The Top 10 Performing Immigrant Groups in the US – Lessons Learned

by Mike Kimel

The Top 10 Performing Immigrant Groups in the US – Lessons Learned

First, I’d like to apologize. An earlier version of this post was taken down because I sent it with the wrong table. This version has the correct table, and I added a bit of verbage as well.

In my last post, I noted that that on aggregate, immigrants’ per capita income in the US was correlated with the GDP per capita in their native land. The following two graphs were generated:

kimel 17Figure 1

The graph on the left shows that on aggregate, immigrants from richer countries do better in the US than immigrants from poorer countries. The graph on the right shows that the effect is magnified for immigrant groups which have been in the US for the longest.

In this post, I want to look at the top ten countries (for which data is available) ranked by earnings of a country’s immigrants to the US to see if there are obvious lessons to be learned:

Post 2, Figure 2 - Top 10 Countries by Immigrant Income - Corrected
Figure 2

The first thing to note is that most of the countries on the top ten list are relatively wealthy to start with. This make them examples of the rich stay rich, and not examples of the poor making good.

The second thing to notice is the heavy British presence on the list. Except for the Netherlands, which ranks tenth, every country on the list is either Britain, neighboring Britain, or was a British colony, or protectorate in the case of Israel. (It is worth noting that data on immigrants from New Zealand was not available from the Census database used in this post.) Put a different way, most of the countries whose immigrants perform very well in the US have acquired some aspects of British culture from the period in which Britain was the dominant world power.

But having British background is not enough. There are plenty of former British colonies in our data sample whose immigrants are not particularly successful in the US. Still, British skills and culture can be adapted and even improved upon by people who don’t share British ancestry. Therefore, it would seem like a useful exercise to figure out what it is about British culture that leads to success and to try it more widely. However, we live in an increasingly multi-cultural and politically correct age. Suggesting that people from around the world might fare better in life by adopting traditionally British customs is considered culturally insensitive, if not outright racist in many circles.

Fortunately, learning from the poor and downtrodden is still considered OK. On our top ten list, at first glance South Africa and India qualify as worthy of providing instruction. Plus, they seem to fit the poor people doing well theme, which is inspirational.

But a smidge of thought removes South Africa from favored status. South African immigrants to the US not only are not diverse, they are not even representative of the South African population, much less that of the rest of the world:

South African emigration to the US has been an overwhelmingly white phenomenon. According to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington DC, only 14% of South African immigrants – about 11 000 – are black.

At the extreme, think Elon Musk. But in general, it seems that the South African immigrants to the US are from relatively privileged backgrounds. Anecdotally, the South Africans I have met in the US tend to be extremely well educated. Many did not agree with Apartheid and left during that era, but they also don’t approve of the way South Africa has progressed since. Another thing I’ve noted is that many South African immigrants in the US are Ashkenazi.

In any case, removing South Africa leaves India. Here we are on firmer ground when it comes to maintaining vital anti-Imperialist cred. One of the things that stands about Indian immigrants in the US is that they tend to be extremely well educated. According to the Census figures, a third of Indian immigrants 25 and over have achieved a Bachelor’s degree, and 42.5% have a graduate or professional degree. However, according to the World Bank:

While more than 95 percent of children attend primary school, just 40 percent of Indian adolescents attend secondary school (Grades 9-12).

Unfortunately, the Census data does not tell us if Indian immigrants to the US arrived in the US with graduate degrees or obtained them in the US. Certainly, there are many examples of both. However, most Indian immigrants arrived since the year 2000, which would suggest that a substantial part of the education obtained by the average Indian immigrant was obtained in India itself. Thus, it would seem that Indian immigrants to the US come from a specific subgroup of the population of India, namely those who have the wherewithal to obtain an education.

Another interesting factor – Indian immigrant families have about 3.4 people in them. Assuming a high marriage rate, while it still results in more children than most other groups in the top 10, it is still below replacement level fertility. This would also differentiate Indian immigrants to the US from their counterparts who stayed in India.

Basically, when looking at the group as a whole – it tends to skew older and far more educated than the native born population. Employment levels are higher among these immigrant groups than for the native born population, except among the Irish and the Dutch who include many retirees. But from the data on arrival pre- year 2000, it would seem those retirees spent a sizable part of their work life in the US. The Israelis are a bit of an exception – with more of them on public assistance and larger families than the rest of the top ten; I believe some of that is probably due to the Orthodox families among the Israelis.

In conclusion, other than the tentative but generic recommendation that they seek out an education and don’t have kids before you can afford to raise, there isn’t much obvious to be here that can be applied to improve the lot of immigrants to the US.

If looking at the top group hasn’t helped, then maybe the bottom is the place to look. The next post in this series will focus on the bottom 10 group of immigrants to the US in terms of per capita income.


Data used in this post comes from two sources. The first is GDP per capita, by country, obtained from the World Bank. The post also uses information obtained from the Census Department’s 2014 American Community Survey. In particular, the post uses the 2014 per capita income of immigrants to the US by nation of origin. It also uses the percentage of the immigrants from a given country that have arrived in the US prior to the year 2000. That data is kind of unwieldy to find, but the starting point is here. To be clear, immigrants in this source are foreign born, which is to say first generation only. Only immigrants alive at the time of the survey are included.

As always, if you want my data, drop me a line at my first name (mike) dot my last name (kimel – that’s with one m, not two) at gmail dot com. Occasionally I get data requests six or seven years after a post. While I always try to comply with these requests, I reserve the right to change computers, have them stolen, or to drop dead if too much time has elapsed between this writing and a request for data occurs.

Recent previous posts on this topic:
Economic Outcomes of Immigrants v. Stay at Home

How Does Diversity Affect Economic Growth? A Look at Data on Immigration, Tax Rates and Real GDP per Capita