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If Italians Made It up the Social Ladder, Why Can’t Mexicans?

If Italian immigrants started at the bottom of the American social ladder and made it to the top, why can’t Mexican immigrants do the same today? In this essay Nathan Palmer shows us how thinking sociologically and considering social structure can help us answer this question.

“Italian immigrants made a place for themselves in America and worked like hell to climb to the top of the economic ladder, why can’t we ask the same for immigrants today?” On the face of it this is a reasonable question, but is this a fair comparison?

Mass Italian immigration to the United States started after the Civil War, peaked in the 1910s, and then tapered off. Like most immigrants, these Italian men, women, and children established their first foothold into the country at the bottom of the social ladder living in poor neighborhoods with inferior schools and inferior community resources. Italian immigrants faced open bigotry, discrimination, and even mass lynching’s by the hands of their white counterparts. In the face of all this, Italian immigrants fought their way out of poverty and into the mainstream.

Since the 1960s the majority of immigrants to the United States have come from Central America, South America, and Asia[1]. This can be explained in part by the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, which removed multiple barriers that systematically limited Latino and Asian immigration. However, recent Latino and Asian immigrants have struggled to escape poverty and integrate into the mainstream. For example, first and second generation Latino immigrants disproportionately live in poor neighborhoods, are exposed to high rates of crime, and drop out of high school (Haller, Portes, and Lynch 2011).

So what gives? Some would argue that recent Latino and Asian immigrants lack grit or are lazy. This is what is known as an individual explanation because it tries to explain a social problem (i.e. less comparative immigrant success) by relying on individual characteristics (i.e. today’s immigrants are lazy). To be a sociologist is to consider how social structures affect individual lives.

Two Different Times, Two Different Economies

The United States economy today is different than it was in the late 1800s – early 1900s. When the bulk of Italian immigrants arrived, the U.S. economy was transitioning from being primarily agricultural to a booming industrial economy. In the late 1960s when the large scale flows of Latino and Asian immigrants started in the U.S. the economy was shifting away from being largely industrial and becoming the largely information/service based economy we have today.

Workers in the U.S. industrial economy of the 1900s could land relative high paying manufacturing jobs without a high school diploma. Compare that to the $21,332 average annual income of workers without a high school education earn. Both Italian immigrants of the past and Mexican immigrants of today struggled to get their children to graduate from high school (Perlmann 2005), but the consequences today are much greater than they were in the past.

The Italian immigrants of the early 1900s also benefited from arriving in the U.S. prior to the post-WWII economic boom. High paying, low skill industrial jobs and FDR’s New Deal polices reduced economic inequality, creating the sizable middle class we have today. This time period, which economists refer to as the “Great Compression” started in the 1940s and ended in the late 1970s (Goldin and Margo 1992; Krugmen 2007; Piketty and Saez 2006). Latino and Asian immigrants, who were largely barred from entering the country prior to the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, were not present for most of the “Great Compression.”

And Let’s Not Forget Racism

Even if Latino and Asian immigrants had been present for the great compression, there is reason to believe they wouldn’t have enjoyed it like Italian Americans did because of widespread individual and institutional racism. While Italian immigrants and other groups from southern and eastern Europe faced overt bigotry when they arrived in the U.S., these “white ethnics” as they were called at the time were eventually able to fight off the stigma of that ethnic label and become simply “white” (Ignatiev 2009; Jacobson 1999; Roediger 2006). Latinos and Asian Americans have and continue to experience individual and institutional racism, prejudice, and discrimination.

Thinking Like a Sociologist

To think like a sociologist you must consider how an individual’s experiences are influenced by both the social structure and the historical moment they live in (Mills 1959). To compare the experiences of Italians immigrants to that of immigrants today is to compare to starkly different historical moments and two different economic structures.

Dig Deeper:

  1. We often hear politicians and pundits say that the poor are to blame for their economic situation. These are individual explanations of poverty. Write down at least 3 individual explanations of why some people are poor.
  2. Now come up with at least two structural explanations for why some people are poor. It might be helpful to think about the question, how does the way our society is organized affect who is poor and who is rich?
  3. How does the social structure of your society impact your individual choices? Think of at least three examples. (Hint: are you in school? If so, why?)
  4. How is your life affected by the historical moment you live in? To answer this question it might be helpful to think about what your life would be like if you lived in a different time period.


  • Goldin, Claudia and Robert A. Margo. 1992. “The Great Compression: The Wage Structure in the United States at Mid-Century.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 107(1):1–34.
  • Haller, William, Alejandro Portes, and Scott M. Lynch. 2011. “Dreams Fulfilled and Shattered: Determinants of Segmented Assimilation in the Second Generation.” Social Forces 89(3): 733-762.
  • Ignatiev, Noel. 2009. How the Irish Became White. Routledge.
  • Jacobson, Matthew Frye. 1999. Whiteness of a Different Color. Harvard University Press.
  • Krugman, Paul. “Introducing This Blog.” Retrieved February 22, 2015 (http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/09/18/introducing-this-blog/).
  • Mills, C. Wright. 1959. The Sociological Imagination. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Oxford University Press.
  • Perlmann, Joel. 2005. Italians Then, Mexicans Now: Immigrant Origins and the Second-Generation Progress, 1890-2000. Russell Sage Foundation.
  • Piketty, Thomas and Emmanuel Saez. 2006. “The Evolution of Top Incomes: A Historical and International Perspective.” National Bureau of Economic Research.
  • Roediger, David R. 2006. Working toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White: The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs. Basic Books.

  1. When talking about modern immigration people often use “Mexicans” as a synonym for all recent immigrants. While immigrants from Mexico represent an estimated two thirds of all immigration today, it is inaccurate to use any single nation as a synonym for all immigration. The hypothetical quotation used in the title of this post was written to reflect this misconception.  ↩