Richard Hornbeck (V. Duane Rath Professor of Economics and Neubauer Family Faculty Fellow, Booth School of Business, The University of Chicago)
May 7, 2024
The 1930s American Dust Bowl was an environmental catastrophe that greatly eroded sections of the Plains. Impressions of the Dust Bowl have been shaped by literature, photography, and individual stories. This webinar discusses how we can use large-scale data to characterize the Dust Bowl and draw lessons for understanding how society adapts to environmental collapse and episodes of population displacement and environmental refugees.
The Dust Bowl immediately, substantially, and persistently reduced agricultural land values in more-eroded counties relative to less-eroded counties. Contrary to popular accounts, there was limited adaptation of agricultural practices. The economy adjusted predominantly through large population declines, creating archetypal “Dust Bowl migrants”—refugees from environmental collapse. Dust Bowl migrants were “negatively selected,” in years of education, compared to other migrants who were “positively selected.” Dust Bowl migrants had lower incomes than natives in their destinations, which is reflected in popular impressions. The data indicate strikingly modest impacts of the Dust Bowl on average wage incomes in 1939, however, which contrasts with the Dust Bowl’s large and enduring impacts on agricultural land. This episode illustrates how quantitative research in economic history can draw on historical “shocks” to draw general lessons about economic forces.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.