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A Sitcom About the Endangered Path to the Middle Class

Television shows often have more economics in them than you might think. One example is the Canadian sitcom “Kim’s Convenience,” which depicts the charming misadventures of a Korean immigrant couple in Toronto and their native-born children. Where so much of the media focuses on the parts of the economy that are going wrong, “Kim’s Convenience” tells an uplifting story of modest, hard-won prosperity.

The show has rightfully been heralded for its depiction of the immigrant experience, and in this sense it is certainly realistic — for the U.S. as well as Canada. The protagonists, Mr. and Mrs. Kim, arrive in Canada without language skills, business connections or educational credentials, so they do what many immigrants do — they start a small business. A 2012 study by the Fiscal Policy Institute, a think tank, found that in 2010, 18 percent of small businesses in the U.S. were started by immigrants, even though immigrants made up only 13 percent of the population. In retail, immigrants started 22 percent of small businesses.

For the Kims, as for many real-life immigrants, small business is a gateway to upward mobility. The Kims’ daughter is attending photography school, while their son — despite a youthful brush with the law — is slowly working his way up through the corporate hierarchy of a car-rental company. These are not the dramatic success stories that often feature in pro-immigration op-eds — the Kim children aren’t founding billion-dollar startups or patenting breakthrough inventions or getting tenure at Harvard. Instead, the image is of humble, slow middle-class advancement.

And that depiction is realistic. There is broad agreement that children of immigrants tend to have substantially higher incomes than their parents, and to make up ground relative to children of native-born parents. Children of skilled immigrants tend to earn more than natives, while children of low-skilled immigrants tend to earn less, but in both cases, mobility from the first to the second generation is the norm. The second generation also tends to be better-educated, with higher homeownership rates and lower poverty rates than their parents. This has led many to conclude that the American dream is still alive for those who move in from other countries.

But the economic significance of “Kim’s Convenience” goes well beyond the immigrant experience. By showing the connection between small business and upward mobility, it highlights a type of success story that is crucial to the health of the American (and Canadian) middle class — and one that is in great danger.

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