Posted by Matthew Deighton on April 16, 2015 in Website

It’s a familiar story.

An immigrant family makes their way to America. They start out with little money in their pockets, but with determination and hard work, they climb their way up the economic ladder.

That’s the cliché, but it may not be accurate according to new research.

“Conventional wisdom about immigrants and the American Dream tells us those who left their homes for America 100 years ago had years of hardship and hard work ahead of them before ‘the Dream’ became a reality. However, a closer look reveals ‘the Dream’ had much more to do with the skills you came with, and where you settled, than it did hard work alone,” said Michelle Ercanbrack at Ancestry.

Good Jobs for Immigrants

Researchers from UCLA, Stanford University, and California Polytechnic University used 1900, 1910, and 1920 U.S. Census data on Ancestry to help trace thousands of immigrant families from 16 European countries and found that the average European immigrant to the U.S. in the early 20th century did not start out substantially behind locals in job status. In fact, in 1900, on average, immigrants held jobs that paid slightly more than native workers—depending on where they lived.

The map below compares jobs held by immigrants and locals in 1900 and the wage gap between them. Immigrants in green states tended to hold jobs that paid more than those help by native workers. In red states, they held jobs that paid less. The dollars represent the differential. (Wage information was not included on the census, so workers were assigned the median pay for their profession as recorded on the census.)

1900 map

So, in 1900 immigrants in New Mexico actually held jobs that paid, on average, 32% more than locals, while immigrants in nearby Nevada worked in jobs paying 11% less on average.

“There are several factors that might explain why immigrants were more likely to hold higher-paying jobs than locals in some states, but in others were struggling to keep up. Some states had a strong industrial sector with many manufacturing jobs and others were more agricultural. It is also possible that discrimination and attitudes towards immigrants in the workplace varied across states. More research is needed to explain this pattern,” said Ran Abramitzky, PhD., Associate Professor of Economics at Stanford University.

Additional, unpublicized research by economists at UCLA, Stanford, and CalPoly found that immigrants from half of European countries who arrived in the early 20th century held better jobs than locals. Immigrants from the English-speaking countries and from the Russian Empire and France held jobs that earned more than locals, while immigrants from Scandinavia, Portugal, and other poor sending countries started out holding jobs that earned less. But while the country an immigrant hailed from had an impact, it wasn’t usually a dominant enough impact to account for the significant differences between all states.


Catching Up Not Easy

Researchers discovered something else about the wage gap: it persisted. Those earning less did not typically catch up, and neither did their children.

“Immigrants arrived in the U.S. with very different backgrounds, and these differences persisted over time,” said Leah Boustan, Ph.D., immigration expert and Associate Professor of Economics at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). 

“Unlike the image of immigrants pulling themselves up by the bootstraps in the past, we find that immigrants from sending countries that started out holding jobs that earned less than locals upon arrival continued to face an economic gap twenty years later, and, indeed, their children faced some of the same challenges.”

Immigrants Today

Fast forward to the year 2000, and things have changed. It appears that immigrants to the United States were substantially better off a century ago than they are now. In fact, green states, where immigrants do better than locals, are hard to come by these days.

2000 map

In 2000, earnings of California immigrants lagged behind locals a whopping 46% on average, while immigrants earned nearly 15% more than locals in Vermont.

The grid below shows the change by state. Again, immigrants in green actually made more on average than natives.

comp grid

Of course, when you look closely, no two immigrants’ stories are exactly alike. That’s why we’re providing free access to more than 250 million immigration records April 16-20, so you can come closer to the truth of your own ancestor’s story and their personal experience with the American Dream.  

You can read more about the research here.


  1. RECENT immigrants? Unless I missed it, this article doesn’t define “immigrant”. One year–3 years–10 years??? We’re all immigrants if we’re not Native Americans, and the incomes of American Indians are definitely not as high as the average of us immigrants.

  2. Barbara

    Nice to know that my ancestors were, for the most part, “statistically insignificant” to whoever did this study. I seriously doubt that anyone whose ancestors settled in the South shares that opinion. I appreciate the info on the other states though.

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