A Woman’s Touch? Female Migration and Economic Development in the United States
Abstract: Does the economic effect of immigrant women differ from that of immigrants in general? This paper examines if gender has influenced the short- and long-term economic impact of mass migration to the US, using Census microdata from 1880 and 1910. By means of ordinary least squares and instrumental variable estimations, the analysis shows that a greater concentration of immigrant women is significantly associated with lower levels of economic development in US counties. However, immigrant women also shaped economic development positively, albeit indirectly via their children. Communities with more children born to foreign mothers and that successfully managed to integrate female immigrants experienced greater economic growth than those dominated by children of foreign-born fathers or American-born parents.
Circulated by NEP-HIS on 2018-05-08
Review by Fernando Arteaga (George Mason University)
What is the economic impact of female migration? The authors seek to answer the inquiry by using the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century as their study case. The goal of the paper is to highlight the distinctiveness of women immigration (compared to that of men), both in the processes that led women to migrate, the characteristics they had, and the places where they finally settled. The main thesis of paper stresses the long-lasting effect women have had; through their family role, as mothers, they facilitated the formation and transmission of social capital, which had a pervasive positive effect on income.
Female migrants in early America tended to settle mainly on urbanized areas in the Northeastern coast – compared to that of male immigrants (who settled mainly in the South and West). The migration levels of women, in absolute terms, were lower, and their marriage rates higher. More importantly, their labor participation rates were low: women tended to stay and work in domestic chores rather than find occupations in the market. These characteristics make female migration distinct to that of men, and motivate the goal of the paper in trying to assess their particular relevance.
The text relies on standard econometric analyses, based on intuition and on the literature of migration and culture transmission. The main data sources are the historical censuses of 1880 and 1910, which capture the amount of, male and female foreign-born population residents in each US county (among other data). The paper presents two base regressions that aim to assess the direct and indirect economic impact of female migration, both in the short and the long term. The first model regresses economic income (GDP per capita by county) on female migration (foreign-born women as a share of the total population in the county). They find that the variables are negatively correlated: lack of labor market participation hindered the female contribution to income. The authors also found that this has had a long term negative effect (income today is also negatively correlated with female migration in late 19th and early 20th century) . To correct for potential biases and to establish a causality linkage that goes strictly from migration to income, and not the other way around, the authors use three different instruments: a) the percentage of married persons; b) the number of persons living in a household; c) the urbanization rate of the county being examined. The first instrument accounts for the fact that female migrants tended to be married in larger shares than the rest of the population. The second accounts for the idea that migrants, especially women, tended to stay with members of their families through their lifetime. The last one maintains that female migrants favored settlement in urbanized zones. The validity of an instrument (marriage percentage, household size and urbanization) hinges upon it being correlated with the dependent variable (income) only by it causing the highlighted mechanism (female migration). The authors do several post-hoc statistical tests to evaluate the instrument’s validity and conclude that it is indeed a valid and strong one. In any case, the instrument variable outcomes do not change the results of the baseline ordinary least squares scenario, they just allow a more robust interpretation of them: it can be said that female migration did have a negative impact on income.
The second model emphasizes the indirect impact of migrant women. Maybe women themselves did not positively contribute to the economic wellbeing of their communities, but they could have done so through other means. The authors refer to the literature that stresses how mothers influence their children behavior and thus have an important role as social capital transmitters (which could positively affect economic wellbeing). They regress economic income today on the share of children (in 1880 and 1910) born from: 1) a migrant mother and an American-born father; 2) a migrant father and an American mother; 3) both American parents. The standard base of comparison is the share of children that had both parents as immigrants . By definition, the model can only capture the long-term effect of female migrants. The authors find that US counties with an historical larger share of children with migrant mothers are correlated with larger incomes today – in comparison to the other explanatory variables; having American parents is negatively correlated with income today; having a migrant father, and American mother, has a non-significant and null effect on economic outcomes today. The argument, again, rests on the case of social capital transmission: women, as mothers, matter very much. To corroborate their OLS results they also use an instrumental variable. The authors assume that American-born women that had migrant mothers followed the cultural transmission pattern established by their forebears. They call this the “supply-push” component, which they estimate and use as their instrument. Just as the first model, the instrumental variable inclusion does not modify the basic results, it only permits to talk about causality from migrants in the past to better economic outcomes today.
In conclusion, the paper finds that female immigration, while having a negative direct short-term impact on economic income, has a long-lasting positive effect through the “cultural carrier” channel.
The paper is a very interesting one, being one of the few studies that aims to disentangle the impact of women as migrants compared to that of men. The results the authors present make intuitive sense. I would like to make just small technical comments based on the variables they use and how they use them.
First, related to the semantics of the concept of “migration.” Migration is normally thought as a flow variable, but here it is used as a stock variable. Given the data they use (measuring migrants as people classified as foreign born in two censuses) the authors cannot measure the impact of migration as a flow, only the impact of it in broad terms. This is not a problem. I just would have liked to see a minor explanation on the paper that clarified the interpretations that we could get out of this. In fact, I think it could explain why they find a negative impact of migrant women in income (if the variables were flows, through migration rates and economic growth, the results may be different).
Second, on a more technical note, I’m skeptic of the instruments being used. Even though the authors argue that they are valid and strong, I remain unconvinced. The authors show that all four of them are correlated with the dependent variable and uncorrelated with the error terms, yet there is almost no explanation, backed up by a narrative, of how exactly these instruments impact on income only through female migration. For each one of the instruments used I could think of other alternate channels by which they could impact income. For example, the use of percentage of marriage by county could indeed be correlated with female migration, but is that the only potential channel? Could it not be that maybe poverty or religion could be impacting income as well?
Lastly, I wish the narrative part could be explained in larger detail. For example, how exactly female migrants in 1880 have a direct impact on income in 2010. Or how exactly children of foreign mothers in 1880 and 1910 could affect income today. It is one thing to say that culture matters, it is another different thing to point how exactly it does. In fact, even though they do mention the pervasiveness of cultural traits through time, they fail to mention that this pervasiveness does not imply ipso facto a good outcome is assured. Sometimes, social capital is also correlated with bad outcomes.
 The authors do not provide a concise explanation of why this could be happening: how could a century year old female migration pattern directly impact economic wellbeing today?
 All the interpretations of results are in comparison to that baseline.