Unseen Economic Progress Among Mexican Americans, University of Texas at Austin Study Reveals

Later-generation Mexican Americans are making more economic progress than previous studies show, according to new research from The University of Texas at Austin and the University of Colorado, Denver.

The study, conducted by Stephen Trejo, associate professor of economics and associate director of the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin, and Brian Duncan, associate professor of economics at the University of Colorado, Denver, is published in the April issue of the Journal of Labor Economics.

Contrary to previous studies that have raised concerns about the social and economic progress of Mexican Americans, the researchers found this rapidly growing minority group is gaining upward mobility at a faster rate than U.S. Census figures suggest. According to the study, a sizable fraction of successful Mexican Americans has gone unnoticed in measures of attainment because they do not classify themselves as Mexican in government surveys.

Trejo said he hopes findings from this study will lead to revisions in how the U.S. Census Bureau collects its data to more accurately reflect economic progress among ethnic groups.

The researchers found the shift in ethnic identity is particularly strong for children of intermarriages between Mexican Americans and non-Mexicans. And as intermarriage rates continue to increase among this group, later generations are more likely to classify their ethnicity as something other than Mexican, Trejo said.

To measure the loss of ethnic identity among U.S.-born Mexican-American children, the researchers primarily analyzed data from the Current Population Survey, a monthly survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau that measures household demographics and labor force characteristics. For children living with both parents, these data indicate how many of each child's parents and grandparents were born in Mexico, which provides an objective means of identifying the descendants of Mexican immigrants.

According to the findings:

  • Mexican-American youth with intermarried parents have substantially higher educational attainment and better English skills than youth with two parents of Mexican descent.
  • Thirty percent of third-generation Mexican-American children are not identified as Mexican in U.S. government surveys. This ethnic attrition arises primarily because of intermarriage, Trejo said.
  • The high school dropout rate among third-generation Mexicans is 25 percent higher when the sample is limited to those youth who self-identify as Mexican.

"Our research highlights serious problems with trying to track the socioeconomic progress of these immigrant descendants using standard measures of racial and ethnic self-identification," Trejo said. "Much more could be learned about these important groups if information regarding the countries of birth of each respondent's parents and grandparents were collected in large government surveys like the census or the American Community Survey."