The Lead

Rural Pa.’s immigrant workforce is growing, new study finds

By: - November 14, 2019 1:38 pm

The share of immigrant workforce in rural parts of Pennsylvania has grown by 75 percent between 2000 and 2016, a new study has found.

Using 2016 American Communities Survey data, the report by Penn State University and the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, found that 3.5 percent of the rural workforce — defined as those between 16 and 64 years old — are foreign-born.

The study also found that 10.7 percent of the Keystone State’s urban workforce is also foreign-born. 

Both refugees and undocumented immigrants are present in the data, according to the report. But Pennsylvania’s estimated 170,000 undocumented immigrants were likely undercounted within the data, according to the study.

Foreign-born rural workers aren’t evenly distributed across rural Pennsylvania, however, according to the center, a legislative agency which gathers information about the vast expanses of the state’s countryside to help guide policy solutions.

The study noted that most of the regions that were analyzed had rates of foreign-born workers below the state average.

Most of the immigrant workforce was concentrated in five regions — Monroe County, Centre County, Carbon and northern Lehigh County, Pike, Wayne and Susquehanna counties, and Luzerne and Columbia counties.

The region by region breakdown of the foreign-born workforce in rural Pennsylvania. (Via Penn State/CRP study)

Centre County, is the home of Penn State University, where there are more than 11,000 international students and faculty.

The rural regions with a higher percentage of foreign workforce, the study stated, “are likely explained by unique immigration dynamics around colleges and universities, which represent unique economic contexts relative to other rural communities in the commonwealth.”

All four regions continued to have above average rates when college students were not counted.

Monroe County, on the New Jersey border and a 90-minute drive from New York City, is also known for its long commutes. City dwellers have fled the Big Apple for the relative comfort of the Poconos — but all while keeping their urban jobs.

The study also found that only a little less than 4 percent of the rural immigrant workforce did not speak English. Overall, their English skills were found to be slightly better than workers in urban settings.

Foreign-born members of rural Pennsylvania’s workforce, the study found, were more likely to have completed a bachelor’s degree then native-born rural workers. 

Slightly less than 31 percent of foreign-born members of the rural workforce had a bachelor’s degree or more, while 22 percent of the native-born workforce has the same level college credentials.

But just as some foreign born workers had higher rates of education, others were impoverished. 

The report found that a little more than 21 percent of immigrant families in rural areas were below the poverty line. More than half — 11 percent of all immigrant families — had incomes below 50 percent of the poverty line.

The number of foreign-born workers  in poverty, with low education levels, or poor English skills had all grown since 2000, leading the study’s authors to conclude that the  “need for interventions that improve economic well being and promote language skills and educational attainment.”

The study also found that rural foreign-born workers were “especially likely to receive unemployment benefits relative to the rural native-born or urban residents generally.”

Employment of foreign-born workers was not, despite what the “popular imagination may suggest,” concentrated in the agricultural sector.

It was instead spread out among numerous fields — including “services, manufacturing, and transportation, as well as finance, insurance and real estate,” the study found.

The study concluded that any policy to address rural immigrant concerns “needs to be attentive to this complexity” of their workforce, which is seemingly split between individuals with advanced education as well as individuals who may be in poverty. 

You can view the whole study here, and a summary here.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.