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Access to Schooling and the Black-White Incarceration Gap in the Early 20th Century US South: Evidence from Rosenwald Schools

Katherine Eriksson

NBER Working Paper No. 21727
Issued in November 2015
NBER Program(s):Development of the American Economy

A large gap in incarceration rates between black and white men has been evident since the early 20th century. This paper examines the effect of access to primary schooling on black incarceration in this period. I use the construction of 5,000 schools in the US South, funded by philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, as a quasi-natural experiment that increased the educational attainment of southern black students. I link individuals across Census waves in order to assign exposure to a Rosenwald school during childhood and to measure adult incarceration. I find that one year of access to a Rosenwald school decreased the probability of being a prisoner by 0.1 percentage points (seven percent of the mean). Using other data from archival and government sources, I find that Rosenwald schools affected juvenile crime and all categories of adult crime. I argue that most of the reduction in incarceration comes from increased opportunity costs of crime through higher educational attainment but also investigate school quality and migration responses. Effects are largest in counties which have less racist attitudes and which have a more literate population. These results contribute to a broader literature on racial gaps in social outcomes in the US throughout the 20th century.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w21727

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