Student Achievement

Child Well-Being in Immigrant Families Differs by Race, Study Shows

By Sarah D. Sparks — July 24, 2013 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Immigrants overwhelmingly come to America seeking a better life for themselves and particularly their children, but the well-being of immigrant students varies far more based on their race and economic position than their immigration status, according to a new study by the Foundation for Child Development. In fact, for some racial and ethnic groups, children of immigrants are doing better than the children of their U.S.-born counterparts.

For example, overall, black children of U.S.-born parents fared worse than all or nearly all other groups, both immigrant and U.S.-born, on 15 out of 19 indicators. By contrast, black children of immigrant parents fared better then their native counterparts in income level, parent education and employment, and high school graduation.

“The groups that are worse off are Hispanic children of immigrant parents and black children of U.S. parents,” said Donald J. Hernandez, the study’s author and a sociology professor at Hunter College, at the City University of New York. “It is kind of surprising because we typically think of children of immigrants as not doing as well, and it’s really a more nuanced picture that cuts over multiple indicators.”

“People often just look at the immigrant group and compare it to nonimmigrant groups,” Hernandez said. “By distinguishing the race and ethnic groups, we are focusing on children who have similar types of exposure to poverty and schools. The results really help to break through the stereotypes we have about these children by comparing them to children who had similar experiences.”

Taken as a whole, children of immigrant families are more likely to be poor and to struggle academically than are children of native families, but “Diverse Children: Race, Ethnicity, and Immigration in America’s New Non-Majority Generation,” which the New York City-based foundation released this morning, paints a more complex picture of the immigrant child experience by breaking out national child well-being indicators by Hispanic, black, white, and Asian background.

DREAM Act kids notwithstanding, nearly nine out of 10 children of immigrants, regardless of their parents’ nationality, were born in the United States and have grown up in American schools. Regardless of ethnicity, children of immigrant parents were as or more likely than children of native families to have parents with secure jobs, and less likely to live in one-parent families. Moreover, for all groups except Asians, immigrant families tend to move less frequently than U.S.-born families; that could be a benefit, in terms of stability and school continuity, but less helpful if it signals families trapped in segregated low-income neighborhoods.

For example, 71 percent of Hispanic children of immigrants are in families living on less than twice the federal poverty level—a threshold typically used to signal low-income—with a median income of $33,396. That’s very low, but it’s still considerably higher than the median household income for black children of native parents, $29,977. By contrast, the median income for white and Asian families ranged from the mid- to high-$70,000s, regardless of their immigrant status.

Hispanics make up the vast majority of first-generation immigrant families in the United States, followed by Asian families. According to a 2011 study by the National Center for Children in Poverty, more than 17.2 million children have at least one immigrant parent, and children of more recent immigrants—of which there are more Hispanic families—are more likely to be poor.

Children of immigrants also were less likely to be born underweight or to die as an infant than children of native families—a statistic that comes amid growing consternation over the relative expense of American pregnancies and childbirth. To be sure, the study also finds that once they arrive, the children of immigrants have a harder time getting health insurance: 19 percent of Hispanic children of immigrants and 15 percent of black children of immigrants are not covered by health insurance, compared with 12 percent of Hispanic children and 11 percent of black children from native families, and only 7 percent of white and Asian children of natives.

Academic Achievement

Hernandez—whose previous research found substantially increased risk of dropping out for students who do not read on grade level by 3rd grade—found the language spoken at home was a much weaker predictor than race of whether students are likely to be reading and doing math proficiently, at least according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Take a look at the following charts of 4th grade results for NAEP reading and math. There are some challenges for white and Hispanic students whose families speak another language than English at home, but those differences pale in comparison to the racial achievement gaps, in reading and mathematics alike.

“One of the things that strikes me in both of these charts is the large percentage of students who are not ‘proficient’ in reading and math, across the board,” Hernandez said. “It really shows we are not being successful in educating children in reading and math across the board; it’s not about race, not about immigrant status.”

For older students, while there are significant gaps in high school graduation among children of different racial and ethnic groups overall, white and black children of immigrants were more likely to graduate high school than students of the same groups born to U.S.-born families, while children of U.S.-born Hispanic and Asian parents had higher graduation rates than their immigrant peers. Hispanic students of immigrant families had the lowest graduation rates, at 69 percent, while Asian students of U.S.-born parents had the highest, 89 percent.

Moreover, children from immigrant families were less likely to be disconnected—out of school without a diploma or a job— than students from U.S.-born parents. “Immigrants come to this country to improve their lives and in particular the lives of their children, and they have a particular commitment to education,” Hernandez said. “Students of immigrant families can come with cultural values and strengths because of that.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.