The Atlantic: “Will Immigrants Today Assimilate Like Those of 100 Years Ago?”

by Jacki Granet

Immigrants of all races come to the United States in search of the American Dream. But is that so-called American Dream something attainable by any immigrant to the United States? Or does one’s race factor into it? Alexia Fernandez Campbell of The Atlantic delves into the question of assimilation and economic immigrant success. She explores whether it is different now than it was one hundred years ago when “nearly all immigrants arriving to the United States were poor white Europeans,” whereas now the “vast majority of immigrants are people of color from Asia and Latin America.” 

While there have certainly been many changes in the United States in the past one hundred years, the wealth gap remains one constant in the American economic landscape. Sociologists from the University of Wyoming and Brown University (Matthew Painter and Zhenchao Qian) studied whether the barriers facing certain races with respect to earned wealth also applied to immigrants in those race categories. What they found, published in the June issue of Sociological Perspectives, was not altogether surprising. Generally speaking, wealth inequality can be traced back to race, with “white families having the largest net worth, followed by Asians, Latinos, and then African Americans.” The research found that the “average net worth for all new immigrants was about $63,000…white immigrants had the highest average net worth ($92,965), followed by Asian immigrants ($83,500), then Latino immigrants ($40,073), and black immigrants ($34,318).”

Painter and Qian also adjusted their data to account for other factors that would affect immigrant wealth, such as the ability to speak English and educational background. With those factors taken into account, Painter and Qian found that “an immigrant’s race is strongly associated with their net worth.” Indeed, it costs Asian, black, and Latino immigrants between “$2,000 and $2,700 in net worth.” While this may seem relatively small, it does indicate that white immigrants “possibly because of their skin color, have an automatic advantage when moving to the United States.” There may be numerous reasons for this economic disparity. Black immigrants, for instance, like many black Americans, may face discrimination in the real-estate market and the ability to obtain favorable mortgage loans, and Latino immigrants may, like Hispanics in general, be less likely to invest in stocks, bonds, and mutual funds. Painter says: “Our results show that white immigrants have made a more successful transition into U.S. society and begin to purchase assets and accumulate wealth.” 

The study focused on 8,000 lawful permanent residents who had been living in the United States for less than ten years (and did not account for the nearly eleven million undocumented workers in the US). Painter and Qian note the study did not factor in how much wealth immigrants had when they entered the US and how much wealth they built (or lost) after moving. “Ideally, we would survey them when they arrive at the airport, but that data doesn’t exist,” Painter says in The Atlantic.

While the study by Painter and Qian indicates the difficulties facing many non-white immigrants today, Vivek Wadhwa, a distinguished fellow and professor at Carnegie Mellon University Engineering at Silicon Valley, offers a different point of view. He points out the success of Indian immigrants in particular, noting that the median annual income of US households headed by an Indian immigrant is $103,000—twice the US median. “The greatness of America is that a person who achieves success commands the highest level of respect regardless of his or her background, race, and religion,” he writes. “This is the American Dream: an ethos of freedom that provides anyone who achieves success through hard work with the opportunity for prosperity and equality. There are no absolute barriers to upward social mobility in America; that is why immigrants thrive and why America leads the world.”