Arab Resources


By Helen Hatab Samhan

  Newest Census figures portray a growing, affluent and professional

Arab Americans have lower than average unemployment, higher income and education than their mainstream American counterparts, according to the most recent U.S. Census figures.

    The Arab American community has continued to grow, both in number and affluence through the 1990s, according to newly released figures from the U.S. Census taken in 2000.

   The survey figures, which have just been made available regarding the Arab American community, paint a picture of a population that continues to integrate itself into the national mosaic of American life. It is a vibrant community that is growing, well educated and relatively prosperous compared to the rest of Americans. At the same time, Arab Americans boast a higher entrepreneurial bent while reporting a lower unemployment rate, according to the Census.

   Significantly, the most recent data also found that an increasing number of Arab Americans identify themselves as being of Arab descent rather than by country of origin. . This appears to reflect a trend towards pan-ethnic identities, similar to Latinos, and is more prevalent among the U.S.-born. It also suggests a more fertile ground for unified Arab American political, cultural and social organizational efforts.

   Incomplete Count

   Every ten years, the Census takes the demographic pulse of the U.S. population, collecting information ranging from family size and citizenship to education, income, and occupation. Among the questions is one on the "ancestry" or ethnic origin of participants. Answers to this question allow demographers and analysts to gain a snapshot of the Arab American community, or those who trace their roots to an Arabic-speaking country.

   Historically, only a portion of the population with ancestors who come from an Arab country are captured by the ancestry question, resulting in a numeric undercount. Limitations of the sampling methodology combined with non-response by some, under-response (only two ethnic backgrounds are tabulated and reported), and reporting ancestry as race result in a relatively higher under reporting of Arab Americans.

   While the 2000 Census accounted for some 1.25 million persons who self-identify with an Arabic-speaking origin, our estimates (based on research done by the Zogby International polling and marketing firm) place the population at more than 3.5 million.

   The following profile, hence, is derived from this self-identified group and gives us useful, if not comprehensive, insights into the residential patterns, achievements, and identity of Arab Americans.

Primary Identity

   Of the 1.25 million Arab Americans counted by the Census, roughly one in three claim Lebanese heritage, with 11% indicating roots in Egypt and Syria, 6% as Palestinian and 10% as Iraqi, Chaldean or Assyrian. Because ancestry is an open-ended question (unlike the race options) we learn that one in six self-identify not by a country of origin, but generically as Arab, Arabian or Arabic. This trend has increased since 1990 when less than 10% of Arab respondents indicated a generic identity.

   When looking at where subgroups tend to live, we learn that those of Lebanese heritage dominate in most states, with the exception of New Jersey - where those of Egyptian heritage are the largest Arab group - and Rhode Island where persons of Syrian descent exceed other Arab Americans.

   The state with the largest number of people tracing their roots to Palestine was Illinois, which also claims a large number of Arab Americans of Iraqi and Assyrian/Chaldean background. Michigan and California similarly counted a large number of Arab Americans of Iraqi and Assyrian/Chaldean heritage.

   Persons from Morocco now represent 3% of the Arabic-speaking population, a new immigrant community that resides primarily along the eastern seaboard between Massachusetts and Virginia.

   Age, Gender and Family Status

   Like most groups with significant foreign-born segments, Arab ancestry respondents are younger than the average American, with a median age of 30.8 compared to 35.4 years in the total population.

   Also common among younger ethnic communities is a higher male to female ratio (1.12/1 among Arab Americans compared to .96/1 for all Americans). Arab Americans have a slightly higher percentage of persons now married (57% vs. 54% overall) and a slightly lower rate of persons currently divorced (7% compared with 10% in the general population).

   Average household size among Arab ancestry respondents is 3.16 persons compared with 2.59 persons in the average American household, and more than one third (35%) have four or more members, compared to one fourth in the general population.

   Citizenship and Place of Birth

   Contrary to popular assumptions and the current political climate that foments suspicions about Arab American loyalties, more than eight in ten Arabs living in the United States are citizens, with a higher rate of naturalization (54%) than the overall foreign born population (40%). Of those who identify an Arab ancestry, about six in ten are U.S. born, although estimates of the native-born ratio (accounting for the fourth and fifth generation descendents of the first immigrant wave) are as high as 75%.

