Immigrants Replace Low-Skill Natives in the Workforce

Evidence from the American Time-Use Survey

By Jason Richwine September 2016

It is well known that lower-skilled men in their prime working years — ages 25 to 54 — have left the labor force in increasing numbers over the past several decades. Experts have been reluctant to acknowledge, however, that the work problem has afflicted native-born men almost exclusively. Harnessing both labor-force participation rates and total hours worked per year, this study presents evidence that immigrants are replacing low-skill native-born men in the workforce. All of the following results refer to prime-age men who are not incarcerated:

  • Among natives without a high school degree, the fraction who were neither working nor looking for work rose from 26 percent in 1994 to 35 percent in 2015. Over the same period, the fraction of their immigrant counterparts who were out of the labor force actually declined from 12 percent to 8 percent.
  • Turning to hours spent working, native-born high school dropouts worked an average of 1,391 hours (the equivalent of about 35 full-time weeks) per year between 2003 and 2015, while immigrant dropouts worked 1,955 hours (or 49 full-time weeks) per year.
  • Native-born dropouts have seen their work time decline from 41 equivalent full-time weeks in the 2003-2005 period to 32 weeks in 2012-2015, while immigrant dropouts declined only from 52 weeks to 50 weeks.
  • While natives fell from 56 percent of the nation’s high school dropouts to 52 percent, their share of the labor performed by all dropouts declined much faster — from 50 percent in the 2003-2005 period to 40 percent in 2012-2015.
  • Among men with more than a high school degree, there are no significant differences in work time between immigrants and natives.

In summary, the United States has been a magnet for low-skill immigration even as low-skill natives have worked less and less. This does not necessarily imply that immigrants push out natives from the workforce, but it does mean that immigrants replace natives, causing economic and social distress in the communities most affected. As natives leave the workforce — whether because of competition from immigrants, insufficient wages, overreliance on welfare, distaste for manual labor, or some other reason — employers turn increasingly to immigrants.

Regardless of the extent to which immigration has caused the decline of work in lower-class American communities, immigration functions as a band-aid over the problem. Instead of searching for ways to get natives back to work — through higher wages, less access to welfare, or social pressure — government and business leaders have brought in immigrants to do the work instead. Limiting immigration would not solve all the problems facing low-skill natives, but it would provide the incentive to get them back to work and back into the mainstream of society.