Six Questions about the Limited English Proficient (LEP) Workforce

What does “Limited English Proficiency” mean and how is it measured?

The U.S. Census asks survey recipients if they speak a language other than English at home. If the answer is “Yes,” the next question is what language, and then “How well does this person speak English?” See below. Any answer other than “Very well” defines the respondent as Limited English Proficient.

How many LEP workers are there?

Nearly one in 10 working-age U.S. adults, or about 19 million. Sixty percent are high school graduates, including 15% with a college degree. The median earnings of English proficient workers are 39% higher than LEP workers overall, and 30% higher among those with bachelor’s degrees.

Are LEP persons all immigrants?

No. 13% of the LEP population is native-born, half of whom were born in California, Texas, or Puerto Rico. Of the native-born LEP adults, 77 percent speak Spanish, 3 percent speak French, and 3 percent speak German. Over 80 percent of Puerto Rico’s residents are LEP. Estimates suggest that about a third of LEP persons may be unauthorized immigrants.

Why don’t they “just learn English?”

The number of adults served by English language and civics training programs dropped from 1.1 million earlier in the 2000s to about 700,000 in 2011. States have traditionally contributed about three-quarters of the funding for adult English education, but face deficits and many have cut their education budgets.

Are most of them Spanish speakers?

Yes. 66% of the U.S. LEP population speaks Spanish. 18.4% are speakers of Asian and Pacific Island languages. Asian and Pacific Island language speakers are most likely to be LEP. 47% of speakers of these languages are LEP, compared to 45%. Among languages with at least 100,000 speakers who are LEP, those who speak Vietnamese are most likely to be LEP, at just over 60%.

Where to they live?

Mostly in large cities. The top five metro areas for total LEP population are: New York City area (18.3 % LEP), Los Angeles area (25.7%), Miami area (23.2%), Chicago area (13.0%), and Houston area (17.8%).

The metro areas with the highest share of working age persons who are LEP are: McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, TX (32% LEP), El Paso, TX (29.8%), Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana (25.7%), Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach (23.2%), and. Fresno, CA (22.8%)

— from research by Jill Wilson of the Brookings Institution

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