Importing poverty

Phoenix, state top U.S. in poor immigrants

By Mark Shaffer
The Arizona Republic Sept. 3, 1999

The Nicaraguan couple had been discussing the matter for about 10 minutes. What to do, buy a $5 or $10 long-distance calling card?

Marta Jordan, co-owner of Tienda Centroamericana, smiled as she waited at the cash register. Like so many of her customers in the 2400 block of East McDowell Road, the immigrants' hopes are held down by a menial paycheck.

So Jordan was anything but surprised by a think tank's study that gave Phoenix and the state a dubious national distinction: No. 1 for percentage of immigrant families living in poverty.

According to a report released Thursday by the non-profit Center for Immigrant Studies in Washington, D.C., about 37 percent of immigrants in Phoenix and 36 percent statewide fall below the poverty level. That's about 10 percentage points higher than the closest city, Houston, and closest state, Texas.

The study, which doesn't track with what state officials say they're seeing, used the federal poverty line: a family of four that has an annual income of less than $16,400.

"Arizona stands out as a huge problem area," said Steven Camarota, author of the report, Importing Poverty. "It really jumped off the page during our research. The immigrant poverty is just unbelievable."

Number nearly triples Camarota said the number of people in poverty living in immigrant households in Arizona has nearly tripled to 330,000 from 113,000 during the 1990s. During that same time, immigrant households rose to 41 percent from 20 percent of the total of poverty-level households.

Meanwhile, the number of native-born households in poverty throughout Arizona declined, Camarota said. The gap between earnings in immigrant homes and native-born homes in Arizona, he said, is more than twice as large as in any other state in the nation.

Those statistics come as a shock to Vince Wood, assistant director of the state Department of Economic Security.

"Our cash-assistance welfare roles are becoming more Native American and less Hispanic," Wood said. "Also, some states with large immigration numbers have put in state-funded food-stamp programs for the immigrant population. There's been no discussion of that here."

Mexican consulate officials stationed in Phoenix have estimated that 300,000 Mexicans live in the Valley, about three times as many as 10 years ago.

Roseanne Sonchik, district director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said that migration from Mexico is about 90 percent of the Valley's total.

Miguel Angel Isidro, Mexico's deputy consul general in Phoenix, refused to comment on the poverty report.

Other categoriesNationwide, Camarota said, the poverty rate of immigrant households grew to 22 percent from 15 percent of the national total from 1979 through 1997, while the gap in the number of immigrant households and native-born households in poverty tripled during that time.

The subject of immigrant poverty in the United State has been the fodder of much academic research in recent years.

In his book, Heaven's Door: Immigration Policy and the American Economy, George Borjas, who left Princeton University recently for the University of California-Santa Barbara, wrote that a surge of immigration to this country is allowing a huge transfer of wealth from the poorest in the land to the richest. Borjas also wrote that immigrant children today are far more likely to remain in poor, segregated communities.

But Stephen Moore, an economist at the Cato Institute, a pro-immigrant think tank in Washington, D.C., said such theories and the immigrant-poverty report are very misleading.

"It definitely misses the big picture," Moore said. "We've had 20 million immigrants come to this country during the past 20 years, and we've had the greatest economic expansion in the history of the world. And a lot of that is because of immigration, not despite it. For native-born Americans, immigration has been an economic blessing."

Immigrant gainsMoore also said that his research indicates that earnings of immigrant households rapidly narrow the gap with native-born households after immigrant families are in this nation for more than 10 years.

"Our studies indicate that within 15 years of coming to this country, immigrants on the average make as much as the native-born population," Moore said. "If you look at those who are in the country for 15-20 years, their poverty rate is less than people born in this country."

Jordan, the store owner from El Salvador, hopes some of that wealth starts finding its way to her soon.

Jordan said she and her husband, Orlando, and two small children, only wish that they could earn $16,400 a year with their store, which they opened this year. They're in the process of getting a bank loan to buy the building, Jordan said.

She surveyed the shelves, full of such items as pumpkin seeds from Guatemala, bottled figs and papaya from Colombia and fava beans from Peru.

"It would surprise me if we ever had a family who makes more than $20,000 a year come in here," Jordan said.


Mark Shaffer can be reached at via e-mail or at 1-602-444-8057.

* - The phrase "Importing Poverty" was coined in 1992 by VCT and has proven to be true indeed.