How Philadelphia’s Immigrant Population Compares With Other Major U.S. Cities

Number of foreign-born a major driver in the city’s recent growth

How Philadelphia’s Immigrant Population Compares With Other Major U.S. Cities
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A couple shops in a Vietnamese market in South Philadelphia.
The Pew Charitable Trusts

More than a quarter of all Philadelphians in recent years—estimated at around 390,000 residents—were either immigrants or U.S. natives with immigrant parents, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The degree to which the foreign-born have fueled the city’s population resurgence is striking. From 2000 to 2016, a period in which Philadelphia’s population grew for the first time in half a century, the number of immigrants rose by roughly 95,000, while the number of U.S.-born residents fell by 44,500.

A June 2018 report from The Pew Charitable Trusts, “Philadelphia’s Immigrants,” looks at the economic and social characteristics of the city’s foreign-born—including their countries of origin, income, level of education, and work status—and examines how those characteristics have changed in recent years. It also offers comparisons with nine other major cities: Baltimore; Boston; Denver; Minneapolis; New York; Portland, Oregon; San Jose, California; Seattle; and Washington.

So how does Philadelphia compare?

In 2016, foreign-born Philadelphians’ median household income was about $39,700, close to natives’ $41,700. (See Figure 1.) It rose in recent years but was barely changed from 2000, when immigrants’ inflation-adjusted household income was roughly $40,200. Both immigrants and natives in Philadelphia had lower median household incomes than their counterparts elsewhere, and the gap between the groups’ incomes was narrower, too. 

In the comparison cities, natives’ median income was 21 percent higher on average; nationwide, it was 8 percent higher. Census numbers indicated that immigrants’ average annual wages during the 2012-16 period were about 7 percent lower than the wages of U.S.-born residents across all employment sectors. In some industries, such as manufacturing, they were much lower, while in a few—including education, health and social services, and hospitality—they were a little higher.

Poverty among both immigrants and natives was more prevalent in Philadelphia than in most of the comparison cities and in the country as a whole. And, as with their incomes, the groups’ poverty rates were closer to each other in Philadelphia than in many other places, where immigrants tended to have higher poverty rates than natives. (See Figure 2.)

Around half of foreign-born Philadelphians—an estimated 112,000 people—were naturalized citizens in 2016, and the rest were divided between unauthorized and lawful immigrants, the latter including relatives of prior immigrants, foreign students, specialized workers, and refugees. This proportion was in line with most of the comparison cities and the country as a whole. (See Figure 3.)

About 25 percent of foreign-born Philadelphians were residing in the country without legal authorization, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of 2014 data. (See Figure 4.) That amounted to about 50,000 people. Ten years earlier, the estimate was around 27 percent, or 45,000 individuals.

Larry Eichel directs Pew’s Philadelphia research initiative; Thomas Ginsberg is a manager on the team and author of the report “Philadelphia’s Immigrants: Who They Are and How They Are Changing the City.”