Article Summary: “A Nation of Immigrants: Assimilation and Economic Outcomes” by Abramitzky et al


Title: A Nation of Immigrants: Assimilation and Economic Outcomes in the Age of Mass Migration
Author: Ran Abramitzky, Leah Platt Boustan, and Katherine Eriksson
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 2 stars
My personal rating: 4 stars
See more on my book rating system

Topic of Article

The authors study the immigrants to the United States between 1850 and 1913 with particular focus on their income and social status relative to the native-born.

Key Take-aways

  • Immigrants from different nations had very different levels of income after arriving in the United States.
  • Immigrants from wealthier European nations got higher-paying jobs than US natives.
  • Immigrants from poorer European nations got lower-paying jobs than US natives.
  • All three groups moved upward over time, but those gaps persisted throughout the life-time of the individual.

Important Quotes from Article

During the Age of Mass Migration (1850-1913), the US maintained an open border, absorbing 30 million European immigrants. Prior cross-sectional work on this era finds that immigrants initially held lower-paid occupations than natives but experienced rapid convergence over time. In newly-assembled panel data, we show that, in fact, the average immigrant did not face a substantial occupation-based earnings penalty upon first arrival and experienced occupational advancement at the same rate as natives.

Cross-sectional patterns are driven by biases from declining arrival cohort quality and departures of negatively-selected return migrants. We show that assimilation patterns vary substantially across sending countries and persist in the second generation.

Our paper challenges conventional wisdom and prior research about immigrant assimilation during this period… Using newly-assembled panel data for 21,000 natives and immigrants from 16 sending European countries, we instead find that, on average, long term immigrants from sending countries with real wages above the European median actually held significantly higher-paid occupations than US natives upon first arrival, while immigrants from sending countries with below-median wages started out in equal or lower-paid occupations.3 We find little evidence for the commonly held view that immigrants converged with natives, but rather document substantial persistence of the initial earnings gap between immigrants and natives (whether positive or negative) over the lifecycle. In other words, regardless of starting point, immigrants experienced occupational upgrading similar to natives, thereby preserving the initial gaps between immigrants and natives over time. Furthermore, this gap persisted into the second generation; when migrants from a certain source country outperformed US natives, so did second generation migrants, and vice versa.

Contemporaries questioned the ability of European immigrants to assimilate in the US economy and called for strict migration restrictions. Our results indicate that these concerns were unfounded: the average long-term immigrant in this era arrived with skills similar to those of natives and experienced identical rates of occupational upgrading over their lifecycle.

Yet at the same time, we also note that migrants that arrived with low skill levels

did not manage to close their skill gap with natives over time. This finding undercuts the view, which is commonly held today, that past waves of European immigrants, even those who arrived with limited skills and without the ability to speak English, were able to quickly catch up with natives.

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