Children of Poor Immigrants Rise in the US, Regardless of Where They Come From
New research linking millions of fathers and sons dating to the 1880s shows that children of poor immigrants in America have had greater success climbing the economic ladder than children of similarly poor fathers born in the United States.
Representative Image (Reuters)
Immigration to the United States has consistently offered a route to escape poverty — if not for poor immigrants themselves, then for their sons.
New research linking millions of fathers and sons dating to the 1880s shows that children of poor immigrants in America have had greater success climbing the economic ladder than children of similarly poor fathers born in the United States. That pattern has been remarkably stable for more than a century, even as immigration laws have shifted and as the countries most likely to send immigrants to the United States have changed.
The adult children of poor Mexican and Dominican immigrants in the country legally today achieve about the same relative economic success as children of poor immigrants from Finland or Scotland did a century ago. All of them, in their respective eras, have fared better than the children of poor native-born Americans. If the American dream is to give the next generation a better life, it appears that poor immigrants have more reliably achieved that dream than native-born Americans have.
The findings, published in a working paper by a team of economic historians at Princeton, Stanford and the University of California, Davis, challenge several arguments central to the debate over immigration in America today. The Trump administration has moved to reorient the country’s legal immigration toward wealthier immigrants and away from poorer ones, arguing that the nation can’t afford to welcome families who will burden public programs like Medicaid. This research suggests that immigrants who arrive in poverty often escape it, if not in the first generation, then the second.
“The short-term perspective on immigrant assimilation that politicians tend to take might underestimate the long-run success of immigrants,” said Ran Abramitzky, a professor at Stanford and one of the paper’s authors, along with Leah Platt Boustan, Elisa Jácome and Santiago Pérez. “By the second generation, they are doing quite well.”
President Donald Trump and other proponents of tighter immigration have also suggested that today’s immigrants, predominantly from Latin America and Asia, are less likely to assimilate into the economy than earlier immigrant waves from Europe. This data suggests that is not true. It also shows that Norwegians, whom Trump has held up as model immigrants, were in fact among the least successful after they arrived.
The researchers looked at the adult outcomes of sons who grew up in families at about the 25th percentile of the income distribution in the United States. The father-son pairs are seen in a first wave in the 1880 census, at a time when most immigrants were from Northern and Western Europe, or in a second wave in the 1910 census, when more immigrants came from Southern and Eastern Europe. The researchers then followed the families over several decades in census records to see whether the sons had surpassed their fathers — by, for instance, becoming lawyers instead of shop clerks.
The census did not begin to ask about income until 1940, and so the researchers estimated an income score for each father and son before 1940 using detailed occupations reported in the census as well as other demographic information. (Women are harder to track from one census to the next because they often change their names in marriage.)
The findings suggest that sons of immigrants from nearly every country that sent large numbers to the United States had higher intergenerational mobility than sons of native-born fathers. And that picture remains true today, even as immigration patterns have shifted around the world.
Data on this most recent wave of immigrants comes from a large database linking federal tax data and other government records for millions of children born between 1978 and 1983 and their parents. That data, constructed by researchers at Opportunity Insights, has separately been used to study patterns in intergenerational mobility by race and region in the United States.
That more recent data includes only immigrants with Social Security numbers, and so immigrants in the country illegally are missing from this picture (the distinction between legal and illegal immigration was largely irrelevant during earlier waves of unlimited European immigration). The researchers cannot say if the children of immigrants in the country illegally would fit this pattern today, but in the study’s other evidence there are reasons to suspect they might.
One explanation for why second-generation immigrants appear to have greater economic mobility is that their fathers may have artificially low incomes. A lawyer trained in another country who must drive a cab in America, for example, would appear in this economic data to have a lower income than his skills and training would suggest. It’s likely that language barriers, discrimination or limited job networks would contribute to depressing incomes for immigrant fathers, and this effect might be even stronger for immigrants in the country illegally.
Among other factors that might explain these patterns, it does not appear that the children of immigrants have higher mobility because their parents invest more in education. In this data, the children of immigrants did not have more education than the children of U.S.-born parents with similar incomes.
The children of U.S.-born fathers might appear as a group to have lower mobility because the legacy of slavery and discrimination has left African American men with particularly low mobility rates. But these differences between the sons of immigrants and the sons of native-born fathers persist in the historical data even when the researchers compare white second-generation immigrants to the white children of native-born fathers.
So what else might explain this pattern that is so consistent through history and across diverse immigrant groups? The researchers point to one other factor that we know influences a child’s economic mobility — where he lives. Immigrants in the country legally and illegally have tended to cluster in common international ports of entry, in major cities, in communities where jobs are easier to find. The places they have moved to have frequently been the same places that have offered better economic mobility to everyone.
In their data, when the researchers compare the sons of immigrants with the sons of native-born fathers who grew up in the same county, the difference in their mobility rates largely vanishes. This suggests that what separates these immigrant and native-born groups isn’t necessarily some quality inherent in their culture or work ethic, but rather their decisions on where to live.
Looked at another way, immigrants embody the upward mobility more native-born families in poverty might experience if they were more able or willing to move. In this way, immigrants have one significant advantage U.S.-born families don’t. They’re not bound by generations of family ties or by the feeling they can’t leave a particular place, whether things are going well there or not.
Emily Badger c.2019 The New York Times Company
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