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Italians Then, Mexicans Now

Immigrant Origins and the Second-Generation Progress, 1890-2000

Joel Perlmann

Publication Year: 2005

According to the American dream, hard work and a good education can lift people from poverty to success in the "land of opportunity." The unskilled immigrants who came to the United States from southern, central, and eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries largely realized that vision. Within a few generations, their descendants rose to the middle class and beyond. But can today’s unskilled immigrant arrivals—especially Mexicans, the nation's most numerous immigrant group—expect to achieve the same for their descendants? Social scientists disagree on this question, basing their arguments primarily on how well contemporary arrivals are faring. In Italians Then, Mexicans Now, Joel Perlmann uses the latest immigration data as well as 100 years of historical census data to compare the progress of unskilled immigrants and their American-born children both then and now. The crucial difference between the immigrant experience a hundred years ago and today is that relatively well-paid jobs were plentiful for workers with little education a hundred years ago, while today's immigrants arrive in an increasingly unequal America. Perlmann finds that while this change over time is real, its impact has not been as strong as many scholars have argued. In particular, these changes have not been great enough to force today’s Mexican second generation into an inner-city "underclass." Perlmann emphasizes that high school dropout rates among second-generation Mexicans are alarmingly high, and are likely to have a strong impact on the group’s well-being. Yet despite their high dropout rates, Mexican Americans earn at least as much as African Americans, and they fare better on social measures such as unwed childbearing and incarceration, which often lead to economic hardship. Perlmann concludes that inter-generational progress, though likely to be slower than it was for the European immigrants a century ago, is a reality, and could be enhanced if policy interventions are taken to boost high school graduation rates for Mexican children. Rich with historical data, Italians Then, Mexicans Now persuasively argues that today’s Mexican immigrants are making slow but steady socio-economic progress and may one day reach parity with earlier immigrant groups who moved up into the heart of the American middle class.

Published by: Russell Sage Foundation


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. ix-x

JOEL PERLMANN is senior scholar at the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College and the Levy Institute Research Professor at Bard College.

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pp. xi-xii

I AM GRATEFUL to Christopher Jencks for an extensive, illuminating, and selfless email correspondence conducted intermittently over the years; those exchanges helped me to think through many methodological and substantive issues. Seminar presentations to the Bard College faculty and at Bard’s Levy Economics Institute helped me more than participants probably realize, as did peppering my colleagues with questions...

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pp. 1-6

WE SAY COMPLACENTLY that “America is a land of immigrants” only because we also say that “America is the land of opportunity.” When confidence in upward mobility dims, so too does confidence that immigrants and their descendants will enter the mainstream. And because upwards of twenty million immigrants are once again coming to America in the course of a generation, it is natural to ask whether the conditions...

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CHAPTER ONE. Toward a Population History:A Basis for Comparisons

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pp. 7-36

NO ONE WILL claim that ignoring historical context is a virtue, yet discussions of immigration tend to ignore how it has shaped the characteristics of immigrant and ethnic generations. Here I begin with the past and stress three themes. The first is the rationale for the comparison of the Mexicans of today with the SCE immigrants of the past and why Jewish immigrants should be excluded from the comparison...

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pp. 37-59

I CONCENTRATE on the SCEN then and on the Mexicans now because these immigrant groups arrived in great numbers as low-skill workers in two periods of American history. Portes and Rumbaut (1996) have helpfully called these immigrants labor migrants as distinct from human capital migrants; the latter can trade on their advanced education and professional skills. Human capital migrants have been much more prevalent in the contemporary immigration than during the 1890 to 1914 immigration...

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CHAPTER THREE. Second-Generation Schooling

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pp. 60-89

LOW LEVELS of formal schooling among SCEN and Mexican immigrants, compared to that of the native whites of their times, account for much of their wage handicap. Would education pave the way for their children to escape from the bottom? This question directs our attention to secondgeneration schooling by focusing, first of the SCEN and then of the contemporary Mexican second generations...

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CHAPTER FOUR. Second-GenerationEconomic Outcomes

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pp. 90-115

BY 2000, A contemporary second-generation cohort had been in the labor force long enough for us to assess their early experiences. We begin with the familiar past-present comparisons between the SCEN and Mexicans. Later, we will focus in more depth on the contemporary Mexican second generation through a comparison of their well-being with that of Americanborn blacks...

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pp. 116-125

THEMES OF upward mobility and immigrant absorption are at the heart of American social history. This alone would be enough to spur inquiry as to whether the future absorption of immigrants and their offspring will be like its past. But in addition to this general curiosity, there are credible reasons to think that conditions have changed—economic conditions in the host society and the nonwhite origins of the new immigrants...

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pp. 126-162

THIS APPENDIX concerns three major subjects. The first (itself subdivided into numerous subtopics) concerns the estimates of wage ratios for 1910 to 1920 introduced in chapter 2 of this volume. The second subject is the Mexican 1.53 group used in chapters 3 and 4 as a proxy for the “true” second generation. The third subject (discussed in chapter 3) is the ethnic variation in the way those who left school after twelfth grade described their educational attainment...


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pp. 163-174


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pp. 175-182


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pp. 183-189

E-ISBN-13: 9781610444453
Print-ISBN-13: 9780871546623
Print-ISBN-10: 0871546620

Page Count: 208
Publication Year: 2005

OCLC Number: 794701241
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Italians Then, Mexicans Now

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Subject Headings

  • Children of immigrants -- United States -- Social conditions -- 20th century.
  • Assimilation (Sociology) -- History -- 20th century.
  • United States -- Race relations -- History -- 20th century
  • Children of immigrants -- United States -- Economic conditions -- 20th century.
  • United States -- Ethnic relations -- History -- 20th century.
  • Immigrants -- United States -- Economic conditions -- 20th century.
  • Mexican Americans -- Economic conditions -- 20th century.
  • Mexican Americans -- Social conditions -- 20th century.
  • Immigrants -- United States -- Social conditions -- 20th century.
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