Research News

Skin color and salary; Lighter and taller equals a bigger paycheck for immigrants

[Click here to download a high resolution image of the Skincolor Graph. Click here to download a high resolution photo of Joni Hersch.]

A new study by a Vanderbilt University professor of law and economics found legal immigrants in the United States with a lighter skin tone made more money than those with darker skin.

Joni Hersch used data from 2,084 men and women who participated in the 2003 New Immigrant Survey. An interviewer reported the person‘s skin color using an 11-point scale where 0 represented the absence of color and 10 represented the darkest possible skin color.

Even when taking into consideration characteristics that might affect wages, such as English language proficiency, work experience and education, Hersch found immigrants with the lightest skin color earned, on average, 8 percent to 15 percent more than immigrants with the darkest skin tone.

Hersch said the effect of skin color even persisted among workers with the same ethnicity, race and country of origin. Hersch‘s research also found height played a part in salary. Taller immigrants earned more, with every inch adding an additional 1 percent to wages.

Hersch said she considered various explanations for skin color‘s effect on wages, such as discrimination in country of birth, the possibility that darker skin color is caused by outdoor work, which is lower paying, and interviewer bias. After ruling out those explanations, Hersch concluded that discrimination is the strongest explanation for why lighter and taller immigrants make more money.

“I was surprised and dismayed at how strong and persistent the skin color effect was even after I considered a whole series of alternative interpretations and explanations,” said Hersch.

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