Intergenerational mobility of immigrants in the US over two centuries
What is this research about and why did you do it?
A defining feature of the 'American Dream' is the view that even immigrants who come to the United States with few resources have a real chance at improving their children’s prospects. This paper studies the intergenerational mobility of the children of immigrants over 130 years of US history. We answer two related questions: (1) Are children of immigrants more likely to move up in the economic ladder than children of natives from similar economic backgrounds? (2) Are children of contemporary immigrants more or less likely to move up in the economic ladder than children of immigrants from 100 years ago?
How did you answer this question?
Our analysis encompasses three groups of immigrants. The first two cohorts consist of four million first-generation immigrants observed with their children in the 1880 or 1910 Censuses. We follow their sons to the 1910 and 1940 Censuses, respectively (we can only follow sons because daughters often change their names at marriage). The third cohort includes children of immigrants born around 1980. We use aggregate administrative data made public by Opportunity Insights, which is based on links of parents and their nearly six million children. We complement these data with the General Social Surveys, which include some children of undocumented immigrants.
What did you find?
Both historically and today, children of immigrants from nearly every country reach a higher expected rank in the income distribution than children of natives from similar economic backgrounds. This finding indicates that children of immigrants have been more likely to move up the economic ladder than children of the US born. Moreover, children of contemporary immigrants move up the economic ladder at similar rates than children of immigrants in the past. For instance, the adult children of poor immigrants from Mexico today achieve a similar rank in the income distribution than children of poor immigrants from Finland or Scotland historically.
This figure shows the expected adult income rank of sons who grew up in families at about the 25th percentile of the income distribution. Each bar corresponds to a different country of origin, based on the country of birth of a person’s father. The top and middle panels focus on the immigrants who came to the US during the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, whereas the bottom panel focuses on the most recent immigrant wave.
What implications does this have for the research on wealth concentration or economic inequality?
We find that an important explanation for why the children of immigrants are more upwardly mobile than children of the US-born is that immigrant families are more likely to move to areas that offer better prospects for their children. This finding suggests that to the extent that “pockets of opportunity” remain available in the United States, immigrants and other Americans might be able to enjoy high levels of mobility.
What are the next steps in your agenda?
In this paper, we studied immigrant assimilation using information on occupations and income. In future work, we are using historical and contemporary data to study a different outcome: whether immigrants are more or less likely to engage in criminal activity.
Citation and related resources
This paper can be cited as follows: Abramitzky, R., Boustan, L., Jacome, E., and Perez, S. (2021) 'Intergenerational Mobility of Immigrants in the United States over Two Centuries.' American Economic Review, 111(2), pp. 580-608.