Immigration and Poverty Reduction: Policy Making on a Squirrel Wheel

By Briggs, Vernon M., Jr. | Journal of Economic Issues, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Immigration and Poverty Reduction: Policy Making on a Squirrel Wheel


Briggs, Vernon M., Jr., Journal of Economic Issues


The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 (EOA), which launched the War on Poverty in the United States, was more than a major accomplishment of the Great Society's political agenda. It marked the beginning of "a new approach to poverty" (Levitan 1969). Until that time, the nation's efforts to combat poverty had focused almost exclusively on relief measures. With the passage of the EOA, a new tactic was undertaken: prevention. As President Lyndon Johnson declared upon signing this legislation, "Our American answer to poverty is not to make the poor more secure in their poverty but to reach down and help lift themselves out of the ruts of poverty" (10). The causes of poverty in the United States were to be identified and then specific policies enacted to eliminate them. Attention was disproportionately given to measures to eradicate youth poverty, which was identified as the weakest link in the cycle whereby one generation of the poor becomes the next. If pursued vigorously, this approach--it was proclaimed by the original director of the program, R. Sargent Shriver--could eliminate poverty in the United States by 1976 (69).

In 1964, there were 36.4 million persons in the United States living in poverty (19.0 percent of the population). By 2001 the poverty population totaled 32.9 million persons (11.7 percent of the population). Thus, while the percentage of the poverty population has declined over the preceding 37 years, the absolute size of the poverty population itself has hardly shrunk (Census Bureau 2002a, 21). Clearly, the poor are still very much "with us." Indeed, in 2001 the nation's poverty population grew by 1.3 million persons--the largest annual increase in a decade.

There are many reasons that Shriver's goal of poverty elimination has proven to be elusive. It is not the purpose of this undertaking to recount them. It is instead to identify one causative factor of mass poverty that was virtually unknown in 1964 but, over the intervening years, has become a major contributor to its perpetuation. It is the effects of the revival of mass immigration as manifested by immigration policies enacted by the federal government since 1965.

The Return of Mass Immigration

As shown in table 1, immigration had been of declining significance to the U.S. economy (in terms of percentage of the population) since 1910 and in absolute number terms since 1930. By 1965, the percentage of the population that was foreign born had fallen to 4.4 percent--the lowest percentage in all of U.S. history--and the absolute number of immigrants had declined to levels not seen since the 1880s. Immigration had fallen so far by the mid 1960s that, for all intents and purposes, it was an irrelevant concern for economic policy making.

With regard to the link to poverty, the limited immigration that had taken place for the 35 years immediately before 1965 had been of a unique character (Briggs 1996, 80-82). Most of the immigrants of the 1930-1960s period were Europeans fleeing from the onset and aftermath of Nazism and Fascism on their continent. In present-day terms, most would be known as refugees, but at the time the United States did not have any provisions for refugee admissions. Hence, those admitted entered only under the quotas allowed for their country under the terms of the prevailing Immigration Act of 1924 (also known as the National Origins Act).

Unlike the immigrants who preceded them (i.e., those who entered during the l890-1920s era who were mostly poor rural peasants from eastern and southern Europe), the immigrants of the 1930-1960 era were overwhelmingly from the middle and upper economic classes and mostly from urban areas. They were disproportionately white-collar workers drawn from professional, business, arts, and academic backgrounds. Indeed, over this 30-year span the occupational category at the time of entry that accounted for the highest percentage of the immigrants was "professional, technical, and managerial. …

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Immigration and Poverty Reduction: Policy Making on a Squirrel Wheel
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