Chris Blattman

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If this were “Chris Blattmänn’s Blog” you wouldn’t be reading it?

We examine the impact of the Americanization of names on the labor market outcomes of migrants. We construct a novel longitudinal data set of naturalization records in which we track a complete sample of migrants who naturalize by 1930.

We find that migrants who Americanized their names experienced larger occupational upgrading. Some, such as those who changed to very popular American names like John or William, obtained gains in occupation-based earnings of at least 14%.

We show that these estimates are causal effects  by using an index of linguistic complexity based on Scrabble points as an instrumental variable that predicts name Americanization. We conclude that the tradeoff between  individual identity and labor market success was present since the early making of modern America.

A fascinating new paper. Hat tip to @MilanV.

Yes, you read that correctly. Scrabble points were used for causal identification. All the econometricians out there are jealous.

In my case, the Blattmänn’s were Swiss goldsmiths who emigrated to New York before dropping the umlaut and second “n” and heading to Canada. Maybe if they’d changed it to Smith this blog would making me money.

Meanwhile, with first names like Adam and Jacob, you’d forgive me if I’m skeptical of the family claim that the ancestral Blattmänns–central European goldsmiths in Brooklyn–were Catholic.

8 Responses

  1. Seeing causality here seems far fetched: that up and coming entrepreneurial people do something fashionable does not prove that this given particular fashionable thing was what enabled their success.

  2. It is of course possible that adopting a more Americanized family name would also make a difference, but that’s not what the paper studied.

  3. Doesn’t seem so, since:

    1) The study defines “name Americanization” as people who changed their *first* name in 1930 when naturalized, not last name: “De fined throughout as the custom of adopting a first name that was more popular in the U.S.born population than the original migrant’s name, name Americanization was a widespread practice. Almost a third of naturalizing immigrants abandoned their first names by 1930 and acquired popular American names such as William, John or Charles.” and
    2) From the paper: “Furthermore, Aura and Hess (2010) show that Scrabble points are generally unrelated with lifetime outcomes, and, particularly, do not predict occupational prestige during 1994 and 2002.”

    Understandably, we think of people changing their last name when immigrating, but the practice of changing first names was quite common. It’s still quite common from Chinese immigrants to the USA to pick an “American” name when immigrating (or, in some cases, their parents to have picked a name which “works” both Chinese and American), as most of my friends have done.

  4. My Norwegian ancestors Americanized the ø in their last name when immigrating here, so my legal name is Hoiland, though I’ve reinstated the ø for internet and publishing uses. Now I see why I haven’t gotten rich doing this!

  5. It would be interesting to compare these results to a similar study in Canada, which seems to be much more immigrant-friendly these day and where I run across pretty strange names all the time.

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