A comparison is worth drawing between two populations that have not assimilated well economically in the U.S. – Mexican immigrants and post-slavery African-Americans. They had common barriers to economic assimilation: racial/ethnic prejudice, relatively low formal educational attainment, and what I call socio-economic isolation. American slavery is the extreme form of socio-economic isolation of an immigrant group. Isolation makes it difficult to exit bad situations and enter new job opportunities.
Hispanics and Mexicans
In 1970, there were 7.8 million native born Hispanics in the United States, and 1.8 million foreign born Hispanics. Between 1970 and 2014 the percentage of the entire American population that were foreign-born Hispanics rose from 0.8% to 6%.
During this 44 year span, the educational attainment of Mexican immigrants worsened due to the sharp rise of immigrants with poor formal education. Then, after about 2000 generally Hispanic educational attainment improved both absolutely and relative to native-born Americans.
Look at Hispanic vs. white high school graduation failures. In 1970, 55% of whites and 32% of Hispanics (24% of Mexican immigrants) had finished high school. The white to Mexican gap was 31%. In 1998, the white to Mexican gap had increased to 36% (84% vs. 48%). And, the gap between whites and Mexicans for college graduation also increased. Thus, looking only at education, Mexican assimilation worsened.
After 2000, the gaps declined. Hispanics gained greatly in high school graduation rates and in college education (mainly through community college). Mexican-origin persons still have a markedly lower rate of educational attainment then other Hispanics and then whites (see table 1 here). Still, in 2013 Hispanics accounted for 40% of high school dropouts compared to 13% in 1970
Now turn to black male mobility in the United States since the late 19th Century thanks to this May, 2017 article. By mobility, the authors mean the movement of sons up or down the percentiles of the national income distribution of similarly aged men relative to the position their fathers held in the distribution of all fathers decades earlier. They report:
“For those with the lowest earning fathers, between 72% (1880-1900) and 90% (1910-1930) of whites exceeded their father’s status compared to only 51% (1880-1900) or 68% (1910-1930) of blacks. The basic pattern is similar for cohorts of men observed in 1962 and 1973 surveys. White sons exceeded black sons in upward rank mobility by about 20 to 30 percentage points at the bottom of the fathers’ rank distribution. From this perspective, there is no clear evidence that the first cohort of post-Civil Rights era black sons (measured in 1973) fared substantially better in terms of intergenerational mobility than those that preceded them.
“Our results suggest that racial differences in intergenerational mobility have been the most important proximate cause of black-white income inequality from the Civil War until today. Analyses for the early and late 20th century suggest that weaker human capital accumulation in black children, conditional on parents’ economic status, has hindered the pace of intergenerational convergence in labor market outcomes.
“Even after school desegregation in the 1960s and 1970s, residential segregation continued to limit black children’s exposure to high social capital environments and their access to high-quality educational opportunities.”
The authors stress the role of education in economic mobility. Had they been able to measure the effect of racism, they would likely have introduced that. Another approach is to look at the degree of socio-economic isolation. In the early part of the 20th Century. Black men were somewhat more likely to be geographically isolated on farms than were whites, and far more likely to have lowest status farm work. During the middle part of the Century, their numbers grew in non-farm work, mainly unskilled and semi-skilled blue-collar jobs. These jobs have languished in the past few decades.
The authors prepared a weighted ranking of fathers’ income for black and white male children. Between 1990 and 1990 the white score rose from 38 to 56, having leveled off in the last decades. The gap between white and black fathers was, in 1900 was 32; it rose to 44 in 1962; and decreased slightly in 38 in 1990. The gap widened even while the rates of high school completion for white and blacks converged in the second half of the 20th Century.