CU Population Center

Institute of Behavioral Science

Immigration impacts childrens’ health but researchers need better measurements

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The children of immigrants tend to have poorer health than their parents and grandparents. Assimilation may be to blame since immigrants arrive in the USA with better health habits and customs but gradually assimilate to less-healthy U.S. norms. An accumulation of disadvantages may also play a role since the children and grandchildren of immigrants have been exposed to racism and discrimination throughout their lives.

But much of the research on health and immigration relies on self-identification by survey respondents. This complicates research because later generations may be less likely to identify with the ethnicity of earlier generations resulting in misclassification and, therefore, impacting research results.

In a recent issue of the Journal of Population Economics, CUPC affiliate Francisca Antman and collaborators examined if this reliance on self-identification does indeed impact research on immigration and health. The researchers used data from a sample of Mexican American in the Current Population Survey and found find that relying on ancestry information as opposed to ethnic self-identification leads to somewhat smaller intergenerational differences in health.

Antman and colleagues also show that the health disadvantage of more recent generations is largely explained by parental background characteristics. In this way, the poor life chances of Mexican immigrants in the U.S. may influence their children’s health many years into the future. But to really understand these processes, Antman and colleagues call for recognition of the measurement pitfalls associated with ethnic self-identification and the need for development of alternative measurements of ethnic origins.

Antman, Francisca M., B. Duncan, and S. Trejo. 2020 “Ethnic attrition, assimilation, and the measured health outcomes of Mexican Americans.” Journal of Population Economics 33:1499-1522.