Interview: Leah Boustan, economist

From Noah Smith:

“Immigration is obviously one of the most important and most contentious issues of our time. The sheer amount of confusion, misconception, and misinformation is just staggering. So when I want to know the hard facts on the immigration issue, I go to Princeton economist Leah Boustan.

Boustan’s research covers far more than immigration — she’s incredibly versatile, covering labor economics, urban economics, economic history, and more. But recently, her research on immigration has garnered a lot of (well-deserved) attention. In a series of recent papers, she and her various co-authors showed that 1920s immigration restrictions hurt native-born American workers, that immigrant groups give their kids less foreign-sounding names over time, that immigrants do better economically when they move out of ethnic enclaves, and that the children of poor immigrants tend to be extremely upwardly mobile.

In her new book with Ran Abramitzky, Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success, Boustan draws from her own research and others’ to weave a nuanced yet compelling story of how immigrants fare in the United States — and how little this has changed between the early 20th century and the early 21st. It’s a great book, and I highly recommend it to everyone.

In this interview, I ask Leah about her book, and about the immigration issue in general. Enjoy!

N.S.: I’ve been following your work for years, and you’re my favorite economist of immigration. How did you first become interested in that topic?

L.B.: First, thank you! That is so kind to say and I have appreciated all of your engagement with our work through the years. I will always associate the “before times” (immediately pre-Covid) with being able to meet in person at the ASSA conference in Jan 2020.

So, how did I become interested in immigration? Well, my first book was on the black migration from the rural South to industrial cities in the North and West (the Great Black Migration). I got interested in this topic when reading William Julius Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged and encountering a paragraph with what seemed like an aside, but it really is a gem of an idea. Wilson said something like “ironically, European immigrants benefited from the closing of the US border in the 1920s, but black migrants faced a lot of competition because you can’t close the Mason-Dixon line.” (This is a paraphrase!). I thought to myself – wow – I always knew about white ethnic communities in US cities, but I never really thought of the black community as a *migrant* community. So what if we – as economists – really study African-American history as migrant history? My first book was called Competition in the Promised Land, which picks up on this idea.

It was pretty natural after that to turn my attention to studying European immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Sociologists like Wilson and like Stanley Lieberson explicitly or implicitly compare white ethnic progress with African American progress. So, after working for some time on black migrants, I wanted to learn more about European immigrants as well.”

Continue reading here.

Posted by at 7:34 AM

Labels: Book Reviews, Profiles of Economists


Subscribe to: Posts