One place where Jews are exceptional is their pursuit of higher education, which is less constrained by their parental education than is the case among non-Jews.
A portrait of American Jews can be drawn from the cumulative General Social Surveys (GSS), which since 1972 has annually or biennially interviewed random samples of about 1,500 adults, producing an aggregate Jewish sample of over 1,000 respondents. Most of the following analysis compares Jews with non-Jews of similar background. Called “Controls,” they are white, college educated, and living in one of the nation’s large urban areas of the “blue states” in the nation’s East and West. Requiring Controls to have a college degree is conservative because only half of Jews have that level of education. Therefore, where appropriate, comparisons are restricted to college educated Jews. Jews comprise 2% of the population, Controls another 6%. A third comparison group, called “Others,” includes the remaining 92% of Americans.
Based on the 2007 article: A Statistical Portrait of American Jews into the 21st Century by Professor Allan Mazur
Few Jews came to the United States wealthy or prominent, but by the end of the 19th century several German families had accumulated fortunes (Birmingham 1996). At that time newer arrivals from Eastern European were filling the slums of East Coast cities, but by the 1920s some of these Russian Jews also found great success, for example, in Hollywood’s new movie industry. Upward social and economic mobility became a major theme of the 20th century. Income The GSS contains no measure of wealth so we must rely on yearly income to measure economic wellbeing. Since 1972, respondents were asked their personal income from all sources before taxes, and also their family’s total income. The highest category was $25,000 or greater – a good income in 1972. To be consistent, the same questions and categories are used every year, although by now inflation has put most respondents in the highest level. Still, the comparison is worthwhile. Table 6-1 shows the personal and family incomes of Jews to be slightly less than those of Controls, although both groups’ earnings are well above the incomes of Others.
Obviously education affects earning power, and Controls are defined as having college degrees. If we compare them to Jews with college degrees, then Jewish incomes slightly exceed those of Controls (not shown). Beginning in 1998, the GSS asked respondents additional questions about their personal and family incomes using categories as high as $110,000+. These few years do not contain many Jewish or Control respondents, but the results in Table 6-2, though based on small numbers, fortify our picture of American Jews as economically successful.
[* The original article was published in 2004, thus the table represents income values of that period (1998-2007 G.S.]
The children of Jewish immigrant families made exceptionally good use of free education offered by American public schools, probably more so than any other immigrant group of the time. Has this extraordinary increase in educational attainment continued through the current generation? Does degree attainment among today’s Jews still exceed the rate of the general population? Table 6-3 divides GSS data collection into three roughly decade-long periods: 1972-1984, 1985-1994, and 1995-2004. For each decade, we compare the percentages of Jews holding bachelors and graduate degrees, with corresponding percentages for all U.S. adults. For all Americans, percentages of both bachelors and graduate degrees doubled over this period; the Jewish rate of increase was no higher. However, since more Jews than gentiles were degree holders in the 1970s, the subsequent doubling has resulted in 35% of today’s Jews with graduate degrees, and nearly two-thirds with at least a bachelors degree, whereas only 27% of today’s non-Jews have college degrees.
The association of education with income is well known and hardly needs repeating, but it is worth examining this relationship separately for Jews and non-Jews (Table 6-4). There we see that Jews suffer no disadvantage in earnings – possibly a slight advantage – at all degree levels.
The intermediate link between education and income is employment. There are, first of all, differences in the working status of Jews, Controls, and Others at the time of interview (Table 6-5). Two-thirds of Controls work full-time, while closer to half of Jews and Others are full time workers at the time of interview. Controls are younger than the other groups (mean age of Jews = 48, of Controls = 43, and of Others = 45), accounting for a little of the difference in fulltime employment. When the table is rerun, limiting age of respondents to the range 25-60, Controls are still 10% more likely than Jews to be working fulltime (not shown).
Respondents were asked what work they normally do. There are lots of ways to classify jobs, for example, blue collar versus white collar. Sociologists tend to focus on the prestige of the job rather than the actual work that is done. People are in remarkable agreement about which jobs have high or low prestige. In Table 6-6 occupational prestige is categorized as low, middle, or high. Jobs with relatively high prestige include engineer, school teacher, and social worker. Jobs of middle prestige include bookkeeper, insurance agent, and secretary. Some jobs in the low prestige category are salesperson, truck driver, gas station attendant, and laborer.
