Leah Boustan and Stephen Redding
This dissertation studies inequality in the access to opportunity in America over the past 150 years, including the impact of pivotal policies and institutions.
In Chapter 1, Hugo Reichardt and I study the long-run effects of anti-Black institutions —from slavery to Jim Crow—on Black Americans’ economic outcomes. I trace each family’s records from 1850 to 2000 to measure their exposure to those institutions. I show that Black families whose ancestors were enslaved until the Civil War have considerably lower education, income, and wealth today than families whose ancestors were free earlier. The disparities between the two groups have persisted because most families whose ancestors were enslaved until the Civil War lived in states with strict Jim Crow regimes after slavery. Those Jim Crow regimes sharply reduced Black families’ economic progress, largely by limiting their access to education.
In Chapter 2, I analyze the evolution of Black-white income gaps among women since 1950. I document that this gap narrowed substantially in the 1960s. At the same time, the Southern Black-white gap among women converged with that of other regions, ending the long period in which the South was the epicenter of racial inequality. Black women across the income distribution shared the improvements in the Black-white gap. However, only the best-earning Black women improved the rank they occupied in the national income distribution—Black women at lower parts of the distribution benefited from declines in national income inequality despite stagnating ranks.
In Chapter 3, Harriet Brookes Gray, Hugo Reichardt, and I study the contribution of American women to social mobility. I first overcome the empirical challenge of linking women’s census and administrative records over their lifetimes despite name changes after marriage. To do so, I leverage information from administrative records containing millions of women’s maiden and married names. Using this new data, I document that a person’s socioeconomic status is better predicted by their mother’s status than their father’s, highlighting mothers’ critical role in shaping their children’s outcomes. In addition, women’s intergenerational mobility tended to be higher than men’s. I provide suggestive evidence that intergenerational mobility was especially high when and where marriages across different socioeconomic backgrounds were more common.