Jewish Princeton professor gives BU Romano Lecture

By Solomon W. Polachek

Were America’s streets for our European ancestors really paved in gold? Is it really true that immigrants who come to the U.S. today from poor backgrounds never catch up? Will they take away jobs from U.S. citizens and hurt the economy? And will they ever assimilate?
Immigration is one of the more divisive issues in politics today. Yet according to Princeton Economics Professor Leah Platt Boustan, many Americans base their immigration views on myths, not facts. On October 28, Boustan delivered the annual Mario and Antoinette Romano Lecture held on the Binghamton University campus. Boustan presented data from her recent book, “Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success,” to debunk many of the current misconceptions.

To get the facts, she and her co-author, Stanford University Economics Professor Ran Abramitzky, wrote artificial intelligence programs to search literally millions of individuals listed on Coupled with U.S. decennial census and other data, their research provides the a comprehensive data base chronicling immigrant lives of those arriving in the United States from 1880 to the present. These data also show how the lives of these immigrants and those of their children developed as they spent more time in the United States. 

So was, America not paved in gold? In her lecture Boustan quoted an unknown Italian immigrant whose statement is painted on an Ellis Island wall: “I came to America because I heard the streets were paved in gold. When I got here, I found out three things: First, the streets weren’t paved in gold; second, they weren’t paved at all; and third, I was expected to pave them.”

Boustan’s data verify the quote. Although some European immigrants – particularly those from England and Germany – came with skills that enabled them to get decent jobs from the start, most were poor. They arrived with no skills and often couldn’t speak English. They stayed relatively poor and moved up only very slowly. A typical person in the lower end of the earnings distribution remained so. Boustan’s own great-grandparents spent their lives eking out a meager livelihood in a small family store. To make ends meet while growing up, at least two of their children sold newspapers on the street corner to augment family income. 

Yet the same was not true for the next generation. Boustan’s grandfather enrolled in medical school and became a physician, then and now a well-to-do profession. And this is the typical story. By the second generation, immigrants from virtually all countries improved their lot. In a graph, she showed upward mobility of children of immigrants. In most countries around the world then and today, including currently poor countries like Mexico, Guatemala and Laos, immigrant children climbed to higher levels of economic success than U.S.-born children raised in families with a similar income level. According to her research, immigrant children actually do better than comparable U.S. born kids.

But will they then take away American jobs? Though not all economists agree on this, Boustan says no, certainly not in the long-run. 

Citing a number of “before and after” cases that compare wages in cities that witness tremendous immigrant influxes to comparable cities that did not, Boustan concludes no decrease in American worker well-being. Instead, she believes American workers thrived. For example, she states, wages did not fall in Miami compared to comparable cities when, in 1980, Castro opened the gates causing over 125,000 to emigrate from Cuba to Miami. Instead, she argues, new jobs were created as immigrants assimilated into the community. And assimilate they did, without committing more crime than natives, as some mistakenly believe.

So how did she measure assimilation? Several ways. One is language. The Ellis Island Oral History Project contains transcripts and audio files of well over a thousand in-depth interviews. Based on detailed measures of the vocabulary used, sentence complexity and accent, as well as other measures of English fluency, Boustan and her colleagues found that immigrants arriving as young children achieved virtually unaccented speech, a complex sentence structure and high-level vocabulary by the time they became adults. And this was true independent of country of origin. 

Another measure of assimilation is the names immigrant parents choose for their U.S.-born children. Are they home country names or American-sounding ones? By culling names of millions of children collected from early 20th century census records Boustan and colleagues were able to construct a “foreign name index.” Children of U.S.-born parents averaged an index score of 35 out of 100, where 100 is a completely foreign name like Hyman or Meyer. Immigrants who had a child within the first three years of arriving in the United States selected names with higher scores (around 55). Whereas immigrants never quite went all the way “with names like Logan or Ashley,” they did choose more neutral ones like John and Elizabeth. But more important, the rate of name assimilation for today’s Latin American and Asian immigrants is virtually the same as for the European immigrants in the past. Boustan’s own co-author, a relatively recent Israeli immigrant, named his first child Roee (pronounced Roe-eh, which means shepherd), but named his most recent child simply Tom.

And what about the Jews? In a newer, yet-to-be-published paper written with Ran Abramitzky and Dylan Connor, she identifies Jewish immigrants reported in the 1910, 1920 and 1930 censuses. To do so, she develops a “Jewish Name Index” indicating the probability a census respondent is a Jew. Hyman Levine is Jewish, Wade Hampton not. On the top of the heap are Russian Jews. Upon arriving they earn almost 15 percent more than other immigrant Jews, but Jews from other countries did almost equally well. They earned about 10 percent more than other immigrant groups. Surprisingly, at that time Norwegians and the Swiss did the worst, earning about 25 percent less. 

Also by at least one index ,Jews assimilated more quickly than virtually all other immigrant groups. Second generation Russian Jewish immigrants are most likely to receive American names than any other immigrant group, and other foreign Jews almost the same. 
The Jews were not destitute and they did assimilate more quickly than most other immigrant groups. And thus, another myth was debunked.