Many immigrants arriving in America in the early 20th century started a new life, and often they started it with a new name. In fact, many Americans today have heard stories of migrant ancestors Americanizing their names. What exactly was the extent of this phenomenon? What consequences did it have on migrants’ economic success? A new IZA discussion paper answers these questions for the first time.
Costanza Biavaschi, Corrado Giulietti and Zahra Siddique have digitalized historical records that contain information on name Americanization. By digging through thousands of 1920s naturalization papers from New York City, the authors track a wide range of characteristics of migrants. Since migrants had to fill out two separate documents for the naturalization procedure, their characteristics can be observed both before and after they changed their names.
With almost a third of naturalizing immigrants abandoning their names and acquiring popular American names such as William, John or Charles, the authors find that not only was name Americanization a widespread practice, but it was also associated with substantial improvements to the migrant’s economic success. Migrants who Americanized their name earned at least 14% more than those who did not.
While acquiring a more popular American name could have influenced migrants’ success, it’s also quite possible that the choice of the new name reflected other aspects related to their experiences in the States during the 1920s, for example the acquisition of language skills. To find whether it was exclusively name Americanization that led to economic advancement, it is necessary to find factors influencing why migrants would Americanize their names that are unrelated with their earnings. The authors observe that individuals with names of certain linguistic complexity decided to Americanize their names irrespective of other reasons like socio-economic background. They measure such linguistic complexity using the amount of Scrabble points – yes, from the popular board game! – associated with each name. This allows them to isolate the pure effect of name Americanization on earnings from other spurious factors like language acquisition.
The findings of this research highlight the tradeoff that many migrant ancestors faced between maintaining one’s individual identity and being more successful in the labor market. Surely, nowadays, there are many alternative ways to make a better salary; perhaps giving up your name is something you did not think about. Until now.