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Journal Issue: Transition to Adulthood Volume 20 Number 1 Spring 2010

Immigration and Adult Transitions
Ruben G. Rumbaut Golnaz Komaie

Leaving Home and "Giving Back" among Young Adult Children of Immigrants

By most any measure, coming of age is taking longer these days. In the process, parents are also assisting their adult children longer. Robert Schoeni and Karen Ross recently calculated how much material support parents provide for their grown-up children, using data from the 1988 special Time and Money Transfers Supplement to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), and decennial census data from 1970 to 1990.14 The PSID is a longitudinal, nationally representative sample—but it was drawn in 1968, before the new era of large-scale immigration to the United States, and thus the sample is representative of a predominantly native-parentage population. Specifically, the authors examined how much time and money the sample of 6,661 young adults between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four received from their families over the study period. It found that parents provided roughly $38,000 in material assistance for food, housing, education, or direct cash assistance throughout the transition to adulthood, or about $2,200 a year from age eighteen to age thirty-four. Of course, the amount of material assistance depended greatly on parental income. For example, parents (especially middle-income parents) used their financial resources to help their children pay for college, help them with the down payments for their first homes, or to defray some of the costs associated with having children. In addition, the authors estimated that the number of young adults still living at home with their parents had led to a 19 percent increase in parental contributions. In short, the overall trend has been for parents to assist their children well into their thirties.

Are these trends and patterns equally applicable to the first and second generations of foreign-born or foreign-parentage young adults today? Earlier we noted that the 1.0 generation was by far the least likely to live with their parents—indeed, young adult immigrant workers in the United States frequently send remittances to support their parents and families "back home," all the more as their economic prospects improve.15 In sharp contrast, the 1.5 and most notably the second generations of particular ethnic groups are living in the parental home longer than young adults of native parentage, especially white natives. Yet a series of studies of young adults of immigrant origin in Southern and Northern California, Miami, New York City, and elsewhere suggest that the pattern of support in immigrant families more often flows reciprocally or even in the opposite direction than that indicated by data on preponderantly native-parentage families. Such results have been reported since the 1980s by studies based on both structured surveys and qualitative interviews.

For example, a longitudinal study in the San Francisco Bay area led by Andrew Fuligni followed a sample of about 1,000 adolescents of both immigrant and non-immigrant families from middle school through high school and into young adulthood; the majority had immigrant parents from Mexico, Central America, the Philippines, China, Taiwan, and other countries. It found a greater sense of obligation and indebtedness to the family (measured by three multiple-item scales) among Latin American and Asian youth, which was significantly associated with high levels of academic motivation; moreover, high school graduates from immigrant Latin American families were significantly more likely than their peers from non-immigrant families to provide financial assistance to their parents and siblings.16

The Immigrant Second Generation in Metropolitan New York (ISGMNY) study, led by Philip Kasinitz, John Mollenkopf, and Mary Waters, compared five foreign-parentage groups (Chinese, Dominicans, South Americans, West Indians, and Russians) with native-parentage white, black, and Puerto Rican young adults between the ages of eighteen and thirty-two.17 They conducted a telephone survey of a sample of 3,415 during 1998–2000, as well as follow-up open-ended interviews with 333 of those respondents. The high cost of housing in New York City presented a major hurdle to achieving some of the traditional benchmarks of adulthood, including leaving the parental home; but the 1.5- and second-generation groups were more likely to live with their parents than natives. Of all the groups in the sample, the Chinese stayed at home the longest, followed by Russians, South Americans, and West Indians. Native-parentage whites were the most likely of all the groups in their sample to move out of the parental home, either living alone or with roommates throughout most of their twenties. The authors note that living at home has important implications for socioeconomic mobility. Those living at home were more likely to be enrolled in school, and those attending college while living with their parents were able to avoid incurring heavy debt. By living with their immigrant parents, the 1.5 and second generations were less likely to be working yet able to save money to buy a home, benefiting them in the long run.

In a related analysis based on qualitative data from the ISGMNY project, Jennifer Holdaway illustrates how the high cost of housing in New York City has affected the transition to adulthood. Given the high cost of real estate and rents in Manhattan and the surrounding boroughs, many young New Yorkers cannot afford to leave the parental home. One-fourth of New York renters carry a "severe rent burden" of more than 50 percent of household income.18 The high housing costs lead many young New Yorkers to postpone moving out of their parents' homes. Although nationally about half of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds were living independently of their parents, only 17 percent were doing so in the New York metropolitan area. Among thirty- to thirty-four-year-olds, only 55 percent were independent, compared with more than 90 percent nationally. Even at the higher age range, many more New Yorkers continue to live with their parents than elsewhere in the nation; again, this finding is especially true for the children of immigrants.

