The Truth about Immigrants from Sub-Saharan Africa

Gambian immigrant Lamin Kassama (center) listens to the National Anthem during a naturalization ceremony in New York in 2013. (Reuters photo: Brendan McDermid)
As a group, they’re highly educated. But as immigration from the region has increased, the education level of the new arrivals has declined.

President Trump’s alleged derogatory comments about some African countries have spiked interest in immigrants from those countries to the United States, and there is actually a good deal of data available on these individuals. Overall, immigrants from this part of the world are relatively well-educated, and most can be described as at least middle class.

However, this population was much more educated decades ago. Back then they often came as students or to fill high-skill jobs. This produced a population that was small and much more educated than the native-born. But as the visa lottery, refugee resettlement, and family-based chain migration began to dominate the flow of new arrivals, the education level of this population declined relative to the native-born. As a result, a significant share of immigrants from this part of the world now struggle in the United States.

To be sure, sub-Saharan Africans are still more likely to have a bachelor’s degree than the native-born. But one of the consequences of chain migration and other categories that allow immigrants to enter without regard to their skills is that immigrants from this part of the world are no longer dramatically more educated than natives. Without reforms to our legal immigration system, we can expect the educational attainment of the African-immigrant population to decline further.

The overall growth in this population has been nothing short of extraordinary. Since 2000 it has increased 2.5-fold, to 1.8 million. It has grown almost 14-fold since 1980, a time period during which the overall foreign-born population has “only” tripled.

As the African-immigrant population has grown, its education levels have declined somewhat in absolute terms — and substantially relative to the native-born. In 1990, immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa were more likely than the native-born to have completed high school, and they were more than twice as likely to have at least a bachelor’s degree. By 2016, African immigrants were less likely to have completed high school, and while they were still more likely to have a college degree, their advantage over natives had shrunk dramatically: The share of sub-Saharan Africans age 25–65 with at least a bachelor’s degree had fallen from 49 percent from 41 percent, while for natives the same number had risen from 23 percent to 33 percent. (Sub-Saharan Africans are still much more educated than the average immigrant, of whom 27 percent have not completed high school and 31 percent have at least a college degree.)

There are also significant differences across countries. Of immigrants from Nigeria, 62 percent have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with 11 percent from Somalia. Nigerians often enter as foreign students or employment-based immigrants. Somalis have mostly come as refugees or the family members of refugees. Both countries are quite poor, and a very large number of people in both places have little formal education. However, this does not mean that immigrants from those countries necessarily have to be poor or have little formal education. The way immigrants enter has significant implications for their education levels.

Given the education levels of sub-Saharan African immigrants, most should do well in the United States. However, as a group, they struggle in terms of poverty and welfare use.

The share of Africans above 200 percent of the poverty line — about $38,000 for a family of three in 2017, a reasonable cutoff for the middle class — is 58 percent, versus 72 percent for the native-born. This shows that while education levels are a good predictor of prosperity, they are no guarantee of it.

Further, 38 percent of households headed by immigrants from this part of the world access one or more welfare programs, compared with 26 percent for natives and 41 percent for all immigrant households. One reason such an educated group has such high welfare use is that refugees have immediate access to all welfare programs, and in recent years Africa has been one of the top refugee-sending regions.

These high poverty and welfare-use rates are not caused by low rates of work, however. African immigrants have one of the highest rates of work of any group in America and are more likely to have a job than immigrants generally or the native-born. Although most work, many still cannot support themselves or their children and turn to taxpayers and the welfare system. African immigrants help demonstrate how welfare and work often go together in today’s America, for immigrants and natives alike.

The data show a complex and changing picture when it comes to immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

Overall, the data show a complex and changing picture when it comes to immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa. In some ways this is a relatively highly educated population, a significant share of whom can be said to be middle class. It is wrong to think that simply because immigrants come from less developed countries they will be poor once in the United States.

On the other hand, relative to natives, the education level of this population has declined significantly. This decline almost certainly reflects the change in the way many of these immigrants come to the United States. Those admitted as the family members of naturalized citizens, through the visa lottery, or as refugees now dominate the flow of new arrivals.

There is nothing surprising about this. How immigrants enter the United States has enormous implications for their likely skill levels and success once here. It seems likely that if chain migration, the lottery, and refugee resettlement continue to dominate sub-Saharan African immigration, the education level of immigrants from this part of the world will continue to decline relative to those of the native-born. If those categories are not curtailed, as President Trump has proposed, but instead are expanded, as immigration advocates have long desired, the education level could decline precipitously.


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