Polish and Italian schooling then, Mexican schooling Now? US ethnic school attainments across the generations of the 20th century

Type Working Paper
Title Polish and Italian schooling then, Mexican schooling Now? US ethnic school attainments across the generations of the 20th century
Publication (Day/Month/Year) 2002
URL https://www.econstor.eu/bitstream/10419/31481/1/503918091.pdf
A dominant concern regarding the contemporary immigration to the United States involves the children and later descendants
of the immigrants: will they manage to improve upon the conditions of their parents and repeat the pattern of earlier waves
of immigration, namely, a slow but steady ascent over several generations? Discussion of the past most usefully concerns the
last great wave of immigration, roughly 1890-1920, during which southern, central, and eastern Europeans from ethnic
stocks that had been little known in the United States before that time, immigrated to a modern, industrial, society in great
number. Today there is little difference in socioeconomic position between the descendants of that immigration and the
descendants of much earlier arrivals to the United States (Lieberson and Waters 1988). Concern about the offspring of
today's immigrants has been expressed most influentially in the theory of segmented assimilation suggested by Alejandro
Portes and his colleagues (Portes and Zhou 1993, Portes and Rumbaut 1996). They expect that the offspring of middle-class
immigrants will probably assimilate fairly easily, but they warn of the possibility that the children of immigrants entering
American society at the bottom will have more trouble than did the children of immigrants who entered at the bottom in past
eras. Today's offspring will have more trouble because i) they are non-white and American society is a long way from
ignoring such differences; ii) the nature of the economy has changed so that industrial-economy jobs requiring minimal skill
(but still an improvement over the parents' jobs) do not exist in great numbers as they did in the past; iii) extended education
(necessary for today's better jobs) is out of the reach of immigrant families that enter at the bottom; and finally iv) an
alienated, inner-city, non-white, youth culture will appeal to new, lower-class, second-generation youth who encounter
blocked mobility.
My colleague, Roger Waldinger, and I have questioned this formulation of segmented assimilation noting that i) race divisions
are socially constructed and tended to work against the immigrant stocks of 1890-1920 too; ii) low-skill work is not as scarce
as claimed; iii) educational attainment may be adequate for notable upward mobility; iii) concerns about youth culture are
hardly new to today's inner-city minorities and in any case depend on the first three concerns for their force (Perlmann and
Waldinger 1996, 1997; Waldinger and Perlmann 1998).
In terms of this issue, the Mexican immigration has a special place. Mexicans comprise the largest immigrant group by far,
and they are the prime example of a migrant group entering American society at the bottom, without high educational
credentials and other economic advantages. One crucial issue, therefore, is the educational attainment of later-generation
Mexican-Americans. We have, of course, some evidence on how members of later generations of Mexican-Americans fared
in the past. But the past is not the present; the earlier history of the Mexican immigration is not the present-day experience.
There are some reasons to worry that present-day conditions may actually be harder for immigrant offspring--besides those
already noted, the size and long-term nature of the present immigration wave continues to generate competition for those who
came earlier. And there are surely reasons to think that some things have changed for the better: first and foremost in terms
of the civil rights of Mexican Americans as well as the fact that the immigration is no longer as heavily rural and agricultural
in destination, nor limited to the Southwest of the country.
This paper extends earlier work that argued for careful generational comparisons of school attainment and for close
comparisons of Italians and Poles then and Mexicans now (Perlmann 2001a, 2001b), because the Poles and Italians were the
largest of the earlier immigrant groups and there is a clear advantage in not conflating the different historical trajectories of
different immigrant groups (Portes and Rumbaut 2001, xvii, 312f). Also, Poles and Italians were groups made up of labor
migrants, largely of low-skill workers who had to make their way from the bottom of the American class structure.

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