Yet Another Study Shows How Migrants Transplant Their Culture

By Jason Richwine on April 6, 2023

In his recent book The Culture Transplant, economist Garett Jones argues that “migrants make the economies they move to a lot like the ones they left.” This economic change is part of a broader cultural shift that occurs when immigrants transmit their Old Country values to their descendants in the new land. For example, the countries of Northern Europe have generally higher levels of social trust and community attachment than Southern Europe, and that pattern is replicated in the U.S. among Americans with ancestries from those countries.

Now a new study in the Quarterly Journal of Economics has added to the transplant literature. It examines how Southern-born whites who moved to other parts of the U.S. influenced the culture in their new homes. As the authors explain, the post-1900 “Great Migration” of Southern blacks to Northern industrial cities is well known, but the outmigration of Southern whites was numerically larger. Unlike their black counterparts, these white migrants shunned the Northeastern cities and instead tended to move west:

Source: Bazzi et al., “The Other Great Migration”, NBER Working Paper No. 29056, April 2023.

Remarkably, a non-Southern county’s percentage of migrant white Southerners in 1940 is a strong predictor of the county’s culture in modern times. For example, as a county’s 1940 percentage of white Southern migrants increases, that county is more likely to support Donald Trump, oppose abortion, build evangelical churches, listen to country music, and even favor barbecue chicken over pizza. The study’s authors argue that this spread of white Southern culture outside of the South helped form a national “New Right” coalition by melding the South’s traditional views on race and religion with the small-government and anti-Communist interests of Northern Republicans.

Clearly, Southern migrants were not assimilated into the pre-existing culture of their new homes outside the South. Instead, they transplanted their own culture, sharing it with non-Southern neighbors and transmitting it to the next generation.

Although cultural persistence is well known, this new paper will put some left-leaning immigration advocates in an awkward position. On one hand, they have a generally unfavorable view of conservative Southerners and may be quick to blame them for spreading what they see as an undesirable culture. On the other hand, some of the same advocates argue that fear of immigrants changing the culture of the U.S. is completely unfounded. They can’t have it both ways.

The philosophy student Philippe Lemoine put it well:

In reality, all immigrant groups have caused some degree of long-term cultural change in the U.S. Even groups that seem quite similar, such as Irish Americans and German Americans, continue to exhibit key differences in social trust and other cultural measures. Therefore, of course today’s immigrants will change the culture of the U.S. in the long run. This fact alone implies that policymakers should be cautious with accepting newcomers. Taxes go up and down, regulations come and go, but the consequences of immigration will extend far into the future.