A new working paper, Ancestry of the American Dream, presents some unsurprising results:
Income inequality and intergenerational mobility—the degree to which (dis)advantage is passed on from parents to children—are among the defining political challenges of our time. While some scholars claim that more unequal countries exhibit a stronger persistence of income across generations, others argue that mobility rates are unaffected by social equality and are equally low in most societies. We compare economic opportunity across U.S. areas populated by different European ancestral groups, and find a substantial variation that mirrors current differences across descendants’ countries of origin: mobility is highest in areas dominated by descendants to Scandinavian immigrants, lower in places where the Italian, French, or Germans settled, and lower still in areas with British ancestral origins. A similar pattern is observed for income equality, which gives rise to a gradient closely resembling the “Great Gatsby Curve” across European countries. We provide suggestive evidence that these differences arise mainly at the community level and that similar mobility patterns apply to the black minority population, so they are not simply a function of ancestral groups themselves being more or less mobile. A more plausible explanation is that cultural differences among immigrant groups gave rise to local economic and social institutions that are more or less conducive to mobility. Our findings suggest that present cross-country differences in inequality and intergenerational mobility are real and may have deeper historical origins than has hitherto been recognized.
Looking at county-level ethnicity data from the 1980 census as well as the income tax data that Raj Chetty uses, the authors found some interesting patterns in the “synthetic countries” within the USA:
The overall thesis that the culture immigrants brings persists for generations seems plausible. In Not By Genes Alone Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson report data from Illinois where farmers of German-American background behave very differently from their neighbors of Anglo-American background when given the same conditions. Anglo-Americans behaved much more like homo economicus . They sold their farms when the market price was right. In contrast, the German-Americans would attempt to keep the farms within the family even through periods when it was not economically rational.
My point is that there are non-economic aspects of culture that may not be picked up by these analyses which have economic consequences.
The second issue is that not all Americans of “British” origin are the same culturally. Long-time readers know where I’m going with this. The argument in Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America is that English American New England Yankees are culturally very distinct from British Americans from the South, whose origins often range from southwest England to the borders with Scotland, as well as Ulster-Scots who arrived in the middle of the 18th century.
If you look at at the map within the preprint you see that Utah has a high fraction of British Americans, but its socio-demographic profile is more like the Upper Midwest, dominated by Scandinavians and Germans. The British Americans of Utah, of course, descend to a great extent from New England Yankees, as well as various Northern European immigrant groups converted to Mormonism by 19th-century missions. Though similarly socially and politically conservative, Utah Mormons are culturally very different from white Southerners. One way to describe it is that Utah Mormons have a lot of social cohesion and an orientation toward communalism. This is in line with their Yankee origins. Yankee migrants to the West organized their towns very differently from those from the South (to be frank, Southerners didn’t much organize their towns at all in comparison to Yankee rationalism and collectivism).
Going back to the Upper Midwest, it is important to recall that this was once termed the “Yankee Empire”. Before 1850 the whites of New England were the most fecund subculture in the United States, and they overflowed to upstate New York, and then the northern swath of Ohio, Illinois, as well as dominated Michigan and the Upper Midwest.
Today the Upper Midwest states of Minnesota and Wisconsin are among the least “Anglo-American” predominantly white states because of the high fraction of Northern Europeans. The rise of socialist politics and the persistence of German-speaking communities deep into the 20th century attest to this density of immigrant ethnicities. But, there were cultural affinities between the natives and the immigrant groups, in particular, Protestant Germans and Scandinavians and Yankees. Unlike in old New England, the developers of the Yankee Empire welcomed migration to settle the farms of the Midwest. Though a plain economistic reading works (there was a deficit of labor and surplus of land), I suspect that conflicts between Irish Catholics and Yankees in New England, as opposed to Scandinavians and Germans (many of whom were Catholics) and older Yankees in the Midwest, were functions of contrasts in complementarity and cultural affinity.
An opposing case to Northern European complementary with the ethos of the Yankee Midwest is that of Germans (and Swedes and Czechs) in Texas. These immigrant groups were settled in the uplands of central Texas because these were the least fertile lands. In short, the white Anglo-Texans often cheated the European ethnics because they could. These Northern European Texan groups were much of the source for the progressive and Left-wing populist tradition in the politics of this state in the 20th century. But over time they have by and large assimilated to white Anglo-Texan norms and folkways. That is, they are not much different than the descendants of white British Texans.
This goes to show you that numbers matter. Where in the Midwest the original Yankees were overwhelmed demographically, that did not happen in Texas. Where in the Midwest the Northern Europeans amplified the collective populist moralism of the Yankees, making it more institutional robust with explicit socialism, in the South the Northern Europeans were eventually absorbed into the region’s customary hierarchal individualism.
Addendum: The authors of the above paper showed that the mobility impacted blacks as well as whites, indicating that the dominant ethos had policy implications which shaped society on the macroscale.