Did black migrants from the South put their children in a better economic position? A new study provides some answers.

In the late 1990s the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development conducted an experiment on economic mobility by tracking thousands of public housing tenants and residents of low-income neighborhoods to see how they fared when moved to other neighborhoods, particularly those with less poverty. Called the Moving To Opportunity project, it tracked nearly 4,600 families, making it one of the largest-scale experiments of its kind—unless you count that other enormous moving-to-opportunity project of the early 20th century called The Great Migration.

For that grand experiment, more than 6 million African Americans escaped the racial terror and degrading labor conditions of the South, throughout the entire first half of the 20th century, moving to northern and western regions of the U.S., where they hoped sanctuary and better jobs awaited them. Dozens of researchers have studied the plight of this migrant group, among them Isabel Wilkerson in her 2010 book The Warmth of Other Suns, looking closely at how those migrants were treated, educated, and employed in their new settings. But how did their kids turn out? This is the focus of a new study from demographers Catherine Massey and J. Trent Alexander, of the University of Michigan’s Population Studies Center, and sociologists Christine Leibbrand and Stewart Tolnay, of the University of Washington.

For their article, “Second-Generation Outcomes of the Great Migration,” recently published in the journal Demography, they used Census data from 1940, the year of the largest outflow of African Americans from the South, and Census data from 2000 that includes information about those migrants’ offspring. There’s much agreement that that first generation of black migrants landed more meaningful and better paying work—although the Princeton economics professor Leah Boustan paints a more nuanced picture in her 2016 book Competition in the Promised Land, where she argues that the influx of black workers from the South ended up depressing wages for all black workers in the North. But Massey’s study is the first to show whether the economic benefits of those migrants transferred to their children.

For the most part, the children of African Americans who fled the South did end up better off in terms of income, education, and escaping poverty, compared to African Americans who remained in the South. In fact, many of them turned out economically better than African Americans already living in the North (though to be fair, this was a small bunch; in 1900 the black population above the Mason-Dixon line was less than 5 percent).  

The reasons for this mostly have to do with the kind of people who left the South in the first place. The study explains that the first waves of black migrants were “positively selected”—meaning, it was chiefly those African Americans who were better educated and had better jobs than most of their black peers in the South who were most ably situated to flee. One of the primary characteristics of this group was their proximity to urban settings—they had some kind of living or work experience in southern cities or urbanized towns, particularly those near railroad stations. Contrary to the stereotype of the country sharecropper coming north looking for work, most southern migrants did not have farm jobs.

"But even after we controlled for a parent's education, occupation and income, we're still finding these large gains,” says Massey. “That suggests that there may be something about the opportunities in the North that they were benefiting from."

The researchers note that white southerners also fled north and west in large numbers in the beginning of the 20th century—“in substantially larger numbers than their black counterparts,” reads the study. Interestingly, Massey’s group found that the children of white migrants didn’t fare as well as the children of black migrants, and barely did better than the white families who stayed behind. And while the second generation of black migrants did better than many black native northerners, the same could not be said for second-generation white migrants when compared to white northerners. In fact, the white migrant class “tended to fare slightly worse” than their native white northern counterparts.

(“Second-Generation Outcomes of the Great Migration”)

In some ways this is not surprising. Whites were already economically and socially advantaged in all regions of the U.S., so labor competition was naturally much stiffer for them when they left the south for the swiftly industrializing north and west. For black southerners who lived and worked in some of the worst conditions in the nation, there was nowhere to go but up if they could leave.

It’s worth examining whether these findings explain racial differences in economic mobility today. Theories abound that “economic anxiety” drove white men and women in states such as Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan to vote Donald Trump into the White House. Polling data favors the idea that racism is a better explanation. It’s possible that it was both: White families in northern former-industrial enclaves were losing work, not feeling like their financial status was improving, believed that black families were doing better, and resented them, in no small part, for that reason. The economic legacies of the second-generation migrants, captured in this study, seem to show that black families in the north were doing a little bit better than perhaps their white counterparts were comfortable with.

“[Whites] might have perceived that blacks were taking jobs that they thought [whites] should have, but the black labor market was so segregated by race that this” likely was not the reality, says Stewart Tolnay. “For the third generation now, the people who are struggling, and who want coal mining operations to resume, they do view themselves as not having the same economic opportunities as their parents did, and I can see them blaming others for that lack of opportunity.”

Moving north and west wasn’t equally beneficial for everybody in the Great Migration, but it definitely was better than remaining in the South—a prospect that still seems to ring true. Stanford economist Raj Chetty has continued to examine issues of economic and geographic mobility today. Building on the work of the HUD Moving to Opportunity project, he has found that income earnings and college attendance have improved for young children whose families moved from high-poverty to low-poverty neighborhoods. His “Geography of Upward Mobility in America” map shows the South, which still has the largest concentration of African Americans of any other region, is still struggling to provide better opportunities for poor children.

(The Equality of Opportunity Project)

“You look at Chetty’s maps and there’s all this dark mass down in the South showing that the people who stayed in the South persisted in this low opportunity part of the country,” says Catherine Massey. “The story of our study is that black migrants had a lot to gain from moving out of the South while the white parents had less to gain.”

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