The Agenda

Basic Skills and Immigration

Mary Alice McCarthy of the New America Foundation highlights one of the more alarming findings from the new OECD Survey on Adult Skills:

On numeracy, the US found itself near the bottom of the pack, alongside Italy and Spain, and ranking well below competitors like Japan and Germany. On the literacy front we eked out a spot in the middle, but only because older Americans made up for the relatively poor scores of younger adults – not exactly a harbinger of future prowess. The US did manage to finish above average in one category – the percentage of our population that is low-skilled. Thirty six million Americans, one in six adults, lack basic literacy and numeracy skills, compared with one in twenty adults in Japan.

We can certainly argue how much rankings of countries as different demographically and economically as the US and Estonia can tell us. But even if you’re not a fan of cross-country comparisons, the survey provides a wealth of data on the size and characteristics of our large low-skilled population. Two findings, in particular, are especially significant from a policy standpoint: 1) fully one-third of low skilled adults are under the age of thirty-five and 2) the majority of them are working.

The threat this represents is clear – low-skilled adults earn significantly less money than their better-skilled counterparts, have poorer health outcomes, are more likely to depend on public assistance, and their children are less likely to achieve academically. But all is not lost, particularly for the 12 million younger adults who are active in the labor market. Their age leaves enough time for them (and us) to reap the significant economic and inter-generational rewards that come with higher skills. As the OECD researchers attest, low-skilled working adults are generally much better positioned to learn basic skills than unemployed adults because they have an immediate context to apply new skills. With a little cooperation from employers, postsecondary institutions, and policymakers who can provide time, resources, and opportunities to skill up, millions of young adults could advance along the skills spectrum. [Emphasis added]

One implication of McCarthy’s line of thinking is that because low-skilled adults “earn significantly less money than their better-skilled counterparts, have poorer health outcomes, are more likely to depend on public assistance, and their children are less likely to achieve academically,” we should strive to raise the skill level of the U.S. population and, over time, reduce the share of the population that low-skilled. Immigration policy is one of the central ways we shape the future workforce, both directly — immigrants who arrive in the U.S. as adults immediately impact the skill distribution — and indirectly — the children of low-skilled immigrants are less likely to achieve academically than the children of skilled immigrants. Yet McCarthy only refers to immigrants once in her post — she briefly mentions educational programs that can benefit disadvantaged adults, including immigrants. The fact that McCarthy contrasts the U.S. with Japan, however, is telling. The foreign-born share of the U.S. population is, according to the OECD, 13.7 percent while the foreign-born share of the Japanese population is 1.7 percent. The share of the U.S. labor force that is foreign-born increased from 10.8 percent in 1996 to 16.1 percent in 2012. The foreign-born population in the U.S. is heterogeneous in terms of skill level, yet a disproportionately large share of the foreign-born population is low-skilled. The following is drawn from a Bureau of Labor Statistics report released in July:

In 2012, there were 25 million foreign-born persons age 16 years and older in the U.S. labor force, representing 16.1 percent of the total. About 130 million workers were native born, making up the remaining 83.9 percent of the total U.S. labor force. About 38 percent (9.5 million workers) of the foreign born were from Mexico and Central America, and 28 percent (7 million workers) were from Asia (including the Middle East). The share of foreign–born workers from Europe and the Caribbean was about 10 percent for each. …

Hispanics represent 48.3 percent of the foreign-born labor force, compared with 9.5 percent of the native-born labor force. By contrast, whites made up 18.2 percent of the foreign-born labor force and 74.9 percent of the native-born labor force. A greater share of the foreign-born labor force was Asian (23.7 percent) than was the native-born labor force (1.5 percent). Blacks made up 8.7 percent of the foreign-born labor force and 11.6 percent of the native-born labor force.

Given that almost half of foreign-born workers in the U.S. are Hispanic, their skill levels have significant implications for the skill level of the wider U.S. labor force:

In 2012, 43.6 percent of foreign-born Hispanics who were in the labor force had less than a high school education and 12.6 percent had college degrees. By comparison, 12.5 percent of native-born Hispanics had not completed high school and 22.0 percent had graduated from college.

