Catholic immigrants didn’t make it on their own. They shouldn’t expect others to.

By Una Cadegan

Recently, the results of the American National Election Survey (ANES) were released, showing troubling results: Convictions about the perceived failures of particular racial groups were a more certain predictor of votes than income inequality or authoritarianism. Specifically, the ANES found that President Trump’s voters tended to agree more than past Republican voters with the notion that “Italians, Irish” and other immigrants “overcame prejudice and worked their way up,” and that “Blacks should do the same without any special favors.”

There are plenty of reasons to object to this way of thinking. But foremost among them is this: Many of those immigrants presumed to have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps without “any special favors” — especially primarily Catholic immigrants such as those from Italy and Ireland — relied upon government spending to help them get a start in the United States. For voters convinced of the myth of immigrant self-reliance, the story of these Catholic immigrants is worth considering.

In the final decades of the 19th century, the number of Catholics immigrating to the United States began increasing at a rapid rate. Catholics constituted about 13 percent of the population in 1900; by 1998, they were about 23 percent. The rise in the percentage of Catholics was not a smooth curve — there was a sharp jump between 1900 and 1920, a couple of decades of leveling off, and another sharp jump between 1940 and about 1970. These variations are not hard to explain: The first wave, from southern and eastern Europe, was cut off by the start of the Great War in 1914; when it began again at the end of the war, it was cut off by intentionally anti-Catholic legislation passed by Congress in 1921 and 1924. And so the large number of Catholics who had immigrated before the war assimilated as a cohort, and as a cohort contributed to the baby boom that took off after the Second World War.

In both eras of significant growth in the Catholic population, Catholics arriving in America benefited from great expansions in government intervention and government power. In the Progressive Era at the century’s beginning, both local and national government took increasing responsibility for urban infrastructure, public health and education, among other things — commitments that helped establish the stability necessary for the upward mobility of these immigrants over the subsequent generations. Good sanitation, municipal garbage collection, public schools, pure-food-and-drug laws and child labor laws all ensured that these newcomers could acquire stable footing in their new homes. In that way, large government investments helped facilitate the transition from immigrant generation to American-born and -raised.