The research community
at the Institute includes
visiting scholars, consultants,
economists, and research
analysts. These scholars bring
a diversity of backgrounds,
interests, and expertise to
research that deepens our
understanding of economic
opportunity and inclusion as
well as policies that work to
improve both. We talked with
four of them about their work.
Policy is often influenced by myths we’ve developed about
our past. In the case of immigration, an influential myth held
that the immigrants who arrived in the United States from
Russia, Austria, and Italy in the early 1900s failed to assimilate
and achieve upward economic mobility to the extent
that earlier immigrants from Germany, Britain, and Ireland
did—and that the reason for this failure was their countries
of origin. This belief helped to motivate new immigration
policies implemented in 1921 and 1924 that heavily restricted
immigrants from eastern and southern Europe.
“If you don’t go back
and look at how we
got to this place,
you have no hope of
problem in its entirety.”
Since then, perceptions of immigrants’ ability—or inability—
to work their way up the ladder have continued to influence
U.S. immigration policy, explains
Ariell Zimran, a professor of economics
at Vanderbilt University.
But as Zimran and his colleague
William Collins show, the myth isn’t
true—or rather, it’s only half-true.
“There is interesting economics to
learn about the past,” Zimran, who
visited the Institute in the fall of 2020,
said. “If you don’t go back and look at
how we got to this place, you have no hope of understanding
the problem in its entirety.”
That spirit led Zimran to investigate immigrants’ economic
advances during the Age of Mass Migration (approximately
1840–1920). He finds that European immigrants who
came to the United States in the late 1800s did improve
their economic status relative to U.S.-born workers, whereas
European immigrants in the early 1900s did not. That part of
the myth is true. However, the reason why is not the different
countries of origin of the two groups.
The real explanation, Zimran and Collins find, is that
between 1850 and 1900, the structure of the U.S. economy
underwent a radical transformation. The result was a large
shift in the occupational distribution of U.S.-born workers
from farming, an occupation associated with little upward
mobility, to unskilled labor, an occupation associated with a
lot of upward mobility. Immigrants’ occupational distribution,
meanwhile, changed little over time—the most common occupation
for immigrants in both groups was unskilled labor.
As a result, the immigrants arriving in the early 1900s were
not able to work their way up relative to U.S.-born workers—but
this had nothing to do with the immigrants’ countries of origin
and everything to do with the structure of the U.S. economy.
“This tells us that the myths of history that contribute to our
policy in many cases are vastly out of date,” Zimran concludes.
More Scholar Spotlights from this issue