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Ran Abramitzky on lessons from the age of mass migration

The Statue of Liberty beams in front of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum on a clear, blue morning.

The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island represented the gateway to America for arriving migrants in the 19th century

Oct 12 2015

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Featured Scholars

By Sam Zuckerman

Imagine a United States without immigration agents and green cards, where people could cross borders freely and settle where they choose. Such a world existed in this country from about 1850 to 1913, an era known as the Age of Mass Migration. Anyone who was healthy and law-abiding was welcome, and tens of millions of Europeans picked up stakes and made the United States their home. To economic historian Ran Abramitzky, Associate Professor of Economics at Stanford and SCID Faculty Affiliate, this experience offers lessons that are still relevant. In the 19th century, “Europe was a lot like developing countries today,” he explains.  “Immigration was one way for people to improve their lives. Poor people and workers immigrated in larger numbers. Moving was a good way to alleviate poverty.”

The Israeli-born Abramitzky has looked at the economic status of immigrants in their countries of origin and in the United States. For example, Abramitzky and economists Leah Platt Boustan (UCLA) and Katherine Eriksson (UC Davis) examined census data, property tax bills, and other public records in Norway and the United States to find out what sorts of people moved to America. Out-migration from Norway was enormous in the late 19th century. On average, around 6 percent of the country’s population left each decade. Norwegian emigrants tended to come from families with little money or property, Abramitzky and his colleagues found. In addition, younger sons not in line to inherit family farms were more likely to go than oldest sons.

Evidence from Norway suggests that, during this era of free immigration, it was largely people with limited opportunities in their homelands who came to the New World to seek their fortune. By contrast, in more recent times, immigration restrictions have made it costly to move to the United States. Such a change in immigration costs is one reason why the immigrant profile has shifted from “members of poor and landless households in the past to individuals with access to household wealth in the present,” according to Abramitzky. He argues that relaxing immigration rules would reinforce a safety valve in developing countries that allows people with few options to seek better lives elsewhere.

In other research, Abramitzky has punctured one of America’s deeply held myths: that penniless immigrants from Europe started at the bottom of the economic ladder, before raising themselves and eventually catching up with other Americans. Using census data from the genealogical service Ancestry.com, Abramitzky and coauthors tracked immigrant families from 16 European countries from 1900 to 1920. Abramitzky found that immigrants took jobs in higher-paying occupations than people born in the United States even on first arriving in this country, especially if the new arrivals were from wealthier countries such as England or Germany. Nor did immigrants climb the ladder more rapidly than other workers. In general, the researchers found, immigrants and natives moved into higher-paying occupations at about the same rate.

For Abramitzky, such questions are personal. Immigrants have played a vital role building both his native land and his adopted homeland. His grandmother came to Palestine from Poland in the 1930s, settling in a kibbutz filled with émigrés fleeing persecution in Europe. Abramitzky vividly recalls the communal way of life and income equality on his grandmother’s kibbutz. When it came time to choose a topic for his PhD dissertation at Northwestern University, he returned to the kibbutz world, examining what that way of life had to teach about economic theory. “Economists predict that high income equality might be short-lived, that the brightest and most capable members would leave,” he explains. Abramitzky’s research showed that educated and skilled members were indeed more likely to leave. But he also found that kibbutzim adopted strategies to survive in a less idealistic, more unforgiving age, for example, by making it hard to leave and hard to get in. Strict membership screening ensured that people did not join a kibbutz “because they couldn’t make it outside,” he explains, “but rather because they loved the communal way of life.”