Educational biographies: migrant children catch up more quickly

Economist Alyssa Schneebaum has investigated how social and biographical characteristics affect a person’s educational and work trajectory. Quelle: Pixabay CC0

Macroeconomics focus on the performance of entire countries and societies from a bird’s eye perspective: the status quo and growth are measured on the basis of gross domestic product (GDP) and its progression. The so-called Gini coefficient on the other hand measures the distribution of wealth, which matters because in situations where very few people have almost everything and very many people have little social tensions flare. Microeconomists such as Alyssa Schneebaum, for their part, examine economic life in detail, at the level of individual companies, households or certain groups of people. In a Hertha-Firnberg project supported by the Austrian Science Fund FWF, this economist has shown how differences in educational achievement or wage levels can be traced back to social and biographical characteristics of different groups with respect to Austria and other countries of the European Union: “I am interested not only in the well-being of the entire population, but also in how individual groups are faring. I don’t just want to know how women in general are doing, but more precisely what is the situation of women with a migration background, women between the ages of 30 and 40 or women with children compared to others, to quote just a few examples”, explains Schneebaum. The researcher was able to establish these facts on the basis of a theory from gender studies and tried and tested economics methods.

From the overall population to subgroups

Alyssa Schneebaum has pursued both economics and gender studies in the USA: “It is perfectly normal for me to assume that people differ not only in their gender, but also in other aspects of their identity.” Accordingly, the economist analysed data sets relating to income and living conditions in the EU (EU-SILC Statistics) and the USA, which included aspects of identity such as gender, age, immigrant background and the highest level of education of the respective individual and their parents. A postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Macroeconomics at the Vienna University of Economics and Business, Schneebaum coupled intersectional analysis from gender studies with recognised microeconometric methods for this finely tuned evaluation.

Intersections and waymarks

In this context, intersectionality means that subgroups can be distinguished at the intersections of different identity traits. At the same time, these intersection points can act as waymarks charting success in the labour market or on the educational path. Accordingly, it makes a difference whether one looks at men between 40 and 50 without a migration background or men between 40 and 50 having a migration background. Dividing people into men/women, as is often done in statistics, does not reveal the resulting inequalities. “I could not examine all the issues on a country-by-country basis since the samples quickly become too small when selecting multiple identity characteristics and that creates statistical distortions”, explains Alyssa Schneebaum.

On the other hand, her research did provide an important result as to educational mobility across generations. With respect to several European countries, the economist demonstrated that children whose parents were born in another country were often better educated than their parents. Children with native parents, on the other hand, tended not to be better educated than the preceding generation. Of the eleven countries surveyed, the second generation in Great Britain made the greatest leap in education, i.e. had the best chances of getting more education than the parent generation. In Austria and the Czech Republic, however, this positive difference could not be ascertained. Only in Latvia and Estonia is there a trend for children without a migration background to be better educated than their parents.

Kindergarten as the best educational basis

In addition, Schneebaum has conducted the first investigation into the effects of attending kindergarten in Austria. In general, people who have attended kindergarten earn higher wages as adults, amass more educational years and show a higher graduation rate in tertiary education (university). Some groups benefit more than others, however: here again, the individuals standing to benefit most are second generation migrants, but so also do children of poorly educated and/or financially disadvantaged parents. Men achieve the highest returns in terms of wages, while women benefit most in terms of education.

With her Hertha-Firnberg project, Alyssa Schneebaum has built a bridge between disciplines: “This multidisciplinary work clearly reveals that support measures could be better calibrated to the situation. As a scientist I have realised that differing characteristics of our identity interact and have very large effects on how we participate in economic life, which is why I would never leave out these aspects when making an analysis.” By using her method she might just be pushing a Trojan horse from the periphery of economics into classical economics.

Personal details

Alyssa Schneebaum graduated in economics and gender studies at Bucknell University and completed her doctorate at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst (USA). In 2012, she took a position at the Vienna University of Economics and Business and has been working as a postdoctoral project assistant since 2013. Her specialties are applied microeconomics, gender in the economy, families, labour market and inequality. She is a consultant at the Williams Institute of UCLA.


Oberdabernig, Doris and Alyssa Schneebaum: ”Catching up? The educational mobility of migrants’ and natives’ children in Europe.” Applied Economics 49(37): 3701-3728, 2017

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