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:: By Brooke E. O’Neill, AM’04

:: Photography by Dan Dry

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Investigations ::

Shifting fortunes

Harris School professor Jeffrey Grogger explores the connection between
immigration—both legal and illegal—and African American employment.

In September 2006, after multiple raids by federal immigration agents, Crider Inc., a chicken-processing factory in Stillmore, Georgia, lost three-fourths of its 900-member workforce, most of whom were Hispanic illegal immigrants. To find new workers, plant owners raised wages by more than a dollar per hour and offered free transportation from nearby towns. Within weeks, Crider had hired roughly 200 local African Americans from the area’s state-funded employment office to fill some of the vacancies. It was the first time since the late 1990s, when Hispanics started moving to Stillmore in large numbers, that the plant’s production lines were manned mainly by blacks.


Immigration’s effect on African Americans, Grogger says, doesn’t end with lost jobs and diminished pay.

“That story is basically our story in reverse,” says economist Jeffrey Grogger, referring to his team’s research. In the same month that Crider Inc. raised wages to replace its immigrant workforce, Grogger, Chicago’s Irving B. Harris professor in urban policy, and two colleagues published a National Bureau of Economic Research report linking the U.S. surge in low-skilled immigrant workers, both legal and illegal, over the past 25 years to a wage decline for low-skilled African American males. Based on 40 years of census data, they found a ten-percent increase in low-skilled immigrant employees decreased the wages of black peers by roughly four percent and reduced the same group’s overall employment rate. Between 1960 and 2000, the employment of black high-school dropouts fell nearly 33 percentage points, from 88.6 percent to 55.7 percent. Though immigration is only one factor in the drop, says Grogger, at least 2.5 percentage points of the decline—compared to just .7 percentage points for white peers—can be traced to a boost in immigration.

Grogger explains the trend as basic supply shock: when there is a sudden increase in the supply of a certain good—say, low-skilled labor—its price in the marketplace declines. Thus, as more low-skilled immigrants enter the country, the wage for comparably skilled U.S. workers, a group in which blacks are disproportionately represented, declines. With the influx of job seekers, traditionally low-wage fields such as agriculture and food processing decrease their pay even more.

The effect on African Americans, says Grogger, doesn’t end with lost jobs and diminished pay. If wages dip enough, some workers may shift from the legal job market to criminal activity, increasing their risk of incarceration. Census data confirmed Grogger’s hypothesis, showing a statistically significant positive correlation between immigration and the incarceration rate of black men. Between 1960 and 2000, the incarceration rate of black high-school dropouts rose roughly 23 percentage points from 1.4 to 25.1 percent. Approximately .8 percentage points of that increase, suggests Grogger’s findings, is attributable, to a ten-percent immigrant increase. By contrast, the same ten-percent immigrant increase results in only a .1 percentage point rise in whites’ incarceration rate.

As the national debate over border controls and guest visas continues, Grogger stresses that it’s important to keep these findings in perspective. “We are not trying to claim that the big increase in black incarceration is due to immigration.” After all, he says, immigration accounts for only ten percent of the incarceration increase, “which means 90 percent is due to something else,” including the late-1980s rise in crack cocaine, increased gang membership, and harsher sanctions for cocaine and gang-related crimes.
Still the employment-immigration link may warrant a policy response, particularly in terms of education. Unlike racial disparity 40 years ago—just after the passing of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964—says Grogger, challenges to black employment now result more from low skill levels and poor-quality education rather than outright prejudice and segregation. “As if there weren’t enough reason already to be focused on skill acquisition as a way to reduce racial inequality,” he says, “now we have to think about skill acquisition as a means to improve the labor-market position of African Americans in light of the immigration we see.”

Racial inequality remains real, Grogger says, a fact that has guided much of his research. The Kansas City, Missouri, native grew up in the 1960s. “In most respects I was a normal little kid,” he says, “but I really wanted to understand why we had all this social unrest, this big racial divide.” That question has led Grogger—who in 1987 earned a PhD in economics from the University of California, San Diego—to study common issues affecting minority populations: teen pregnancy, urban crime and violence, welfare reform, and racial profiling.

In 2004, for example, he devised a new method of analyzing traffic-stop data to detect police racial bias. Most studies had compared the racial breakdown of stopped motorists with that of the surrounding residential area. But the strategy had a serious shortcoming: think of Chicago, Grogger says, on any weekday at 5 p.m. Many drivers on the city’s roads live outside the city and wouldn’t be counted among the residential population. Grogger developed an alternative, called the “veil of darkness” approach, which begins by assuming that police have greater difficulty determining a driver’s race at night and uses the number of motorists stopped after dark as a benchmark. If stop data indicates that drivers of a particular race have been pulled over more often during the day than at night, racial profiling may be to blame.

When Grogger used the “veil of darkness” approach to look at previously recorded stop data from Oakland, California, he found that black drivers made up 54 percent of the nighttime stops but only 50 percent of daytime stops, suggesting racial bias was not a factor. The method won him the 2007 American Statistical Association’s Outstanding Statistical Application Award and gave police departments a more reliable means of defending themselves against charges of racial profiling. The city of Cincinnati, where concerns over racial profiling led to a court-ordered investigation of traffic stops, also has implemented the approach.

Although his statistical bent remains the same, Grogger says his latest project, examining how skill levels influence worldwide migration patterns, “takes me farther afield than anything I’ve done before.” Reasoning that developed countries generally prefer higher-skilled immigrants, Grogger has hypothesized that countries such as the United States and Canada that offer higher economic rewards for skill—low taxes on high earners and incentives for schooling are two examples—would attract a larger number of higher-skilled immigrants than countries that don’t provide such benefits.

Immigration data confirms the theory. At a time when ten percent of the U.S. population is foreign-born and the United Nations estimates approximately three percent of the world’s population lives outside its birth country, says Grogger, “this phenomenon of migration is probably the last frontier toward economic globalization.”