If you think most immigrants who came to the United States in the late 1800s started at the bottom and toiled their way to the top, you’re mistaken.
In fact, when they first arrived in the United States the average immigrant did not make substantially less money than those who were already here and they also tended to advance on the job at the same rate as well, according to the report, A Nation of Immigrants:Assimilation and Economic Outcomes in the Age of Mass Migration.
“Many people have this image in mind that immigrants of the past started out at the bottom of the ladder and worked their way up pretty quickly,” said Leah Platt Boustan, an associate professor of economics at the University of California, Los Angeles, who worked on the report. “But what our data suggests is that immigrants in the past already arrived looking pretty good relative to natives so there wasn’t much of a gap on average to close.”
The years between 1850 and 1913 — known as the Age of Mass Migration in the United States — marked one of the largest migration periods in modern history. About 30 million immigrants arrived in the United States during this time. By 1910, 22 percent of the U.S. labor force was foreign born. By comparison, 17 percent of today’s labor force was born in another country.
At around the turn of the century, the most typical job for both native and foreign-born workers was to own and operate a farm.
But the immigrants who did other work were not on equal footing. Those who came from developed countries such as England, Scotland, France and Germany generally went straight into higher-paying jobs, while those from less developed countries — Scandinavia, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Poland and Russia — landed jobs that paid less.
Higher-paying jobs included manager, sales or office clerk, and operating more complicated machinery in factories. The lower-end jobs included agricultural workers (who did not own their own land) and general laborers in different industries, including the railroads and in factories, where they didn’t actually operate the equipment, but were more likely to carry things, load the furnace and clean the factory.
Today’s immigrant, on average, earns about 20 percent less than the average native born worker, according to Platt Boustan, who adds that this significant earning gap lasts for five years.
“We think this idea of ‘Hey, immigrants got it right in the past and today there’s something going on, there’s some problem where immigrants aren’t doing enough to try to move themselves up the ladder or try to pull themselves up by their bootstraps,’ we think that is a misreading of history,” she said.
Platt Boustan has some theories about why today’s immigrants aren’t doing as well as those who came to America during the Age of Mass Migration. She says, given the industries that drove the American economy at the time, it’s possible the ability to speak English was not as critical in the late 1800s and early 1900s as it is in today’s job market.
And those pay gaps are passed onto the next generation. The children of immigrants who start at the bottom will still be at the lower rungs of the pay scale as adults, although the gap will be smaller. The same holds true for the children of immigrants who came from more developed nations.
“If you’re a child of a Mexican immigrant, you’re still at the lower end of the earnings distribution,” said Platt Boustan, “and if you’re the child of a Chinese immigrant, you’re at the upper end.”