Up from slavery? African American intergenerational economic mobility since 1880

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William J. Collins, Terence E. Adderley Jr. Professor of Economics, Vanderbilt University & Research Associate, National Bureau of Economic Research
Marianne H. Wanamaker, Associate Professor of Economics, University of Tennessee Knoxville; Research Fellow, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA); Faculty Research Fellow, National Bureau of Economic Research


We document the intergenerational mobility of black and white American men from 1880 through 2000 by building new datasets to study the late 19th and early 20th century and combining them with modern data to cover the mid- to late 20th century. We find large disparities in intergenerational mobility, with white children having far better chances of escaping the bottom of the distribution than black children in every generation. This mobility gap was more important than the gap in parents’ status in proximately determining each new generation’s racial income gap. Evidence suggests that human capital disparities underpinned the mobility gap.

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