One hundred years ago, nearly all immigrants arriving to the United States were poor white Europeans. These newcomers from Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe were segregated into urban ghettos, living apart from the mostly Northern Europeans who arrived before them. Within a few generations, though, their families tended to build wealth and pull even with better-off segments of the population.
Now that the vast majority of immigrants are people of color from Asia and Latin America, will that pattern of wealth-building repeat itself?
There’s reason to think that might not be the case. After all, wealth inequality among Americans often comes down to race, with white families having the largest average net worth, followed by Asians, Latinos, and then African Americans. And more specifically, research has shown similar patterns of wealth inequality between native-born black and white Americans as black and white immigrants. Asian immigrants, on the other hand, are more likely to be nearly as affluent as white immigrants.
Recently, sociologists at the University of Wyoming and Brown University wondered if the barriers facing people of color in the United States also make it harder for immigrants of color to get ahead. Their research, published in June in the journal Sociological Perspectives, analyzed data from the New Immigrant Survey of 2003, which captured the experiences of more than 8,000 permanent residents who had been living in the United States for less than 10 years. Matthew Painter, the lead author of the study, and his colleague, Zhenchao Qian, looked closely at immigrants’ debts, homeownership rates, and investment portfolios to determine their net worth after having settled in the U.S. Their calculations showed that the average net worth for all new immigrants was about $63,000. As they expected, white immigrants had the highest average net worth ($92,965), followed by Asian immigrants ($83,500), then Latino immigrants ($40,073), and black immigrants ($34,318).