New study challenges immigrant “catch-up” theory

New research is challenging the consensus view of how the USA absorbed the huge wave of immigrant workers who arrived from 1850 to 1910.

Earlier studies showed that on average, immigrants started in lower-skilled jobs compared with native workers, but caught up within a generation as they learned English and adopted American customs. This “start hungry, work hard, sacrifice and succeed” formula has become a version of “the American Dream.”

The reality was more complicated. A study that traced thousands of workers from 1900 to 1920 through their census forms showed that the average immigrant  made about the same amount as natives and moved up the occupational ladder at about the same rate.

Probing more deeply, the authors found that immigrants from high-income European nations – think Austria, England, France and Germany – made more upon arrival than comparable native workers and kept an edge as they assimilated. At the same time, workers from lower-income nations – such as Ireland, Italy and the Scandinavian countries – started close to or slightly below native workers in terms of income, and progressed at about the same rate.

Not all immigrants fared the same in the U.S. For many, success depended on the skills and wealth they brought with them. Amounts are in 2010 dollars.

The work was done by Ran Abramitzky of Stanford, Leah Platt Boustan of UCLA and Katherine Eriksson of Cal Poly. A version was published in the Journal of Political Economy last summer. The more detailed version released this week shows that average immigrant workers in the rapidly industrializing Midwest — Ohio, Illinois and Michigan — outearned natives, while the reverse was true in New England and the Great Plains.

The answers could shape ongoing debates about growing income inequality and how to overhaul the nation’s dysfunctional immigration policy.

The study used digital versions of census forms — which are made public after 72 years — from The forms were from 1900, 1910 and 1920.

The team focused on men between 18 and 35 years of age in 1900.   About 20,000 men who immigrated between 1880 and 1900 were paired with a similar group of 1,700 native men the same age. That let the researchers avoid averages and study actual people across 20 years as if they were in a long-term study. Lacking actual income data, the researchers used workers’ occupations to classify income. All Southern workers and black workers were excluded because few immigrants moved to the South and blacks were subject to harsh discrimination everywhere.

The consensus that immigrant workers started behind but caught up was due to the earlier need to analyze each census separately, according to the researchers. That approach misses the 25 percent of immigrants in the Great Migration who left, typically due to poor prospects. It also can’t account for the lower skill level of workers who arrived at the end of the period. Both shifts made it seem like long-term immigrants gained skills and income more than they did.

“Some of the conventional wisdom about the ‘American Dream’ for immigrants is more fiction than fact,” said Michelle Ercanbrack, a family historian at “The journey of American immigrants was far more complex than what we often think.” The service is offering free access to many of its searchable records through Monday.

The study suggests that sharp curbs on European immigration imposed in the early 1920s probably were not necessary, because the average immigrant worker arrived with  competitive skills and rose on the occupational ladder about as well as natives did. However, “we also note that migrants that arrived with low skill levels did not manage to close their skill gap with natives over time, ” the team noted.

“I wouldn’t make a prescription for today but it’s food for thought,” Abramitzky said.

He said the team is extending its work to look at cultural assimilation. They are analyzing the names that Great Wave immigrants gave to successive children. Preliminary work shows that the “foreignness” of a name affected a child’s later earnings as an adult, he said.

Abramitzky is an immigrant from Israel. His two oldest children have Hebrew names but the youngest does not.

— Paul Overberg


31 thoughts on “New study challenges immigrant “catch-up” theory

  1. I’m 71, have lived in San Antonio for 7 years, alma mater Wisconsin I Madison. The Mexicans here are very tribe like. Like 15 living in a three bedroom house. Always with their own when out and about. Totally take from america but no desire to become part of lt. Third generation speak poor English. Do not value education. Sat-act scores very poor here. High crime especially in south end of San Antonio. When out always with only other Mexicans. This is far from a great american city.

    1. I lived in San Antonio from 1997-2000. I am 67. Your observations are similar to mine. I will say that the Mexican/Americans and illegals seemed to have good skill in rock work and were hard workers in the building trades.

    2. baby-boomer, san fernando valley, 1950>1989, then 6 other states North and South. Hispanics, in Valley played in Little League went to church, were one of us because Us was who we were. Issues in EsLos, you bet. Language, English. Language of their parents’, Spanish, plus good English. Soilders in WW2, Americans. If you don’t find them that way, then they have been treated incorrectly and unjust. just like Portugese in Boston, Polish in Chicago, Cubans in Miami, almost anyone not white in Dallas. People rise or fall to their expectations. Expect more, give more (friendship costs nothing), and people will unite, not in their groups, but in surroundings.

      1. Agree with you 100% except for the part about the Cubans been “brown” or “non-white.” Sorry to burst your bubble but I am Cuban and I just did my DNA exam and I am 96.8% EUROPEAN.
        Because we speak Spanish , it does not mean we are a mixed race.
        Of course we have black, mulatos, chinese, jews but, again, it does not mean we are NOT WHITE.
        Thank you

    3. You don’t know “jack” about my city dude. Mexican-Americans behave like other Americans while Mexican Nationals do keep to themselves and don’t really participate, you can’t blame them when there is so much hatred and missinformation…
      You say they (Mexican peoples) keep to themselves but then go about describing these people as if you had a clue; think about how arogant that is.
      People see what they want to see…

    4. It’s absolutely pathetic someone speaks ill about the literacy of others when he himself sounds like an illiterate monkey.

    5. staying with the “tribe” is an innate human survival instinct and all immigrants have done this- not just those from Mexico- It saddens me that those who’ve been here for a few generations sometimes make sweeping generalizations about whatever the current wave of immigrants are- being American does not mean we losing our cultural heritage which includes our native language- people should not be shamed into hiding who they are and where they’ve come from – perhaps some immigrants would have more of a desire to learn english and so called “assimilate” if we welcomed them as the ancient scriptures implore-When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 34’The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God. 35’You shall do no wrong in judgment, in measurement of weight, or capacity.…

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  3. This is berry difficult to prove given the period of time and records kept. I believe it’s more so a myth than anything else.
    As an immigrant myself, I strongly believe we tend to over compensate ourselves in measurables such as wealth and fame to validate our being.

  4. I am speculating, because the data does not clearly indicate the national origins or races of the immigrants in 1900, but it looks like “green” states (immigrants get paid better than locals) were where predominant majority of immigrants are of European (German, maybe) origin, whereas the “red” states (immigrants get paid less than locals) were where immigrants largely came from Mexico or from Asia (China and Japan). Back in 1900, American society strictly operated on the basis of white supremacy, so if this is factored in it makes all sense.

  5. Well in my eyes people are just Madre because a Mexican work a he’ll lot battery then whites and black that’s why u see Mexican people get jobs be for any body else

  6. The most significant part of this study is the finding that there was not enough immigration to the South to obtain to statistical significance. This suggests something really important was going on in the South from the end of the war onward. This is not surprising considering that the culture of the South was totally remade in the ensuing years.

    1. So you must be from up North or somewhere where there are not blacks everywhere. If you where you’d change your tune real quick.

  7. Interesting that there was not enough “statistical significance” to include the South. What was going on there?

    1. “All Southern workers and black workers were excluded because few immigrants moved to the South and blacks were subject to harsh discrimination everywhere.”

  8. They live that way because the people employing them exploit them, therefore many immigrants have no choice. Immigrant students with low sat/act scores are probably attending low grade schools, and are receiving a poor education. Also, add to the fact that these students are living in poor areas with maybe only one parent who is working 12 hour shifts every day. Everyone has a story, just because they are different from you, it doesn’t mean it’s not worth hearing.

  9. Until about 1900 MOST Americans had less than a high school education, and so did immigrants. In the 20th century, you could still earn a decent blue collar living without a high school diploma into the 1960s. My immigrant grandfather, who came circa 1903, worked as a peddler, then finally on the line in an auto factory. The latter propelled many immigrants or their kids into the middle class. However, there are not yet any such jobs in large numbers for unskilled uneducated AMERICANS, and there are some 20 million of them. In fact, it’s quite likely that robots will fill many of these low wage jobs in a decade or so.

    1. Oh they’ll get to the higher paying jobs soon enough. If you sit on your rear on a computer, you can be done anyway with any day now. The people who actually keep the US rolling, keep people like you fed, well they are worth more to me than you are.

  10. As a senior myself who spent 40 years in construction in Houston Tx. from my own experience most of the construction trade has gone to hispanic immigrants who speak little or no english. As others have said they stay together, speak spanish only, eat only native dishes, will do any work regardless of safety for wages lower than most americans can live on. When I was a boy my nextdoor neighbors were from mexico. They came here legally, spoke english almost exclusively outside the home. Their children went to school and spoke english with no spanish accent. No one in school or the neighborhood considered them anything other than just another american citizen. All the racist rants are brought on by the lifestyle of the immigrants themselves not by the fact that they are hispanic and they and the press need to realize that.

  11. My main objection to this study is that they didn’t have actual income data and only used job titles to classify income. That employers paid immigrants the same wage as natives is a pretty big presumption especially with studies confirming that even having a foreign sounding name hurt future earnings potential. This seems likely to skew the data . I am also curious if when they compared the two groups they controlled for job experience. Just because two groups are the same age doesn’t mean they have similar job experience which influences income. If the researchers did control for these then I retract my concerns but if not then I think it unwise to replace one myth with another.

    1. I just rechecked the link and it worked. Are you on a platform that doesn’t allow .pdfs? In any case, here’s the full link:

  12. Surprised to see that Scandinavians were at the lower end of the scale.

    My maternal grandfather immigrated from Norway to North America shortly after WWI. Like a lot of Norwegians, they worked their way across the northern plains before winding up in Western Canada. Family members settled along the way in Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota. The Scandinavians in our “tribe” came to North America primarily for the land grants – they were farmers in Europe and became farmers here. I wonder if the wage-gap is more a result of being dirt-poor farmers than being paid less than native workers?

    Compare this with my dad’s family, who came over from England at about the same time. They were urban dwellers in England and had skills that permitted them to live/work in cities where one would expect wages were higher than what a farmer would make.

  13. The problem with staying in tribes is the thought process stays tribal. The education of tribal justice and not our judicial system. The demand for Sharia Law is a prime example. Also the tribal education that one group of people are inferior to another in race, religion, sex, wealth, or a multitude of other differences. America was once the great melting pot where peoples from any land could come and become whatever their work ethic and skills would allow them to be. These people were screened for diseases, criminal records, and other undesirable characteristics that may bring harm to the American people. In return for that feeling of safety Americans put away the Arms and felt no need to bear them in public. This allowed local, state and federal government to pass and enact laws that violated peoples Constitutional Rights with little blowback from the public. Today’s Government turns it head to the masses coming into this country and ignores the diseases and dangers that come with the open borders. Men are murdered; women raped and sold into slavery, children abused by those our government coming into America unchecked. They come in with the well meaning people looking for a better life, but since the no longer is a review of those coming into America to keep the undesirables out and allow the producers in the American people feel the need to take up their arms and bear them in public again and this outrages the government because it shows the public has lost faith in the government to protect its citizenry from hostile invaders looking to harm the American people. We help far more people in this world than we harm, but there are those in the world who through ideology, jealousy, religion, or just plain hate feel America should not be that shining point of light that beckons all good and decent people to come and be free.

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