The proportions of foreign-born Whites and Blacks who had not completed high school were 6.0 percent and 9.1 percent, respectively. The proportions of those with college degrees were 51.6 percent for Whites and 34.1 percent for Blacks.

Among the native born, 4.0 percent of Whites and 7.3 percent of Blacks in the labor force had less than a high school education. The proportions of native-born Whites and Blacks who had college degrees were 39.8 percent and 25.2 percent, respectively.

Regardless of nativity, Asians have the highest proportion of college graduates of any race or ethnic group. For example, 58.1 percent of foreign-born Asians and 61.1 percent of native-born Asians had a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2012.

A BLS press release from May notes that almost a quarter of the foreign-born labor force had not completed high school:

In terms of educational attainment, 24.6 percent of the foreign-born labor force 25 years old and over in 2012 had not completed high school, compared with 5.1 percent of the native-born labor force. The foreign born were less likely than the native born to have some college or an associate degree–17.4 percent versus 30.1 percent. Similar proportions of foreign-born and native-born persons in the labor force had a bachelor’s degree or higher (33.0 percent and 36.7 percent, respectively).

When we factor out low-skilled foreign-born workers, the U.S. still has a big problem with basic literacy and numeracy skills. But it does seem as though foreign-born adults represent a non-trivial share of the population of U.S. adults who lack them. The OECD Survey on Adult Skills delves into this question:

Across countries, the average difference in score between native- and foreign-born adults is about 29 points on the literacy scale. Differences across countries vary substantially. The largest differences in literacy proficiency are found in Sweden (54-point difference) and Finland (51-point difference), which appear to be a consequence of very low average scores among recent immigrants. The Netherlands (43-point difference) and Norway (38-point difference) follow. Denmark, Flanders (Belgium), Germany, Korea and the United States also show above-average differences in scores. Two countries with a comparatively low proportion of foreign-born adults – namely the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic – show among the smallest score differences. Ireland also shows a small difference in scores, but this country has one of the highest proportions of foreign-born adults – although well over half of them reported that their native language is the same as or similar to the language of assessment in Ireland. [Emphasis added]

The OECD also emphasizes the extent to which language matters:

Immigrants with a foreign-language background have significantly lower proficiency in literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments than native-born adults, whose first or second language learned as a child was the same as that of the assessment, even after other factors are taken into account. In some countries, the time elapsed since arrival in the receiving country appears to make little difference to the proficiency of immigrants, suggesting either that the incentives to learn the language of the receiving country are not strong or that policies that encourage learning the language of the receiving country are of limited effectiveness. [Emphasis added]

Moreover, the problem is much worse for foreign-language immigrants from disadvantaged backgrounds:

Survey results show that, on average across countries, non-immigrants from disadvantaged backgrounds have about 1.5 times the odds of scoring at Level 2 or below on the literacy scale compared to non-immigrants from advantaged backgrounds (Figure 3.17a [L]). By comparison, a foreign-language immigrant from a disadvantaged background has nearly seven times the odds of scoring at that level compared to a non-immigrant from a more advantaged background. On average across countries, about 40% of foreign-language immigrants come from a socio-economically disadvantaged background; but this ranges from a very low proportion in countries with few immigrants to as high as 60% in Spain (see Table B3.12 in Annex B). Even if from more advantaged backgrounds, foreign-language immigrants still have higher odds of scoring at Level 2 than non-immigrants from disadvantaged backgrounds when compared to non- immigrants from advantaged backgrounds.

Country-by-country results for selected countries that participated in the survey and that have among the highest proportions of foreign-born adults reveal a similar pattern. Foreign-language immigrants from more advantaged backgrounds tend to be much less likely than immigrants from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds to have lower proficiency scores, but are more likely to score at lower levels than non-immigrants from disadvantaged backgrounds. This shows that even if they come from well-educated families, foreign-language immigrants often have limited chances to develop their information-processing skills in the local language. [Emphasis added]

It seems entirely appropriate to make larger public investments in improving the skills of U.S. workers. But the new OECD findings raise questions about the wisdom of allowing a much larger influx of low-skilled immigrants, particularly if we think that the U.S. would benefit from shrinking the share of the adult population that lacks basic skills.


The Latest