Expert Commentary

Immigrants to the U.S. before WWI made today’s communities richer, better educated

Immigrants to the United States before the First World War made their new communities richer and better educated over the long-term, new research shows.

Immigrants at Ellis Island, c. 1900 (Library of Congress)
Immigrants at Ellis Island, c. 1900 (Library of Congress)

Immigration is an explosive topic in politics and news. In Europe and the United States, many people focus on new arrivals’ short-term impacts. But what about immigrants’ long-term effects on their new communities?

A new working paper looks back at the largest wave of immigration in U.S. history, between roughly 1860 and 1920. The Age of Mass Migration, as it’s sometimes known, saw a surge in arrivals, predominantly from southern, northern and eastern Europe. The authors find these settlers made lasting, positive contributions.

An academic study worth reading: “Migrants and the Making of America: The Short- and Long-Run Effects of Immigration During the Age of Mass Migration,” by the National Bureau of Economic Research, 2017.

Study summary: Sandra Sequeira from the London School of Economics and her colleagues study Census data on the proportion of foreign-born residents in American counties between 1860 and 1920. They compare these figures to maps of railways, controlling for a number of factors, including any railway construction driven by industrialization. After all, the railways “were an important means of transport for immigrants moving from the coastal ports of the east to the interior of the United States,” where many stayed.

They compare their findings to data from the year 2000, including average per capita income in a county, average years of schooling, poverty rates, unemployment and urbanization — theoretically among the immigrants’ descendants.

Sequeira and her colleagues claim to establish a causal relationship, that “historical immigration (from 1860-1920) resulted in significantly higher incomes, less poverty, less unemployment, more urbanization, and higher educational attainment today.”

Key takeaways:

  • Today, counties with the median number of immigrants (50th percentile) during this period have per capita incomes that are 20 percent higher than counties that received the fewest immigrants.
  • Today, those same counties are 31 percent more urbanized; residents today also average 0.6 years more school.
  • During the period of immigration, though, the counties with the highest rates of immigration saw short-lived increases in illiteracy, due to the fact that immigrants had lower rates of education than natives.
  • Immigrants immediately contributed to industrialization, increasing agricultural productivity and innovation (as measured by patent applications). Counties with the median amount of immigration (50th percentile) during this period had 50 percent more manufacturing output per capita in 1920 and 57 percent more in 1930 than counties with the fewest immigrants.
  • The authors find no evidence that immigrants settling in a county negatively impacted economic prosperity in neighboring counties.
  • They find no evidence that high rates of immigration during this period affected “social cohesion” in the long run, such as voter turnout, crime rates or social networks.
  • They also find no evidence that long-run benefits “come at the expense of short-run economic costs.”
  • “The railways brought immigrants to the connected locations which, in turn, increased income and urbanization in those areas.”

Helpful resources:

During the Age of Mass Migration, many new Americans arrived at Ellis Island in New York Harbor. The National Park Service, which now runs the site, has compiled a list of free resources for viewing arrival records.

The Census Bureau publishes tutorials on immigration, including 19th century statistics and population growth figures.

Other research:

Journalist’s Resource has written about the science behind long-term demographic predictions and how immigrant children who arrive in the U.S. at a younger age seem to do better in school and their adult careers.

A 2015 article in the Journal of Economic Literature focuses on the economic impacts of new arrivals during the Age of Mass Migration. The same authors address assimilation during the period in the Journal of Political Economy.

Other research on the economics of this phenomenon appeared in European Economic Review in 2013, where the authors focus on how diverse communities improve economic output.

How compulsory schooling helped forge a national identity is the focus of this 2016 working paper from the London School of Economics.