The economic assimilation of Irish famine migrants to the United States

March 21, 2019 | Blog
Home > The economic assimilation of Irish famine migrants to the United States

by William Collins and Ariell Zimran (Vanderbilt University)

This research will be presented during the EHS Annual Conference in Belfast, April 5th – 7th 2019. Conference registration can be found on the EHS website.


Engraving of Emigrants leaving Ireland, 1868. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

Restrictive immigration policy is often justified by claims that immigrants and refugees are slow to assimilate culturally and economically in the receiving country. Our new research, to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2019 annual conference, shows that the largest wave of refugees to ever arrive in the United States experienced rapid economic assimilation, closing much of the gap in occupational status relative to native-born Americans in a single generation.

These refugees were victims of the Great Irish Famine, which killed an estimated one million Irish between 1846 and 1850 and drove another million to flee abroad, mostly to the United States. Their poverty and predominantly Catholic religion set them apart from the typical American of the day, and led many politicians and commentators to argue that the Irish could and would not assimilate and thus were dangerous to American democracy and the American economy.

Notwithstanding these claims, data limitations have masked how the Irish immigrants’ labour market outcomes evolved after their arrival. To study these patterns, we use data from the US censuses of 1850 and 1880.

We begin by identifying Irish men in 1850 and using information on the birthplaces and ages of their children to determine whether they had arrived in the United States during the famine or before. We then locate their sons in the 1880 census, enabling the comparison of the sons’ adult occupations with those of their fathers. Similar links are constructed for the sons of native-born Americans.

The new data enable the documentation of three facts. First, in 1850, the Irish famine-era migrants had considerably lower levels of human capital, as measured by their literacy, than earlier Irish arrivals and native-born Americans. They were also 57% more likely than natives to hold an unskilled occupation.

The poor conditions faced by the famine Irish migrants thus did not bode well for the success of the next generation. Indeed, a simple comparison of the sons of the famine-era Irish to the sons of US natives reveals the second fact: as late as 1880, the sons of the famine Irish still fared worse than the sons of natives. These first two facts would seem, at first glance, to support claims of failure to assimilate (that is, ‘catch up’ to natives) in labour markets.

But a more detailed analysis reveals that the gap had shrunk considerably over the generation. In 1880, the sons of famine-era Irish were only 24% more likely than the sons of natives to hold an unskilled occupation. Thus, in a single generation, they closed much of the gap in status faced by their fathers.

Moreover, when the sons of the famine Irish were compared only to the sons of natives whose households were similar in 1850, only an 8% gap between the two groups remained. Thus, despite experiencing poverty, a nativist backlash against migrants, especially Catholics, and in some cases the trauma of the famine itself, the largest wave of refugee immigrants ever to arrive in the United States experienced almost the same intergenerational mobility as natives.

It is difficult to draw conclusions from these results to modern waves of refugees seeking sanctuary in Europe and the United States. The American and European economies have changed radically over the intervening centuries, and the open border policy of the United States – responsible for saving untold lives during the Irish famine – has long been closed.

But the parallels in rhetoric faced by modern and historic refugees suggests that the results of our new research can provide a useful lens through which to view modern debates.