Would it have helped to give freed slaves land?

by on December 11, 2007 at 7:16 am in History | Permalink

Melinda Miller says yes, based on a clever natural experiment:

Although over 140 years have passed since slaves were emancipated in the United States, African-Americans continue to lag behind the general population in terms of earnings and wealth. Both Reconstruction era policy makers and modern scholars have argued that racial inequality could have been reduced or eliminated if plans to allocate each freed slave family “forty acres and a mule” had been implemented following the Civil War. In this paper, I develop an empirical strategy that exploits a plausibly exogenous variation in policies of the Cherokee Nation and the southern United States to identify the impact of free land on the economic outcomes of former slaves. The Cherokee Nation, located in what is now the northeastern corner of Oklahoma, permitted the enslavement of people of African descent. After joining the Confederacy in 1861, the Cherokee Nation was forced during post-war negotiations to allow its former slaves to claim and improve any unused land in the Nation’s public domain. To examine this unique population of former slaves, I have digitized the entirety of the 1860 Cherokee Nation Slave Schedules and a 60 percent sample of the 1880 Cherokee Census. I find the racial gap in land ownership, farm size, and investment in long-term capital projects is smaller in the Cherokee Nation than in the southern United States. The advantages Cherokee freedmen experience in these areas translate into smaller racial wealth and income gaps in the Cherokee Nation than in the South. Additionally, the Cherokee freedmen had higher absolute levels of wealth and higher levels of income than southern freedmen. These results together suggest that access to free land had a considerable and positive benefit on former slaves.

Here is the paper, she is on the job market this year from University of Michigan.  The abstract is vague on magnitudes, for more detail see pp.29-30, for instance:

The livestock calculations find that the difference in the wealth gaps was substantial, and ranged from 46% to 75%.  For crop income measures, the difference in the gap was smaller, but still substantial.  My estimates place it between 20 to 56%.

1 Richard Green December 11, 2007 at 9:33 am

I’ve often considered the differences between slavery and another forced labour system, namely convict labour in the early Australian colonies, which seemed to have far less long lasting repurcussions (both for the society at large and the forced labour and descendents).
Two reasons are relatively straight forward, one being the fact that nothing made a ex convict or the son of one look like one, whereas slaves had visual racial characteristics, and this enabled further discrimination. Another being convict labour persisted for a far shorter time, for a large number of reasons, including the fact that exploitative systems like this don’t seem to be sustainable without a cash crop like cotton (or diamonds etc.).
But one further difference may be related to this, since emancipated convicts were very frequently given land grants, less for reasons of sharity and good will than for the fact that it was one of the few options for encouraging further settlement easily available. It would be strange if political desires for further settlement managed to avoid social inequalities many generations down the line (kooris notwithstanding).

2 guest December 11, 2007 at 10:26 am

“Allowing former slaves to claim and improve unused land” is not quite the same thing as allocating existing, already-used land to emancipated slaves. It could be that marginal (free) land in the Cherokee Nation was unusually productive compared to the Southern US: if so, we’re not really looking at an exogenous variation.

3 R December 11, 2007 at 10:46 am

On the other hand, unclaimed (marginal) land could be less productive.

I would tend to think that the Cherokee Nation would be in possession of less productive land than non-natives to start with and that they would have already claimed and improved the best areas of their land first.

4 burger flipper December 11, 2007 at 11:22 am

guest,
I flip burgers down in Norman, OK, when I’m not dodging falling icicles and I can tell you that most of the most arable and valuable land did not go to the Cherokees or any other tribe. Indian territory became Indian territory primarily because it deemed bad enough to give away.

I can recommend a pretty good novel dealing with the process:
http://www.amazon.com/Okla-Hannali-R-Lafferty/dp/0806123494

So these freedmen were going through the table scraps left from a meal composed of table scraps.

5 John Dewey December 11, 2007 at 11:38 am

jason voorhies: “I now realize how obviously important such a resource transfer would’ve been for Blacks and their achievement.”

You’re meaning for the achievement of those African-Americans in the 19th century who were actually slaves, right? Certainly you do not mean for their descendants born 100 years later, do you?

Of the 35 million African-Americans living in the U.S. today, how many do you think have household incomes above the median household income? Of those, how many do you think are descendants of slaves? If a resource transfer were so important to black achievement, then how did millions of blacks achieve economic success?

My ancestors were amoung the thousands of impoverished folks who settled Louisiana Acdiana. Some of my ancestors were expelled from Canada with nothing more than their clothes and a few household possessions. Some were Irish citizens who fled the famine of their native country. Somehow the thousands of residents in Cajun country managed to succeed without massive government transfers.

Are you sure that a resource transfer is necessary for economic achievement?

6 Person December 11, 2007 at 12:19 pm

Samir_Nurmohamed: she actually ascertains a magnitude…”free stuff” may help people, but the impact is not always significant.

The magnitude is easy: it’s equal to the market value of the land, because they always have the option to
sell the land and do something else with it.

