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Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Demographic Legacy of Slavery in the United States

The latest issue of Demography has a fascinating research article by Thor Berger of the Department of Economic History & Centre for Economic Demography at Lund University in Sweden. This is an open access article so you can read the whole thing for yourself. The article is titled "Places of Persistence: Slavery and the Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States" and shows us the lasting effects of slavery on intergenerational economic mobility in the United States. This is not a pretty story and it is interesting to me that the research was carried out by a Swedish demographer, rather than an American demographer. Here is the map that summarizes a major point of his research:

And here is his conclusion:
A key contribution of this article is to document that the present-day geography of intergenerational mobility in the United States largely reflects the historical distribution of slavery, with substantially less upward mobility in areas with a higher share of slaves by the outbreak of the Civil War. Based on a variety of empirical strategies, the evidence suggests that this relationship is causal. Exploiting differences reported by Chetty and Hendren (2016a, 2016b) in observed mobility rates for children whose families move across CZs to identify the place-based component of upward mobility suggests that this relationship does not arise mainly from sorting of families across CZs; rather it reflects a causal effect of place.
And what is his theory about the underlying cause? Fragile families:
More fragile family structures in areas that had more prevalent slavery is seemingly the most important for understanding why these places produce significantly worse mobility outcomes today. Although these results are suggestive, they should be interpreted carefully because of the extremely challenging task of identifying the wide variety of causal transmission mechanisms that may link slavery to present-day differences in mobility. Further work is necessary for understanding how these differences emerged and the extent to which they link the past to the present.
For more on this idea, see my review of Isabel Sawhill's book, Generation Unbound... 

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