Holdaway shows how the disposition of many second-generation young adults to stay at home makes it much easier for them to attend and finish college and get a foothold in the New York housing market. In contrast, "native-born minorities, who share with whites the idea that becoming an adult means moving out of their family home but rarely have the resources to do so, find themselves at a disadvantage compared with most of the second generation in this respect."19 In fact, a small but significant number of 1.5- and second-generation respondents were engaged in "multi-generational living." Some families chose to live on different floors in the same building or purchase large homes that can accommodate multi-generation families. By living together, it was possible to combine parenthood with continuing education or full-time work; while young parents went to work, grandparents assisted with child care. This practice was most common among Chinese, West Indian, South American, and Russian families. Very few native-parentage whites, blacks, and Puerto Ricans engaged in such living arrangements even though many would have benefited from them.20

In addition to being able to save money and pool resources by living together, second-generation youth provide significant financial and social support to their immigrant parents. For instance, in a study of young adults (mostly Mexican, Filipino, Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian, and Chinese) participating in the Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study (CILS) in San Diego, Linda Borgen and Ruben Rumbaut found that many of them seek to "take care of" their immigrant parents and even contribute financially to their parents' future retirement.21 In-depth follow-up interviews with 134 CILS respondents (a one in ten systematic sample ranging in age from twenty-three to twenty-seven) found that 39 percent were supporting their parents financially (giving them money directly or paying their mortgage, rent, food, and other bills), another 6 percent were planning concretely to contribute financially to their parents, and 5 percent were contributing their labor in their parents' business. Of the remaining half who were not making payments to or otherwise supporting their parents, 10 percent were living on their own without any assistance from their parents (including 4 percent who were putting themselves through college while working and living independently), and 9 percent had strained or severed relations with the parents (involving a history of family conflict or dysfunction, alleged abuse, drug addiction, prison). Only in a third of the cases (31 percent) were the immigrant parents supporting their young adult children financially, either partially (27 percent) or fully (4 percent).

For some of these young adults, financial independence coincides with a sense of family financial security, not just their own individual security. A prominent theme in the CILS study, seen across ethnic groups, concerned the family's concerted efforts to minimize expenses, pool resources, and accumulate capital. Just over half of the families in CILS were homeowners by the mid-1990s, a rate of homeownership that had been aided by opportunities to get cheaper mortgages on real estate during the economic slump of the early 1990s, especially for the more advantaged immigrant professionals, or military personnel (mostly Filipino).22 But in other cases, the young adults themselves strove to become the family's first-time homeowners, with plans to shelter their parents.

The arrangements of San Diego's immigrant parents and their young adult children differed in several ways from conventional American adulthood norms of departing the parental household and setting up a separate home. First, there was no insistence that grown children leave their parents' home after age eighteen or twenty-one or even after marriage. Second, shared bedrooms and familial living space were common. Third, the children often embraced a range of responsibilities to assist their immigrant parents. And fourth, as in New York, given the costly affordability quotient in the region for single living, shared familial habitation made economic sense even for those who felt the "Americanized" urge to live independently. In San Diego, immigrant parents often shared their homes with their adult children, but as often as not, the children purchased or contributed substantial sums securing shelter for their parents or for their parents and themselves together.

In some cases young adult children look at their earnings as part of the family's income, as documented by the Southeast Asian Refugee Youth Study in the late 1980s in San Diego.23 The research combined qualitative and survey data to produce detailed case histories of Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Hmong young adults. One was Van Le, then a twenty-six-year-old medical student at the University of California and one of ten children of a Vietnamese refugee family whose father had died soon after arriving in the United States in 1976. In their family, as the children grew up and entered the work world, each was required to give a "tax" back to the mother. Van gave the money he earned as an undergraduate in work-study employment to his mother, and he expected to pay a "tax" when he became a practicing physician. The down payment for the house she lived in was given by the two employed oldest sisters, who also made the monthly house payments. His mother's low-paying job in electronics assembly was just enough to cover food and daily living expenses, but it would have been impossible for her to live in that house without the family tax system. Those who remained in his mother's house were expected to pay half of their salary to her. The tax was seen as "generosity," given without resentment, and treated as a filial obligation of child to parent. In fact, whenever a child married, one condition was that the new spouse accept the tax system, as did the American-born husband of Van's eldest sister. This system of taxing was flexible enough that if grandchildren were born, the tax would be reduced.

A recent study based on forty in-depth interviews with 1.5- and second-generation middle-class Mexican young adults in the Los Angeles area illustrates three patterns of "giving back" to their immigrant families: providing total financial support of their parents or younger siblings, or both; becoming the "safety net" for their parents, siblings, and relatives during times of hardship; and providing regular financial support to supplement their parents' incomes.24 The authors found that about one-fifth of the respondents fully supported their immigrant parents—as did Adrián, a second-generation Mexican-American teacher with a master's degree: "Ever since I started working when I was 14 I have given them everything I could. Now it's at about $1,000 a month…just to help them out." He also paid all of the household bills. María, a second-generation entrepreneur with two young children, similarly supported her mother: "I pay her rent, I give her money, I take her to the doctors, I buy her prescriptions. I take care of my Mom."

The most common form of giving back by the children of Mexican immigrants was providing monthly supplemental income to their parents. Half of the respondents in this study gave their parents between $200 and $1,000 every month for household expenses and also helped them in non-financial ways: translating documents, drafting letters, making phone calls, accompanying them to work-related and medical appointments. The more successful often came to the rescue of their immigrant parents in times of economic crisis—like Lupe, a second-generation thirty-four-year-old vice president of a national financial services institution, who gave her parents $5,000 to make their mortgage payment and cover their household bills. Even when she was in college Lupe had financially rescued her father, whose landscaping business was in jeopardy, by giving him $10,000 from her school loans, which she was still paying back. She also agreed to co-sign for the loan used to purchase her father's new truck, which he could not obtain on his own because of his credit record. The authors note that those who grew up poor (but were not poor now) were more likely to "give back" to their parents, relatives, and the co-ethnic community, and to display a "collectivist orientation," while those who grew up middle-class exhibited an individualistic orientation resembling conventional American norms.