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Why Immigrants Change Their Name

A common problem in genealogy is tracing people who have changed their name. This occurs most often when someone migrates to another country. The general assumption in genealogy is that immigrants change their name to help them become more assimilated into their new homeland. There are, however, a variety of other reasons why immigrants may change their name.

A study published in the Journal of Labor Economics provides valuable proof to the field of genealogy that money can be a major incentive for immigrants to change their name. The study by Mahmood Arai and Peter Skogman Thoursie of Stockholm University studied recent immigrants to Sweden (Renouncing Personal Names: An Empirical Examination of Surname Change and Earnings). In Sweden, there are only two ways for a person to change their name: by marriage and by legal application to the government. The researchers looked at immigrants who changed their name by legal application, a process that takes from one to two years to complete.

The study focused on immigrants who changed their name to make it more Swedish sounding or more ethnically neutral sounding. The researchers looked at the pay of this group of immigrants before and after the name change. What they found was that an immigrant could significantly increase their earnings by adopting a more local-sounding name. Specifically, an immigrant could more than double their earnings potential simply by changing their name.

Interestingly enough, the impact of a name change had a larger economic impact for women than men. The authors hypothesize that the local populace assumes the name change is due to marriage to a local husband. According to the authors, this provides further proof “that individuals are treated differently [in their new country] depending on their name”.

The United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are all examples of countries founded by immigrants. Most immigrants were motivated by a desire to lead a better life for themselves and their families. A cornerstone of living a good life is to have a good job. For genealogy, this study helps validate the notion that immigrants changed their name to help improve their economic prospects.

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