Do positive wealth shocks stick?

There is a new paper by Hoyt Bleakley and Joseph P. Ferrie, titled “Up from Poverty? The 1832 Cherokee Land Lottery and the Long-run Distribution of Wealth.”  This paper uses a very clever experimental design, relying on random, lottery-based allocations of land.  The question is how much winning this land lottery helped people in the longer run.  Here is the abstract:

The state of Georgia allocated most of its land to the public through a system of lotteries. These episodes provide unusual opportunities to assess the long-term impact of large shocks to wealth, as winning was uncorrelated with individual characteristics and participation was nearly universal among the eligible population of adult white male Georgians. We use this episode to examine the idea that the lower tail of the wealth distribution reflects in part a wealth-based poverty trap because of limited access to capital. Using wealth measured in the 1850 Census manuscripts, we follow up on a sample of men eligible to win in the 1832 Cherokee Land Lottery. We assess the impact of lottery winning on the distribution of wealth 18 years after the fact. Winners are on average richer (by an amount close to the median of 1850 wealth), but mainly due to a (net) shifting of mass from the middle to the upper tail of the wealth distribution. The lower tail is largely unaffected.

The bottom line is that the grants increased inequality, many people were helped a great deal, and a large chunk of people weren’t helped at all.  An ungated version of the paper is here.


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