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Ethnic attrition, assimilation, and the measured health outcomes of Mexican Americans

Abstract

The literature on immigrant assimilation and intergenerational progress has sometimes reached surprising conclusions, such as the puzzle of immigrant advantage which finds that Hispanic immigrants sometimes have better health than US-born Hispanics. While numerous studies have attempted to explain these patterns, almost all studies rely on subjective measures of ethnic self-identification to identify immigrants’ descendants. This can lead to bias due to “ethnic attrition,” which occurs whenever a US-born descendant of a Hispanic immigrant fails to self-identify as Hispanic. In this paper, we exploit information on parents’ and grandparents’ place of birth to show that Mexican ethnic attrition, operating through intermarriage, is sizable and positively selected on health, making subsequent generations of Mexican immigrants appear less healthy than they actually are. Consequently, conventional estimates of health disparities between Mexican Americans and non-Hispanic whites as well as those between Mexican Americans and recent Mexican immigrants have been significantly overstated.

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Notes

  1. Additional work in this literature examines whether any health advantage erodes over time within the 1st immigrant generation (e.g. Acevedo-Garcia et al. 2010). Since our study makes comparisons across immigrant generations, however, we do not focus on years since migration.

  2. With regard to death rates in particular, one explanation sometimes offered for the paradox vis-à-vis non-Hispanic whites stems from differences in reporting of ethnic identity by next-of-kin on death certificates relative to self-reporting of ethnicity on national surveys (Rosenberg et al. 1999). While investigations of this explanation do not constitute an extensive portion of the literature, they do hint at problems inherent in the use of subjective measures of ethnic identity more broadly.

  3. This is similar to the mechanism suggested by Giuntella (2016) to be the root cause for the decline in birth weight observed across immigrant generations, which he attributes to the intermarriage of non-Hispanic whites with 2nd-generation Hispanic immigrants who are then more likely to adopt risky behaviors such as smoking during pregnancy.

  4. Duncan and Trejo (2016, 2017) investigate ethnic attrition among other Hispanic groups and find similar patterns of educational selectivity across all Hispanic origin groups, but precise estimates of the magnitude of the implied biases are thwarted by the very small sample sizes of the non-Mexican groups. While this evidence suggests that health selectivity patterns are likely to be similar across Hispanic-origin groups as well, in practice, the small sample sizes associated with other Hispanic immigrants in the CPS limit our ability for precise comparisons with the Mexican-origin group.

  5. We follow the shorthand, common in the literature, of describing this outcome as a poor health indicator, although, as noted above, it also includes those reported to be in fair health. Typically, the literature constructs the SRH measure as a binary measure of health status, reflecting the fact that indicators for poor or fair health in particular are good predictors of subsequent health outcomes such as mortality (Wolinsky and Johnson 1992).

  6. One important limitation of these alternative health measures, as with almost all health outcomes available in large-scale data sets, is that they are self-reported and thus potentially subject to measurement error biases. Nevertheless, we argue that these are likely to be smaller in magnitude than those associated with SRH, especially for those measures that are closely linked with an objective health condition (e.g. low birth weight). If one assumes that these measurement error biases reflect measures of acculturation to US norms, we might also expect them to result in understated differences between higher-order immigrants and non-Hispanic whites.

  7. While Table 8 shows that low birth weight, which has been linked with smoking during pregnancy for higher-order immigrants (Giuntella 2016, 2017), displays a statistically significant correlation with SRH, it should be noted that the rest of the health outcomes in Table 8 cannot be strictly linked with risky behaviors. This limits our capacity to investigate the extent to which cultural assimilation and intermarriage can be linked with poor health outcomes for higher-order immigrant generations by way of risky health behaviors, as has been explored elsewhere in the literature (Giuntella 2016, 2017; Edwards and Goldstein 2018). Nevertheless, as the focus of this paper is on documenting the impact of ethnic attrition on health outcomes using the CPS, we return in the body of the paper to focusing on SRH and leave analysis of the link between ethnic attrition, risky behaviors, and resultant health outcomes for future research.

  8. It should be noted that surveys typically ask one respondent to report the racial and ethnic identities of all individuals within the household. We follow the common practice in the literature of describing this as “self-reported” identity, though, to be clear, this may be the identity of the individual as viewed by close family or household members.

  9. While we argue that antecedents’ place of birth is a more objective measure of ancestry than self-reported ethnic identity, it should be noted that place of birth is also self-reported and thus may also be subject to reporting biases. For instance, children of intermarried parents may be less likely to have Mexican grandparents listed in the survey and thus appear to the researcher to be non-Hispanic white. As we expect, these additional levels of unobserved ethnic attrition will operate in the same direction as the patterns of ethnic attrition we do observe; any biases resulting from failures to report Mexican ancestry make it less likely that we observe differences between Mexicans and non-Hispanic whites. As a result, our estimates of the impact of ethnic attrition on measured health disparities are likely to be understated.

