Media Briefings

IT PAYS TO HAVE A COMMON AMERICAN NAME: Evidence from migration to 1920s New York

  • Published Date: April 2014

A third of European migrants to New York in the 1920s abandoned foreign-sounding names to adopt a popular American name. This widespread practice paid off: migrants who Americanised their names – especially those who took the names William, John or Charles – achieved considerably greater economic success than those who did not.

These are among the findings of research by Costanza Biavaschi, Corrado Giulietti and Zahra Siddique, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society’s 2014 annual conference. Their study analyses thousands of naturalisation papers of migrants who became US citizens in New York City by 1930. Among the findings:

· 30% of migrants abandoned foreign-sounding names to adopt popular American names.

· Migrants who changed their name to popular American names such as William, John or Charles earned at least 14% more than those who changed to less popular names or did not change their names at all.

· Name Americanisation was more common among migrants who were low skilled, more discriminated against or with fewer alternative means for socio-economic improvement.

· Migrants with names of certain linguistic complexity – measured by the Scrabble points of the name when arriving in the United States – decided to Americanise their names irrespective of other motivations.

The authors comment:

‘Our findings are not only informative for European and US historical memory of the period, but also show that migrants faced an important trade-off between individual identity and labour market success in the early making of modern America.

‘Despite migrant occupational upgrading being limited at the time, migrants adopted various strategies to climb the occupational ladder. We discover that name Americanisation was one effective strategy.’

More…

Most Americans and Europeans have heard stories of their ancestors Americanising their names after migration to the United States. This study explores beyond such anecdotes, providing evidence on the magnitude and consequences of this phenomenon.

In a random sample of migrants who naturalised to become American citizens in 1930 New York, the authors find that a third of European migrants abandoned foreign-sounding names to adopt a popular American name.

This widespread practice paid off: migrants who Americanised their names achieved higher economic success than those who did not. In particular, migrants who changed their name into popular American names such as William, John or Charles earned at least 14% more than those who changed into less popular names or did not change names at all.

Digging through thousands of naturalisation papers from New York City, the authors track a wide range of characteristics of more than 3,000 migrants becoming citizens by 1930. Since migrants had to fill out two separate documents five years apart for the naturalisation procedure, their characteristics can be observed over time.

The authors’ conclusions are based on comparing migrants’ economic success over time, between those who kept their original name and those who chose more American names.

The study shows that migrants who changed their name into popular American names such as William, John or Charles earned at least 14% more than those who changed into less popular names (see Figure 1). Name Americanisation was more common among migrants who were low skilled, more discriminated against or with fewer alternative means for socio-economic improvement.

The authors comment:

‘These findings are not only informative for Europe and the United States’ historical memory of the period, but also show that migrants faced an important trade-off between individual identity and labour market success in the early making of modern America.

‘Despite migrant occupational upgrading being limited at the time, migrants adopted various strategies to climb the occupational ladder. We discover that name Americanisation was one effective but under-explored strategy.’

The analysis also considers the possibility that the choice of a new name reflected other factors related to migrants’ experiences that could have also had an impact on economic success, such as differing levels of ambition or language acquisition.

To isolate the economic payoff resulting from having a new name from that attributable to other factors, the authors note that migrants with names of certain linguistic complexity – measured by the Scrabble points of the name when arriving in the United States – decided to Americanise their names irrespective of other motivations.

Using this strategy, the authors confirm that the name change as such caused better economic performance.

ENDS

Notes for editors:

‘The Economic Payoff of Name Americanization’ by Costanza Biavaschi, Corrado Giulietti and Zahra Siddique

For further information, contact:

Costanza Biavaschi, biavaschi@iza.org, +49 228 38 94 161

Romesh Vaitilingam: romesh@vaitilingam.com, +44 7768 661095

Figure 1: Effect of Name Americanization on (Log) Occupational Score, by Name