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Why the Children of Immigrants Are the Ones Getting Ahead in America

immigrant children 1

Magazine, The Immigrant Experience, Yahoo News, Ran Abramitzky and Leah Bouston

Miami has one of the highest percentage of immigrants in the U.S. A view of Miami Beach, Lincoln Road Credit – Jeffrey Greenberg-UCG/Universal Images Group

In April 2020, the New York Times ran a special feature called “I Am the Portrait of Downward Mobility.” “It used to be a given that each American generation would do better than the last,” the piece began, “but social mobility has been slowing over time.”

In paging through the profiles, we couldn’t help noticing one group of Americans who defies this trend: the children of immigrants. Sonya Poe was born in a suburb of Dallas, Texas to parents who immigrated from Mexico. “My dad worked for a hotel,” Sonya recalled. “Their goal for us was always: Go to school, go to college, so that you can get a job that doesn’t require you to work late at night, so that you can choose what you get to do and take care of your family. We’re fortunate to be able to do that.”

The dream that propels many immigrants to America’s shores is the possibility of offering a better future for their children. Using millions of records of immigrant families from 1880 to 1940 and then again from 1980 to today, we find that in the past and still today children of immigrants surpass their parents and move up the economic ladder. If this is the American Dream, then immigrants achieve it—big time.

One pattern that is particularly striking in the data is that the children of immigrants raised in households earning below the median income make substantial progress by the time they reach adulthood, both for the Ellis Island generation a century ago and for immigrants today. The children of first-generation immigrants growing up close to the bottom of the income distribution (say, at the 25th percentile) are more likely to reach the middle of the income distribution than are children of similarly poor U.S.-born parents.

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