The Second Generation and the Children of the Native Born: Comparisons and Refinements

Levy Economics Institute WP #174

Posted: 13 Aug 1997

See all articles by Joel Perlmann

Joel Perlmann

Bard College - The Levy Economics Institute

Roger Waldinger

Bard College

Date Written: November 1996


We have constructed some preliminary comparisons involving present-day immigrants and natives, as well as their children, based on the 1990 Census. In particular we are interested in whether the prognosis for the second generation is as grim as recent discussions of "second generation decline" and of "segmented assimilation" would warn (we discuss these theories at length in an earlier Institute working paper). This paper presents something of a preliminary answer; however, its major focus lies elsewhere, namely in stressing the need to drop the comparison of native and immigrant offspring as too crude to be of any use, whether for analytic understanding or for policy formulation. The "Hispanic" and "Asian" classification is only marginally preferable; indeed, the reason it is preferable at all will be made clear by our argument for a different kind of distinction. The crucial distinction is between the Mexican immigrants and all other immigrants. We do not claim that no other immigrant groups are as disadvantageously situated as the Mexicans. However, the Mexicans are not only disadvantageously situated, they are also by far the largest group of immigrants and even larger proportion of the second generation--of the children of immigrants growing up in the United States. If the Mexicans are distinguished from the others, the effect is to see that the non-Mexican immigrants and their children are much better off than might otherwise appear, and the resulting comparisons to native-born white and their children is especially instructive. Assuredly, some relatively large immigrant groups other than the Mexicans are in trouble; however, their numbers are simply swamped by the still larger immigrant groups that are more happily situated economically. Needless to say (we trust), in pointing out these trends we are not presenting an argument about Mexican culture or character; our finding reflects the fact that the Mexican immigration is both the very largest and the most uniformly comprised of people who come as unskilled or semi-skilled workers, with relatively little education, job skills, or capital. Nor is this observation in itself any recommendation as to policy along the Mexican border; that the Mexican immigration has this job profile must be seen, at a minimum, in the context of the need for low-skill jobs in the American economy. Our wish is not to take a stand on legislation to alter the immigrant mix but simply to show that thinking about that mix somewhat differently than has been common will be very helpful in understanding the social reality.

JEL Classification: J61, J62

Suggested Citation

Perlmann, Joel and Waldinger, Roger, The Second Generation and the Children of the Native Born: Comparisons and Refinements (November 1996). Levy Economics Institute WP #174, Available at SSRN:

Joel Perlmann (Contact Author)

Bard College - The Levy Economics Institute ( email )

Annandale-on-Hudson, NY 12504-5000
United States
914-758-7700 (Phone)
914-758-1149 (Fax)


Roger Waldinger

Bard College

Annandale-on-Hudson, NY 12504
United States

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