Politics & Policy

Readin’, Ritin’, ’Rithmetic — After Waves of Immigration, Millions of Americans Lack Basic Skills

Naturalization ceremony in Newark, N.J., November 2014. (John Moore/Getty)

How have decades of immigration transformed America? Shedding light on this, the Pew Research Center has released a fascinating new report, which finds that the current foreign-born share of the U.S. population (13.9 percent) is very close to the peak of 14.8 percent that it reached in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Assuming current levels of immigration continue, the foreign-born share will reach 17.7 percent in 2065. But this number understates the impact of immigration on the U.S. population, as it does not capture the role played by the children and grandchildren of immigrants. Pew estimates that when we factor in the second- and third-generation offspring of immigrants, the post-1965 immigration wave has added 72 million people to the U.S. population. To put this number in perspective, France has a total population of 67 million, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo has a population of 77 million.

Suffice it to say, this post-1965 wave has had profound effects on U.S. society. Most obviously, this wave has changed the ethno-racial composition of the U.S. population quite dramatically.

In the absence of the post-1965 wave, Pew estimates that the non-Hispanic white and black populations would be larger shares of the total U.S. population while the Hispanic and Asian shares would be much smaller. This ethno-racial transformation has attracted a great deal of attention, for obvious reasons. Among immigration advocates, there is a widespread belief that opposition to immigration, including opposition to less-skilled immigration, is driven largely by racial animus against non-whites.

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I would argue that a far more consequential effect of the post-1965 wave has been the increase in the number of U.S. residents with low levels of literacy and numeracy. This increase has occurred just as global economic integration and automation have put the wages of less-skilled workers under intense pressure, and as the family lives of college-educated and non-college-educated adults and their children have sharply diverged. Had the post-1965 immigration wave consisted of people with higher-than-average levels of literacy and numeracy, its effect on U.S. society would probably have been markedly different, even if it had been of exactly the same size and ethno-racial composition.

One of Pew’s more noteworthy findings is that today’s immigrants have a higher level of educational attainment than those who arrived in 1965.

Specifically, Pew reports that while only half of newly arrived immigrants in 1970 had at least a high-school diploma, by 2013 that share had increased to over three-quarters. And while only a fifth of immigrants had graduated from college in 1970, 41 percent had done so in 2013. Immigration advocates often point to this fact as cause for optimism, particularly when conservatives in particular express concern over the skill levels of immigrants. Are the immigration optimists right: Are the skills of recent immigrants actually quite strong, and are conservative concerns about skills really just a smokescreen for bigotry? To answer this question, we need a better sense of the extent to which years of schooling translate into cognitive skills.

#share#Earlier this year, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) released a detailed analysis of data from 2012 Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), a comparative study of the cognitive skills of 16- to 65-year-olds in the countries that make up the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). According to PIAAC, immigrants represent 33 percent of adults with low levels of literacy and 24 percent of adults with low levels of numeracy, despite the fact that the foreign-born share of the working-age population is only 15 percent. Even more discouraging is the fact that although native-born U.S. adults outperformed immigrants, both groups are well below the OECD average. In theory, the U.S. could use its immigration system to raise its average skill level by recruiting immigrants with higher levels of literacy and numeracy than the native-born population. Instead, U.S. immigration policy appears to have had a modestly negative effect on the average skill level in the U.S., even though younger immigrants have somewhat stronger skills than their older counterparts.

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How can this be? Why is the skill level of immigrants improving only modestly even though the share of immigrants with a college or post-graduate degree is increasing? MPI observes that while adults with higher levels of educational attainment tend to have stronger cognitive skills, this relationship is not linear. Rather remarkably, 22 percent of college-educated natives and 54 percent of college-educated immigrants were less than proficient in literacy. To some extent, this could reflect the fact that PIAAC evaluates literacy in English. But there appears to be more to this dramatic gap in literacy between college-educated natives and college-educated immigrants.

In The Rebirth of Education, the Harvard Kennedy School economist Lant Pritchett (a leading immigration advocate, incidentally) documents the disconnect between schooling and learning in much of the developing world. In recent decades, there has been an astonishing global increase in years of schooling. The problem, however, is that in many countries, students learn relatively little over the course of a year, and the effects of an inadequate education compound over time. To illustrate his point, Pritchett draws on data from the 2008 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), an international assessment of the math and science proficiency of students in the fourth and eighth grades. He finds that students in the average developing country had a score of 386 on an assessment of math proficiency in the eighth grade while students in Australia had a score of 499, fairly typical for a developed country. Some developing countries, such as Lebanon (449) and Malaysia (474) scored quite well, while others, such as Qatar (307) and Ghana (309), scored quite poorly.

RELATED: Famous Study Showing Immigration Doesn’t Depress Wages Refuted

So what does this all mean? Though a Lebanese immigrant and a Qatari immigrant to the U.S. might have had the same number of years of schooling, the Lebanese immigrant will probably have a stronger command of the skills that education is meant to impart than the Qatari immigrant will. Immigrants to the U.S. come from a wide range of countries, and the quality of local schools varies dramatically across these countries. When we rely on crude measures of educational attainment, we ignore the fact that, to quote the subtitle of Pritchett’s book, “schoolin’ ain’t learnin.’” It is simply not the case that earning a high-school diploma means the same thing whether one earns it in Qatar or Lebanon, Indonesia or Australia.

#related#Whether we like it or not, the ethno-racial composition of the U.S. has been forever transformed. If immigration levels were to fall to zero tomorrow, it would still be true that children younger than five are majority-minority, and that people younger than 18 will be majority-minority in a few years’ time.

Which immigration policy will best serve the interests of America’s diverse post-1965 population, and in particular of our multiracial working class? For all the economic challenges that less-skilled workers, native-born and foreign-born, have faced in recent years, it seems more likely than not that these challenges will grow more severe in the years to come. These women and men will need a great deal of help, and the services they will need won’t be cheap. Will Americans, whether native-born or foreign-born, white or non-white, benefit more from the arrival of immigrants with high levels of literacy and numeracy, or immigrants with low levels of both? I have my own view on these questions. But regardless of one’s view, these are the questions we need to reckon with.

Reihan Salam is the executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute Policy Fellow.


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