Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Immigrants in the U.S. Labor Force

The Statue of Liberty. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Brookings recently published a very interesting analysis of the role of immigrants in the U.S. labor force, prepared by Audrey Singer. The data underscore the fact that immigrants constitute a major component of the U.S. workforce, at both the low-skill and high-skill ends of the spectrum. Drawing on data from the American Community Survey and Current Population Survey, Singer shows that immigrants constitute nearly 16 percent of the civilian employed population, but a far higher share in a number of industries, ranging from information technology and high-tech manufacturing to accommodation and agriculture.

One striking aspect of the data is the fact that the jobs that immigrants and native-born Americans do in various industries often differ. For example, in agriculture, immigrants are far more likely to work as farmhands than native-born Americans, while in the life sciences industry, immigrants are more likely than natives to work as scientists, while natives are more likely than immigrants to work as managers.

These data raise a lot of interesting questions, such as:
1. What is it that makes immigrants more likely than natives to do jobs in certain industries, and vice versa? Does the over-representation of immigrants in high-skilled jobs in some industries point to deficiencies in the U.S. educational system? If so, what, if anything, should be done to address such weaknesses?

2. Among low-skill jobs, is it true that there are ones that natives "just don't want to do anymore," at least at the wages that prevail for those jobs? And if so, is that a cause for concern, or rather a relief, as it keeps costs down for businesses, allowing them to prosper and expand, while freeing up labor to work on other productive activities?

We have not even begun to address other vital questions, such as the benefits that immigrants bring to the economy through starting businesses of their own, innovating, consuming goods and services, and contributing to the country's cultural richness. We should also consider the potential costs, such as increased demand for public services, and endeavor to understand how those costs compare to the aforementioned benefits. The preponderance of the evidence that I have seen points to the benefits of immigration far exceeding its costs, but the question deserves to be considered empirically--and has, in numerous places. I hope to address such research in time.

So, there is a lot to talk about... but the data is always a great place to start.

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