And a more appropriate name for “free stuff” is “reparations”…when you say “free stuff” it sounds like the recipient is receiving free chocolate. Reparations are drastically different (if you were not aware).

Morally, they may be different. Economically, they are not. They are just a change in an individual’s
endowment or “choice set”.

7 Katie December 11, 2007 at 1:07 pm

John Dewey,

Yes, it’s true that your ancestors did not benefit from a resource transfer on the scale that we are talking about. But your ancestors did benefit from living and working in a climate in which a large portion of the population was essentially taken out of the running. White prosperity is not just the product of generations of hard work, but also the product of generations of hard work without competition from, and in many cases, directly benefiting from the oppression of, non-white Americans.

8 skitzo December 11, 2007 at 1:33 pm

It’s been 150 Years. Get over it.

9 Renee December 11, 2007 at 2:21 pm

I guess when you go around being white, it’s hard to appreciate the impact that not being white has on all of your interactions, from employment to advancement to education to getting pulled over four times as often by the police, to having people cross the street or stare at you on the bus. Katie’s point was that when you have a class of people who are not able to participate in the economy for a long period, and indeed contributed to other people’s participation therein, that class of people is systematically disadvantaged as a result – and so are their kids, and their kids’ kids.

When given the chance to participate as an owner of land, to have the power to affect the course of your family’s life in a tangible way, to not be beholden, to be able to enter into contracts and not be turned away for small business loans because of your skin colour, to not have crosses burned on your lawn when you move into an area with a decent school-system for your kids (as happened not so long ago), to not have housing prices drop when you move into a white neighbourhood (still happens), etc, then maybe your income attainment outcomes might improve somewhat.

This stuff is cumulative, you must understand. The reason that generations have been able to improve on previous generations is in large part because of the social support that they have had. Blacks in the US haven’t had that, and are still fighting for that. Nurses still refuse to treat black patients in some hospitals, for crying out loud. Giving money to help fix the problem (as you characterize it, “steal more”) only goes so far to relieve the social problems that have led to the situation at hand; it does nothing to help fix the disconnect that happened when Blacks were not allowed to be functioning members of society, like your ancestors were (and it sounds like they were excellent functioning members of society. But the point is that they could be).

Just sayin’.

10 TGGP December 11, 2007 at 2:56 pm

White prosperity is not just the product of generations of hard work, but also the product of generations of hard work without competition from, and in many cases, directly benefiting from the oppression of, non-white Americans.

Canadians seem white and prosperous to me, but I don’t think they ever had slavery. The northern United States were also more prosperous than the southern ones.

I agree with Person on the answer to the question being obvious from an Econ 101 perspective and with others on the quality of the land not being controlled for.

11 mpowell December 11, 2007 at 3:30 pm


I guess when you go around being white, it’s hard to appreciate the impact that not being white has on all of your interactions, from employment to advancement to education to getting pulled over four times as often by the police, to having people cross the street or stare at you on the bus.

As a white person, I don’t think this is all that hard. If you are actually interested, you can figure it out pretty easily. And if you’re actually commenting on one of these sites, it suggests you have that level of interest.


It’s been 150 Years. Get over it.

Attitudes like this suggest that you feel like its not all of our fault collectively that more african americans than whites reside in prison, even when you take income level into account. But here’s the thing: black people are about 10 percent of the population. Over those 150 years, its been white people setting government policy which drive social arrangements. Not to mention all the extra-government action in the south. So if you maintain that this is not due to historical conditions driving current social conditions and culture, you’re suggesting its genetic. Basically, you’re committing yourself to the viewpoint that African-Americans go to jail in greater numbers because they’re more genetically predisposed to commit crimes. This is the only logical conclusion of the highlighted outlook. And I think we know what that attitude represents.

12 guest December 11, 2007 at 3:55 pm

jason voorhees and burger flipper, I’m not disputing that the land these Black slaves were getting was low-quality. However, it is an economic truism that the level of productivity on the “best freely available land” sets a wage floor across the economy. If freely-accessible land was available in the Cherokee Nation while completely monopolized in the Southern U.S., it’s not surprising that economic outcomes for unskilled African-Americans would differ between the two. It’s not clear that simply allocating some land to emancipated slaves would lead to the same outcome.

13 Renee December 11, 2007 at 4:12 pm

MPowell, I was being facitious in my first sentence. I’m white, and I try pretty damn hard to appreciate what it’s like not being white, too.

TGGP, you’re committing a logical fallacy here. Just because Canadians are prosperous without slavery doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have been more prosperous with it; it doesn’t even mean that Americans wouldn’t have been just as propserous without it. It simply means that, in Canada, we didn’t systematically disenfranchise black peoples (we did it, just not systematically) for profit. We used Chinese people instead.

14 mpowell December 11, 2007 at 4:29 pm


In “Race and Culture”, Thomas Sowell showed how cultural factors played the largest role in economic development of ethnic groups.

