How the Other Half Died: Immigration and Mortality in US Cities

Philipp Ager, University of Mannheim and CEPR, James J. Feigenbaum, Boston University and NBER, Casper Worm Hansen, University of Copenhagen and CEPR, and Hui Ren Tan, National University of Singapore

Fears of immigrants as a threat to public health have a long and sordid history. At the turn of the 20th century, when immigrants made up one-third of the population in crowded American cities, contemporaries blamed high urban mortality rates on the newest arrivals. We evaluate how the implementation of country-specific immigration quotas in the 1920s affected urban health. Cities with larger quota-induced reductions in immigration experienced a persistent decline in mortality rates, driven by a reduction in deaths from infectious diseases. The unfavorable living conditions immigrants endured explains the majority of the effect as quotas reduced residential crowding and mortality declines were largest in cities where immigrants resided in more crowded conditions and where public health resources were stretched thinnest.