Italian Footnotes

A new study has found that the sons of Italian immigrants who came of age in the 1930s outshone their fathers economically to a degree that surpassed all other second generation Europeans and native Whites.

This statement needs some more detail.

The study was done by economic historians at Princeton, Stanford, and the University of California at Davis. Using U.S. Census information – solely based on the occupations of the immigrant father and his sons – if the son had a better job title, the conclusion was that he had a greater income and status.  In other words, if the 1910 Census listed your grandfather as a “shoemaker” and the 1930 Census listed your father as an “office worker,” the researchers considered your father more successful than his father.  The trick here is that no salaries or income were listed in those census documents, so job titles were the yardstick.

Valid or not, Italian sons who were counted with their fathers in the 1880 census were #2 in success when they reached adulthood (Portuguese sons were #1).  However, Italian sons were #1 in the 1910 census comparison.  We’re talking about Italian American boys making greater progress than the sons of Anglo, German, Irish, and other immigrants.  President Trump’s much-ballyhooed Norwegian immigrant sons were dead last in both the 1880 and 1910 analyses.

While I have some doubts about the meaning of this study, it confirms that second generation Italian Americans (the pre-Boomer generation) were an ambitious lot. We continue to be among the most successful groups in the nation in terms of income, home ownership, self-employment, and college education.  With intermarriage, this metric will soon become  irrelevant.

What bothers me about this study is that job titles may not be an accurate way to judge income or wealth. Many Italian immigrants came with skills and values that multiplied their earnings.  If barbers were the least respected trade, for example, then a barber who opened his own shop, worked seven days a week, and saved 90¢ on a dollar was more than a barber.  He was a super-entrepreneur.  His son, by contrast, may have been a clerk in an office and saved nothing.

But this study can demonstrate how far down the economic ladder Italian immigrants were. They did the grunt work of their day – digging the subways, manning the docks, hauling the ice and coal, or collecting garbage.  Other immigrants, especially those who spoke English or had wealthy communities here already, got those civil service jobs or indoor work.

The study also used the 1980 census, which added many non-European immigrant families. This time, incomes not job titles were compared.  The top earning sons were Chinese and Indians.  Italians ranked 9th.  Educational achievement is surely a factor in this Asian primacy – “tiger moms” and all that.

We can certainly take a bow for the findings in this study. The only regret I have is that this footnote of our progress is not what our filmmakers have conveyed to world-wide audiences these past five decades.

Time and again, I see or read interviews with Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, David Chase and their stable of mob actors that never address the ultimate negative message their films convey about Italian Americans. Most recently, the Times did a two-page interview with De Niro and Pacino about their new film, The Irishman – Scorsese’s latest Mafia movie.  I’m sure it is the case that interviewers avoid the question out of courtesy or don’t believe the question is relevant.

It is apparent that we have to settle for our real story in America to be conveyed by word-of-mouth within our families, or with little gems like the above study. If that’s the case, here’s another gem I picked up this week from the NY Times:

For the first time in its 32-year history, the World Cheese Awards selected an American cheesemaker for its top prize. Beating out 3,800 submissions from 42 nations, the Rogue Creamery of Oregon won with a blue cheese.  Rogue was founded in the 1930s by Italian immigrant Tom Vella.  Vella began producing his Blue in 1954 and focused on it with his son Ignazio. Tom Vella died in 1998 at age 100. (Gotta eat more blue cheese!)  Ignazio sold the creamery to non-Italians in 2002.

Did Ignazio outdo his immigrant father? -JLM

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