like access to amenities and unusually lucrative jobs are baked into the cost of New York real estate.

There is a flipside, as Rampell goes on to explain:

When you look at the cost of living for low-income people based on their tastes and preferences, New York’s poor turn out to be even poorer than you think. According to her research, a household earning $15,000 a year faces approximately 20 percent higher grocery costs in cities with relatively high per-capita income. The same is very likely to be true for other essentials, like clothing. Real estate is most crushing for all but those lucky enough to get into subsidized housing. For the poor, it is impossible to unbundle apartments from all the perks that help drive up costs.

A concentration of rich consumers should lead to better salaries for low-skilled jobs like waiters or manicurists. But federal programs intended to help the poor, like food stamps or child-care subsidies, are generally not adjusted for the local cost of living. In New York, the poor are “getting disqualified from a lot of these programs because they’re being paid $10 an hour rather than $7.50 an hour,” says David Albouy, an economist at the University of Michigan, “which can sort of artificially put them above the poverty line or wherever the threshold is.” [Emphasis added]

This is absolutely not to suggest that less-skilled immigrants don’t benefit enormously from access to the U.S. labor market. Rather, it is that the cost of closing the economic gap between less-skilled immigrants and the native-born might be higher than we have traditionally assumed. We could take the view that we should simply allow less-skilled immigrants to decide whether or not they want to accept the risks involved in working and living in U.S. Millions of immigrants have decided that living in food insecure households in the bottom tenth or fifth of the U.S. income distribution is preferable to the available alternatives.

Yet as long as Americans are concerned about household income and wealth dispersion and the high incidence of food insecurity, it is fair to ask whether it makes sense for us to import large numbers of workers who will struggle to independently achieve some modicum of economic security, as defined by prevailing U.S. standards. 


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