Migrants and the Making of America

Awarded Scholars:
Nathan Nunn, Harvard University
Nancy Qian, Yale University
Sandra Sequeira, London School of Economics
Project Date:
Dec 2014
Award Amount:

Co-funded with the MacArthur Foundation

Today, as at the turn of the twentieth century, there is strong public debate about the costs and benefits of immigration. The recent economic literature has analyzed the short-term effects of immigrants on the employment and wages of native-born workers and the fiscal impacts for host communities. Economists Nathan Nunn, Nancy Qian and Sandra Sequeira will study the very long-run impacts of immigration by asking how outcomes today are associated with the average immigrant population share in 1860-1920. They will use census data to examine whether counties that historically had more immigrants are systematically different today than counties that had less immigration, as well as systematically digitize railway network and immigration flows data by county and creating country- and-decade- specific variables.

Preliminary findings show that counties with a history of more immigration between 1860 and 1920 have higher incomes, lower poverty, a larger middle class, and lower inequality today. There is some indication of higher educational attainment levels, higher rates of social capital and higher rates of political participation. Nevertheless, the exact nature of the causal pathways underlying these relationships remains unclear. For example, did immigrants place a higher value on education, resulting in higher levels of education, which in turn led to greater political participation? Or did immigrants’ higher levels of motivation or work ethic first result in higher incomes, which in turn led to higher levels of education and social capital? To better understand the causal channels, Nunn and colleagues will examine multiple time periods after World War II to better understand when the long-run benefits from immigrant presence begin to appear.


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