The Wisdom of Being Optimistic

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to
Friday, December 21, 2007; 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Angelica Vivar sat in the waiting room of a clinic outside Washington this month, eager to share her positive outlook on life.

Never mind that she suffers from gastritis, that she just lost one of her jobs because her employer went out of business, that some days she doesn't have enough food on the table, or that she is about to mark 20 years being in the country illegally. "I may be wrong," she told me, but "I think everything is going to be fine."

Her optimism is particularly remarkable since she lives in Prince William County, Va., not the most welcoming of places in the United States to illegal immigrants. But Vivar's attitude may be nothing more than commonplace among immigrants.

In a report released last week, the Pew Hispanic Center disclosed that despite the range of negative effects from the current immigration hysteria, including discrimination in jobs and housing and anxiety over new enforcement measures, Hispanics are generally content with their lives and upbeat about the prospects for their children. About seven in 10 describe their quality of life as excellent or good and nearly eight in 10 say they are either very confident (45 percent) or somewhat confident (33 percent) that Hispanic children growing up now will have better jobs and more money than they have.

Another poll also released last week, by the nonprofit group New America Media, found that immigrants are generally much more optimistic about achieving the American dream than are African-Americans. New America Media also reported that Hispanic adults -- almost half of them immigrants -- are nearly twice as likely as African-Americans to believe that everyone in the United States has an equal opportunity to succeed.

Of course, perspective plays a big role. Latin American immigrants hail from a region with the worst income inequality in the world and where upward mobility is unimaginable for many. Once in this country, most Latin American immigrants start making a lot more money than they ever could have back home.

"The American economy provides a huge boost to the mobility of first-generation immigrants," writes Ron Haskins, immigration expert with the Economic Mobility Project, a bipartisan research effort of the Pew Charitable Trusts that examines the state of the American dream.

Some economists estimate that Mexican immigrants who have finished high school, for instance, earn seven times as much as they would if they had stayed in Mexico.

Moreover, the upward trajectory continues for the next generation. Ever since 1940, wages of the children of immigrants have exceeded their parents' and, strikingly, exceeded those of workers whose ancestors came earlier to the United States.

Still, one has to wonder if the optimism of Vivar and other newcomers is wholly warranted considering some important facts. While it is true that children of immigrants have had higher wages relative to the average population, the percentage of increase has diminished over more than a half-century. In 1940, it was 17.8 percent; in 1970, 14.6 percent, and in 2000, it went down to 6.3 percent.

In an interview, Haskins also that the behavior of many children of recent immigrants makes them less likely to improve their lot. While their parents are hard workers and often married -- "the ultimate Americans," as he called them -- their U.S.-born children tend to work less, and more often have children out of wedlock, two factors that directly contribute to lower incomes.

Still, immigrants continue to believe their children will do much better. At the very least, their optimism bucks the growing anxiety among Americans who, according to John Morton, director of the Economic Mobility Project, sense that "their best days are behind them." And it is hard to blame them when, as Morton explained, there is an "increased necessity of dual-income families" in order to achieve the American dream.

This anxiety has played out in the immigration debate, sadly exploited by those who would distract us from the more probable causes of our anguish -- war, terrorism and the economy.

Yet despite the growing unfriendliness toward them, immigrants soldier on and remain positive. And that's a good thing. As Carol Graham, senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, put it, "happier people earn more money and are healthier." Indeed, optimism is good for the optimistic and probably good for those around them.

However you come down on immigration, my wish for all of us this holiday season is that we take a lesson from immigrants and subscribe to a more optimistic outlook. And in this way, we can increase our likelihood of helping keep this country strong.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company