Julián Costas-Fernández
Eleonora Patacchini
Jorgen Harris
Marco Battaglini
Ricardo Fernholz
Alberto Bisin
Jess Benhabib
Cian Ruane
Pete Klenow
Mark Bils
Peter Hull
Will Dobbie
David Arnold
Eric Zwick
Owen Zidar
Matt Smith
Ansgar Walther
Tarun Ramadorai
Paul Goldsmith-Pinkham
Andreas Fuster
Ellora Derenoncourt
Golvine de Rochambeau
Vinayak Iyer
Jonas Hjort
Elena Simintzi
Paige Ouimet
Holger Mueller
Pablo Garriga
Gabriel Ulyssea
Costas Meghir
Pinelopi Koujianou Goldberg
Rafael Dix-Carneiro
Alessandro Toppeta
Áureo de Paula
Orazio Attanasio
Seth Zimmerman
Joseph Price
Valerie Michelman
Camille Semelet
Anne Brockmeyer
Pierre Bachas
Santiago Pérez
Elisa Jácome
Leah Boustan
Ran Abramitzky
Jesse Rothstein
Jeffrey T. Denning
Sandra Black
Wei Cui
Mathieu Leduc
Philippe Jehiel
Shivam Gujral
Suraj Sridhar
Attila Lindner
Arindrajit Dube
Pascual Restrepo
Łukasz Rachel
Benjamin Moll
Kirill Borusyak
Michael McMahon
Frederic Malherbe
Gabor Pinter
Angus Foulis
Saleem Bahaj
Stone Centre
Phil Thornton
James Baggaley
Xavier Jaravel
Richard Blundell
Parama Chaudhury
Dani Rodrik
Alan Olivi
Vincent Sterk
Davide Melcangi
Enrico Miglino
Fabian Kosse
Daniel Wilhelm
Azeem M. Shaikh
Joseph Romano
Magne Mogstad
Suresh Naidu
Ilyana Kuziemko
Daniel Herbst
Henry Farber
Lisa Windsteiger
Ruben Durante
Mathias Dolls
Cevat Giray Aksoy
Angel Sánchez
Penélope Hernández
Antonio Cabrales
Wendy Carlin
Suphanit Piyapromdee
Garud Iyengar
Willemien Kets
Rajiv Sethi
Ralph Luetticke
Benjamin Born
Amy Bogaard
Mattia Fochesato

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.

A free, working-paper version of this research is available on the NBER website.

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