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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Occupational Status Attainment Among Ethnic Groups in Los Angeles

  • Author(s): Treiman, Donald J.;
  • Lew, Vivian;
  • Lee, Hye-Kyung;
  • Brown, Thad A.
  • et al.

In a nation of immigrants Los Angeles is increasingly a city of new immigrants. As of 1980,which is the most recent date for which good data are available, 20 percent of the population of the Los Angeles metropolitan area had been born abroad, mostly in Latin America and various Asian countries. Whereas New York historically has been the major port of entry for those immigrating to the U.S. from Europe, Los Angeles has been, and increasingly is, the major point of entry or those immigrating from Latin America and Asia. The result is a multi-ethnic, polyglot metropolis, with 142 languages spoken at home out of the 200 languages tabulated by the 1980 Census. As a consequence of this new immigration, Los Angeles has a more diverse ethnic mix than virtually any other city in the nation, and perhaps the world.

The pace of immigration, to Los Angeles as to the remainder of the country, has increased dramatically in recent years, starting in 1965, when past restrictive immigration policies were moderated (Muller and Espenshade, 1985). This new immigration wave shows few signs of abating as the 1980s draw to an end.

Why do these immigrants come? The motives for immigration are by now a familiar story. In the absence of political turmoil, individuals immigrate to improve economic opportunities for themselves and their children (Jackson 1969). California's strong economic growth as well as its proximity to the Pacific Rim have made it a natural entry point for immigrants from Asia and Latin America (McCarthy, 1983). Yet, once started, immigration has a self- sustaining quality. Growing ethnic enclaves can provide an important magnet for the continued flow of immigrants. At the micro level this occurs via chain migration, the movement of individuals within known social networks, usually the family. Information about economic opportunities can be quickly transmitted to distant relatives by previous immigrants. Patterns of chain migration can also reduce the costs of geographic mobility directly. Individuals who move within social networks often have jobs and housing waiting for them in the host country. At the macro level, the development of ethnic subeconomies can dampen the impact of fluctuations in the business cycle. In the 1970s, even though the Los Angeles economy declined relative to that of the rest of the state, immigrants were still coming, attracted by the opportunities afforded them in the various ethnic subeconomies (Light and Bonacich, 1985).

How do they fare? It is obvious that some groups have been much more successful than others. Selected socioeconomic characteristics for the 28 largest ethnic groups in the Los Angeles metropolitan area are shown in Table 1. Those of Asian, European, and Middle Eastern origin do substantially better than those of Latin American, African, or American Indian origin. Most striking, the first three groups have much higher proportions of adult males employed in administrative and professional occupations. Why is this so? The concern of this paper is to account for why some ethnic groups on average get better jobs than others. Subsequent papers will deal with other socioeconomic differences among ethnic groups in the Los Angeles area, and with the aggre- gate socioeconomic and political consequences of these group differences.

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