Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Why children of immigrants pitch in, even if it hurts our wallets

Photo by CarbonNYC/Flickr (Creative Commons)

In a great Q&A last Friday, USC sociologist Jody Agius Vallejo discussed how it is that immigrant families move into the middle class, and some of the roadblocks they must overcome to get there. She drew from her work studying Los Angeles' Mexican American middle class, which she is researching for a forthcoming book.

One of the challenges that Vallejo brought up is one near and dear to many children of immigrants, but one we aren't always comfortable talking about: The money we spend to help out our parents and other low-earning relatives. Much has been written about American parents who help support their adult children financially. But for the children of foreign-born parents, the flip side is often true.

From Friday's Q&A:

M-A: ...You’ve written about the drain on resources that relatives can present. What kind of a challenge does this pose, and how do families cope with it?

Vallejo: My research demonstrates that relatives living in the U.S. can drain the resources of the newly middle class. As I mentioned, some middle-class Mexican Americans grow up poor and they have parents who continue to live in low-income ethnic communities and who toil in low-wage, back breaking jobs that do not provide medical insurance or retirement benefits. So adult children make it to the middle class, but parents, and other relatives living in the U.S., remain poor.

These strong ties to poorer relatives living in the U.S. can drain economic resources and hinder the second generation’s ability to save for retirement, to buy a home, or to amass other types of assets. Socially mobile Mexican Americans often become the financial “safety net” in times of economic crises, like the loss of a job, a medical emergency, or when a home is going into foreclosure. So, let’s say that you are newly middle class and if you have to direct a portion of your resources elsewhere, you can end up without a financial safety net yourself.

Latinos aren't alone in this, as the same applies to children of Asian immigrants and other groups. We pitch in to buy homes, help out with medical bills, help defray the cost of sponsoring immigrant relatives. Why do we do it? Vallejo wrote in a 2009 paper on the Mexican middle class that "giving back stems not from familistic cultural values, but from an ‘immigrant narrative’ rooted in a shared sense of struggle." Her paper continues:
All of the respondents who grew up in low-income neighborhoods underscored how much their parents had sacrificed in order to migrate to the United States, and they also described the back-breaking, low-wage and low-status jobs their parents took upon their arrival to their new host country. Now that they have achieved economic success, they feel that it is their turn to give back to the less affluent, a behavior they feel sets them apart from middle-class whites, whom they view as individualistic.

There is more to it than obligation. Digging around a little, I came across an interesting Migration Policy Institute report from 2006 that examined family obligation among the children of immigrants from Latin America, China and the Philippines, citing the results of a study of high school students in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The students were tracked until their early 20s, and it was found that the first- and second-generation young adults were indeed more likely than their non-immigrant peers to provide financial support to their families once they reached young adulthood. And interestingly, while losing money isn't good for anyone (read here for tips on being financially prudent even as you help out), for the children of immigrants, contributing financially makes us feel good.

From the MPI report:

In the studies in San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles that were described earlier, it has been consistently found that those with a greater sense of obligation to the family reported more positive psychological well-being and self-esteem. In addition, there was no evidence that family assistance by itself resulted in increased stress and anxiety for those from immigrant families.

The reason: It occurred within the context of adolescents and young adults feeling that they played a valuable and important role in the family. This appears to be true for both the first- and second-generation children of immigrants.

Speaking only from personal experience, I know that the times I've helped out my family, it has felt rewarding. Our parents made sacrifices to bring us here, leaving behind what was familiar to them and people they loved, often their own parents. It feels good to pay them back in some small way.

That said, do it wisely.