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Scholar Spotlight: Ariell Zimran

Exploring immigrants’ economic mobility in America

April 14, 2021


Lisa Camner McKay Senior Writer, Institute
ARIELL ZIMRAN, Assistant Professor of Economics, Vanderbilt University
Scholar Spotlight: Ariell Zimran

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 understanding the problem in its entirety.”
—Ariell Zimran

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.

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Lisa Camner McKay
Senior Writer, Institute

Lisa Camner McKay is a senior writer with the Opportunity & Inclusive Growth Institute at the Minneapolis Fed. In this role, she creates content for diverse audiences in support of the Institute’s policy and research work.