Children of modern immigrants have climbed the economic ladder as fast as the Ellis Island generation

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Long before Leah Boustan became an economics professor at Princeton, she was an undergraduate student at Princeton putting the finishing touches on her graduation thesis.

Alongside his adviser, longtime professor Henry “Hank” Farber, Boustan published a 100-page research project that compared the performance of students who dropped out of high school in the early 1960s to those who dropped out decades later.

“I can’t remember the exact moment I decided to become an economic historian, but I remember telling Hank that I was really interested in cohort comparisons over time,” Boustan said. . “This interest is the basis of much of my work, even today.”

Twenty-two years after graduating from Princeton, Boustan has published a book that uses troves of data and the latest innovations in data science to examine a problem that Boustan considers “one of the most difficult problems in American politics” today and in the past: immigration.

Léa Boustan in her class jacket with her father on campus

Leah Boustan as an undergraduate student at Princeton with her father, Harlan Platt

Written with his longtime collaborator Ran Abramitzky of Stanford University, Streets of Gold: The Untold Story of Immigrant Success in America presents to the public more than a decade of his rigorous empirical research on the personal and societal impacts of immigration.

Weaving together personal family stories – including their own – with insights from the data, Boustan and Abramitzky tell an uplifting story about the promise of immigration. One finding that Boustan found particularly surprising was the economic success of immigrant children, now and in the past.

Climbing the economic ladder

“The fact that the children of immigrants from poor families in the 1980s moved up the economic ladder at the same rate as the children of the Ellis Island generation, that shocked me,” Boustan said.

A hundred years ago, Italy – a major source country for immigrants to the United States – had about half of the GDP per capita of the United States. Once in America, however, the sons of Italian immigrants rose up. Those who grew up to 25e percentile of the income distribution in the late 1800s was earning enough in adulthood to be close to 60e percentile.

Today, the children of immigrants from Nicaragua, which accounts for about one-tenth of the per capita GDP of the United States, experience similar rates of economic mobility.

“There’s no reason this should be true, but it turned out to be the case,” Boustan said. “It’s something really remarkable that we can see from the data.”

These data – and the methodologies developed by Boustan and Abramitzky to use them – deserve almost as much attention as the results.

In addition to working with and linking modern data such as IRS tax records and birth certificate files, a partnership with genealogy website Ancestry.com allowed Boustan and Abramitzky to automate research and track millions of families across more than 100 years of census data. . From there, they worked with audio recordings of historic interviews and congressional speeches, using machine learning tools to analyze these texts and glean big data insights.

an influential teacher

The rigor of the research is one of the reasons it is so groundbreaking, and a tradition that Boustan can trace back to her days as an undergraduate at Princeton.

As a high school debate student interested in public policy, Boustan applied the decision early at Princeton in an effort to declare a concentration at the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA). But the time she spent learning from Professor Farber changed her mind.

“I took economics classes to specialize in SPIA,” she said. “One such course was ECO 313: Applied Econometrics with Hank Farber, where we used real datasets to answer questions. I fell in love with this course.”

Boustan told Farber she wanted to spend a summer working in Washington, but he persuaded her to stay at Princeton instead to learn more about data analysis and to see how acquiring a expertise in a discipline like economics could help it produce the kind of policy-relevant work. that legislators really need.

“So that’s what I did, and I never really looked back,” she said.

Boustan declared economics as his concentration at Princeton and began spending his free time in the computer lab at the Industrial Relations Section (IR) — a group largely known for training and supporting some of the most celebrated labor economists and empiricists in the field, including 2021 Nobel Laureates and Princeton alumni David Card and Joshua Angrist.

From there, she went on to obtain a doctorate. from Harvard. After several years teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles, Boustan returned to Princeton in 2017.

As Boustan hits the road to talk about her new book, she’s able to marvel at how things have come full circle. When Farber joined as Boustan’s undergraduate thesis supervisor, he was director of the IR section. Last year, Boustan herself received the title, an honor she does not take for granted.

“The IR Section is a real intellectual community,” she said. “Faculty sits right next to graduate students — almost like in a lab — and works closely together. And the research that comes out of the section is always related to the real world, from minimum wage to unemployment to the immigration work I’ve done.

For Farber, who says Boustan was one of the best undergraduates he’s had the pleasure of teaching in his 30 years at Princeton, having Boustan as a colleague has been “a source of pride.”

Farber also noted how Boustan, who is no longer a student, has excelled in the role of counselor herself. “Leah has really been key in guiding the IR section not only on the research side, but also on the teaching side,” he said.

In addition to devoting her time as an advisor to dozens of undergraduate and graduate students, Boustan recently took on the task of teaching Princeton’s Principles of Microeconomics course – a popular class for undergraduate students in a wide range of disciplines.

“I taught this class myself for many years,” Farber said. “It was wonderful to see Leah take it on board and take it in a whole new direction. The reaction from students this year has been very positive.

The possibility of change

Boustan says her research and her role as an economic historian give her hope for the future of immigration policy.

“Sometimes we feel so stuck. We feel polarized. Congress cannot pass legislation. When it comes to immigration, we have been at an impasse for 50 years. But you look at history, and you see we’ve had some wild changes. It reminds me that I live in a small moment in history. I think economic history helps us recognize the possibility of room for change.

Specifically, she hopes much-needed policy change will come for the Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. “Our research shows the most optimistic view of what children of immigrants can achieve,” she said.

Because it sometimes takes 30 to 40 years to follow children into the labor market, her research on modern immigration focuses on children born in the 1980s. immigration amnesty under the Reagan administration. Boustan worries that studies of the arrivals of more recent immigrants — many of whom are undocumented and without any path to citizenship — may produce less optimistic results.

“I’m worried about the next generation and what I’ll find when we write Streets of Gold 2.0,” she said. “There is a lot of promise for immigrant children if they and their parents have a pathway into the formal labor market. I think there is an urgent need to pass DACA as legislation and really get back to the idea of ​​comprehensive immigration reform.”

Readers interested in knowing more can read on five immigration myths dispelled in “Streets of Gold”This Thursday, June 9, at 8:30 p.m. ET, Prof. Boustan will answer questions about her research in a Twitter Spaces event with Joey Politano, author of the Apricitas Economics blog. Join the event.

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