A Landmark Study Debunks Populist Anti-Immigrant Narratives
If science and facts could change hearts and minds, ‘Streets of Gold’ would cause America to once again embrace immigrants
Even before Donald Trump arrived on the scene, the notion that we have to stop or substantially scale back immigration to America—a country of immigrants— because immigrants today simply do not assimilate like those of yore had been gaining considerable traction on the populist right. But Trump took such talk to a whole new level when he berated immigration from “shithole countries.” In one of his less inflammatory speeches, he explained, “We also have to be honest about the fact that not everyone who seeks to join our country will be able to successfully assimilate.”
These narratives are not supported by facts, as social scientists—particularly economists—have exhaustively documented. But as with all research, there is room for debate and doubt. However, a landmark—and massive—study by Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan, Streets of Gold, all but settles the debate—and not in favor of the populists. Since its release in 2022, it has become a standard reference for the economic history of immigration in the United States. It will and should take its place alongside Aristide Zolberg’s A Nation by Design, Mae Ngai’s Impossible Subjects and Kelly Lytle Hernandez’s Migra! on every college reading list.
But it should also be on every thoughtful citizen’s bookshelf because it is a perfect public affairs book: Not only is it comprehensive, it is also comprehensible. Anyone interested in immigration can understand this book.
The Prodigious Scope of the Book
Most social science studies are limited in scope. They examine a small question and confine their research to a small geographic area, time period or sample population. For example, one of the most famous studies about the impact of immigration on U.S. wages conducted by Nobel laureate David Card examined how 125,000 Cuban dissidents (dispatched to Florida by Fidel Castro) affected Miami’s labor market. (The answer was: barely.)
But Abramitzky and Boustan take a far more ambitious approach: They deploy cutting-edge computational methods on what is known as Big Data to detect patterns in very large and long-term data sets. They use this process to look at not a few thousand, but hundreds of millions of people over almost 140 years, from 1880 to 2018, making their work unprecedented in its historical scope.
It’s hard to communicate the unmatched breadth and depth of their work. But here’s what they did: They focused on three cohorts, the first two from the 1880 and 1910 censuses consisting of 4 million first-generation immigrants and their children. The 1880 cohort was dominated by immigrants from Northern and Western Europe—particularly Ireland, Germany and the U.K. And in the 1910 cohort, immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe dominated. Abramitzky and Boustan followed the children of these two cohorts through the 1910 and 1940 censuses respectively, comparing their adult outcomes with those of millions and millions of U.S.-born children with parents in the same income bracket.
In other words, they did not compare the average wages of immigrants with the average wages of native-born Americans. They actually did an apples-to-apples comparison of immigrants and native-born Americans that were similarly situated. (Because the censuses did not collect income data before 1940, their analysis relied on alternative proxies to estimate earnings of immigrants and U.S.-born individuals before that year.)
The third cohort consisted of children of immigrants born around 1980. This cohort was different from the previous two because it was made up of Latin American and Asian immigrants in contrast to Europeans. Moreover, these immigrants, unlike the other two cohorts, did not arrive during the Ellis Island period of mostly open borders when no visas or passports were required for Europeans to enter the United States, but in a time of tight immigration restrictions. Many of their parents were undocumented, living under constant threat of deportation.
Abramitzky and Boustan then compared the outcomes of the first two cohorts with the third one.
Immigrants Now and Then
A common refrain at July 4th barbecues and Thanksgiving dinners is that immigration in the past was good for the country but that is no longer the case because immigrants are now coming from countries more ethnically and culturally dissimilar to America. And further, America used to require immigrants to integrate but now it offers bilingual education and other special accommodations so that immigrants have less incentive to do so.
These stories are often built from triumphant anecdotes handed down within families. There are several in my own family, like my Hungarian immigrant great-grandfather who evidently taught himself English in a few months by poring over the English Bible. In other words, both America and the immigrants are different now, goes this narrative, and how immigrants fared in the past is no indication of how they are doing now or will do so in the future.
