Journal Issue: Opportunity in America Volume 16 Number 2 Fall 2006
As noted, America has long been viewed as a place where people from different countries could come to improve their economic fortunes and provide a better life for their children. Although most immigrants are better off than they would have been in their home country, George Borjas notes that most enter the United States at a sizable earnings disadvantage relative to native-born workers, and that there is considerable variation in the earnings of different immigrant groups. He finds that second-generation immigrants have consistently done better than the first generation in terms of catching up to the native- born population. But given the size of the initial disadvantage of recent groups, catching up may take a long time.
In examining the extent to which the earnings of immigrants from different ethnic groups converge over time, Borjas finds that group differences tend to persist into the second and third generations. Although some of this “stickiness” is due to group differences in education, Borjas argues that part is due to “ethnic capital”—values and behaviors that are reinforced because immigrants tend to live in enclaves. Thus a Korean child whose parents have only a high school education may benefit from living in a Korean community that values college education and that sends most of its children on to college, whereas a Mexican child whose parents are similarly educated may suffer from living in a Mexican community with different values, where most children do not attend college. Borjas thus notes a possible trade-off between maintaining a strong ethnic identity and assimilating rapidly into the native population to promote economic success. He believes that “ethnic stickiness” works against the upward mobility of many groups of immigrants.
Borjas cautions that the immigrant success stories of the twentieth century may not be repeated this century. Today, with many fewer opportunities for low-skilled workers, weaker pressures for assimilation, and a much larger concentration of low-skilled workers in the immigrant pool, poor immigrant groups will find it harder to reach parity with native-born Americans.