Former Labor Department Chief Economist Adriana Kugler makes the economic case for immigration reform. (Photo: courtesy of Adriana Kugler)

Former Latina Chief Economist advocates for immigration reform, family-friendly policies

There are not too many Latina economists — at least not yet.  Yet Adriana Kugler, who recently finished her tenure (it’s usually a one-year position) as the first Latina Chief Economist at the Labor Department, describes it as an extremely rewarding profession. “I have always felt a person’s economic well-being depends largely on access to a good job, which is why I pursued labor economics,” says Kugler, who is Colombian-American. She is now back to her previous life as a professor of economics at Georgetown University.

At the Labor Department, making the economic argument for extended unemployment insurance for the millions of Americans who lost their jobs, or studying the benefits of funding a job training program were some of the ways in which Kugler fulfilled her lifelong goal of using numbers and data to develop policy and improve people’s lives.

As the immigration reform debate heats up, however, Dr. Kugler says an important part of her work is showing the benefits — instead of the more widely-discussed costs — of the nation’s recent immigration waves.

Take the argument that undocumented immigrants have lowered wages for everyone else. Dr. Kugler decided to tackle this in a different way. Instead of studying how recent Latino immigrants affected the earnings of the general population, she examined how they affected the earnings of native Latinos or more established Latino immigrants.

“We find no evidence that the recent wave of unskilled Latin Americans displaced native Hispanics or even previous Latin Americans from their jobs,” wrote Kugler with fellow economist Mutlu Yuksel.  In fact, Kugler found the earnings of native Hispanics increased with the recent wave of Latino immigration. She thinks it might be explained by the fact that newer immigrants increased native Latinos’ productivity by providing less expensive services, and by doing jobs that free up more skilled workers’ time.

“It’s a very different story than what has been told before,” Kugler says.

Dr. Adriana Kugler

While she was at the Department of Labor under Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, Kugler gave briefings to government officials on the less documented economic contributions of immigrants.  “One interesting area is how immigrants react to the business cycle; they are entrepreneurial and tend to be ‘job creators,’ hiring family members and others,” she says.

Kugler also gave briefings to the Social Security Trustees working group. As government officials worry about the future cost of funding Social Security and Medicare to care for the nation’s aging population, Kugler says undocumented Latino immigrants have been undercounted. “We do 75-year projections, and if you think about it, there are all these young people coming in for the next 30 to 40 years who will be contributing to the system, including undocumented workers who have not been accounted for,” she explains.

The Latina economist thinks now is the right time to pass immigration reform legislation for a number of reasons. “First of all, it would benefit us economically, since undocumented immigrants would become greater contributors if they are legalized,” Kugler says. “Also, it is a good time to do it, since for the first time we are at negative net migration; we don’t have floods of people coming in,” she adds.

Kugler is currently conducting more research on the economic impact of immigration, as well as on the impact of education and labor policies on working families. As she reflects on her tenure at the Labor Department, Kugler says it was exciting — and valuable — to bring her experience as a Hispanic woman to the nation’s highest policy circles.

“You do bring a different perspective, and it’s great to have a voice at the table,” Kugler says. “For example, if I was discussing a jobs program at the White House, we factored in the need for wraparound services — the need to take into account language skills, child care and transportation — and in so doing, you can help make a program more effective, and use money more wisely,” Kugler explains.

Though her pace of work has been grueling — “my young daughter takes my  briefcase and says ‘I have so much work!’ as she walks around the house,” says Kugler, laughing — she says using numbers and data to improve the employment and educational prospects for Latino and other families is very rewarding.

One fascinating example involves her work studying a breakfast program in a 90 percent Latino school district in Texas.  Kids do better in school if they have eaten, but many children who qualified for the free or reduced breakfast were too ashamed to go get it.  The solution?  Kugler found that if breakfast was served to everyone in the classroom, the children ate it and test scores went up.

It is this kind of work, says Kugler, “which has kept me motivated through the long, long hours,” she says.  “It’s quite amazing we can make a difference.”

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