DACA curbs poverty, but lowers school attendance

Published: Dec. 12, 2016

Beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program are significantly less likely to live in poverty and more likely to be employed than undocumented immigrants ineligible for the program, according to two new studies co-authored by University of Colorado Boulder labor economist Francisca Antman.

Activists hold up signs that say "Yes We Can with DACA" in English and Spanish

Activists celebrate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

But contrary to some early assumptions about the program’s impact, some participants may also be less likely to attend school, the research found.

“Overall, our research suggests the program is significantly welfare-improving for undocumented immigrants,” said Antman, an associate professor in the Department of Economics. “There may, however, be unintended consequences.”

President Barack Obama instituted DACA on June 15, 2012 granting certain undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children, a.k.a. “dreamers,” a renewable two-year reprieve from deportation and the opportunity to apply for a work permit and driver’s license. To be eligible, applicants had to have been younger than 31 years old at the program’s inception, have arrived in the United States before age 16 and prior to 2007, be currently in school, have the equivalent of a high school diploma, or have been honorably discharged from the U.S. military, and have no criminal record. More than 700,000 people had been approved for the program as of June 30, 2016 according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The studies, co-authored with San Diego State University economist Catalina Amuedo-Dorantes, are among the first to quantify the impact the controversial immigration reform program has had on U.S. employment, schooling and poverty levels since its inception.

They come at a time when some program critics have called DACA, and efforts to expand it, a presidential overreach and suggested it be discontinued. Meanwhile, some immigrants have grown reluctant to sign up for the program for fear that in declaring themselves as undocumented they will make themselves vulnerable to deportation under a new administration.

“The future of the program is very uncertain right now,” said Antman, who hopes the studies can contribute to a body of objective research to inform policy.

One paper, published in the journal Economics Letters in October, concluded that “DACA reduced the likelihood of life in poverty of households headed by eligible individuals by 38 percent.” In general, undocumented immigrants face poverty rates nearly twice as large as those of U.S. born individuals.

The other paper, set for publication in the Journal of Population Economics, found that those eligible for DACA were 17 percent more likely to be employed and 28 percent less likely to be enrolled in school.

“This suggests that eligible youth are choosing not to attend school full-time in order to take advantage of employment opportunities once permission to work is granted under DACA,” the authors wrote.

The latter finding came as a surprise to Antman, who notes that some had predicted temporary authorization would increase motivation for “dreamers” to pursue higher education.

“Generally speaking, we as economists think increasing choice is better,” Antman said. “If people can exercise the choice to work now, that is good. But could there be long-term implications for them not going to school? Possibly.”

The researchers did not look directly at poverty rates and educational status of individuals enrolled in DACA, as that data is not available. Instead, they used 2013 and 2014 U.S. Census Bureau data to identify “likely beneficiaries” and compare them to demographically similar immigrants who did not qualify for the program due to slight variations in their characteristics. 

The authors stress that the results show only the “short-run impacts” of DACA and, “long-term outcomes may differ. Therefore further analyses examining long-term impacts of the policy are warranted.”