The Great Migration1 NARA

The Great Migration (Photo credit: Jacob Lawrence, Artist, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons)

A new paper published in the American Economic Review has found that the Great Migration of Blacks from the Deep South in the first half of the 20th century had a negative impact on the health and life spans of those migrants, despite generally higher incomes and levels of education than their non-migrating counterparts (two factors generally associated with improved health outcomes). The paper speculates that increases in smoking and alcohol consumption among those who moved northward may have played a role, in addition to changes in diet and the stress of leaving one’s family and community behind.

“hile the Great Migration was surely a means for improving economic opportunities among African Americans—resulting in higher wages and better job prospects among migrants . . . the economic and historical literature also emphasizes that African Americans often faced daunting circumstances in the North, including high costs in discriminatory housing markets and uneven employment prospects,” write the study’s authors, Dan Black, Seth Sanders, Evan Taylor and Lowell Taylor. “Real economic gains to moving North may have been modest or non-existent for many African Americans . . . thus attenuating improved health prospects associated with increasing prosperity. In any event, any beneficial health benefits due to economic and social improvement were apparently swamped by other forces, such as changes in behavioral patterns that were detrimental to long-term health, including higher propensities to smoke and consume alcohol.”

The authors of the study note that among those in their data set who migrated north, there was a marked increase in chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, as well as cancers of the respiratory organs, suggesting alcohol and tobacco consumption habits in the north played a role in the Great Migration’s effect on mortality for those who migrated.