Historians generally portray the Irish immigrants who came to the United States, fleeing the Great Famine of the mid-nineteenth century, as hopelessly mired in poverty and hardship due to discrimination, a lack of occupational training, and oversaturated job markets in the East Coast cities where most of them settled. Although the digitization of census data and other records now enables the tracking of nineteenth-century Americans far more accurately than in the past, scholars have not utilized such data to determine whether the Famine Irish were, in fact, trapped on the bottom rungs of the American socioeconomic ladder. The use of a longitudinal database of Famine immigrants who initially settled in New York and Brooklyn indicates that the Famine Irish had far more occupational mobility than previously recognized. Only 25 percent of men ended their working careers in low-wage, unskilled labor; 44 percent ended up in white-collar occupations of one kind or another—primarily running saloons, groceries, and other small businesses.

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