Table 6-6 shows Jews in less prestigious jobs than Controls, but in higher prestige jobs than Others. If we limit respondents to those with college degrees, the representation of Jews, Controls, and Others in high prestige jobs is roughly equal.
Parental Launch Pads
Why have Jews done well in America? Did they start from disadvantage and work exceptionally hard to attain success? Or did they start from advantageous family backgrounds, then proceeding pretty much like other Americans? To answer this, we compare the parental backgrounds from which our respondents’ careers were launched.
Parental Income, Education, and Occupational
Prestige Respondents were asked to judge their family income was when they were teenagers – was it below average, average, or above average? By this recollection, Jewish and Control families were similarly advantaged compared to Others (Table 7-1). Obviously this gives us only a hint of the parents’ true financial situation.
Table 7-2 compares father’s education of Jews, Controls, and Others. The fathers of Jews and Controls have similar educational distributions. Both groups are high compared to fathers of Others.
Table 7-3 compares mother’s education across groups. Control mothers were more likely than Jewish mothers to finish high school, but percentages completing college are similar. Both groups are better educated than mothers of Others.
Table 7-4 compares the occupational prestige of fathers. Here again we see Jewish and Control fathers with nearly the same distribution of scores, and both considerably above fathers of Others. Jewish mothers and Control mothers are similar in occupational prestige, and both are well above mothers of Others (not shown).
These data consistently show that Jewish respondents come from backgrounds similar to Control families and certainly privileged compared to Americans as a whole. Thus, an important reason why today’s Jews are well placed economically is that they started with a leg up.
Modeling Economic Success
There are many poverty-to-success anecdotes about Jewish Americans, especially from the immigrant generation (e.g., Wells 1999), but immigration essentially ended in 1924. Nearly 90% of Jews in the GSS are American born – about the same percentage as Controls and Others. (One-third of Jewish respondents – mostly elderly – reported both parents foreign born, compared to only 13% of Controls and 11% of Others.) By now Jews are well integrated into the United States. It should not be surprising that their economic success is determined similarly to other Americans. Still, considering the anecdotes, it is worth a further look for anything special about upward mobility among Jews.
Figure 7-1 shows a simplified model of intergenerational mobility, the kind commonly used in sociology. At the left are variables in the respondent’s background: sex, age, and parental social status, the latter measured by father’s education. Arrows represent influences of background on later variables in the respondent’s life, first on educational attainment, which in turn affects occupational prestige, which affects income. Important factors are missing, notably personality, skills and luck, but the model approximates the societal process of mobility in America.
With the diagram as a basis, GSS data are used to evaluate the importance, or strength, of each pathway (arrow) between variables. Regression analysis produces a “beta coefficient” for each path (independent of other paths). By definition, betas range in magnitude from zero to 1.0, indicating the importance or strength of each arrow. If a beta is very low, between 0.0 and 0.1, the path is unimportant and no arrow is shown. In practice, a beta = 0.6 is very high, indicating that the associated arrow shows an important influence. Betas for Jews are shown in boldface, for non-Jews in italic.
Figure 7-1 shows that for nearly every arrow, betas are similar for Jews and gentiles. Education is an important determinant of occupational prestige (beta = 0.6) for everyone. Prestige moderately determines income (beta = ca. 0.2). Women suffer lower incomes than men, an effect as large as that of prestige on income. Inflation, measured by the year of interview, continually moves more respondents into the highest category of income: $25,000+. All this is true of Jews as well as non-Jews.
There is one arrow where betas differ more than the others – from father’s education to respondent’s education (beta = 0.27 for Jews, 0.44 for non-Jews). In words, educational attainment of gentile respondents is fairly predictable from the educational level of their fathers; it is not as easy to predict the education of Jews from the education of their fathers. This may reflect the high premium Jews place on education.
This difference is easier to digest if seen graphically. Figure 7-2 shows percentage of respondents (over age 25) with graduate degrees increasing as father’s education increases. Jews and non-Jews are shown separately. Twenty-two percent of Jewish respondents earned a graduate degree even when their fathers did not complete high school; the corresponding percentage for gentiles is 4%. Raising the father’s education to college doubled the percentage of Jews earning graduate degrees; it quintupled the percentage of gentiles earning graduate degrees. Jewish respondents, more than non-Jews, attended college whether or not their fathers did.