More Than a Century of Data Shows Children of Immigrants Thrive in the U.S.

Immigrants who cross over to our shores have a myriad of hopes and dreams for their new lives in the United States. Some aspire to be entrepreneurs, while others seek to pursue some of the educational opportunities this nation offers. Still others may be fleeing violence and strife, and are simply looking for a safe and peaceful place to call home. But whatever their reasons for coming to the U.S., virtually all immigrants have one goal that unites them – watching the next generation ascend the economic ladder and achieve success beyond that of their parents. New research suggests that more often than not, this dream comes true.

A recent paper published by a group of economic historians at several prestigious universities, and “outlined”  by The New York Times, details a strong trend of poor children of immigrants economically outperforming the children of similarly poverty stricken fathers who were born in the U.S. Per the census data gathered by the paper’s authors, the pattern has remained unwavering since the 1880’s, even amid a century plus of fluctuating immigration policy. This conclusion was reached after researchers compared the long-term adult economic outcomes of two groups. [See Children of Poor Immigrants Rise, Regardless of Where They Come From by Emily Badger, New York Times, 28.Oct.2019.]

The first group was the sons of fathers who were born in the United States and earned an income in the 25th distribution percentile. The second group was the sons of immigrant fathers whose income was also around the 25th distribution percentile. Even though both groups displayed an overall positive intergenerational mobility, the sons of immigrants from virtually every country from which a great influx of immigrants to America had come, achieved advanced economic success, when compared to the sons of native-born fathers. The authors of the study chose to track only father-and-son units because women are more difficult to follow from one census to another due to the common practice of changing their surnames after marriage.

Researchers have posited several theories for why the children of immigrants so consistently outperform both their parents and their native-born counterparts. One popular explanation is that the wages of immigrant fathers may be artificially depressed due to job discrimination or language barriers, creating more opportunity for their children to surpass them economically, once they enter the job market. Another common hypothesis is that immigrants prefer to settle in large metropolitan areas that offer a wider availability of jobs than rural regions. Their children, in turn, benefit from this diverse job market, once they become adults. Native-born U.S. fathers, on the other hand, tend to be much more reluctant to leave their communities for larger cities, even if relocating means access to more and better jobs. This may be because they are more likely to have strong generational ties to a specific region in a way that immigrants who only recently arrived in the U.S. do not.

Whatever the reason children of immigrants from modest backgrounds are such high achievers, these findings fly in the face of recent political rhetoric claiming that large-scale immigration will saddle taxpayers with supporting families who arrive from poverty-stricken countries. If anything, it appears that welcoming immigrants from all socio-economic levels will result in future generations with strong earning power, who can lift up their communities and inspire continued faith in the American dream.


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Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.