Research Programs

Immigration, Ethnicity, and Social Structure

Immigration, Ethnicity, and Social Structure

This program is led by Senior Scholar Joel Perlmann, who guides a research initiative, “Ethnicity and Economy in America—Past and Present,” that focuses on the processes by which immigrants and their descendants are assimilated into US economic life. The Levy Institute believes that this work will shed light on current policy issues related to immigration, such as international competitiveness, the labor market, income distribution, and poverty.

The program comprises three research projects. The first, “The Jews circa 1900: Social Structure in Europe and America,” focuses on social characteristics that help to explain the rapid socioeconomic rise of eastern European Jewish immigrants who entered the American economy at the turn of the 20th century. Census data that were previously unavailable or not machine readable are used to examine social and economic characteristics of eastern European Jews who emigrated to the United States, as well as those who remained in Europe.

The second project, “Assimilation and the Third Generation,” explores the assimilation of immigrants into the socioeconomic mainstream of the United States, and the social and economic experiences of their American-born children. Special attention is paid to a few large groups whose absorption seemed especially slow and painful during the first and second generations: Irish immigrants who arrived in the mid 19th century, Italians and Poles who immigrated between 1880 and 1920, Mexicans who arrived throughout much of the 20th century, and southern-born blacks who migrated north. Census data are used in new ways in order to identify and trace second- and third-generation Americans.

The third project, “The New Immigration’s Second Generation,” conducted by Perlmann and Research Associate Roger Waldinger, reviews literature that deals with the economic progress and difficulties faced by children of today’s immigrants (i.e., at the turn of the 21st century). Their experiences are compared with those faced by children of immigrants at the turn of the 20th century.

Research Group on Israeli Social Structure and Inequality

A second long-term research initiative, begun in the fall of 2008, is based around the Research Group on Israeli Social Structure and Inequality, which includes Perlmann and Research Associate Yuval Elmelech, as well as two scholars each from Columbia University and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem: Yinon Cohen (Yosef H. Yerushalmi Professor of Israel and Jewish Studies) and Seymour Spilerman (Julian C. Levi Professor of Sociology) from the former, and Sergio DellaPergola (Shlomo Argov Chair in Israel-Diaspora Relations, Institute of Contemporary Jewry) and Barbara S. Okun (Associate Professor of Population Studies) from the latter.

The group expects to focus on three domains of inequality. First, ethnic origin and immigration status play key roles in shaping the Israeli stratification system. Crucial is the division between Jews and Arabs, and, among Jews, the division between Mizrachim (Jews from Muslim, mostly Arab, lands) and Ashkenazim (Jews of European descent). First- and second-generation Mizrachim lag behind Ashkenazim on the various measures of economic well-being, such as education and labor market attainment. The issue of second-generation catch-up or decline, reverberating through discussions of contemporary American and European immigration, is common in social science literature on Israel as well. A closer look at the evidence, especially by individual country of origin and over time, and a perspective of international comparisons characterize our approach.

Second, we will focus on the changing patterns of economic inequality. Israel today has among the highest rates of poverty in the developed world, and the gaps between the wealthy and the poor have increased substantially over the past three decades. We will be exploring the shifting income and wealth distributions in Israel during the recent years of increasing privatization policies and globalization trends.

Third, we hope later to study the results of the massive restructuring of Israeli higher education over the past decade and a half: the creation of a large number of smaller “colleges” of varying quality, where before there had been only a half dozen universities, all of them essentially research universities. The 2008 Israel Integrated Census of Population and Housing should provide data on the connection between the educational expansion and returns to schooling.

The 1967 Census of the West Bank and Gaza Strip: A Digitized Version

In the summer of 1967, just after the Six-Day War brought the West Bank and Gaza Strip under Israel’s control, the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics conducted a census of the occupied territories. The resulting seven volumes of reports provide the earliest detailed description of this population, including crucial data about respondents’ 1948 refugee status.

The Levy Economics Institute is making the contents of these volumes available in machine-readable form for the first time, in the hope that the data can be exploited by researchers interested in a fuller understanding of the social history of the Palestinian people in the occupied territories. For an overview of our project and to access the hundreds of tables contained in the 1967 Census database, click here.

Program Publications

  • Book Series | April 2018
    From Ellis Island to the 2020 Census
    In America Classifies the Immigrants: From Ellis Island to the 2020 Census (Harvard University Press, 2018), Senior Scholar Joel Perlmann traces the evolution of thinking about “race” and “ethnic groups” in America. Beginning with the 1897 “List of Races and Peoples” through the proposed 2020 changes for the US Census, Perlmann examines the shifting ideas about racial and national differences that shape our social and legal policies.

    Published by: Harvard University Press
  • Policy Note 2016/3 | August 2016
    In this policy note, Research Scholar Fernando Rios-Avila and Gustavo Canavire-Bacarreza, Universidad EAFIT, observe that immigration in the United States has a small but statistically significant impact on the labor market behavior of native-born unemployed workers. Their chances of transitioning from unemployment to employment are not affected by the share of immigrants in their job markets, but the native-born unemployed are more likely to leave the labor force when living in areas with a higher relative concentration of immigrants. Three additional results of the study shed light on what might be contributing to this higher rate of labor market exit, with each pointing to the potential role of expectations in creating a discouraged worker effect among the native-born unemployed in high-immigration states. 

  • Working Paper No. 870 | August 2016
    The Effect of Immigration on Unemployment Transitions of Native-born Workers in the United States

    Although one would expect the unemployed to be the population most likely affected by immigration, most of the studies have concentrated on investigating the effects immigration has on the employed population. Little is known of the effects of immigration on labor market transitions out of unemployment. Using the basic monthly Current Population Survey from 2001–13 we match data for individuals who were interviewed in two consecutive months and identify workers who transition out of unemployment. We employ a multinomial model to examine the effects of immigration on the transition out of unemployment, using state-level immigration statistics. The results suggest that immigration does not affect the probabilities of native-born workers finding a job. Instead, we find that immigration is associated with smaller probabilities of remaining unemployed, but it is also associated with higher probabilities of workers leaving the labor force. This effect impacts mostly young and less educated people.

  • Working Paper No. 858 | January 2016

    The collapse of the Soviet Union initiated an unprecedented social and economic transformation of the successor countries and altered the gender balance in a region that counted gender equality as one of the key legacies of its socialist past. The transition experience of the region has amply demonstrated that the changes in the gender balance triggered by economic shifts are far from obvious, and that economic expansion and women’s economic empowerment do not always go hand in hand. Therefore, active measures to enhance women’s economic empowerment should be of central concern to the policy dialogue aimed at poverty and inequality reduction and inclusive growth. In this paper, we establish the current state of various dimensions of gender inequalities and their past dynamics in the countries of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan), South Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia), and Western CIS (Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine), and propose steps aimed at reducing those inequalities in the context of inclusive growth, decent job creation, and economic empowerment.

  • Policy Note 2015/8 | December 2015

    This policy note examines the formulation and reformulation of questions deployed by the US Census Bureau to gather information on racial and ethnic origin in recent decades. The likely outcome for the 2020 Census is that two older questions on race and Hispanic origin will be combined into a single question on ethno-racial origin. The authors welcome these changes but suggest that this may also be an opportune time to drop the “race or origin” label from this new, unified question. They also argue for modest and readily implemented modifications to capture valuable information on parental birthplaces in the American Community Survey. This information would support our ability to measure the social and economic well-being of the population and thus better understand the trajectory of demographic groups over time.

    This policy note is accompanied by Working Paper No. 857, “Ethno-Racial Origin in US Federal Statistics: 1980–2020,“ in which the authors explore these issues in greater detail.

  • Working Paper No. 857 | December 2015

    This paper describes the transformations in federal classification of ethno-racial information since the civil rights era of the 1960s. These changes were introduced in the censuses of 1980 and 2000, and we anticipate another major change in the 2020 Census. The most important changes in 1980 introduced the Hispanic Origin and Ancestry questions and the elimination of two questions on parental birthplace. The latter decision has made it impossible to adequately track the progress of the new second generation. The change in 2000 allowed respondents to declare origins in more than one race; the anticipated change for 2020 will create a single question covering race and Hispanic Origin—or, stated more broadly, race and ethnic origin. We show that the 1980 changes created problems in race and ethnic classification that required a “fix,” and the transformation anticipated for 2020 will be that fix. Creating the unified question in the manner the Census Bureau is testing will accomplish by far the hardest part of what we believe should be done. However, we suggest two additional changes of a much simpler nature: restoring the parental birthplace questions (to the annual American Community Survey) and possibly eliminating the Ancestry question (the information it gathered will apparently now be obtained in the single race-and-ethnicity question). The paper is historical in focus. It surveys how the classification system prior to 1980 dealt with the tension between ethno-racial continuity and assimilation (differently for each major type of group); how the political pressures producing the changes of 1980 and 2000 changed the treatment of that tension; and, finally, the building pressure for a further change.

