Understanding the United States’ changing labor force can be a key part of understanding larger trends in the overall economy. Each May, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) publishes details on the demographics, labor force participation, occupations, and earnings of the foreign-born population of the United States. Along with information gathered each year by the American Community Survey (ACS), the BLS data provide an objective and useful look at the contributions that foreign-born individuals make to the United States economy. Outlined in this blog post are key characteristics of the foreign-born population and how they compare to the native-born population.
Highlights from the most recent BLS and ACS data include:
- There are 27 million foreign-born workers in the United States, making up 17% of the total workforce.
- Overall, foreign-born workers earn 83 percent as much as native-born workers; however, foreign-born workers with at least a bachelor’s degree earn more than native-born workers with the same level of education.
- The unemployment rate for the foreign-born population age 25 and older was 3.8 percent in 2017, compared with 3.6 percent for the native-born population.
- The foreign-born population has a higher rate of labor force participation than does the native-born population.
- Education levels of the foreign-born population are similar to those of the native-born.
- Foreign-born individuals from several regions earn bachelor’s degrees at higher rates than the native-born population.
How Do We Define “Foreign-Born”?
According to BLS, the foreign-born population is defined as “persons residing in the United States who were not U.S. citizens at birth.” That includes “legally-admitted immigrants, refugees, temporary residents such as students and temporary workers, and undocumented immigrants.” Conversely, BLS defines the native-born population as “persons born in the United States or one of its outlying areas such as Puerto Rico or Guam or who were born abroad of at least one parent who was a U.S. citizen.”
In 2016, the United States population of 323 million included 44 million foreign-born individuals, or roughly 14 percent. That percentage has varied throughout history. In 1970, for example, foreign-born individuals comprised only 5 percent of the total population. At other points in history, such as the late 1800s, the foreign-born population was much larger as a share of the total population.
How Much Do Foreign-Born Workers Earn?
Foreign-born individuals typically earn less than native-born individuals—on average, 83 percent of their native-born counterparts. That disparity generally holds true across age, gender, and education level, with one significant exception. Foreign-born individuals with a bachelor’s degree or more had median weekly earnings of $1,340 per week in 2017, about $70 per week higher than the median for the native-born population with that level of education.
Employment Rates of Foreign-Born Workers
Since 2006, the unemployment rate for foreign-born individuals has tended to be slightly higher than the unemployment rate for native-born individuals. However, in the years since the Great Recession, that gap has fallen from a peak of 1.5 percentage points in 2009 to 0.2 percentage points in 2017. Last year, the foreign-born population age 25 and older had an average unemployment rate of 3.8 percent; slightly above the rate for the native-born population of 3.6 percent.