Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Why Do Immigrants Outperform Native-Born Americans?

Motivated to succeed economically, immigrants show plenty of grit and resources.

Despite the hatred directed at immigrants and refugees coming to the United States and other western nations, a new report suggests that children of migrants are the ones realizing the upward mobility of the American dream, rising out of poverty at higher rates than the children of parents born in the US. Similar trends can be found in other parts of the world too, like Canada.

While the rich continue to get richer, and their offspring enjoy the advantages of an easy start in life, it is the people at the economic bottom where a parent’s migration history makes the real difference. A study by researchers at Stanford, Princeton, and the University of California at Davis is challenging pre-determined bias towards immigrants.

The team used millions of father-son pairs drawn from census data over 100 years of U.S. history to show that the children of immigrants are just as likely today as in the past to move out of poverty and into the middle-class. Further, the researchers report finding that, "both in the past and today, children of immigrants had greater chances of moving up in the income distribution relative to the children of US-born parents with comparable family income or occupation score. Second generation immigrants growing up in the 25th percentile end up 5–8 percentiles higher in the income rank than the children of the US born."

It is not, as some ill-informed politicians have suggested, immigrants from Nordic countries who are most likely to experience this success. In fact, the sons of immigrants from China, India, and Vietnam are the ones mostly likely to be doing well, with even families that trace their roots back to Mexico, El Salvador and the Philippines showing better and steadier progress up the economic ladder than native-born Americans. Those Norwegians and Swedes are outflanked by their visible-minority peers.

At a time when we hear that the American dream is being threatened, we should celebrate that there are so many people experiencing the opportunities that come with education, strong social networks and parents who push their children to seek a better life. These young people are, if the data is accurate, much like the great grandparents of today’s less upwardly mobile populations who trace their roots back to Italy, Ireland and Portugal, all fair-skinned people that experienced the very same economic advantages of upward mobility decades ago.

What explains the difference? Why do the impoverished children of migrants outperform the impoverished children of native-born parents generation after generation?

The researchers attribute it partly to geography. Immigrants are more likely to settle in areas of their host country where there are more jobs and better educational opportunities. That is really no different than the ancestors of many native-born Americans who went to the coal mines of Virginia, the farms of Nebraska and the oil fields of Texas looking for work, only these days those places are experiencing job losses as a push towards less carbon-intensive industries and automation changes employment patterns. It is now Silicon Valley and the financial districts on the east coast that attract ambition.

While geography is one explanation, it is only one reason for the way immigrants find and exploit resources to enhance both their financial and mental wellbeing. Strong affiliations with other members of their diaspora has always been a way to ensure a cohesive economy where one member of a migrant community helps another find work, housing and navigate the intricacies of college applications and mortgage loans. The tighter the ex-pat community, the more resources are exchanged and the more success everyone enjoys.

Of course, grit, too, plays a role. Immigrants show a great deal of drive to succeed, and far more willingness to sacrifice for their children. While it is well-documented that migrants are often working in jobs where they are under-employed, the same is not true of children who are raised by families that value education and expect their children to study hard and graduate. These value systems distinguish any population that has had to struggle to survive. They are also the same characteristics that would have been found historically in the family trees of many of today’s native-born Americans who are, at least for the moment, securely anchored in the middle-class.

Before we demonize immigrants, it would be best if we looked at the science. As studies elsewhere in the world have shown, such as those by Daniel Hiebert in Canada, after just 20 years, immigrants and their children tend to match median incomes for their host countries and reach levels of home ownership and employment that are equal to, or above, the rates found among native-born populations.

Indeed, western nations like Canada that are now considering dramatic increases in immigration are ensuring that they enjoy the economic benefits of an upwardly mobile population with the personality traits and social skills to keep their GDP growing. Countries that resist immigration are forgetting lessons from the past and the spark of growth and innovation that immigrants brought to their economies. These psychological blinders, based on prejudice and a misunderstanding of economics, ignore the resilience of immigrant populations. If they are succeeding it is because they are adept at exploiting resources and exhibiting the ruggedness needed to rise out of poverty.


Abramitzky, R., Boustan, L. P., Jácome, E., & Pérez, S. (2019). Intergenerational mobility of immigrants in the US over two centuries. NBER Working Papers Series. 26408

Hiebert, D. (2017). Immigrants and refugees in the housing markets of Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, 2011. Canadian Journal of Urban Research, 26(2), 52-78.