So we pulled Africans out of Africa, moved them here and enslaved them. Then we set them free and heavily discriminated against them for the next 100 years. In the South the discrimination was bad enough that lynching was a typical form of intimidation. Their culture during this time period and up to the present was not conducive to economic development. How are we not collectively responsible for this? The feedback loop between income and culture seems strong enough on its own. When you add a history of slavery plus strong racial discrimination it seems pretty obvious that the outcome will not be positive. Government policy does quite a bit to determine the social facts that then influence cultural development. For example: modern inner city culture is heavily influenced by the existence of the War on Drugs. Change the policy, change the culture.

Renee: I did not mean to be critical of your post. I was only trying to strengthen the point you were making.

15 LN December 11, 2007 at 6:11 pm

If I gave you $3 a day for 30 years, is there any limit to what you could do?

16 Floccina December 11, 2007 at 6:50 pm

I want to add that at this point reparations would be pointless. The best thing we could do for African Americans would be to end the War on Drugs.

Amen!

And let everyone who is prison for drug crimes out now!

17 josh December 11, 2007 at 6:52 pm

josh,

get your own handle.

josh

18 jason voorhees December 11, 2007 at 7:07 pm

You’re meaning for the achievement of those African-Americans in the 19th century who were actually slaves, right? Certainly you do not mean for their descendants born 100 years later, do you?

I meant both of course. Why wouldn’t it mean both? Both a larger starting value and plausibly higher growth rates in average labor productivity have significant effects over time through compounding interest gains. The transfer then would’ve increased free Black’s average labor productivity, and therefore their relative wages would have been higher. This would’ve likely increased human capital accumulation among their children, etc.

Of the 35 million African-Americans living in the U.S. today, how many do you think have household incomes above the median household income? Of those, how many do you think are descendants of slaves? If a resource transfer were so important to black achievement, then how did millions of blacks achieve economic success?

I don’t have the numbers. Everything I have seen shows significant earnings and educational gaps for Black/White, so I’m guessing there is a higher percentage of Blacks below median household income than there is the percentage of Whites. That’s just a guess.

I’m not sure of your second sentence. Are you saying you do not think such a transfer would’ve led to higher levels and growth rates in terms of earnings, income, etc.? This seems like a very reasonable expectation, given the pathways by which capital influence total factor productivity and annual growth rates.

My ancestors were amoung the thousands of impoverished folks who settled Louisiana Acdiana. Some of my ancestors were expelled from Canada with nothing more than their clothes and a few household possessions. Some were Irish citizens who fled the famine of their native country. Somehow the thousands of residents in Cajun country managed to succeed without massive government transfers.

Not to be a jerk, but that’s not relevant. If your ancestors had been Black Southern slaves, would the outcomes have been the same? That’s the counter-factual, not simply noting a few common characteristics. THis person’s paper seems to have sound economic theory behind as far as I can tell – at least in terms of positive theory. Normative implications are another matter, but I don’t think you can make the credible argument that such transfers would’ve had no effect on longrun earnings and growth rates. That’s just ridiculous if I understand what you’re saying.

Are you sure that a resource transfer is necessary for economic achievement?

Sufficient is more of what I had in mind. I haven’t said it’s the only way for achievement, only that its effect at the margin would’ve been positive and likely large in the longrun.

19 notsneaky December 11, 2007 at 8:04 pm

Person, I think the point is that giving people free stuff can make their descendants 150 years later better off. Which is somewhat less obvious.

20 Jeff Smith December 12, 2007 at 10:10 am

On a different note, thanks to Tyler for advertising one of our students on the market.

The rest of them are worth looking at too!

Jeff

21 Tom December 12, 2007 at 4:17 pm

“It should be amazing that anyone would argue against land grants for ex-slaves, but nothing in the right-wing ideological playbook amazes me any more.”

I find amazing how the left has such poor reading comprehension. I’ve only seen it argued here that the descendants of the slaves don’t deserve reparations 150 years after the fact.

Thomas Sowell has made another point that may be relevant.
Would these descendants have been better off had their forefathers had been left in Africa? They are better off now because of the injustice that did happen to their forefathers .
Had they been left in Africa, they would be much poorer now or more probably dead, as most slaves were captured in war and normally killed.

22 John Dewey December 12, 2007 at 5:23 pm

Anderson: “to get out of the South and find some less prejudiced corner of the country in which to live and work.”

Anderson, two cities with the highest Ku Klux Klan memberships at the beginning of the 20th century were Dayton, OH, and Detroit, MI.

Though most lynchings of blacks did occur in the Deep South, Gunnar Myrdal (An American Dilemma) points out that many were in the border states of “Maryland, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Kansas.†

Consider this observation from the 19th century:

As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, it was obvious to all that racial prejudice was stronger in the North than it was in the South. The prejudice of race, wrote Tocqueville, appears to be stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists.

History of the original 13th and 14th amendments

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