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Upward Mobility

German-Americans Julia Ziegler Schmidt, Henry Cassebeer, George Steinway, Frederick T. Steinway, Marie Steinway, F.A.O. Schwarz, Charles H. Steinway, Ida Schwarz and Henry W.T. Steinway play croquet on the grounds of the Steinway Mansion in Astoria Queens, 1888.

Immigrants have come to the United States seeking economic opportunity, as global political, social and economic forces pushed people to migrate from their homelands.  During the 19th and early 20th centuries, most immigrants arrived in the United States looking not to make a fortune, but to find work that would allow them to survive and, if they stayed, to build their families.  Prospects for social mobility were limited, and most immigrants were able to rise only from unskilled to semi-skilled jobs.


For most immigrants at the turn of the century, education was not a path to mobility, with few immigrants graduating high school, let alone college.  That path would be a route for the children and grandchildren of immigrants.  Upward mobility has rarely been "rags to riches," but more often "rags to respectability" or the well-to-do getting better-to-do.

Fatou N’Diaye, a Senegalese restaurateur, stands outside her restaurant in Philadephia, 2001.

Success has often come through skills in a trade, economic initiative or just plain luck.  Small businesses, catering to particular immigrant groups, have become a path to success.   (See the Senegalese restaurateur in the photograph on the right.)  Some immigrants, such as the German Steinway family, came with substantial skills and some money.  In 1853, three years after their arrival, they started what became one of the most successful piano companies in the United States.  Samuel Rudin, a Jewish immigrant tailor and graduate of the City College of New York, built his family’s fortune around the purchase of real estate on East 54th Street in Manhattan.  The Rudin family, later led by his sons Jack and Lewis, became one of the largest owners and developers of real estate in New York City and leading figures in the city’s philanthropic and civic circles.

An Indian couple pose with their car in New York City on Indian Independence Day, c. 1990’s.

Educational and economic opportunities have increased for immigrants today, leading to more rapid social mobility.  Lowell Hawthorne, a Jamaican immigrant and Bronx Community College/CUNY graduate, used his accounting and culinary skills to open the Golden Krust Bakery, which sells Caribbean food in 100 restaurants nationwide.