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Study Used 1940 Census Data to Explore Effects of Inequalities in Public Schooling

Societies aspire to equality of opportunity—the goal that all children have the chance to achieve a prosperous life—and public education can play a role in pursuit of this ideal. In the United States, the early 20th century saw gains in average educational attainment, but not all families benefited equally. Researchers used recently released 1940 Census data to explore the intergenerational transmission of human capital for children born in the 1920s, who were educated during an era of expanding but unequally distributed resources in public schooling. They found lower average rates of upward mobility for Blacks than Whites, and wide variation across states and counties for both races. Upward mobility was found to be strongly influenced by the quality of public school, as measured by teacher salaries and pupil-teacher ratios.

The study, conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of California, Berkeley, was released as a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

“Our work finds striking consequences of inequalities in public schooling in the United States, especially for Black children in the South who attended segregated schools,” explains Lowell Taylor, Professor of Economics at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy, who coauthored the study. “Our paper highlights the risks to the next generation when society fails to provide well-funded schools.”

Researchers used population records from the 1940 Census to study the education choices of 14- to 18-year-olds living with at least one parent. The year 1940 was the first time the Census Bureau collected information on educational attainment for everyone, allowing the study to examine intergenerational links within millions of families. Researchers combined this information with detailed historical records on local schools; in states with legal segregation, the data were recorded by race, so the study could analyze findings separately by race.

The researchers found that schooling choices of White children were highly responsive to the quality of local schools, with bigger effects for the children of less-educated parents. Average mobility rates at mid-century were substantially lower for Black families than for White or Asian American families—a pattern that contributed to the persistence of lower education levels for African Americans for at least another generation. Nevertheless, in some parts of the country (e.g., the West), mobility rates for Blacks were as high as they were for Whites.

The study focused on the effects of school quality on the educational attainment of Black children in the South. In the era of Jim Crow and political disenfranchisement, Whites made most decisions about school funding, and the result was sharp racial disparities in some states.

The researchers looked at the effects of state laws setting minimum salaries for teachers, finding that Black teachers in Deep South states were paid considerably less than Black teachers in other segregated states. The differences in wages affected educational attainment, especially for children of poorly educated parents, and suggest a causal role for school quality in mediating upward mobility.

“We have always known that there was huge inequality in school resources. Now with data from the entire 1940 census we can measure the long shadow that inequality cast on later generations,” notes coauthor David Card, Professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley.

The research was funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.


Summarized from a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, The Intergenerational Transmission of Human Capital: Evidence from the Golden Age of Upward Mobility, by Card, D (University of California, Berkeley), Domnisoru, C (University of California, Berkeley), and Taylor, L (Carnegie Mellon University). Copyright 2018. All rights reserved.