Refugees From Dust and Shrinking Land: Tracking the Dust Bowl Migrants

Jason Long, Henry E. Siu

NBER Working Paper No. 22108
Issued in March 2016
NBER Program(s):The Program on the Development of the American Economy, The Labor Studies Program

We construct longitudinal data from the U.S. Census records to study migration patterns of those affected by the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Our focus is on the famous "Okie" migration of the Southern Great Plains. 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.

download in pdf format
   (1112 K)

email paper

A non-technical summary of this paper is available in the July 2016 NBER Digest.  You can sign up to receive the NBER Digest by email.

Machine-readable bibliographic record - MARC, RIS, BibTeX

Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w22108

Published: Jason Long & Henry Siu, 2018. "Refugees from Dust and Shrinking Land: Tracking the Dust Bowl Migrants," The Journal of Economic History, vol 78(04), pages 1001-1033. citation courtesy of

Users who downloaded this paper also downloaded* these:
Zhang, Fan, and Whalley w21672 Economic Cycles in Ancient China
Hansen and Libecap w10055 Small Farms, Externalities, and the Dust Bowl of the 1930's
Hornbeck w15605 The Enduring Impact of the American Dust Bowl: Short and Long-run Adjustments to Environmental Catastrophe
Deryugina, Kawano, and Levitt w20713 The Economic Impact of Hurricane Katrina on its Victims: Evidence from Individual Tax Returns
Abramitzky and Boustan w21882 Immigration in American Economic History
NBER Videos

National Bureau of Economic Research, 1050 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138; 617-868-3900; email:

Contact Us