Did our poor immigrant ancestors prosper in America?

Americans think immigrants used to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. That’s wrong” was posted on Vox.com yesterday. The article says, “Not only did less-educated immigrants from less-developed countries work in low-paying occupations when they got to the US, but their children also were likely to work in jobs that paid less than the average for natives.”

Considering my own ancestry, that’s probably true. However, it’s hard to pinpoint. For one thing, it’s not clear how countries are designated as more or less developed. Until now, I considered all European countries well developed, but this article designates Norway as less developed. For another, how do you compare a man’s occupation in the early 1900s with his daughter’s?

Elise (Næss) Barrows next to her tarpaper-wrapped house near Amberg, Wis.

But let’s look at my ancestors who immigrated from the mid 1850s to early 1900s:

  • John and Bridget (Sheridan) Gormley, a farmer and a servant from Ireland, arrived near the end of the potato famine in the mid 1800s. He made shoes in Massachusetts, worked on the railroad in Wisconsin and homesteaded in Nebraska. All of that had to be better than the potato famine.
  • Joseph T. and Sarah (Lewis) Spencer, journeyman house painter and his wife from England, arrived in Chicago in 1882. He retired to Athelstane, Wis., where he intended to farm a few acres. At the end of their lives, the county took their modest home and acreage to pay for their care.
  • Rudolph Seehawer, son of a prosperous German farmer, arrived in 1892. He married one of the Gormleys’ granddaughters in Athelstane, but he worked in Chicago to support his family.
  • Elise (Næss) Barrows, who had never had to work because her father had a good white collar job, arrived from Norway in 1904. She worked as a maid in Chicago until she married my grandfather, a teamster from an old American family. They tried to farm cut-over timberland in northern Wisconsin (and failed), but they spent more time living with relatives in Chicago.

Fast forward to the present. I don’t know all of my distant cousins, but the ones I do know, or know of, range from poor to blue collar to white collar to small business owners. Many of us have college degrees, but I don’t think anyone is a millionaire and no one is famous.

Most of us work hard, so what keeps descendants of poor immigrants from moving all the way up the ladder? Is it genetics? I know it’s not intelligence or talent. Having read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, I suspect it’s a combination of low expectations and lack of contacts among people in a position to pull us up. It’s true: It’s not what you know, it’s whom you know.

Here’s another truth: the best things in life are free. My grandmother’s smiling in the photo above. Sure, she didn’t get rich in America, but she had her flowers and the family she loved. I’m like her, and what’s wrong with that?