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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Putting People in their Place: Intergenerational Inequality in the Age of Mass Migration

  • Author(s): Connor, Dylan Shane
  • Advisor(s): Rigby, David L
  • Goodwin-White, Jamie M
  • et al.

The identity of the United States as a land of opportunity and a nation of immigrants is once again being contested. As of 2013, income inequality and the foreign-born share of the American population are at levels not seen since the end of the Age of Mass Migration (1850-1914), and intergenerational mobility is at a historical low. These changes have provoked calls for restrictive and selective immigration policies, which are better designed to attract immigrants equipped to “make it in America”. Underlying these calls, however, is an assumption that the outcomes of immigration depend on who migrates rather than what opportunities people encounter or create for themselves after arrival.

This dissertation focuses on the difference that place and context make to the lives of people. Broadly, it asks: are intergenerational inequalities in income, education and location mainly driven by individual and family characteristics, or are they driven by people’s access to opportunity and their interaction with places? This dissertation uses cutting-edge techniques and newly available data sources from the Age of Mass Migration to tackle these questions. These data shed light on the problem of people and place by helping to address three crucial questions. First, how do places affect decisions to migrate? Second, is immigrant social mobility mainly driven by family characteristics or opportunities at settlement locations? Third, how do differences in the opportunity structures of places emerge?

The following five chapters address these three questions. Chapter 1 provides the conceptual apparatus for understanding how the characteristics of place and people shape inequality in life chances. Chapters 2 and 3 examine these questions using newly assembled data on three generations of Irish American families from 1901 to 1940. Chapter 4 exploits records from the Industrial Removal Office, an organization which helped 40,000 struggling Jewish households leave New York in the early twentieth century, as a natural experiment to study the effect of place on immigrant assimilation. Finally, Chapter 5 studies how long-run development processes have shaped intergenerational mobility outcomes from the Age of Mass Migration to today.

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