Streets of Gold tests three hypotheses based on these and other common anti-immigrant narratives and shows that the immigrant assimilation story is essentially unchanged.
The three big questions, simply put, are as follows:
1. Economic Mobility: Is it the case that immigrants went from rags to riches in the past, but experience slow—or no—upward mobility today?
2. Cultural Assimilation: Is it the case that European immigrants assimilated quickly in the past, but today’s immigrants from Asia and Latin America do not?
3. Competition: Is it the case that America had many more opportunities back then and so immigrants could come and thrive without hurting native-born Americans but now they are competing with the native-born for the last piece of the economic pie?
Abramitzky and Boustan present the best evidence we have, and their answer to all three questions is “no.” Immigrants today are struggling and succeeding just as they did in the past. There was no golden age when immigrants came in rags and quickly found riches—or crossed the Atlantic as Irish and became Americans as soon as they landed. The immigrant experience was varied, not monolithic, then as it is now with first generation immigrants from different countries faring differently.
The Immigrant Experience: Varied Then, Varied Now
For example, immigrants from countries like Finland and Norway in the past (whom Trump would have described in the same scatological terms that he uses for Third World countries now) and Vietnam and the Dominican Republic today earn below the U.S.-born on average, whereas immigrants from countries like England (historical) and India (today) out-earn native-born Americans. But crucially, the second generation of most sending countries whose first-generation immigrants earned less than the U.S.-born catch up or even overtake the earnings of the children of the U.S.-born. Abramitzky and Boustan note:
In both the past and present, we find that the children of immigrants are more upwardly mobile than the children of the U.S.-born: Conditional on the rank of their parents, children of immigrants have a higher expected rank in adulthood. The higher level of upward mobility among children of immigrants is especially meaningful in relatively poor families: The estimated gaps imply that children of immigrants with parents in the 25th percentile have a similar expected rank as children of U.S.-born individuals whose parents were ranked about 15–20 percentiles higher…
Meanwhile, the cultural assimilation of immigrants today is no slower than a century ago. There is a lot of research showing that it is simply not the case, as many immigration restrictionists believe, that immigrants stick to themselves, live in their separate enclaves, and get by without learning English.
But Abramitzky and Boustan conducted the first quantitative comparison of the cultural assimilation of immigrants in the past and the present using a new and novel approach: They examined the shifts in the names that immigrants give their children as they spend time in the United States. Names, it is widely established in social sciences literature, are signals of cultural identity. They found that the rate of name-based assimilation is the same for the European immigrants who came between 1850-1913 and Asian/Latin American immigrants between 1965 to now.
Although immigrants did not completely converge with the U.S.-born in name choices in one generation either historically or today, immigrants reduced the naming gap with the U.S.-born by about one-half after spending 20 years in the United States. Strikingly, they found that groups that started with more foreign sounding names switched more rapidly to American ones both then and now (Southern and Eastern Europeans in the past, Mexican and Vietnamese immigrants today).
As for economic competition, they found that immigrants compete even less with native-born Americans in the modern and specialized economy now than they did a century ago. Immigrants don’t “steal” American jobs, as per the common misperception; they actually stimulate economic growth through innovation and entrepreneurship. At most, immigrants introduce short-term competition in small and specific pockets of the labor market.
But, on the whole, they occupy positions that lack sufficient U.S.-born workers, whether in highly specialized areas like tech and science or in roles requiring less education like caregiving and manual labor. The workers most affected by the new arrivals are those who came just before them, not U.S.-born workers. Not only does the book dismiss the zero-sum perception of immigration, it suggests that immigration is crucial for and powering industries like health care, tech, construction and manufacturing while overcoming demographic stagnation.
In other words, U.S. immigration has been both an economic challenge and an economic catalyst, for immigrants and for native-born Americans, always. There is no lost golden age.
Immigration has many facets and should be addressed by all the social sciences—anthropology, sociology, psychology, political science, management science and others. But economists have concepts that allow them to offer unique insights about immigrant behaviors. Streets of Gold harnesses two in particular to explain longstanding puzzles in the literature.
