About 19.2 million Americans aged between 16 and 64 have limited proficiency in the English language, according to an analysis of the U.S. labor market by Jill H. Wilson, senior research analyst and associate fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program.
Two-thirds of this population speak Spanish, but speakers of Asian and Pacific Island languages are most likely to be limited English proficient (LEP), says Wilson, whose analysis was based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey (ACS) conducted in 89 metropolitan areas.
The vast majority of these people are immigrants and those who entered the United States most recently are more likely to be LEP.
Because of their lack of proficiency, these people are scattered across different industries and are earning on average 25% to 40% less than their English-proficient counterparts.
“Workers proficient in English earn anywhere from 17% to 135% more than LEP workers depending on their metro location,” Wilson said.
English proficiency is an essential gateway to economic opportunity for immigrant workers in the United States. Yet access to English language skills is limited, largely due to a lack of resources and attention.
Wilson argues that the problem has to be tackled as early as possible because immigrants and their children are projected to make up a large bulk of the U.S. labor force in the decades to come.
Though a majority of LEP adults reside in large metropolitan areas, their numbers are now growing fast in smaller metro areas. 82% of the working-age LEP population live in 89 large metropolitan areas, while 10 metro areas account for half of this population.
Immigrant gateways such as California and Texas have the largest population of people with little proficiency in the English language. Smaller metro areas such as Cape Coral, Indianapolis, and Omaha experienced the fastest growth in LEP population between 2000 and 2012.
The only U.S. city where the number of LEP residents is on the decline is Los Angeles.
Spanish is the most commonly spoken non-English language among LEP adults in 81 of the 89 large metro areas, but the share varies from a low of 5% in Honolulu to 99% in McAllen.
Most LEP adults have a high school diploma, and 15% hold a college degree, the report noted. However, in Bakersfield only 33% of LEP adults have completed high school education.
Most working-age LEP people are in the labor force. A majority across all 89 large metro areas are working or looking for work, and at least 70% are employed in 19 metro areas.