Social Mobility Across Immigrant Generations: Recent Evidence and Future Data Requirements (Van C. Tran)


1. This article assesses second-generation socioeconomic mobility using the most recent data available for eighteen ethnic groups from the Current Population Survey. In contrast to prior predictions of second-generation declines in mobility, this analysis finds significant progress in the second generation, both when that generation is compared to first-generation proxy parents and when compared to native peers of the same age cohort descended from what I identify as “proximal host groups.” The analysis also underscores the significant data limitations that continue to plague assessments of intergenerational mobility in immigrant-origin populations, pointing to the urgent need to collect new and better data against which researchers can benchmark socioeconomic attainment for the post-1965 third generation, which will enter young adulthood in the next decade.

2. Keywords: immigration; assimilation; social mobility; second generation; third generation


3. This analysis focuses on eighteen second-generation and four third-plus-generation groups. The eighteen second-generation ethnic groups are identified because each group has a sample size of at least 100 in the pooled CPS dataset. The primary focus will be on second-generation individuals between the ages of 25 and 50. This cohort of individuals most resembles the post-1965 second generation. For CPS 2008, the oldest individuals in this cohort were born between 1968 and 1983. For CPS 2016, the oldest individuals in this cohort were born between 1976 and 1991. Following the lagged-birth-cohort method (Farley and Alba 2002), I compare this cohort of second-generation individuals with their proxy parents: first-generation individuals above the age of 50. I also compare outcomes among the second generation to their third-plus-generation peers in the “proximal host” groups: non-Hispanic white, non-Hispanic BLACK, non-Hispanic Asian, and Hispanic/Latino (Mittelberg and Waters 1992).

4. The combined CPS sample size includes 1,002,647 respondents from a mix of ethnoracial origins and immigrant generations. Table 1 presents the descriptive statistics on this sample by immigrant generation and age cohort. The first panel shows that only 1.9 percent of whites and 1.1 percent of BLACKs belong to the second generation, whereas these proportions are 11.2 percent of Hispanics and 10.5 percent of Asians. Of whites and BLACKs, 92.9 percent and 87.2 percent are in the third-plus generation, compared to only 28.3 percent of Hispanics and 12.4 percent of Asians. The next three panels in Table 1 provide the race and age distributions across generations. In the first generation, the age profile skews older among whites. For the other three ethnoracial groups, about half are between the ages of 25 and 50. In the second generation, the major difference is between whites and nonwhites. Whereas 47.7 percent of second-generation whites are above the age of 50, the proportions are small among BLACKs, Asians, and Hispanics (2.5 percent, 6.3 percent, and 5.8 percent, respectively). In contrast, almost three-quarters of the nonwhite second generation are below the age of 25. As the second generation comes of age in the next decade, this cohort of children and adolescents will emerge into young adulthood in sizable numbers. In the third-plus generation, the population is more evenly distributed across the age cohorts. In general, whites are more likely to be concentrated in the oldest cohort, whereas Hispanics and Asians are more likely to be concentrated in the youngest one.

5. Table 2 presents descriptive results for four measures of socioeconomic attainment for the eighteen ethnic groups, separately for the first-generation individuals above age 50 and for second-generation individuals aged 25 to 50. The results from Table 2 show clear evidence of mobility between the first and second generation for every ethnic group. Among the four white ethnic groups, Italians report the lowest starting point, with 34.9 percent of the first generation having no high school degree--similar to levels among first-generation Haitians and Vietnamese. And yet, by the second generation, the high school dropout rates among these three groups hover around 2 to 3 percent, a marked improvement. By the second generation, whites, BLACKs, and Asians report high school dropout rates of less than 3 percent (with the exception of second-generation Canadians at 7.4 percent). Among Hispanics, many ethnic groups also report very low starting points in terms of education. In the first generation, 66.9 percent of Mexicans have no high school education, compared to 58.6 percent of Salvadorans and 50.4 percent of Guatemalans. In the second generation, these rates are dramatically reduced: 16.9 percent of Mexicans, 11.9 percent of Salvadorans, and 17.8 percent of Guatemalans. To be sure, the high school dropout rates are still highest among Hispanics, but the progress is remarkable, considering the lower starting points among the first-generation parents.

6. On college completion, second-generation Asians report the most exceptional outcomes, with about 56 to 80 percent of the sample having a college degree. In the third-plus generation, this rate is 38.3 percent of whites, 21.4 percent of BLACKs, and 57 percent of Asians. Second-generation whites and BLACKs report high levels of college completion, surpassing their respective proximal host groups. Among BLACKs, there is a clear dichotomy, with second-generation Haitians reporting significantly better college completion rates than Jamaicans. Among Hispanics, Colombians and Cubans report the highest rates of college graduates, whereas the results among the other Hispanic groups are more mixed. To be sure, many Hispanics have yet to close the gaps with whites, but they have fared significantly better than the first generation from the same ethnic background.

7. Although there is a clear improvement from first to second generation, inter-generational differences are more modest for service occupations. The results for professional occupations, however, are revealing. With the exception of Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Vietnamese, every second-generation ethnic group has not only fared better than its first-generation proxy parents, but also better than its proximal host group. Among second-generation whites, these rates are between 40 and 49 percent, compared to only 36.9 percent for third-plus-generation whites. Among second-generation BLACKs, these rates are 45.6 percent for Haitians and 30.5 percent for Jamaicans, compared to 22.7 percent for third-plus-generation BLACKs. Second-generation Asians report some of the highest rates, with 62.3 percent among Chinese, 63.2 percent among Indians and 51.4 percent among Koreans holding a managerial and professional occupation. In contrast, these rates are lowest among Hispanics--especially Mexicans and Puerto Ricans--with only 20 percent reporting a professional occupation.

8. The multivariate analyses in Table 3 focus attention on second-generation attainment in comparison with third-plus-generation individuals, controlling for age, gender, region, and survey year. In comparison to native whites (i.e., the reference group), models 1 and 2 show that most second-generation whites and Asians are significantly less likely to have no high school degree and significantly more likely to have a college education. The largest differences are found among Chinese and Indians, who are six times more likely than whites to have a college degree. What is more remarkable is that there are no differences between second-generation BLACKs (i.e., Haitians and Jamaicans) and native whites, suggesting that the former have achieved parity with the latter. Among Hispanics, Colombians and Cubans fare better than native whites, whereas the other ethnic groups fare worse. On occupational attainment, models 3 and 4 show that the second generation has achieved parity with native whites, with few exceptions. For service occupations, Koreans and Puerto Ricans are significantly more likely than third-plus-generation whites to report working in the service sector. For professional occupations, Poles, Mexicans, and Puerto Ricans report a disadvantage compared to native whites, whereas Chinese and Indians report a clear advantage. Overall, these results show broad convergences between the second generation from diverse ethnic origins and third-plus-generation whites.