Ohio’s Supersmart Immigrants

Ohio’s Supersmart Immigrants

A home with boarded up windows in a neighborhood in Warrensville Heights, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, Oct. 11, 2011. The poverty rate in suburbs, once the iconic symbol of a stable and prosperous American middle class, rose twice as fast as it did in cities over the past decade, forcing suburban communities across the country to re-evaluate their identities and how they serve their populations.

SourceDustin Franz for The New York Times/Redux

Why you should care

Because more education usually means more upward mobility. 

When Nadia Kasvin came to the U.S. as a refugee from Ukraine 24 years ago, she brought along a husband, a 6-year-old son and a master’s in linguistics. Back home, Kasvin had been a teacher, but when she and her family settled in Portland, Oregon, Kasvin said she, like many immigrants, had to figure out what she wanted her career to be.

“Do I want to stay in my profession, and how do I go about it?” Kasvin says. “Because it’s not automatic that credentials from a foreign country will be accepted [in the U.S.], regardless of whether the education you received was excellent.”

Despite her teaching experience, Kasvin decided to go to business school. When her husband was offered a job in Columbus, Ohio, they relocated to that state, where some of the most educated immigrants in the country live, according to a report published in March by Cleveland State University:

In Ohio, 42 percent of immigrants have at least a four-year college degree compared to 27 percent of native-born residents — the largest such educational gap in the country.

But there’s a twist to that 15-point spread between immigrants’ and native Ohioans’ sheepskin attainment. When considered with respective poverty rates — 18.7 percent for immigrants and 14.4 percent for native Ohioans — the numbers show that even when foreign-born individuals are more educated than locals, they are 30 percent poorer than native-born Ohioans.

The financial disparity can be attributed to a few factors. In general, immigrant and refugee communities see larger income inequality than the average population, with immigrants tending to have very high or very low wages, according to a 2009 study.

[Immigrants] teach our children and they take care of us, and that’s a big deal.

Richey Piiparinen, director at the Center for Population Dynamics at Cleveland State University

That’s especially true in Ohio. Highly educated immigrants fill a demand in the state for skilled workers the U.S. does not produce domestically, and they keep Ohio’s population steady, says Richey Piiparinen, director of the Center for Population Dynamics at Cleveland State and author of the report. But outside of those folks earning more than $75,000 a year, an immigrant or refugee is more likely to make less than $25,000, according to census data, thus boosting the poverty figures for newcomers.

“The largest concentration of occupations that immigrants are employed in are education and health care,” Piiparinen says. “They teach our children and they take care of us, and that’s a big deal because there’s going to be a huge shortage of health care workers in places like Ohio that are aging.”

Intellectual and skill waste is also a contributing factor, especially for professions that require licensing, which can take time and money for a newcomer to obtain, Piiparinen says. This and a reluctance to start at the bottom of a career ladder midlife can push immigrants and refugees to start their own businesses instead of continuing in a profession. Kasvin says her family is a microcosm of this shift: Kasvin co-founded US Together, an immigrant and refugee services organization in Ohio; her husband started an IT company; and her brother owns his own business.

“That career pathway is an alternative to a professional career that [immigrants] could have chosen, but maybe there were too many barriers,” Kasvin says. “Somehow, they want to apply their intellectual power or knowledge, and so they might choose to start their own business.”

One of the biggest barriers facing immigrants and refugees is English literacy, especially for the 58 percent of immigrants in Ohio without a college degree. However, Piiparinen noted that prospects improve for foreign-born residents as they become acclimated to their new environment, and although their poverty rates are higher when they arrive in the country, they drop substantially the longer they reside in the U.S.

Language programs, perhaps the most important social service when it comes to boosting an immigrant’s chances for financial success, are concentrated in Ohio’s large metropolitan areas, and Kasvin says more are needed throughout the state. Additionally, improving education and health services could help both native and foreign-born Ohioans, particularly those who’ve been dislocated from manufacturing, Piiparinen says.

“The [dislocated locals] haven’t gone back to school, and so they’re struggling, and so you have this sense of resentment for not being prepared in the economy,” Piiparinen says. “It’s not just supporting immigrants. You need to support native-born residents when it comes to education and health.”

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