Past Immigrants Had It Easier Than Today’s Newcomers

Posted April 27th, 2015 at 1:58 pm (UTC-4)

Immigrants arrive in New York from Ellis Island circa 1912. (National Library of France/Public Domain)

Immigrants arrive in New York from Ellis Island circa 1912. (National Library of France/Public Domain)

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.”

Immigrants, including the Bombardelli family from Italy, enter the United States through Ellis Island in 1902. (Library of Congress/Public Domain)

Immigrants, including the Bombardelli family from Italy, enter the United States through Ellis Island in 1902. (Library of Congress/Public Domain)

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.

(File Photo) From left, Juan Quiroz, Rita Daaboul and Le Minh Le, take the oath of citizenship during a Naturalization ceremony aboard the USS Constitution, on the annual Fourth of July turnaround cruise in Boston Harbor. (AP Photo)

(File Photo) From left, Juan Quiroz, Rita Daaboul and Le Minh Le, take the oath of citizenship during a Naturalization ceremony aboard the USS Constitution, on the annual Fourth of July turnaround cruise in Boston Harbor. (AP Photo)

“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.”

9 responses to “Past Immigrants Had It Easier Than Today’s Newcomers”

  1. Blake says:

    Good that the sometimes radical differences between immigrant groups are being addressed, and how generalizations about all immigrants being the same, or in the same condition after immigration, is also being addressed, both today and over time historically… because there can be big differences according to nationality and also US region of arrival. Regional differences in the USA should be considered, for example agricultural or factory versus high-tech economies or degreed professions (teachers, doctors, etc.), temporary versus permanent work status. Also address that the educational systems of the countries of origin affect status in the USA, as well as the wealth (or lack thereof) of welcoming same-ethnic networks already in the USA that may affect how immigrants fare here, quite a lot even, and whether the intention of employers is to import permanent residents, or to recycle rotating populations going back and forth to country of origin. Do individual immigrants speak English or not, and how well? Some people arrive with lots of money (even to invest!) and pre-existing established business connections, others with practically nothing. Some recruited immigrants pay a percentage of their income to transnational recruiters, even under-the-table, and what sounds like a lot of money overseas wont buy much here. Immigrants must deal with being competition for native citizens due to unemployment factors. esp where they work for lower wages. America is no longer wide-open spaces and cheap land, or trees you can chop down to build your house, or always a place to grow your food, like it was in 1850 or 1900… and now there far more non-European immigrants with greater cultural adjustment to deal with, including religious tolerance issues and the personal values issues that go with that. America is not the pioneer-land of the 1800s or even the early 1900s any more, and the economic life is probably now more competitive than ever.

  2. Martial says:

    The article appears to stress that equality was confined to those who farmed. Otherwise, there were inequities dependent on national/racial origin, even as there exist today.

    Apart from farming, matters have not really changed much for immigrants. Farming is not much of an option any more simply because the proportion of persons in agriculture is very low in general. There is, however, a great advantage that immigrants have today relative to the early twentieth century. Today’s legal immigrants are not viewed as a plague. “Emergency Immigration Legislation” comprises transcripts of discussions held in the US Senate beginning Jan 3, 1921. Characterization of potential immigrants by Wilbur J Carr, Department of State:
    “Catonia . . . For the most part they are small in stature and of a low order of intelligence. . . . Florence. The only really effective was of eliminating those inimical to American interests from aliens coming to America from a country so honeycombed with socialistic ideas & activities of every degree as Italy would be to suspend emigration altogether. Rotterdam—The great mass of aliens passing through Rotterdam at the present time are Russian Poles or Polish Jews of the usual ghetto type. . . They are filthy, un-American, & often dangerous in their habits. POLAND . . . 85-90% lack any conception of patriotic or national spirit, & the majority of this percentage is mentally incapable of acquiring it . . . At the moment, 90% may be regarded as ta low estimate of the proportion representing the Jewish race among emigrants to America from Poland. The unassimilability of these classes politically is a fact too often proved in the past to bear any arguments. . . . RUMANIA . . . 90% of applicants are Jews of both sexes and all ages. . . . TURKEY Constantinople – The emigrants from this part of the world are exclusively raw laborers, waiters, & servants who are intellectually incapable of being dangerous . . . they are politically colorless & controlling them is largely a matter of making sure that they can pass the literacy test and the physical examination in order that they may not incur the expense of a journey to the United States only to be deported.”

    As one can see, there are far more advantages to being a potential immigrant today.

