The Economics of Assimilation: Katherine Eriksson

By Tanzeen R. Doha – Economics, migration, and labor markets: the relationship between these three fields fascinates Katherine Eriksson, assistant professor of economics. Specializing in economic history, Eriksson places particular emphasis on the early 20th century in the United States. In a recent co-authored paper, she explores how the cultural practice of naming children can affect their future placement within the labor market.

The empirically-driven paper, entitled “Cultural Assimilation During the Age of Mass Migration” and currently under review, uses two million census records from the formative 1850-1913 period to demonstrate the relation between the speed of cultural assimilation and economic well-being.

Tanzeen R. Doha: In the humanities or humanistic social sciences, the meanings of assimilation are often debated. Your paper seems to have a more empirical conceptualization of assimilation. Can you please elaborate on the notion of assimilation?

Professor Eriksson: The paper is a follow-up of something we wrote on economic assimilation, which was looking at how people’s occupational income grows as they spend more time in the U.S. What we wanted to do in this paper was focus on assimilation that is not just economic, because you can look at assimilation of immigrants in different ways: who do you live with, who do you marry, how do you interact with people inside and outside of your group. We looked at naming practices, which is very easy to measure.

We found empirically that younger sons tend to get more American-sounding names. We think this is one measure of cultural assimilation. As the parents are learning more about the U.S. labor market and how Americans act, they tend to give their younger children more American-sounding names. People from Italy, for example, start assimilating very quickly as they have more sons. They start with Francesco, they end up with John. What is the economic outcome of this? We see people twenty years later as adults. We see that brothers with more foreign-sounding names do less well in the labor market. So, the second generation is clearly affected by their parents’ decisions.

Do you think it has anything to do with cultural politics of the more mainstream society? How a particular hegemonic cultural politics determines where specifically in the job market immigrants get to enter the economic system?

These are kids who are being named around 1905-15, a very serious period when the U.S. is anti-immigrant. If you look at old reports on immigration, you will see that they show immigrants not being assimilated. Mainstream society is threatened by Southern and Eastern Europeans. They look different, they speak different languages.

They looked at these other groups as different, which is similar to today. By naming your child something American-sounding, you are trying to get around direct discrimination.

In terms of the anti-immigrant sentiment, and cultural assumptions, do you think it comes from economic conditions? Harsh economic conditions seem to provoke stronger anti-immigrant sentiments.

In the 1890s, we had a recession in the U.S. It wasn't nearly as bad as the Great Depression, but it was a pretty serious recession. I think it is generally true
that at times of economic crisis we lash out against people who are not like us. But I think what was happening in the early 1900s was a major shift in immigration. Until the 1880s, immigrants were mostly Northern European—pretty highly-skilled immigrants who could already read and write.

In the 1890s, there was a shift towards Southern and Eastern European immigration. There was a sentiment of, “They don’t look like us, they don’t sound like us.” Of course, it is probably economic conditions that gave rise to that sentiment, but you had to be able to distinguish the group in order to have that sentiment. In the 1890s, they were really thinking about how to justify closing the borders, and restricting immigration. 

Do you think that if the sentiments are there already due to economic conditions, and there are groups who can be identified as different and can be discriminated against, the leadership of the country can necessarily change those sentiments? Obviously, there is a question of power, but it is not necessarily about who gets elected, but rather the kind of social and political base that allows for certain kinds of leadership. Can you tell us a bit about political power, social base, and sentiments around migration?

This makes me think about another paper I am working on, about the Know Nothing Party in the 1850’s.  They were an anti-immigrant, anti-Irish party, a secret organization, which came to power across the North East.  They took over governorships, senate positions and local municipal governments.

In a sense, we are looking at exactly that question. In Massachusetts, we have great town level voting data—we have the share of the population that voted for the Know Nothing Party. You can see, unsurprisingly, that it is highly correlated with the Irish population of that town. Right after the Irish famine, you have this huge influence of Irish migration—over a million came over a five-year period. The Know Nothing Party gets elected, but there is an underlying sentiment going around in these different towns.

Our question in this paper: Do we see that the Know Nothing Party had the same effect in places that are very anti-immigrant versus places that are less so? They come to power, they are anti-Irish, and state level policies are against the Irish. But does that have an effect in places where there are not many Irish people? It is hard to find an example where there is anti-immigrant sentiment that doesn’t reflect the position of the government. Government is an outcome of a sentiment.

There are, of course, different types of immigrants, and the experiences and reasons for discrimination are different. Are there other historical records that you can think of?

I can think of the early 1900s. We basically had banned immigration from Asia in the 1890s—Chinese and Japanese—and separated the legal status of European immigration from Asian immigration. But it is also true that after 1920, we placed different restrictions on Northern versus Southern European immigrants through the Quota Acts. 

Can you clearly state the differences between cultural and economic assimilation? I want to understand the relation and differences between cultural, economic, and political assimilation.

Political assimilation, I would think, is a part of cultural assimilation. Economic assimilation is more about trying to get people jobs, trying to help them with training. You want to assimilate people into the market. You think about how wage trajectories change depending on training. Groups that come, when they don’t assimilate well, they are stuck in the same kind of low paying jobs. Cultural assimilation is of course much more difficult to measure. Is it about language? Is it about having the same beliefs? California, for example, just voted to allow bilingual education, which is kind of the opposite of what we have done historically, in which we tried to make people more like us.

Can we talk a bit about the political rhetoric against undocumented immigrants? It seems like it is generally accepted by established researchers and scholars that when there is a large flow of immigrants—legal and illegal—it actually improves the larger economy. In that case, why is there a political rhetoric that undocumented immigrants take away jobs?

I think there are two camps, to be honest, and they are firmly opposed on this. One camp does believe immigrants take away jobs. The other group would say they actually create jobs, and services. I tend to think immigrants create jobs, and help the economy generally. I think at a macro level, immigration is a good thing. People who are anti-immigration are probably more likely to be those who are at risk for losing their jobs, people who are low-skilled workers. There is no one answer, at least from the economics literature. 

Learn more about Katherine Eriksson at her faculty webpage.