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Fast Track Assimilation Could Offer Escape from Poverty
by Winfield Myers
10 March 2004

A recent USC study documents the potential of assimilation to act as an engine of escape from poverty and hopelessness.


Immigrants who come to California eventually assimilate and, as they blend into the dominant population, become more prosperous and civically active.  That’s one of the findings of a recently published study, “California’s Immigrants Turn the Corner,” by Dowell Myers (no relation) and others at the University of Southern California’s Urban Initiative program.  By tracing the fortunes of foreign-born immigrants during the census years from 1970 until 2000, Myers and his colleagues demonstrate that time spent in the U.S. translates into higher earnings and home ownership rates, greater educational accomplishments, and increased voter participation. 

The study has received less consideration than it deserves, and most of that attention has concentrated on its findings that today California attracts a smaller percentage of the nation’s new immigrants than in previous decades, and that those immigrants who arrive are less likely to be impoverished than were their predecessors.  This is good news indeed for California’s embattled economy, although other states are absorbing those immigrants who might in earlier years have headed for the Golden State. 

Largely overlooked, however, are the study’s implications regarding the potential of assimilation to act as an engine of escape from poverty and hopelessness.  It demonstrates that the percentage of Latinos, in particular, living above the poverty line increases steadily with time spent in the U.S. within the first generation of immigrants.  The same is true of other measurements of fiscal well-being, including the percentage of immigrants with access to health insurance, home ownership, and voting records.  Similarly, the chances that a Latino will graduate from high school or college or speak only English at home increases along with their time spent in the U.S.  Fully 40 percent of third generation Latinos speak only English at home, double the rate of second generation Latinos.  Mixed first and second generation Latinos were most likely among that demographic group to speak English well or become U.S. citizens. 

All of these markers by which economic progress is measured – high school and college education, acquisition of health insurance, home ownership, voter participation, and facility in English – are key elements of the assimilation process.  It stands to reason that individuals who reside in America for many years would be more completely assimilated than recent arrivals.  They pick up the culture gradually and, in many cases, in spite of the efforts of cadres of professional multiculturalists in the education bureaucracy to convince them to remain culturally separate from their fellow Americans. 

But assimilation as illustrated in the USC study takes many years – generations, in fact – during which time individuals and families experience poverty at much higher rates than assimilated immigrants or second or third generation Latinos.  All of which leads to an important question:  If assimilation was speeded up through proactive efforts to teach new immigrants English and the rudiments of American history and civil society, would they emerge from poverty into the working and middle classes more quickly than their current rate suggests is possible?

There is every reason to believe that the answer to this question is a resounding yes.  The cultural traits that define assimilation also make possible economic and social  advancement.  No upward trajectory in earnings or social stability is sustainable absent further acculturation.  Acquiring health insurance, owning a home, and becoming civically engaged all depend on continued assimilation.  Rather than leaving these achievements to chance or waiting years for them to take effect through gradual cultural absorption, government, civic organizations, schools, and nonprofits should take steps to quicken the rate at which assimilation is achieved. 

Fluency in English is an obvious first step that alone creates more opportunity than any other element of assimilation, since it not only increases an individual’s marketability but makes possible the further acculturation upon which future progress rests.  Immigrants have a long road to travel under the best of circumstances, and bilingual education programs that retard their entry into the English-speaking world serve only those who make their living teaching in such programs. 

Along with the acquisition of English, immigrants need to feel a sense of belonging to a culture and nation bigger than themselves or their pasts.  For that reason, American history should be taught from primary schools all the way through the undergraduate level.  And here let us stipulate that this must include the founding and the Founders, the struggles to carve a free land out of both wilderness and foreign empire, and the success of earlier generations of immigrants – be they English or Latinos – in building America into the greatest nation on earth.  Bowdlerized texts and politically correct interpretations have no place in this curricula.

Furthermore, civics education that teaches the foundational elements of civil society must not merely return to primary and secondary curricula, but reflect the changes in American society that the immigrants themselves have helped bring about.  It should explore how we can remain a nation united culturally in spite of a massive influx of newcomers whose absorption into the American mainstream has heretofore been left to chance or pop culture.  This is not the place to “celebrate our diversity,” as the banal cliché of the day would have it, but to impress upon one and all the love of country – normally called patriotism – that unites us in spite of our differences.  Indeed, it is because patriotism is the tie that binds diverse groups into a people that it is so sorely needed today, when cultural fracturing and domestic terrorism threaten to dampen our resolve to persevere at home and abroad.

Through these measures and more, immigrants can leapfrog years of poverty and despair to build more prosperous and stable lives.  At this point in our history, we cannot afford the luxury of waiting 60 or 90 years for the generational impact to take effect.  By accelerating the assimilation process through educational programs to aid Latinos where they live and work, we can aid their struggle to escape the poverty that ensnares far too many members of that group.  If we fail to act, we fail ourselves and our country. 

Winfield Myers is a former senior editor of the Intercollegiate Review and Campus Magazine, and principal author of Choosing the Right College. He is currently Chief Executive Officer of the Democracy Project.

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