|Reviewer(s):||Kamphoefner, Walter D. |
Published by EH.Net (January 2023).
Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan. Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success. New York: PublicAffairs, 2022. 256 pp. $29 (hardcover), ISBN 978-1541797833.
Reviewed for EH.Net by Walter D. Kamphoefner, Department of History, Texas A&M University.
With this substantive and methodological tour de force, endorsed by a Who’s Who of the economic history profession, Abramitzky and Boustan provide some compelling answers to the issues of immigrant economic and social adjustment, past and present. The question of how easily immigrants could get ahead has been a leading concern since the advent of the erstwhile New Urban/Social History half a century ago. Stephan Thernstrom refuted the Rags to Riches myth but concluded that a rise from “rags to respectability” was within reach for many poor immigrants. However, his findings aroused considerable skepticism because of the low rate of population “persistence” from one census to the next. As one critic put it, “The new urban history started out by asking, ‘Was it easier to get ahead in the past?’ and ended up asking, ‘Where did all those people go?’” (Monkkonen, p. 27).
As it turned out, many of them had not gone anywhere. (See the special issue of Social Science History 15:4 (1991) on census coverage.) But that still left open the question of whether the losers or the enterprising were more likely to be out-migrants. By 1980, some of us had extended the question of social mobility through transatlantic tracing, although our work was largely restricted to homogeneous “chain migration” settlements. While most of these scholars were historians, economist Joseph Ferrie did vital work, including his book Yankeys Now (1999). His work was facilitated by nationwide census indexes but was still “painstaking” (20) enough that it has attracted few imitators. Now Abramitzky and Boustan have exploited the availability of “big data” and developed new technologies to address a number of important issues, although it briefly earned them a “cease and desist” order from Ancestry.com (17-19). They ask: “Is it really true that past immigrants moved quickly from rags to riches? Are today’s immigrants less successful than immigrants in the past, and do today’s immigrants integrate more slowly into society than past immigrants? Do immigrants harm US-born workers through added competition for jobs?” (3).
The introductory chapter upends some persistent myths of past immigration, and briefly lays out the book’s main findings. The second chapter primarily introduces the data sources and methodology of the study. In chapter three, the course of US immigration is sketched in snappy, accessible prose, seasoned by appropriate personal vignettes to illustrate salient points. It also shows how changing immigration policies have influenced what kind of people can gain access to the United States. While immigrants in the past represented a negative selectivity from their populations of origin, the post-1965 cohorts are more literate and educated than the societies from which they are drawn (50-51). Chapter four shows that rags-to-riches was a huge exception, but most immigrants then and now made slow, steady progress. It addresses a salient methodological concern, whether return migration creates an illusion of success among those who remained. Drawing upon the example of Norwegians, it shows that returnees “did remarkably well” (70), often using their US earnings to advance from tenant farmers to landowners.
Chapter five looks at the next generation, with the book’s most remarkable finding: “children of immigrants are more upwardly mobile than children of the US born” (79). This holds true both for European cohorts traced from 1880 to 1910 and from 1910 to 1940 as well as the recent cohort with worldwide origins followed to 2015, in all cases examining children whose parents were at the 25 percentile of income distribution, compared to native white children with fathers at the same level (82-85). While the earlier cohorts examined only sons, the latest on also examines daughters and finds similar rates of progress. Those progressing most are the usual suspects from Asia; the only boys performing below the US average have origins in the Black Caribbean, a handicap not shared by their sisters, who are in the middle of the pack. The authors identify two main reasons for this second-generation mobility: immigrants tend to locate in places with a dynamic economy, and their parents “often do not earn what their true abilities would allow, but they nevertheless can transmit education and skills” (87) to their children. The former point is supported by the fact that in the first two cohorts, Norwegians and Germans are at or near the bottom; the 1980 census data on ethnic origins shows that they are the two groups most heavily concentrated in the farm population. Heavily urbanized Italians and Portuguese, by contrast, made the most intergenerational gains (82). The authors concede that the trajectory of “Dreamers” is less positive than that of other immigrants, but their sample is too early to encompass many of them.
Chapter six, “Becoming American,” ventures into territory that is more sociology than economics, examining aspects of immigrant adjustment beyond mere income. As one subtitle puts it, “immigrants join American society just as quickly today as they did in the past.” In fact, to the extent the data is comparable, recent immigrants may acquire English even more quickly. Moreover, refugees are quicker than other immigrants in their language acquisition. With respect to spatial patterns, “immigrant integration was nearly identical in 2020 to the degree of residential integration a century ago” (120). With the most exacting measure of acceptance, “if anything, marriage rates imply that cultural assimilation is faster now than it was in the past” [italics original] (126). Naming patterns reveal that “shifts in name choices happened for immigrants from Latin America and Asia today just as much as it did for European immigrants in the past.” Moreover, “it is Mexican immigrants who shift toward American-sounding names at the fastest rate” (134). Chapter seven questions a common assertion in today’s debates, “Does immigrant success harm the US born?” (139). In a word, no. The natural experiment of the Mariel boatlift, which brought some 125,000 Cuban refugees to Miami with a couple of months, led to a smaller increase in unemployment, even for blacks, than in other comparable cities in the region. Even with highly skilled H-1B immigrants, the damage from competition is slight. With respect to criminality, current immigrants come off better than earlier ones, whose incarceration rates were similar to those of native born of similar age and gender. Now, perhaps because of fear of deportation, in Texas “undocumented immigrants were half as likely as the US born to be arrested for violent crime” and even less likely to engage in property crime and drug violations (163). The same held true, but to a lesser extent, for legal immigrants. A concluding chapter notes that a record 75 percent of Americans in 2021 considered immigration to be a “good thing” (176) and argues for a “second grand bargain” on immigration in view of the facts they present, although conceding that it “may seem wildly optimistic” (180).
The book is written in a style accessible to the educated general reader; it has no tables and only four graphics that are data based. Hard-core cliometricians with methodological questions will need to refer to the authors’ previous articles on which this book is based. The US Census provides no information on property holdings or income between 1880 and 1930 (and in 1940 only reports income for wage earners), so much of the income reported is imputed based on a combination of detailed occupational titles, age, and state of residence. Nonetheless, the methodology appears solid.
There are a few minor assertions that could be challenged. The 1838 Atlantic crossing of the first steamship, the Great Western (39), seen as a turning point, was merely a harbinger. The transition to steam took place mostly in the 1860s; more than two-thirds of New York arrivals in 1861 still traveled by sail. Naturalization was not closed to people of African origins after 1870; it was only people of Asian origin who were still barred from attaining citizenship (40). Before the “first major restrictions” on Europeans in 1891 (46), convicts were banned in 1875 and paupers in 1882. It is perhaps worth mentioning that sociologist Ruben Rumbaut, who coined the term “1.5 generation,” to refer to immigrants who arrived as children (96-97), is himself a member. And contrary to assertions that “Public schools in the past were conducted entirely in English,” there was considerable public school instruction, including some two-way immersion, in German and other heritage languages, and even more in parochial schools up to World Was I (137).
Such quibbles aside, this is a pathbreaking work that deserves widespread attention, also beyond academia. A paperback edition is sorely needed and would work well in undergraduate courses on immigration such as the one I teach. I have offered a corollary to British geographer E.G. Ravenstein’s 1889 “Laws of Migration”: in romanticized hindsight, the good immigrants are always the old immigrants and the bad immigrants are always the new ones, even as various groups and even individuals shift from one category to the other. I have asked, what’s new about the newest immigration? Besides the parts of the world they are coming from, not much. This book makes the case indisputably.
Ferrie, Joseph P. Yankeys Now: Immigrants in the Antebellum United States, 1840-1860. Oxford University Press, 1999.
Monkkonen, Eric H. America Becomes Urban: The Development of U.S. Cities and Towns, 1780-1980. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
Walter D. Kamphoefner is Professor of History at Texas A&M University, teaching in the field of immigration and ethnicity. He explores many of these themes in the essay “What’s New About the New Immigration? A Historian’s Perspective over Two Centuries,” Studia Migracyjne – Przegląd Polonijny (2019),
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|Subject(s):||Historical Demography, including Migration|
Labor and Employment History
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
|Geographic Area(s):||North America|
|Time Period(s):||19th Century|
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII