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

  • Working Paper No. 965 | July 2020
    This paper attempts to estimate the intergenerational transmission of human capital in Palestine. The main question is whether formal parental education improves their offspring’s cognitive skills and school achievements. I use the instrumental variable (IV) method in the estimations to overcome the potential endogeneity of parental education. The main source of variation in parental educational attainment is parents’ exposure to the First Palestinian Intifada (1988–93) during their middle- and high school ages. During the First Palestinian Intifada, many school days were lost due to frequent school closures and other restrictions. Furthermore, many young people preferred to search for low-skill employment in Israel, since it provided them with better wages than the local labor market and hardly required any level of educational attainment. This study employs two outcomes, namely the standardized cognitive test scores and school achievements during the academic year 2012/13 for students between grade 5 and grade 9 in West Bank schools. Overall, the results support the hypothesis of a human capital spillover but more so for girls than for boys, where the IV results are often insignificant because of their large standard errors.

  • Policy Note 2020/3 | April 2020
    Research Scholar Martha Tepepa explains how the US response to the COVID-19 crisis will be hindered by its approach to immigration policy. The administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration campaign creates a public health risk in the context of this pandemic, and the recent implementation of the “Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds” final rule penalizing noncitizen recipients of some social services will further restrict access to treatment and encumber the fight against the coronavirus.

  • Working Paper No. 950 | April 2020
    The United States government recently passed legislation and stabilization packages to respond to the COVID-19 (i.e., coronavirus disease 2019) outbreak by providing paid sick leave, tax credits, and free virus testing; expanding food assistance and unemployment benefits; and increasing Medicaid funding. However, the response to the global pandemic might be hindered by the lassitude of the state and the administration’s conception of social policy that leaves the most vulnerable unprotected. The administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration campaign poses public health challenges, especially in the prevention of communicable diseases. In addition to the systemic obstacles noncitizens face in their access to healthcare, recent changes to immigration law that penalize recipients of some social services on grounds that they are a public charge will further restrict their access to treatment and hinder the fight against the pandemic.

  • One-Pager No. 59 | April 2019
    Some common accounts of “populism” and its causes risk leading us away from understanding what is happening today in parts of the democratic West, according to Senior Scholar Joel Perlmann. He cautions that economic insecurity may well be a common source of populism, but such insecurity is too prevalent and too diverse to be tied primarily to massive international economic shifts. Cross-national explanations are of limited utility; we need to look more closely at the intermingling of political, ethnic, and cultural themes operating in national contexts in order to better understand particular outbursts of popular discontent.
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  • One-Pager No. 58 | November 2018
    What's New?
    The Trump administration is facing a legal challenge to its efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 decennial census—a question that was first included in 1890, but has not been asked of the entire population since 1950. If the citizenship question was asked in the past, why not reinstate it? Senior Scholar Joel Perlmann explains how the characteristics of both immigration and the census itself have changed radically since 1890 and, as a result, how the inclusion of this question on the once-a-decade census would not only be redundant, but would threaten the integrity of the census count.

  • 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.