The first idea is that immigrants—like actors in the marketplace—behave strategically. When they make decisions as workers, consumers and investors, they take into account what they expect others to do. Why do sons of Central American parents move up economically faster than sons of native-born Americans? In part because they make decisions about where to live based on their job prospects much more. Because children of immigrants lack strong family or historical ties to a particular place, they can just pack up and go where the jobs are. Native-born Americans are far more reluctant to do so.
Here’s another puzzle: Why do refugees integrate more quickly relative to other immigrants, especially those who come for economic reasons? Because they are fleeing war or turmoil and don’t have a home to return to. So unlike many transient economic migrants, they generally come to the U.S. to settle permanently and have an even stronger incentive to invest in the hard work of integration. Why is the rate of criminal activity among unauthorized immigrants so low? Because unlike native-born Americans, they face a double penalty—not just jail, but also potential deportation—and make decisions accordingly.
A second quintessentially economic idea is that incentives matter and restrictionist policies that fail to take this into account backfire or produce perverse unintended consequences. Why didn’t the wages of workers in Cleveland go up relative to wages in Cincinnati in 1924 even though Cleveland’s supply of Southern and Eastern European workers was much more severely restricted than Cincinnati’s supply of German and Irish ones? Because the tight labor market created an incentive for firms to mechanize or switch production to less labor-intensive products.
Picking Three Nits
All research involves making difficult decisions and balancing trade-offs. And all the decisions that Abramitzky and Boustan make are reasonable, but it is still worth considering three downsides:
One, the book focuses on the authors’ own, authoritative work and does not offer a full literature review of the research on the economics of migration. That makes the book mercifully readable. To paraphrase Paul Graham, books do not win by attacking, they win by transcending. But had readers been exposed to the conflicting findings in the existing research, it would have been easier for them to appreciate how Abramitzky and Boustan’s work helps resolve disputes in the literature.
Second, the book frames itself as an exercise in myth busting. Myth busting is crucial because myths are harmful. But myth busting is also fundamentally defensive. So the book responds to claims of economic harm by low-wage immigrants by noting, “There is strong demand for services that less-educated immigrants provide today in construction, the restaurant industry, child- and eldercare, and agriculture.” The underlying message is that it’s “not as bad as you think” because the economy somehow manages to generate demand for less-educated workers. But it’s not just that there is such work left over after native-born Americans have taken their share, as a vast research literature documents.
Immigrants actually help create the demand for U.S.-born workers at all skill levels. In other words, immigrants themselves are a major cause of the very economic dynamism in the United States that unlocks the economic contribution of native-born workers at both the low and high end of the education spectrum. The burden of proof to show otherwise should lie on the populist politicians who claim that banning broad classes of immigrants is the shining path to job creation in a vibrant economy.
Finally, the book steers mostly clear of discussing matters of race. Though a defensible choice, this will seem to some readers like retelling Hamlet without saying he was the Prince of Denmark. The book’s history of Chinese exclusion, for example, does not mention racial animus at all, but neutrally states that “the country chose its fork in the road.” The book’s “brief history of immigration” only mentions enslaved Africans in one clause of one sentence. The book notes that the 45th U.S. president claimed in the White House that immigrants “from countries like Haiti and Nigeria” were systematically undesirable—without further comment on what many Haitians and Nigerians have in common.
I do not at all fault the authors for this strategic choice. One goal of this book is to present the authors’ own, vast expertise on the specific topics they have studied, and their ample research does not happen to include testing hypotheses about racial animus. Another goal is to engage a broad audience with their pioneering work. That enterprise requires choosing battles. Not every scholar would have made the same choices, but Abramitzky and Boustan are entitled to make theirs.
But the bottom line is that rummaging through big data reveals a story much brighter than the dark narrative that many populist movements of every generation are so fond of retelling. The fundamental error of anti-immigration populist leaders lies in straining to convince their followers that immigrants are the enemy of “the people.” Boustan and Abramitzky, in their own way, point out a core weakness of that seductive strategy: It does not rest on facts.
© The UnPopulist 2023