The New York Times has not been in the habit of publishing heartening stories about the American dream in recent years, but last week, the editors made an exception, with an article recounting the findings of a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, showing that the sons of low-income immigrants are moving up the economic ladder—as they have since the Ellis Island era. After the article appeared, the Times reporter, Emily Badger, tweeted: “There is a lot in this study tweaking talking points in the current immigration debate.” I’d put it differently: there is a lot in this study suggesting that we’ve been having the wrong immigration debate.
The study itself, “Intergenerational Mobility of Immigrants in the U.S. over the Last Two Centuries,” won’t give any final answers to our immigration dilemmas, but it merits attention for its remarkable reach. The three authors, all economic historians, linked the incomes of immigrant fathers and their American-born sons in three generational cohorts—1880, 1910, and 1980—from 20 of the major sending countries. (They didn’t include daughters, whose economic outcomes are trickier to evaluate, given name changes and shifting employment patterns for women.) The sending countries vary dramatically over time. The 1880 group, for example, came mostly from Northern and Western Europe, or more specifically, from Germany, Ireland, and England; the 1910 cohort, meantime, hailed from Southern and Eastern Europe. Finally, the 1980 faction is dominated by exiles from Latin America and Asia. (The authors pass over the period between 1924 and 1965, when immigration was highly restricted.)
For each group, the researchers compared the immigrant pairs with native-born fathers and sons. They found that upward mobility between first- and second-generation immigrants has remained a constant in U.S. history, regardless of the sending country. As the Times put it: “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.” In fact, immigrant sons were 3 to 6 percentile points more upwardly mobile than the sons of American fathers.
Each cohort had some interesting outliers. Today, Norway and Belgium are prosperous countries that have evolved into desirable immigrant destinations, but in 1880, the boys of Norwegian- or Belgian-born fathers failed to outperform the sons of American fathers. Among more recent immigrants, low performers included the sons of fathers from Jamaica, Haiti, and Trinidad and Tobago.
These findings may come as a surprise at a time of pervasive pessimism about the American dream. But as the struggles along our southern border and with visa over-stayers from other parts of the world suggest, strivers everywhere still see the U.S. as the promised land. Immigrants endure painful leave-takings and dangerous journeys because they knew that the grinding poverty, ancient hatreds, violence, and entrenched social hierarchies of their home countries would block their aspirations. They knew their children would be better off in rich, relatively orderly, and socially fluid America—even today, with its immigration ambivalence. Mexicans making their way here, to take one example, have on average only a little over a ninth-grade education; in rural Mexico, high school is a luxury for families who require their sons’ help in the fields. The U.S.-born children of Mexican parents, on the other hand, receive 12.4 years of education, by virtue of growing up in a country with an extensive public school system, compulsory school attendance, child-labor laws, ESL classes, subsidized lunches, and Medicaid—even if their fathers don’t graduate beyond peeling potatoes in a sweaty restaurant kitchen.
Several recent studies suggest that the U.S. no longer promises the mobility that it once offered. Yet poor immigrants still have reason to continue to set their sights on American shores. After all, they can’t even enter wealthy immigrant-friendly countries with points systems, like Australia and Canada. In the EU, high minimum wages, union rules, and regulations stand in the way of finding jobs. Scandinavia, offers few low-skilled jobs to newcomers without a diploma. By contrast, the U.S. has a flexible labor market—which also means, for better or worse, that it has plenty of low-wage jobs. As a result, the U.S. is one of the few wealthy countries where immigrants are more likely to be employed than the native-born. In 2016, throughout the OECD countries, the foreign-born unemployment rate of 14.1 percent was 6 percentage points higher than the unemployment rate for native-born workers—a gap that had doubled from 2008.
That still leaves unanswered the question of why the children of immigrants outperform their American-born peers. The authors conclude that immigrants tend to move to cities with lots of jobs and strong local economies. American parents, meantime, are more likely to stay put in the declining areas that they call home. This makes sense, but there’s more to immigrant success than that. Recent immigrants are famously hard workers, putting up with off-hours and low pay; employers seem to prefer them to Americans. And there’s truth to the idea that immigrants take jobs that Americans won’t do. Social scientists refer to “immigrant optimism,” and it’s a good guess that parents pass on that spirit and determination to their children. Half of Hispanic immigrants, the country’s largest immigrant group, say that today’s children will grow up to be better off in the U.S. than people are now, according to a recent Pew survey. By contrast, just 33 percent of both white and black native-born Americans hold such a positive view.
“Intergenerational Mobility,” then, could be read as a brief in favor of liberal low-skilled immigration and an affirmation of the diverse American future. But that reading is shortsighted. The paper inadvertently exposes dark clouds. The upwardly mobile sons of the poor immigrants studied here will have their own children, who will not be the beneficiaries of their parents’ gritty optimism. On the contrary: they will be the low-income, native-born boys whose mobility, the paper tells us, has stalled. Considerable evidence suggests that the Hispanic third generation takes a “U-turn,” in the words of the center-left Urban Institute—performing more poorly in school and in the labor market than their fathers, and having more children out of wedlock. From what we know of the outcomes of children in such families, that’s an ominous sign for the future.
It’s hard to know whether upward mobility stalls because of our education system’s failures, a culture that saps the optimism and determination of first-generation immigrants, an economy offering few pathways up, or a combination of these things. We do know that while the American dream has life in it yet, its prognosis is troubling.