  • Working Paper No. 815 | September 2014

    This paper contributes to the literature on inequality and welfare policy by studying public support for redistributive policies in Israel, a society with an extreme level of socioeconomic inequality. Drawing on the relevant literature and taking into consideration the distinct demographic makeup of contemporary Israeli society, the study aims to describe public support for opportunity-enhancing and outcome-based redistributive policies and to explore the extent to which individual economic and demographic characteristics are associated with policy preferences. Analysis of data from a unique topical module of the 2008 Israel Social Survey reveals that support for opportunity-based programs is strong overall, but that the Israeli public is deeply divided along ethnic lines, religious affiliation, and immigration status. While results from multinomial regression analyses provide support for the self-interest theory, the findings also underscore the significance of various demographic and social indicators as determinants of policy preferences. These findings are discussed in light of the current debates on the sources of, and possible remedies for, the growing social and economic polarization within Israeli society.

  • Working Paper No. 756 | February 2013
    Does the Gender of the Migrant Matter?

    Utilizing a nationally representative sample of households from Sri Lanka, this study examines gender differences in the long-term impact of temporary labor migration. We use a propensity score matching (PSM) framework to compare households with return migrants, households with current migrants, and equivalent nonmigrant households in terms of a variety of outcomes. Our results show that households that send women abroad are relatively poor and utilize migration to catch up with the average household, whereas sending a man abroad allows an already advantaged household to further strengthen their economic position. We also find that remittances from females emphasize investment in home improvements and acquisition of farm land and nonfarm assets, whereas remittances of men are channeled more toward housing assets and business ventures.

  • Working Paper No. 689 | October 2011

    Immigration is having an increasingly important effect on the social insurance system in the United States. On the one hand, eligible legal immigrants have the right to eventually receive pension benefits but also rely on other aspects of the social insurance system such as health care, disability, unemployment insurance, and welfare programs, while most of their savings have direct positive effects on the domestic economy. On the other hand, most undocumented immigrants contribute to the system through taxed wages but are not eligible for these programs unless they attain legal status, and a large proportion of their savings translates into remittances that have no direct effects on the domestic economy. Moreover, a significant percentage of immigrants migrate back to their countries of origin after a relatively short period of time, and their savings while in the United States are predominantly in the form of remittances. Therefore, any analysis that tries to understand the impact of immigrant workers on the overall system has to take into account the decisions and events these individuals face throughout their lives, as well as the use of the government programs they are entitled to. We propose a life-cycle Overlapping Generations (OLG) model in a general equilibrium framework of legal and undocumented immigrants’ decisions regarding consumption, savings, labor supply, and program participation to analyze their role in the financial sustainability of the system. Our analysis of the effects of potential policy changes, such as giving some undocumented immigrants legal status, shows increases in capital stock, output, consumption, labor productivity, and overall welfare. The effects are relatively small in percentage terms but considerable given the size of our economy.

  • Working Paper No. 648 | January 2011

    This paper discusses support for, and opposition to, racial classification of European immigrants among high-level researchers at both the United States Immigration Commission of 1907–11 (the Dillingham Commission) and the Census Bureau during those same years. A critical distinction must be made between the Commission members—political appointees who mostly supported some form of restriction at the time of their appointment—and the top research staff, whose views were remarkably wide ranging. Moreover, even staff members committed to a racialized outlook—such as Daniel Folkmar, author of the Commission’s infamous Dictionary of Races and Peoples—deserve a closer look than historians have given them; for example, Folkmar and his superior on the staff had requested commentary from Franz Boas, who was then emerging as the most prestigious academic critic of racial theories (theories that assume group differences in behavior arise from biological endowments). Another feature of the narrative concerns the surprising number of staff who transferred from the Commission to the Census Bureau to work on the 1910 Census. Debates continued at the Bureau as well, this time over how to present the results of the new “mother tongue” question, which had been introduced to the Census questionnaire in response to pressure for a European “race” question. Indeed, Folkmar was also the chief author of the Census Bureau report on the mother-tongue data.