  10. We emphasize that this is the “exact” 3rd generation as opposed to 3rd generation and higher (3rd+).

  11. Some might describe this as the Mexican ancestry population more generally, as their specific immigrant generation is unclear. Its reliance on self-reported ethnic identity also raises concerns that estimates of health disparities involving this group may reflect endogeneity biases associated with levels of acculturation that affect health outcomes, as well as self-reported identities, of parents and children. Nevertheless, our use of the 4th+-generation terminology and comparison group parallels the literature’s broad use of the “3rd+” generation described above and as with the latter measure will tend to underestimate ethnic attrition due to its reliance on parental self-identification. While the goal of this exercise is purely descriptive, our contribution here is to take this somewhat nebulous concept back one full generation.

  12. Our focus on children also means that our notion of “self-reported” identity is actually reported by the household respondent, typically a parent or adult caregiver. We view this response as likely to be consistent with the child’s own ethnic identity at the time of the survey, since parents are important shapers of their children’s identities. In any case, we expect that parental reporting likely yields an underestimate of ethnic attrition relative to asking children their own ethnic identities as adults once they have established households separate from their parents. Duncan and Trejo (2011a, Table 9) show that children’s observed rates of Mexican identification in CPS data do not seem to vary systematically with which household member answered the CPS questionnaire (father, mother, or other household member) and with which parent provides the child’s Mexican origins (father, mother, or both).

  13. Hamilton et al. (2011) provide a detailed analysis of how four common child health conditions vary by immigrant generation and race/ethnicity. They mention ethnic attrition as a potential explanation for some of the observed generational patterns, but their data do not allow them to investigate this issue empirically.

  14. While it is possible, strictly speaking, to analyze the selectivity of ethnic attrition in our sample of 2nd-generation adults, ethnic attrition rates are very small for this group (less than 8%), perhaps unsurprisingly since they are the children of immigrants.

  15. Further analysis, not reported here, confirms that ethnic attritors are not only attriting out of Mexican identity but also attriting out of Hispanic identity altogether. Fewer than 2% of children with Mexican ancestry identify as Hispanic, but not Mexican, at the 4th+ generation. Consequently, the results below documenting correlations with ethnic attrition out of Mexican identity are substantially similar if attrition is defined as attriting from Hispanic identity.

  16. While Table 3 confirms that the primary source of ethnic attrition in our sample is intermarriage, we emphasize that the analysis that follows does not restrict attention to sources of ethnic attrition resulting from intermarriage but rather estimates the net effect of all sources of ethnic attrition on measured health disparities. Closer analysis of the determinants and implications of ethnic attrition, holding intermarriage constant, is limited by the relatively small numbers of ethnic attritors from endogamous marriages but would be an interesting avenue for future research.

  17. In extended analysis not emphasized here, both the Mexican and non-Mexican spouse are likely to report better health. This is similar to the result from the assortative mating literature which finds that individuals are matched on measures of human capital such as education (Mare 1991; Pencavel 1998).

  18. While the link between health and intermarriage is suggestive of a mechanism that is selective on health, we acknowledge that this process may be muddled by simultaneity in mate selection and health choices, which may in turn affect our measures of SRH that are reported after marriage has occurred. As our intent is ultimately to establish correlations between health and ethnic attrition, we leave further exploration of this mechanism to future research.

  19. In additional results not presented here, we have used an alternative, more flexible, definition of 4th+ generation that includes individuals that are US-born, have two US-born parents, have no grandparents born in Mexico, and at least one parent who identifies as Hispanic on the Hispanic origin question. Those results are substantially similar to the results presented here, even after restricting the analysis to states that were historically linked with the Mexican-origin population, i.e., California, Illinois, and Texas.

  20. Owing to the smaller sample sizes, we consider outcomes for girls and boys together and do not examine the selectivity of ethnic attrition at the 1.5 and 2nd generations, where rates of ethnic attrition are especially low.

  21. While data limitations prevent us from comparing 1.5-generation Mexicans with the populations from which they originated, the fact that we find no clear evidence of an immigrant health advantage for the children in the sample also suggests that there are not likely to be any clear patterns of positive migrant selection on health for immigrants that arrived as children. Future research could compare child migrants with children in Mexico to investigate this directly.

  22. To be consistent with the literature, the SES controls include mother’s and father’s years of education and employment status (Antecol and Bedard 2006).While the latter measure in particular is not included to estimate a causal relationship, it can be viewed as a control that may capture important differences across individuals, such as access to health care. In additional analysis not reported here, we have explored controlling for health insurance directly in analogous regressions on the population of children ages 14 and younger and found that it did not meaningfully affect the pattern of results.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Brian Cadena, Terra McKinnish, Joseph P. Price, Fernando Riosmena, and conference participants at the Society of Labor Economists meeting and the Western Economics Association International meeting for their feedback. This work also benefited from the comments of four anonymous referees and the editor, Klaus F. Zimmermann

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Correspondence to Francisca M. Antman.

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Appendix

Appendix

Table 8 The relationship between health conditions and poor/fair health among 0–17-year-old children, by Mexican generation

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Antman, F.M., Duncan, B. & Trejo, S.J. Ethnic attrition, assimilation, and the measured health outcomes of Mexican Americans. J Popul Econ 33, 1499–1522 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00148-020-00772-8

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JEL classification

  • J15
  • J12
  • I14

Keywords

  • Assimilation
  • Immigrant health advantage
  • Ethnic attrition
  • Hispanic health paradox