Immigrants' Changing Labor Market Assimilation in the United States during the Age of Mass Migration

William J. Collins, Ariell Zimran

NBER Working Paper No. 26414
Issued in October 2019
NBER Program(s):Development of the American Economy, Development Economics, Labor Studies, Political Economy

Whether immigrants advance in labor markets relative to natives as they gain experience is a fundamental question in the economics of immigration. For the US, it has been difficult to answer this question for the period when the immigration rate was at its historical peak, between the 1840s and 1920s. We develop new datasets of linked census records for foreign- and native-born men in 1850-80 and 1900-30. We find that for the nineteenth century cohort, there is evidence of substantial “catching up” by immigrants in terms of occupational status, but for the twentieth century cohort there is not. These changes do not reflect the shift in source countries from Northern and Western Europe to Southern and Eastern Europe. Instead, we find that natives had advantages in upgrading relative to immigrants conditional on initial occupation in both periods, but that by 1900, natives were less concentrated than previously in jobs with low upward mobility (farming) and more concentrated in jobs with lower initial status but higher upward mobility. The difference in assimilation over time is thus rooted in a sizable change in native men’s occupational distribution between 1850 and 1900. These results revise the oversimplified but influential view that historical immigrants “worked their way up” in the American labor market.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w26414

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