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Well, there goes one of the main arguments against more permissive U.S. immigration policies right down the tubes, according to both the Washington Post and New York Times. This month, both have run major articles spotlighting new scholarly findings claiming to show that today’s immigrants rise up the national income ladder just as fast as the tides of newcomers to American shores in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

So far from saddling the country with huge numbers of extra residents overwhelmingly likely to stay as poor, and burdensome to society on net as when they first arrive, encouraging more immigration will greatly enlarge America’s pool of success stories and greatly enrich the nation.

Or will they? The trouble is, the more you think about the new data and the conclusions flowing so freely from it, the more unanswered crucial questions appear. I’ll base this analysis mainly on the Post piece, which provides more statistics comparing the economic records of those two great immigration cohorts.

The economists making the case that recent immigrants are no likelier to become a permanent underclass than their forebears are Ran Abramitzky of Stanford University and Leah Boustan of Princeton University. Their conclusion is based on statistics they claim show that men born into poor immigrant families in specific years of the “Ellis Island era” (1880 and 1910) caught up to the rest of the country income-wise at just about the same pace as the men (and women) born into poor immigrant families in 1997.

For both the Ellis Island immigrants and their latter-day counterparts, the measure of economic success is the earnings of these second generation immigrant men between the ages of 30 and 50, and how they’ve supposedly risen.

But these scholars appear to completely overlook numerous sea changes in the U.S. economy between 1880 and 2015 that obviously have had decisive effects on the income growth performance of immigrant cohorts that have arrived at different points during this 135-year stretch.

For example, more recent immigrants have clearly benefited from various state and national welfare programs that either were completely unavailable to previous such groups, or existed only in the most rudimentary forms. Since cash benefits are counted by the Census Bureau as income, and given the evidence that immigrants are heavy welfare users compared with the rest of the population, the discrepancy surely distorts the Abramitzky-Boustan comparisons in favor of those more recent immigrants.

Nor do the two scholars seem to take into account the dramatic slowing of income mobility between the late-19th and early 21st centuries. And much evidence shows that it”s been considerable. For example, this widely cited study concludes that “The United States had more relative occupational mobility [which generated upward income mobility] generations through the 1900–1920…than the United States in the second half of the twentieth century.”

And these conclusions have been reenforced for the late 20th century and extended into the 21st by a team of economists headed by Harvard University’s As summarized in the first graph in this different New York Times article, the percentage of all U.S. children (including those from immigant families) born into the average American household with a chance of earning more than their parents fell by about half between 1940 and 1980.

Additionally, the Chetty team – whose work is viewed by many as the latest gold standard in the field – discovered that lower-income Americans (also including immigrant families) have by no means escaped this pattern.

In other words, the move by the children of low-income immigrant cohorts to the 65th U.S. income percentile – the Abramitzky-Boustan measure of income ladder-climbing – isn’t nearly what it used to be. (For some perspective, the 50th percentile is something of a proxy for “middle-class incomes.”)  

And further reenforcing the idea that individuals’ ladder-climbing nowadays doesn’t yield nearly the economic stability and security affects as in the past are two other widely noted trends marking the U.S. economy and workforce in recent decades: a major widening of income inequality, and the growing inability of single-earner households to live middle-class lives.

In other words, two economists from leading universities have evidently conducted research about a major U.S. economic issue that ignores much of what’s been happening to the U.S. economy during the period they examine. And at least two leading newspapers have uncritically swallowed their findings. It’s clear that climbing into the middle class isn’t the only feature of American life that isn’t nearly what it used to be. 

P.S. For work raising different, generally broader questions about these and other immigration-related findings by Boustan in particular, see this piece by Breitbart.com‘s Neil Munro. 

 

 

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