Academic journal article The Future of Children

Making It in America: Social Mobility in the Immigrant Population

Academic journal article The Future of Children

Making It in America: Social Mobility in the Immigrant Population

Article excerpt


In his survey of research on social mobility and U.S. immigration, George Borjas underscores two insights. First, most immigrants are at a sizable earnings disadvantage, relative to native-born workers. Second, the earnings of different groups of immigrants vary widely.

The children of immigrants "catch up" to native-born workers slowly. The jump in relative wages between the first and second generations is somewhere between 5 and 10 percentage points. Of particular concern is that the age-adjusted relative wage of both immigrants and second-generation workers has been falling--a trend with bleak implications for the children of immigrants.

The wide ethnic variation in the earnings of immigrants has equally important implications. National origin groups from advanced economies, such as Canada, do much better in the U.S. labor market than those from poorer countries, such as Mexico. And the initial ethnic differences tend to persist. In rough terms, about half of the difference in relative economic status persists from one generation to the next. Thus a 20 percentage point wage gap among ethnic groups in the immigrant generation implies a 10 point gap among second-generation groups and a 5 point gap among third-generation groups. Again in rough terms, Borjas attributes about half of that persistence to the ethnic environment in which children are raised.

Borjas cautions that the rate of social mobility that immigrants enjoyed over much of the twentieth century may not continue in the future. The employment sectors seeking immigrants today are unlikely to provide the same growth opportunities as did the rapidly expanding manufacturing sector a century ago. And in contrast to the many and diverse ethnic groups that made up early twentieth-century immigrants, the large ethnic groups of immigrants today may develop separate economies and social structures, in effect hindering their social mobility.


The ultimate impact of immigration on the United States depends not only on the economic, social, political, and cultural experiences of the immigrants themselves, but also on how their households fare in those areas over several generations. The resurgence of large-scale immigration to the United States in recent decades has raised the foreign-born share of the population from 4.7 percent in 1970 to 12.7 percent in 2003 and is expected to drive up the population share of the second generation (those born in the United States with at least one foreign-born parent) from 10.5 percent in 2004 to nearly 14 percent by 2050. The grandchildren of current immigrants will make up an additional 9 percent of the population by mid-century. (1)

The traditional view of the social mobility of immigrant households across generations is vividly encapsulated by the melting pot metaphor. In that view, immigrants from an array of diverse countries blend into a homogeneous native population relatively quickly, perhaps in two generations. Although many analysts have questioned the relevance of the melting pot image to the experience of many ethnic groups in the United States, it seems to have a magnetic and intuitive appeal that often confounds its detractors. (2) As a result, the "assimilationist" perspective has long dominated the thinking of many observers of the immigrant experience.

Ironically, and from a purely economic perspective, it is not clear that the United States would be better off if a melting pot quickly blended the new immigrants, making them indistinguishable from native-born workers. After all, the productivity gains from immigration are maximized when the immigrant population differs most from the native population and immigrants have skills that the native workforce lacks--or, in the commonly used phraseology, when "immigrants do jobs that natives do not want to do." As a result, the productivity gains from immigration would be larger if the United States were to pursue policies that hampered and delayed the assimilation of immigrants. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.