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.
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 Ancestry.com. 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 Ancestry.com. “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