   Growth by new immigration was significant, with more than one in four foreign-born Arabs entering the U.S. in the decade since 1990. The agency formerly known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) estimates that more than 300,000 Arabs immigrated to America in this period, with the peak year at 1996.

   Changes in immigration policy since the mid 1990s has caused a decline, which is certain to be exacerbated by post September 11, 2001 visa delays and excess scrutiny.

   A Well-Educated and Bilingual Constituency

   One of the most impressive findings of Census data is the educational achievement of Americans of Arab descent. More than four out of ten of the Arab ancestry population have a bachelor's degree or higher, compared to 24% of Americans at large.

Nearly twice as manyArab Americans have a post-graduate degree (17%) as the average American (9%), a trend that continues to increase.
Half of the Arab ancestry population is also bilingual, revealing trends of Arabic language retention among the U.S.-born offspring of immigrants. In a separate tabulation on foreign language propensity, the Census reports that roughly 615,000 Americans speak Arabic, including close to 125,000 school-aged children. Arabic is ranked seventh among all foreign languages spoken by American children in this age group. While there is some evidence of linguistically isolated households among Arab immigrants, a full 88% of those who speak Arabic also speak English well.


   According to the 2000 Census, Arab Americans have the same rate as other Americans of employment in the civilian labor force (64%), with only a slightly lower unemployment rate at the time the Census was conducted (5% vs. 6%).
Trends in occupational achievement also show significant differences and reflect the professional mobility offered by high educational attainment. More than four in ten working age Arab Americans are in professional or management jobs (42%) compared with roughly one third of the country as a whole (34%).

   The proportion of Arab ancestry respondents in retail or administrative jobs (31%) is double the national average (15%), while only half as many in the Arab ancestry group are employed in service jobs (12%) as Americans overall (27%).


   Not surprisingly, educational achievement and occupational mobility in management and professional fields have resulted in higher than average incomes for Arab Americans.

   While income levels are not even in every area of Arab American concentration, the average Arab American is better off financially than the average American at large. Close to 30% of Arab ancestry respondents report annual household income of more than $75,000 compared with 22% of all Americans. Mean household income among Arab respondents ($67,680) in 1999 exceeded the national average ($56,644) by more than $10,000.

   Growth and Geographic trends

   The number of Americans nationwide who identify with an Arabic-speaking ancestry grew by roughly 45% since the last Census taken in 1990. In six states, the Arab ancestry population at least doubled, including Virginia, North Carolina, Connecticut, Alabama, and New Mexico.

   Among the top ten concentrated states, Arab ancestry identification increased by at least one third, with most growth occurring in Illinois, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Michigan. General residential trends since the 1980s remain with two thirds of all Americans who identify with Arab ancestry living in 10 states, with one third residing in California, Michigan and New York.

   States in which Arab ancestry rates went down in the last decade include Maryland, Rhode Island, Louisiana, West Virginia and Mississippi, trends which could correspond with intra-state migration, lower immigration rates and an aging American-born population. By contrast, some states with lower new immigration experienced significant rates of ancestry growth, indicating higher rates of ethnic identification since 1990. Indiana, Connecticut, Alabama, Washington and Missouri are examples of these.

   Arab ancestry concentration within states also varies. The overwhelming majority of Americans who identify with an Arab ancestry reside in a metropolitan area (94%) compared with 80% of the general population. In some states, the population is densely clustered in urban areas: Michigan, Florida, Virginia and Texas are examples.

   In states like Ohio, New York, California and Pennsylvania, Arab Americans can be found in most counties, even though the majority still resides near big cities.
The top six U.S. metropolitan areas ranked by Arab American population are: Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and northeast New Jersey.

    FOOTNOTE: When the Census Bureau presents its data on Arab ancestry, it excludes some subgroups from countries that are part of the Arab League, such as Somalia, Sudan and Mauritania as well as Assyrians and Chaldeans. We have included them whenever possible.)

Source : article in the Arab American Business Magazine

Samhan is executive director of the Arab American Institute Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that supports public information and education programs on the role of the Arab American community in American society.


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