The Mobility Puzzle: A Lesson from Immigrants 

The United States’ most successful minority is immigrants. They have progressed more, and more rapidly than any other group in this country. They’ve managed to exceed native-born Americans in socio-economic performance across the board, by keeping their families together, saving better, and proving resilient through life’s setbacks.  

The current culture war obscures these facts entirely: group identity is given paramount importance. Essentially, oppression can be calculated by how many minority groups you belong to. By this philosophy, immigrants should be at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, as their life outcomes are predicated on their markers of race, nationality, gender, and religion. They should be the worst off in American society. Newly released statistics from the US Department of Labor contradict this entirely: in 2021, Asian women’s median weekly earnings surpassed those of white men for the first three quarters. On average, they earned close to 10% more than their white counterparts. 

But Asian women are hardly outliers; according to 2019 census data, women of various Middle Eastern backgrounds surpassed Caucasian men in income. Turkish, Palestinian, Iranian, and Lebanese women who worked full time outperformed white men by up to $21,000 in annual earnings- a sizable margin. Similarly, African-born blacks have outperformed African Americans every year since 1972. A  2017 University of Michigan study also found that African-born black women had both higher earnings, and income growth, than white women in the US.  

What explains these jarring disparities? Aren’t people of color and women both marginalized groups in a society that privileges the straight white man above everyone else? According to the theory of intersectionality, immigrants are subject to double-disadvantage due to their intersecting victimized identity traits. The US reserves no special treatment for these groups. If anything, immigrants start the race a lot farther back than most Americans due to barriers, linguistic and otherwise. According to the Pew Research Center, US immigrants are three times less likely than Americans to have completed high school, yet an overwhelming majority of their children go on to graduate. College completion rates are similarly higher for children of immigrants, and the trends suggest that they attain more education, higher earnings, and work in higher-paying occupations than their parents. It seems that within just a generation, immigrants make tremendous progress.  

And in case income isn’t an adequate measure of immigrants’ socio-economic performance, consider two other key metrics: entrepreneurship and debt. The 2017 Kauffman Entrepreneurship Index shows that immigrants are more entrepreneurial than native-born Americans. Every year from 1996 to 2016, the pace at which immigrants started businesses outpaced U.S.-born individuals two-fold. Immigrants use credit less often for purchasing cars, homes, or starting businesses. This results in significantly lower levels of indebtedness than native-born Americans. 

So how do immigrants get ahead? The short answer is that they don’t believe they’re victims. It’s what informs their money ethics, and worldview. Immigrant communities emphasize personal responsibility and self-made success more than any other group in the US. It’s no wonder they’re bridging disparities at rapid speeds. They believe that anyone can come to America, and work hard to attain a higher standard of life than the one they left behind. This makes all the difference. A Pew Research Center survey found that Asian Americans were significantly more likely to believe “most people who want to get ahead can make it if they are willing to work harder” than the general public.   

Alas, the beauty of America is that the flow of culture and opportunity spreads both ways. The strength of our economy and financial system benefits non-Americans but also brings prudent financial habits and ambition from which we can all benefit. Key lessons we can take from immigrants: 

  1. It matters that families stick together. Strong multi-generation family dynamics translate to fewer family constraints. This creates the groundwork for more support, stability, career development, higher education attainment, and better health outcomes.  
  1. Formal credit isn’t a prerequisite for success. You can start a business, buy a car, or attend college without attending debt or loans. It may require saving longer, working harder, or choosing cheaper options, but avoiding debt doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have to do without these things.  
  1. Most importantly, individual identity- who you are as a person- will have a much more significant bearing on your life outcomes than your group identity. Where you fall on the socio-economic ladder has little to do with what labels you identify with. Tenacity and grit beat minority status, every time.