The Congealing Pot–Today’s Immigrants Are Different From Waves Past

Jason Richwine, National Review, August 24, 2009

They’re not just like the Irish–or the Italians or the Poles, for that matter. The large influx of Hispanic immigrants after 1965 represents a unique assimilation challenge for the United States. Many optimistic observers have assumed–incorrectly, it turns out–that Hispanic immigrants will follow the same economic trajectory European immigrants did in the early part of the last century. Many of those Europeans came to America with no money and few skills, but their status steadily improved. Their children outperformed them, and their children’s children were often indistinguishable from the “founding stock.” The speed of economic assimilation varied somewhat by ethnic group, but three generations were typically enough to turn “ethnics” into plain old Americans.

{snip} “People used to say the Irish or the Poles would always be poor, but look at them today!” For Hispanics, we are led to believe, the same thing will happen.

But that claim isn’t true. Though about three-quarters of Hispanics living in the U.S. today are either immigrants or the children of immigrants, a significant number have roots here going back many generations. We have several ways to measure their intergenerational progress, and the results leave little room for optimism about their prospects for assimilation.

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The children of Hispanic immigrants (the second generation) actually stay in school much longer and earn a considerably higher wage than their parents. In fact, the Hispanic rate of assimilation from the first to the second generation is only slightly lower than the assimilation rate of more successful groups of immigrants. Most second-generation Hispanics make up nearly as much ground as the children of European immigrants would if they grew up in the same disadvantaged situation.

But the good news ends there, and two problems arise. {snip} [Assimilation] appears to stall after the second generation. We see little further ladder-climbing from the grandchildren of Hispanic immigrants. They do not rise out of the lower class.

The most straightforward statistical evidence of this stall in Hispanic assimilation comes from the Current Population Survey (CPS), which asks respondents their ethnicity, where they were born, and where their parents were born. From this information we can construct an account of the first generation (foreign-born), the second generation (born in the U.S. with at least one foreign-born parent), and the “3+” generations (born in the U.S. to two U.S.-born parents) among the Hispanic respondents.

This chart shows how Hispanic Americans compare with white natives generation by generation. The annual earnings of second-generation Hispanic men are substantially higher than those of the first generation. However, the 3+ generations have about the same earnings as the second, still well below white natives. No generational progress beyond the second generation is evident.

The educational picture does not look much better. The children of Hispanic immigrants are much better educated than their parents. However, American-born Hispanics still have high dropout and low college-completion rates compared with white natives, and there is little improvement from the second to the 3+ generations. Again, progress stalls.

These results do not depend on the time period considered. {snip}

The studies discussed so far are cross-sectional–statistical snapshots captured at single points in time. Since each of the generations being compared lives in the same era, the second-generation respondents are not the actual children of the first generation, nor are the third-generation respondents the children of the second. But longitudinal studies–taking one cohort of Hispanic immigrants, then examining their children and their children’s children over several decades–tell a similarly pessimistic story.

Economist James P. Smith pieced together census and CPS data starting in 1940 and ending in 1997. He was able to compare eight different immigrant birth cohorts with their children and grandchildren in later years. Smith found that, contrary to the cross-sectional studies, the Hispanic educational deficit relative to whites did become smaller between the second and 3+ generations. {snip} Did the educational gains for Hispanics affect their relative earning power?

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For Mexicans in particular the picture is even worse. In five of the six most recent birth cohorts, the Mexican 3+ generations earn a marginally lower fraction of the white-native wage than does the second generation.

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Taken as a whole, the research on Hispanic assimilation presents two possible conclusions. Either Hispanic assimilation will be exceedingly slow–taking at least four or five generations, and probably several more–or it will not happen. In either case, Hispanic immigration will have a serious long-term consequence: The grandchildren of today’s Hispanic immigrants will lag far behind the grandchildren of today’s white natives.

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That assimilation has stalled even among third-generation Hispanics growing up today is especially sobering. In the early 20th century, the quality of schools varied greatly, high-school graduation was unusual, travel was relatively difficult, and universities and employers were free to discriminate based on ethnicity. Today all but the worst inner-city schools are well funded, high-school graduation is expected, traveling around the country to look for work is much easier, and affirmative-action programs give preferences to Hispanics. Despite these advantages over earlier immigrants, today’s Hispanics have not closed the socioeconomic gap with white natives.

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The consequences of a large ethno-cultural group’s lagging behind the majority in education and income are significant. In strictly economic terms, perpetually poor immigrants and their descendants will be a major strain on social spending and infrastructure. Health care, public education, welfare payments, the criminal justice system, and programs for affordable housing will all require more tax dollars. When pro-immigration conservatives declare that these government programs should be scaled back or eliminated entirely, I am sympathetic. But a large public sector is a reality that cannot be wished away–we will not be abolishing Medicaid or public schools anytime soon. Immigration policy needs to take that reality into account.

Even if economics were not a concern, the lack of Hispanic assimilation is likely to create ethnic tensions that threaten our cultural core. Human beings are a tribal species, and this makes ethnicity a natural fault line in any society. Intra-European ethnic divisions have been largely overcome through economic assimilation–Irish and Italian immigrants may have looked a bit different from natives, but by the third generation their socioeconomic profiles were similar. Hispanic Americans do not have that benefit.

Persistent ethnic disparities in socioeconomic status add to a sense of “otherness” felt by minorities outside the economic mainstream. {snip} For example, a Pew Hispanic Center Survey in 2002 asked American-born Hispanics “which terms they would use first to describe themselves.” Less than half (46 percent) said “American,” while the majority said they primarily identified either with their ancestral country or as simply Hispanic or Latino. {snip} It is difficult to see how a unifying national culture can be preserved and extended in that environment.

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[Editor’s Note: Charts and tables accompany the article at National Review. You must be logged in as an NR / Digital subscriber to access them.]

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