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A portrait illustration of Leah Boustan. Rebecca Clarke for Vox

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Leah Boustan is illuminating how and where people migrate — and why it matters

The Princeton economist is using innovative techniques to explore how immigration has changed the world.

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Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Economic history is, in my humble opinion, one of the most underrated academic disciplines. It’s a relatively small field within economics as a whole, but it’s vitally important to understanding why poverty rises and falls, why people move and stay, and how governments form and collapse. And without question, one of the field’s brightest stars at the moment is Princeton University professor Leah Boustan.

Boustan is interested in movement: in how people’s decisions to migrate, inside and between countries, remake their lives and those of the places they left and arrived at. Her first book, Competition in the Promised Land, examined the Great Migration, the massive movement of Black Americans from the Jim Crow South to the de jure free (but de facto segregated) North.

The story Boustan told was hopeful but also nuanced. Black migrants did well in economic terms, doubling their incomes by moving, but also spurred white flight, as white Northerners decided they did not want to live side by side with Black families and so moved to more homogenous suburbs. That in turn limited the fiscal capacity of black urban neighborhoods, as the leaving white families were no longer contributing tax money to fund schools or public safety.

This year saw the release of her second book, Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success, co-authored by Stanford professor Ran Abramitzky. The book brings reams and reams of data to tell the story of immigration to the US over the late 19th and 20th centuries and how it remade both the lives of migrants and the country itself.

In the book and the dozen-odd academic papers that preceded it, Boustan, Abramitzky, and their colleagues relied on Census data, sometimes culled from the genealogy services Ancestry.com and FamilySearch, and compiled datasets tracking the same people over time, to get a sense of their immigrant experience. The technique allows them to produce remarkable findings about how children of immigrants with recognizably foreign first names fare (worse than those with “Americanized” names), whether immigration helped migrants who wound up returning to their country of origin (it did), and whether poor or relatively wealthy Europeans were likelier to make their way to America (poorer Norwegians were likelier to move than their rich counterparts).

Some of their work is startlingly relevant to public policy: One paper analyzing the 1920s laws that dramatically restricted immigration to the US found that closing the border actually lowered the earnings of US workers, while accelerating automation in agriculture as the sector struggled to cope with the loss of immigrant labor.

Migration has long been one of the most profound and effective ways that human beings improve their lot, and few people have done more than Leah Boustan to help us understand how the process works.

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