How racial and regional inequality affect economic opportunity?

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Jay ShambaughRyan Nunn, and Stacy A. Anderson

Friday, February 15, 2019

Black History Month

It is an article of the American faith that, with education and hard work, all of us have the opportunity to build a better life than was available to our parents. However, many African-Americans today remain situated in communities with the lowest prospects for upward mobility. This is not an accident: it reflects both the intended and unintended consequences of U.S. policies that have shaped where people live and the opportunities people have in those communities.

In a recent Hamilton Project paper, The Historical Role of Race and Policy for Regional Inequality, economists Bradley L. HardyTrevon D. Logan, and John Parman examine how the spatial distribution of the black population has evolved over time and how this has interacted with economic mobility and U.S. public policy. Their analysis emphasizes the importance of both place and policy in determining individual outcomes.

The Regional Concentration of the African American Population

Despite the Great Migration of millions of African-Americans from the rural South to cities across the United States, the modern distribution of black Americans closely relates to the historical patterns of the black population. Counties with disproportionately high shares of black Americans today are the same counties that had large black populations before the Civil War, suggesting that historical conditions have had extremely persistent impacts on the outcomes of African-Americans. Moreover, as illustrated in the figure below, poverty in the Deep South tend to be much higher in counties with high black populations.

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