Inheriting the City

'Second generation advantage' may help adult children of immigrants outdo some native-born Americans.


Inheriting the CityToday's young immigrants feel at home as Americans who also enthusiastically embrace ethnic traditions like New York City's annual West Indian Day Parade.
Sociologists have fretted for years that children of immigrants from recent generations haven't assimilated into American life nearly as well as those in the past. And there were good reasons for the fear: The quality of public schools in big cities, where immigrant children are mainly educated, is a source of apprehension; manufacturing jobs that once gave immigrant children a foothold in the American economy are in decline; and children of color encounter discrimination.


Interestingly, a new study by researchers from CUNY's Center for Urban Research found that most adult children of new immigrants are doing better than their parents and often better than native-born Americans. They also have what the authors call the "second generation advantage," which for many of them has made assimilation into America far easier than it was for their parents.

"One of the things we really see across the board is the way in which the second generation actively chooses between things that make sense in their parents' culture and things that make sense in the cultural around them," said Philip Kasinitz, professor of sociology at the Graduate Center and one of the authors of the study. "They draw both on the immigrant community and those resources but they also draw on the structure and social services of New York that came about in the 1960s and 1970s to aid the inclusion and upward mobility of native African Americans and Puerto Ricans."

The study, "Inheriting the City: the Children of Immigrants Come of Age," was published in May by Harvard University Press and the Russell Sage Foundation. In addition to Kasinitz, the authors are John Mollenkopf, Graduate Center professor of political science and sociology and director of the Center for Urban Research; Harvard's Mary Waters, who has written many books on immigration and ethnic identity; and Jennifer Holdaway, program director for the Migration Program at the Social Science Research Council.

Over 10 years, the group studied adults ages 18 to 32 who were the children of Dominican, West Indian, South American, Chinese and Russian Jewish immigrants growing up in metropolitan New York City. They were either born in the United States to at least one immigrant parent or moved here before they turned 12. Over 3,000 telephone surveys and 333 follow-up interviews were conducted. The group was compared to New Yorkers who were native-born white, African Americans and Puerto Ricans.

One surprise, according to Mollenkopf, was that many native-born African Americans and Puerto Ricans are doing worse than many children of immigrants. "We need to turn our spotlight back on what is happening to native born African Americans and Puerto Ricans," said Mollenkopf. "The glass half full in our study is that the kids of immigrants are doing well ... the glass half empty is that there is a surprising degree of remaining and significant challenges for the others, especially Puerto Ricans, that we hadn't anticipated finding."

Another notable finding was that immigrant children generally don't feel "torn between two worlds" as their parents may fear. According to the authors, immigrant parents often worry that their children will speak neither English nor their native language with fluency and that they will always feel like outsiders in both America and their homeland. But the study shows the two worlds are actually part of the "second generation advantage". " The second generation is very much living in a multicultural world," said Waters. "They are completely at home with each other... they are completely at home with their ethnic identity as well as being an American. They are proud of their ability to speak their parents' language and they don't see any contradiction between being West Indian, Dominican or Chinese and American."

At the same time, race still matters. The study found that all second generation groups earn more than native African American and Puerto Rican New Yorkers their age. And the Russian Jewish and Chinese children of immigrants earn as much as native whites in their age group. "So we find this contradiction between a cultural acceptance and a racial exclusion," Waters said.

In addition, West Indians, like native African Americans, report high levels of racial discrimination, especially from police. And Dominicans, the largest immigrant group in the city, are the most disadvantaged in both the first and second generations.

Among the study's other findings: Education: All second generation groups fare better on average than their immigrant parents or members of native-born minority groups in graduation from high school and college. Dominicans—the group with the lowest educational attainment—still did better than native African Americans or Puerto Ricans. And Chinese and Russians did better than native whites.

Occupation: The children of immigrants are less occupationally segregated than their parents and in fact, "the overwhelming majority of second generation kids work not only in the mainstream economy but in almost exactly the same places that other young people their age work ... retail, clerical work and finance," said Kasinitz.

Crime: Members of all second generation groups are less likely to have been arrested than native African Americans and Puerto Ricans. South Americans, Dominicans and West Indians have arrest rates comparable to those of native whites. For Russian Jews and Chinese, arrest rates are far lower.

Finally, the extended family networks and cultural traditions that play a part in many immigrant lives seems to have had a role in the success of the second generation. While their parents worked, they more than likely came home to grandparents, and aunts or uncles who looked after them. They benefited from support groups from their homeland and as they attended college or transitioned into adulthood, second generation children find comfort in living at home and accepting family support.

Which is all part of the "second generation advantage," say the authors of the study.

"Being between two worlds is rarely a problem," said Kasinitz. "And it is often a very real advantage."