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In the War on Poverty, Don't Forget Refugees

While the Act directs the Office of Refugee Resettlement to provide all refugees with English language education, this rarely happens because of a lack of universal funding to local resettlement agencies that provide the education.
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It is 4:30 a.m. on a snowy Tuesday in December in upstate New York. Bishnu slides into the back seat of an '83 Toyota Corolla, next to two others, and heads to work in a food packing factory 20 miles north. An hour later, the alarm alerts his 11-year-old daughter to get herself and her six-year-old sister up and ready for school. By 8:30 a.m., Krishna, their mother, will arrive home after completing her night shift at an industrial laundry facility. Bishnu and Krishna, a married couple, are part of America's working poor. They are also among the tens of thousands of Bhutanese refugees resettled in the U. S. after suffering ethnic discrimination in their home country and spending an average of 17 years in a Nepali refugee camp. More broadly, they are among the millions of refugees whose limited English skills narrow their initial job options and long-term economic mobility in the U.S.

Since 1975, three million refugees from countries around the world have been resettled in the United States. For 33 of those years, they have been resettled according to the Refugee Act of 1980, which guides the initial stages of entry and mandates that "employable refugees should be placed in jobs as soon as possible, and often with minimal English training, after their arrival." While the Act directs the Office of Refugee Resettlement to provide all refugees with English language education, this rarely happens because of a lack of universal funding to local resettlement agencies that provide the education. Often, due to limited funding and truncated timelines for services, extended English as a Second Language (ESL) courses give way to vocational training.

As America marks the 50 year anniversary of the War on Poverty, President Obama is focusing on issues of economic mobility. Speaking at an event announcing federal aid to a set of persistently impoverished communities, called "promise zones," Mr. Obama declared: "Anybody in this country who works hard should have a fair shot at success, period. It doesn't matter where they come from, what region of the country, what they look like, what their last name is -- they should be able to succeed." This includes refugees. Yet by insufficiently funding the English education provisions in the Refugee Act and by placing an emphasis on refugees' rapid transition to "economic self-sufficiency," refugees are funneled into pipelines of poverty, with little hope of upward mobility.

My two-year anthropological study, ending last March, of the educational and employment networks of 100 refugees in upstate New York confirms that a lack of English proficiency pigeon-holes refugees into low-wage service and shift work with limited possibilities of promotion. In fact, one fourth of the 12 employers interviewed preferred to hire refugees with "just enough" English skills who were, as one employer stated, "less likely to leave when they landed better paying jobs with more English." According to the director of a refugee resettlement agency in the area, the focus on getting a job quickly leads many refugees to accept positions below their abilities, especially because refusing any job can jeopardize the receipt of benefits used to support their families, especially their children. This has multi-generational effects on educational outcomes and livelihoods for refugee children and children born in the U.S. to refugees.

The connections between parents' poverty and children's academic achievement have been well documented in educational research. From recent research conducted by Sean Reardon, a Stanford sociologist, we know that poverty -- or more accurately, the income gap -- has become more consequential for educational and life outcomes than race. In fact, according to a July 2013 report published by Educational Testing Services, poor children, compared with children whose families' incomes were at least twice that of the poverty line during their early childhood, are disadvantaged throughout their lives. They completed two fewer years of school, earned less than half as much income, received $826 per year more in food stamps and were three times as likely to have poor health.

Why then would we purposefully resettle refugees who, according to the Refugee Act, are of special humanitarian concern to the U.S., without adequate English training when the consequences -- especially for their children -- are so great?

To help alleviate the poverty of refugees like Krishna and Bishu, the Refugee Act should mandate and provide the Office of Refugee Resettlement with universal funding for extended ESL courses. It should also reduce its emphasis on rapid employment. These changes would come with a price, but that amount, less than $500 per refugee for a 10-week intensive ESL course, would be negligible compared to the long contributions by better paid refugees, and their better educated children, like Bishnu's and Krishna's two daughters. Let's commit to providing refugees with enough English language training that they might enjoy the economic mobility emphasized by the President.