Why the Children of Immigrants Get Ahead

ItThe following is the April 2020 edition New York Times ran a special feature called “I Am the Portrait of Downward Mobility.” “It used to be a given that each American generation would do better than the last,” the piece began, “but social mobility has been slowing over time.”

In paging through the profiles, we couldn’t help noticing one group of Americans who defies this trend: the children of immigrants. Sonya Poe was the daughter of Mexican immigrants. She was raised in Dallas suburbs. “My dad worked for a hotel,” Sonya recalled. “Their goal for us was always: Go to school, go to college, so that you can get a job that doesn’t require you to work late at night, so that you can choose what you get to do and take care of your family. We’re fortunate to be able to do that.”

The dream that propels many immigrants to America’s shores is the possibility of offering a better future for their children. We have millions of records from immigrant families, from 1880-1940 and again from 1980-1999. This allows us to see that in the past and today the children of immigrants outperform their parents and climb the economic ladder. If this is the American Dream, then immigrants achieve it—big time.

The data show that children born to immigrants who were raised in low-income households make significant progress before reaching adulthood. This is true for both the Ellis Island generation of a century ago as well as for today’s immigrants. Children of immigrants who grew up near the bottom income distribution, such as at the 25th per centile, are less likely to attain the middle income distribution than children from similarly low-income U.S. parents.

What’s more, no matter which country their parents came from, children of immigrants are more likely than the children of the U.S.-born to surpass their parents’ incomes when they are adults. This is true today as well as in the past. Children of immigrants from Mexico and the Dominican Republic today are just as likely to move up from their parents’ circumstances as were children of poor Swedes and Finns a hundred years ago.

Not only does upward mobility define the horizons of people’s lives, but it also has implications for the economy as a whole. Immigrants who arrive in the U.S. without much money or skill can bring a huge asset to the economy. It is their children. The rapid success of immigrants’ children more than pays for the debts of their parents.

Our analysis can be done by following these stepsData that links parents and children was needed. To obtain historical data we used census records from the past to establish links between sons in childhood homes and census data 30 years later.

Imagine us as curious children searching for their relatives online. But a million times more. allows the public to look up their relatives on websites such as these. These searches were automated by us, and we can now follow the lives of millions of people who immigrated to this country with their children.

Modern data instead is built from federal income tax records. These tax records enable researchers to connect children with their parents, making them tax dependents. Then they can observe the children in tax data as adults.

What do you see when we look at this data?

It is striking to see that the first group of children from immigrants has higher upward mobility rates than those of U.S. born fathers. Since children of U.S.-born black fathers have lower chances of being successful, we will focus only on these children. We observe a mobility advantage for immigrant children. even largerIf we compare this group with the entire population.

A second important lesson is that even children from extremely poor countries, such as Nigeria and Laos, outperform children raised in similar homes by U.S.-born parents. The children of immigrants from Central American countries—countries like Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua that are often demonized for contributing to the “crisis” at the southern border—move up faster than the children of the U.S.-born, landing in the middle of the pack (right next to children of immigrants from Canada).

We found that today’s children are just as mobile as their parents were in the past. What’s more, some of the immigrant groups that politicians accused long ago of having little to contribute to the economy—the Irish, Italians, and Portuguese—actually achieved the highest rates of upward mobility. In the past we could only study boys because we couldn’t link daughters who changed their name during marriage. This pattern is also evident in modern data.

It is not surprising that descendants of European immigrant children have made it to the top in modern times. The descendants of European migrants who were poor have become culturally and professionally prominent. Many politicians, such as President Biden and other prominent figures, often emphasize their Irish heritage or Italian heritage. However, they were the least fortunate of the poor at the time. They are similar to immigrants fleeing from hunger in Ireland today, as well as those who flee earthquakes, hurricanes, or violent uprisings.

There are many concerns that poor immigrants may not fare well and their children could be left in poverty or dependent upon government assistance. Our data research should put these worries to rest. It is not uncommon for children from immigrants to make it here. They often only take one generation to overcome poverty.

The question is, what happens to children arriving without documents? The mobility of undocumented children is more difficult than that for other immigrant children. Even though this population is small, it has grown to be a relatively large group in recent times. Today, only 1.5million (or 5 percent) of the 32,000,000 children born to immigrant parents remain undocumented. This number is actually quite small, as many undocumented children born to immigrants in the U.S. are given citizenship at birth.

Our data shows that children from El Salvador and Mexico are the result of legalization efforts in the early 1980s. We believe their peers today can do this as well. They’re doing remarkable well. Children who arrive in the U.S. without papers face barriers to mobility—and not because they put in any less effort, but because they encounter obstacles all along their path. Politicans can change the law with just a touch of a pen. However, it remains impossible to pass this legislation.

What gives immigrant children the opportunity to succeed?How can you escape from poverty and rise up the economic ladder. Most often, we are told that immigrants work harder than those born in the US and that their parents have more focus on education.

We agree that the special features of immigrant families could be part of the story (although it’s hard to tell in our data). However, we discovered something unexpected when looking at the data: Immigrants tend to relocate to areas in the U.S. with the greatest opportunities for upward mobility. Americans are more likely to remain rooted in their home.

Research from social sciences has proven over and over that children’s environment can impact their chances in life. These high-opportunity regions are more likely to have immigrant families than those born in America. They are also rich with jobs, and provide better opportunities for future mobility. We find that the children of immigrant parents earn more than their peers in terms of national income. It is notChildren who were raised in the same neighborhood earn more than their peers. The economic fortunes of the immigrant children are similar to those of their American-born parents. They may have been raised in the same block or the same community. This suggests that immigrant families are more diverse than American-born families.

One of the implications of our research is that U.S. born families are more likely to have had similar success if they were moving to higher-opportunity locations. Our findings show that U.S.-born children moving from one country to the next have greater upward mobility than children who remain put. This is despite the fact that their upward mobility levels are not nearly as high as those of immigrant children. So, you might ask: why don’t US-born families move out of a region when job opportunities dwindle?

Ironically, J.D. Ironically, J.D. Hillbilly ElegyVance relates how he grew up in Middletown Ohio. It is only 45 minutes from Kentucky border, where his family lived for many generations. Vance knew that moving up the ladder required him to leave his hometown, something many Americans would not do. He went on to enlist in the Marines, and then to Ohio State and Yale Law School—“Though we sing the praises of social mobility,” he writes, “it has its downsides. The term necessarily implies a sort of movement—to a theoretically better life, yes, but also away from something.”

Vance strikes on the KostenChildren of U.S.-born parents have the possibility of achieving upward mobility. Children of U.S.-born mothers often grew up in places where their parents settled many years ago. This means that economic mobility is sometimes tied to the cost of moving. However, many immigrants have already made the decision to move to America and are therefore more open to moving wherever is necessary. InsideThe country where opportunity is found. In other words, U.S.-born families are more rooted in place, while immigrant families are more footloose—and this willingness to move toward opportunity seems to make all the difference.

Adapted from Abramitzky and Boustan’s new book Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success

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