The idea that minorities can’t succeed in the United States today not only encourages defeatism but is also untrue. Data on legal immigrants from Latin America and Africa reveal that many outperform native-born Americans from their demographic group, and other figures reveal non-white groups’ increasing economic success. Leaders and public officials should celebrate their achievement and adopt policies that encourage more Americans to embrace the possibilities of upward mobility.

Hispanics, for example, have seen their incomes rise faster in recent years than any other major group in the United States. The gross domestic product of all American Hispanics—immigrants and native-born—would be the fifth-largest in the world, “larger even than the GDPs of the United Kingdom, India or France,” according to a recent study. Hispanics are increasingly upwardly mobile. One influential study by Harvard economist Raj Chetty and co-authors found that Hispanic children born to parents at the 25th income percentile reach the 43rd percentile on average, just two percentiles less than their white counterparts.  They have also made remarkable educational gains. In 2005, a third of Hispanics age 25 to 34 had completed at least some college; by 2021, half had done so. In fact, by 2012, Hispanics’ enrollment rates surpassed those of whites.

Hispanic immigrants and their children are climbing the economic ladder. According to a study by scholars from Princeton, Stanford, and the University of California at Davis, second-generation Hispanic immigrants are moving into the middle class at rates similar with the children of immigrants a century ago.

Studies of immigrant groups from African countries, such as Nigeria or Haiti, reveal a similar pattern. Their economic success is not only reflected in their education and income growth but also in surging remittances. Nigeria reached a pre-Covid remittance peak of almost $24 billion, equal to around 6 percent of the country’s GDP. About $6.2 billion of that total—more than a quarter—came from the U.S., despite comprising less than 400,000 of the approximately 15 million Nigerians living abroad, or about 2.5 percent.

Haitian immigrants, often escaping abject poverty, have also shown remarkable progress. Haiti, a country of just 11 million, has seen remittances grow from around $1.5 billion to $3.4 billion since the 2010 earthquake. Over 80 percent of Haiti’s remittances came from the U.S. in 2020, accounting for 22 percent of the country’s GDP. As of 2019, approximately 15 percent of Caribbean immigrants lived in poverty, roughly in line with the 14 percent poverty rate for the immigrant population as a whole and comparing favorably with the 18.8 percent rate for the overall U.S. black population in 2019.

Caribbean immigrants’ household incomes are lower than those of other immigrant groups, however, and one report found that Caribbean immigrants’ welfare use is second highest among immigrant groups. These statistics may reflect the influx of destitute migrants from Haiti, who were in need of government support following the devastating earthquake and series of storms in 2010. The number of Haitians in the United States doubled since 2000, most recently increasing due to the surge in gang violence in Port-au-Prince and the Biden administration’s extending and redesignating Haiti’s Temporary Protected Status.

Still, immigrant blacks outperform their native-born counterparts on several metrics, including impressive rates of academic achievement, family formation, and employment. Immigrant black women live an average of eight years longer than native black women, which extends to 10 years for men. In the top 28 universities in the U.S., immigrant blacks account for 27 percent of the incoming black student body. At Ivy League schools, immigrants constitute an estimated 41 percent of all black freshmen. Across all U.S. universities, four times as many black first- or second-generation immigrants are enrolled as non-immigrant blacks. As of 2022, black immigrants’ median income was $57,200, compared with $42,700 for American-born blacks. In 2019, approximately 76 percent of sub-Saharan immigrants to America were in the workforce, compared with only 62 percent of the native-born American population of all races.

Why are these immigrant groups succeeding, relative to many native-born Americans? Crucially, many have formed stable, two-parent families. In 2010, the out-of-wedlock birthrate among foreign-born blacks was 38 percent, compared with 78 percent for native-born blacks. While Census data show black Americans had slightly higher marriage rates than whites from 1890 to 1940, their rates were lower by the 1960s and have been in free fall since. In 1960, about 20 percent of black children lived only with their mothers. By 2000, that figure climbed to 49 percent, and stands at 44 percent today. 

Immigrant groups also prioritize continuous employment, often venturing into entrepreneurial pursuits that engage family members. Ownership and wealth accumulation are paramount, passed down through generations. Emphasizing education, they make substantial financial sacrifices to secure quality schooling for their children. They respect law and order as a safeguard for their families and enterprises.

Those who fail to follow these norms often see adverse outcomes. As Barack Obama noted in a 2008 speech, “children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools and 20 times more likely to end up in prison.” Brookings Institute scholars Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill have found that only 2.4 percent of Americans live in poverty if they have graduated high school, not had children out of wedlock, gotten married, and secured steady employment—compared with 79 percent of those who failed to achieve any of these “success sequence” benchmarks.

What can American policymakers learn from these newcomers, and the lagging performance of U.S.-born blacks? First, policymakers need to promote the habits—family formation and industriousness—that contribute to immigrants’ success. Second, they must emphasize that native-born blacks, despite their uniquely difficult history, can succeed in America.

Politicians need to muster the courage to say that family breakdown is a major cause of minority communities’ economic and crime troubles. As Brad Wilcox and Rafael Mangual found in Chicago, corroborating reams of other data, “neighborhoods above the median fraction of single-parent-headed households experienced 137% higher total crime rates, 226% higher violent crime rates, and 436% higher homicide rates.” While some single-parent families can get ahead, public policy should seek to foster and strengthen two-parent households and combat teen pregnancy.

In keeping with immigrants’ commitment to education and entrepreneurship, policymakers should promote school choice and economic opportunity programs for all, including native-born Americans. Paid high school work studies, adult occupational training, paid-internship matching, and job-placement programs could improve economic prospects, without creating a new generation of government dependents. Still, if the success of immigrants from Africa teaches us anything, it is that policy alone can only do so much—and that there is no substitute for intact families and the work ethic.

Today’s taboo of acknowledging the behavioral roots of multigenerational poverty, the academic-achievement gap, and criminal-justice involvement does not advance civil rights. To the contrary, it ensures that racial disparities persist, where they can be exploited by opportunistic politicians and activists pursuing their own agendas. It deflects attention away from the cultural changes that must occur for full racial parity to be realized.

Black immigrant success makes clear that minority groups face fewer barriers to flourishing in America than we commonly hear. Virtually every immigrant cohort, including Hispanic and African, has overcome impediments. Embracing industriousness and family-centered norms will help all Americans—including native-born blacks—to climb the social and economic ladder.

Photo: Willie B. Thomas / DigitalVision via Getty Images


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