Refugees from Dust

That is the excellent title of a new NBER working paper by Jason Long and Henry Siu (the full title is “Refugees From Dust and Shrinking Land: Tracking the Dust Bowl Migrants“).

Here is the abstract:

“We find that migration rates were much higher in the Dust Bowl than elsewhere in the U.S. This difference is due to the fact that individuals who were typically unlikely to move (e.g., those with young children, those living in their birth state) were equally likely to move in the Dust Bowl. While this result of elevated mobility conforms to long-standing perceptions of the Dust Bowl, our other principal findings contradict conventional wisdom.

First, relative to other occupations, farmers in the Dust Bowl were the least likely to move; this relationship between mobility and occupation was unique to that region. Second, out-migration rates from the Dust Bowl region were only slightly higher than they were in the 1920s. Hence, the depopulation of the Dust Bowl was due largely to a sharp drop in migration inflows. Dust Bowl migrants were no more likely to move to California than migrants from other parts of the U.S., or those from the same region ten years prior. In this sense, the westward push from the Dust Bowl to California was unexceptional. Finally, migration from the Dust Bowl was not associated with long-lasting negative labor market effects, and for farmers, the effects were positive.”

I would take from this that (1) Okies are stubborn (seems right); (2) other Americans were smart enough not to want to move into a dust bowl (yep).  The third point is interesting and surprising.  Here is what the authors have to say about it:

“Farmers in 1930 who left the Dust Bowl were more likely than persisters to experience downward occupational moves, becoming laborers in 1940 (21.6 versus 8.6%). However, this tendency for greater downward mobility was more than offset by their greater likelihood of experiencing upward moves toward semi-skilled or high-skilled occupations (39.0% for migrants versus 19% for persisters). The negative migration effect for non-farmers is driven primarily by the greater tendency of high-skilled migrants to transition into semi-skilled occupations relative to persisters (who were more likely to remain in a high-skill occupation).”

Kevin and I rented a kayak in California years ago and the employees seemed shocked that we were from Oklahoma.  With a serious look on their faces, they asked “how did you get here?”  Kevin replied with “by airplane” and stared at them.  Priceless.  How did you get here? like Okies are still living in the Dust Bowl unaware of modern technology? (heck even in the Dust Bowl they managed to move to California). Here’s a recent Google Earth photo of our place in Norman: