The Volokh Conspiracy

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Mobility as the Key to Immigrant Success

An important new study finds that immigrants and their children succeed in large part by being more willing to move to opportunity than the native-born.


Economists Ran Abramitzky (Stanford) and Leah Boustan (Princeton) recently published Streets of Gold: America's Untold Story of Immigrant Success, an important new analysis of the economic impact of immigration to the United States over the last century or more. Some of the conclusions they reach based on extensive new data, are similar to those of previous research, such as that recent immigrants are just as upwardly mobile  and assimilate just as quickly as those of the "Ellis Island" era of the early twentieth century. Consistent with much earlier scholarship, they also find large economic benefits of migration to both immigrants themselves and the destination country, though they explore some novel pathways for the latter.

One interesting finding that I have not seen developed in the same way before is their analysis of why children of immigrants are, on average, more economically successful than otherwise comparable children of natives. It is not because immigrants are smarter or more hard-working than natives, or have better parenting skills. A recent Washington Post profile of their work summarizes:

Because their data follows immigrants across generations, the researchers were able to write the surprising sequel to immigrants' early struggles: Their children thrived in America, rising up the economic ladder faster than their native-born peers. And the same is true of immigrants today.

"Children of immigrants from Mexico and the Dominican Republic today are just as likely to move up from their parents' circumstances as were children of poor Swedes and Finns a hundred years ago," the economists write in their new book, "Streets of Gold."

According to Boustan and Abramitzky, the secret weapon deployed by immigrant parents wasn't education. It wasn't a demanding parenting style like the one described in Amy Chua's "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," either.

It was geographic mobility.

Immigrant kids tended to outperform their peers from similar economic backgrounds because, unencumbered by deep hometown roots, their parents were willing to move to where the jobs were. If you compare immigrants to similar native kids born in the same place, they succeed at similar rates. It's just that immigrant kids are much more likely to have grown up in one of those high-opportunity places.

"Immigrants are living in locations that provide upward mobility for everyone," Boustan said.


My own immigration experience illustrates the point that Abramitzky and Boustan make: During the first five years after we arrived in the US from the Soviet Union, my parents moved twice—once for better job opportunities, the second time to put me in a better school system. The latter move almost certainly had a significant impact on such later success as I was able to achieve.

Why are immigrant parents more willing to "move to opportunity" than natives? The Post article highlights what we might call lower moving costs. People who don't have deep roots in a given community (because they have lived there only a short time), on average have less to lose by leaving than those who have lived in the same place their whole lives (or at least for many years), and therefore have more accumulated family ties and other social connections there.

This is surely an important factor. But I would also point to dispositional differences. Almost by definition, immigrants are people willing to radically alter their lives in order to seek out greater freedom or opportunity—often to the point of moving to a place with a very different language and culture from the one where they grew up. In the process, they also often leave behind family members, friends, and other contacts. People willing to do that are also likely to have a greater-than-average willingness to make additional moves within the destination country, if opportunity beckons. Indeed, the latter move may well seem simple and easy compared to international migration! After the experience of moving from the Soviet Union to the US, my parents' later moves from one place in the US to another seemed almost trivial by comparison.

Immigrants, of course, are far from the only people who stand to benefit from "moving to opportunity." The same is often true of natives, as well. We probably cannot do much to change the dispositional differences between immigrants and natives, nor eliminate the special moving costs faced by people who have deep roots in a community they are reluctant to give up. But there are major barriers to interjurisdictional mobility within the United States that can be greatly lowered simply cutting back on dysfunctional government policies, most notably exclusionary zoning and protectionist occupational licensing. We can also do more to facilitate "foot voting" in the private sector, which often enables people to seek out opportunity without changing their place of residence.

By taking these steps, we can increase opportunities for immigrants and native-born citizens alike—and also greatly increase economic productivity and innovation. Even deeply rooted homeowners who never move themselves are likely to benefit.