  3. Ceecee says:

    This is nothing short of revisionism. Where did the immigrants of the 1880’s have social media to whine on or the ACLU to defend them. How can you say they made more back them when they made pennies a day and had to give the money they earned back to the company owners to pay their rent and rent their tools of work. White people today stand up for dark skinned minorities in ways they never did with the poor white immigrants today. And few ever made enough money to go back home across the Atlantic whereas today they take there american dollars to Mexico and it is worth a lot more. They can live well with those wages in Mexico. The problem is that it took at least three generations for immigrant families of the 1880’s to make it whereas today they expect that in their own lifetime.

    • Martial says:

      It also ignores rather amazing nastiness to immigrants in the past. Somehow, the second half of the nineteenth century is compared with the first quarter of the twenty-first century. Do have any idea how bizarre it is to say ANYONE in the nineteenth century was doing better, economically speaking, than ANY American in the twenty-first century?

      Evaluate what happened to Chinese immigrants in the “good old days.” Yes, there was more likely to be some sort of employment, but it surely did not pay anywhere near as well as did employment for White people. Moreover, the violence against these people was something none of us would permit in our era. Yet, that very violence formed the basis of a Presidential Campaign, Mr. James Blaine. So reprehensible was this that Thomas Nast went Democratic!

      Here are some cartoons:

      Today even these cartoons would be unacceptable, but in that era they were strong protests against vicious discrimination against immigrants.

    • Martial says:

      The system deleted my reply, likely because it had a link to a website. The webpage displayed Thomas Nast’s cartoons against Presidential Candidate Blaine’s anti-Chinese immigrant platform. No matter how bad things are today, that’s nothing compared to back then. You can find the link on Google with ease. Remember, this was when all was supposed to be heaven, in the nineteenth century.

  4. Mark says:

    Agree that in the past immigrants came here legally, and they left us a great legacy. I am an immigrant myself and know quite a bit about this subject. Most immigrants that come illegally today are from south of the border. I came here to attend college, and was never in a status that was illegal – followed the law down to the dots. Even with my college degree in a highly sought profession it took me a total of 19 years to become a permanent resident. Event as I write I am not citizen yet. But I’m very happy and proud that I did it the right way. I have never received a single free gift from the government or any individual. Even while in college I worked legally part time on campus to help pay bills. We need to make a distinction between people that have done it the right way, and those forcing themselves upon this wonderful nation without regards to the law. The current wave of illegal immigration has been made possible by politicians that sold this nation out for political gain. And it all began with President Reagan who, in the mid 1980s, granted the first amnesty to illegal immigrants. Clinton did not tamper with the issue, however the new wave from south of the border began during the Bush administration right after 911. Bush lobbied for them, and called them and said the U.S. needed to create a path to citizenship for “honest hard working people”. Well, how could he call them “honest” when they already broken the law with all impunity. Next stop: politicians in many states began voting to give them driver’s license. And to crown it all, President Obama dedicated his service and legacy to them.

  5. Carolina says:

    Interesting article, but I think it left some aspects out of the equation. In the past, everbody who entered the country was automatically legal, which is not the case these days. So, of course it is easier if you are able to get a good job, with a good salary if you have the skills; whereas today, if you are illegal, you will have to be content with whatever job you can find, and the chances of improving your status are very limited; something that unfortunately will be passed on to children. There is, also, no mention of the discrimination people experience in today’s US society. These aspects tend to push people to remain in certain areas, where crime rate is high because is where cheapest rents are, making children more prone to gangs, and drugs, and droping out of school, and we all know what that means. Inmigrants, depending on where they come from, are being segregated and left with no, or limited, option to close the gap between them and native born workers.

  6. Mark Lucker says:

    This article has a whole lot of flaws which diminish its credibility; first off, listing ‘Scandinavia’ as a country. No mention of sweatshops, of the immigrants who were essentially indebted to people who sponsored their passage, child labor. Upton Sinclair and Samuel Gompers are rolling over in their graves.

  7. Shawn says:

    FALSE.There was no safety net nor help of any kind from the US government for these immigrants that mainly toiled in steel mills coal mines.
    I wouldn’t expect anyone from UCLA to be too familiar with that, since these immigrants came to the the northeast and Midwest.Neglecting to mention anything about today’s welfare system,and the complete lack of it in that period demonstrates the author’s abysmal lack of understanding of the subject.
    I do credit the author for discussing past immigration to put it in perspective with today’s immigration.
    The most important point about immigration is the essential purpose, twofold: For mutual benefit of country and immigrant or refugees. Note that immigration has never existed,until recently, only for the betterment of the immigrant.
    Immigrants at Ellis Island went through a 14 step checking in process, where the immigrant could be deported if they failed at of these steps.
    Also immigrants of today commonly buy their way in, or just show up(self selected immigration).Others are loopholes for Asians, eg chain immigration, business GRANTS, etc.
    The only immigrants I met from that period were my grandparents and they and cohort worked in very dangerous steel industry work, at low wages.

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