Leah Platt Boustan ’00 is an economic historian and has been a professor of economics at Princeton University since 2017. Boustan’s most recent book, co-authored with Ran Abramitzky of Stanford University and published in May, is titled “Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success.” Her research addresses over a century of American immigration and attempts to answer questions on American upward economic mobility, assimilation of immigrants, and the effects of immigrants on the American economy.
She is also the co-director of the Development of the American Economy Program at the National Bureau of Economic Research and co-editor of American Economic Journal: Applied Economics. She has previously taught a Freshman Seminar at Princeton titled “Economics of Immigration in the U.S.: Past and Present.”
The Daily Princetonian sat down with Boustan to discuss her book. This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
The Daily Princetonian: You mentioned teaching a freshman seminar (FRS107) that’s related to your book; can you tell me a bit about it?
Leah Boustan: Here at Princeton, I taught a freshman seminar for two years. I don’t think economists often design classes when writing books, but I had heard about this practice from some of my friends who are in the humanities. I really want to be in the classroom learning more about immigration history from a variety of perspectives: not just economics, but also political science, sociology, and history. And what better group of people to do that with than smart Princeton undergrads?
DP: Were there things that you wanted to study but couldn’t because there simply weren’t sufficient records? Or things you did study but decided to not place into the book?
LB: There have been so many things like that. I’ll just give you one example. It’s on whether immigrants are more likely to commit crimes. Historically, there’s been little snippets of data that people have looked at, but nothing systematic. We sort of ran into a wall. We don’t have all the data we would want. In the modern period, there’s data that comes from actual prison records. And in the historical period, in order for us to go all the way back to 1880, we are looking at people who are just recorded as living in a jail or prison in the census, but we know very little about them. We just know they were living in this place. We don’t know what crime they allegedly committed. We don’t know how long their sentence was. We don’t know where they lived beforehand.
DP: When did you decide you wanted to be an economic historian?
LB: I was an undergrad here at Princeton, and at the time in the late 1990s, there were no economic historians here. So, I didn’t know what economic history was, actually, but I was really interested in cities. So, I took urban politics, urban sociology, and was introduced to a lot of the long-run history of urban development in the U.S. I always had this feeling that it’s hard to understand the present if you don’t understand the past. Whereas in my economics classes, we didn’t do too much of that. In my mind, I was sort of bringing the two things together, but I wasn’t sure how to do that.
How can you be an economist but also really take the history seriously? That really came to me more when I was in graduate school because I had the opportunity to work with Claudia Goldin at Harvard, who was exactly the right person. She really has tackled some incredibly important issues from a modern perspective, like why aren’t women as likely to work in certain occupations as men? Why is there a gender gap in earnings? How has education become such an important part of the labor market, and why do certain people get good jobs while other people don’t? Those are questions that are incredibly relevant today, but she has gone back into at least a century of history.
DP: Are you still working on an immigration project right now?
LB: We’re working on this project about immigration and crime going all the way back to 1880. What we’re finding is very much like what we wrote in the book, which is that immigrants and the U.S.-born were equally likely to commit crimes all the way until around the 1950s. Since then, crime rates have been going up a lot for the U.S.-born and not as much for immigrants. So, now, immigrants are much less likely to commit crimes. We’re working on these algorithms that we use for linking people.
DP: If there’s one thing you want your reader to take away from the book, what would it be?
LB: I think it would be that the American Dream is not dead. Some people have a nostalgic view of the past in which America used to be the land of opportunity where you can come with a few dollars in your pocket and your kids can do well, while there are barriers preventing immigrants from doing that today. The thing is, that really is just not the case. On the right, people tend to think these immigrants are from poor countries and aren’t as good as immigrants in the past, while on the left, one might be thinking there are so many barriers and discrimination that are making it hard for immigrants to rise up.
Allan Shen is a senior writer who often covers research and obituaries. He can be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @fulunallanshen. He previously served as an Associate News Editor.