The paper, co-authored by Professor Steven Durlauf, uses an extensive dataset to investigate the evolution of Black-white inequality from the end of slavery to the present, finding major gains for Black Americans born between 1940-1950.
Professor Steven Durlauf

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s reshaped the United States in a number of ways. A new working paper co-authored by Steven Durlauf—the Steans Professor in Educational Policy and the director of the Stone Center for Research on Wealth Inequality and Mobility at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy—uncovers a previously underdiscussed effect of those heady times: dramatic positive change in occupational mobility for Black Americans born between 1940 and 1950—a change that has not been sustained since.

The study—which was written with  Gueyon Kim, a Stone Center affiliate and Economist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Dohyeon Lee, an Economist at Amazon, and Xi Song, a Stone Center advisor and sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania—investigates the evolution of Black-White inequality over time, focusing on the racial gap in occupational mobility.  It relies on an extensive dataset that combines historical census data from 1850 to 1940 with more contemporary statistics from 10 large-scale surveys covering the 1960s to the present. The results show that while occupational mobility for white men maintained a steady and gradual progression across that timeframe, Black men’s occupational mobility demonstrated a dramatic change solely in the 1940-1950 birth cohort, a group who came of age during the Civil Rights Era.

“Our findings strongly suggest,” says Professor Durlauf, “that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had major effects on U.S. labor market outcomes. While correlation is not causation, this is the most reasonable interpretation of our findings.”

The paper’s datasets highlight the importance of the 1940-1950 birth cohort in shaping the U.S.’s current occupational distribution and reducing its racial gap. Specifically, Black men born in these years showed significant progress in increased upward mobility toward higher skill occupations, like business proprietors and managers—opportunities that likely grew in number and feasibility in the wake of major civil rights legislation passed in the 1960s. The gains in mobility achieved by the 1940-1950 birth cohort in the wake of the Civil Rights Era continue to influence the current U.S. occupational distribution, which is characterized by a notable rise in high-skill occupations for Black men compared to historical trends.

Disparities in intergenerational mobility between Black and white Americans are some of the fundamental drivers of the nation’s current racial inequality. Although recent research on these disparities has illuminated how racial mobility gaps have evolved over time, these studies have focused primarily on income mobility, which is measured by the individual- or occupation-level income of parents and their offspring. Durlauf’s new study revisits this growing literature through the lens of occupational mobility—that is, how easy it is for a worker to leave one job for another in a different field.

Across all measurements, Durlauf and his co-authors found compelling evidence that the momentum achieved by Black men born between 1940 and 1950 has not been maintained in following generations. Specifically, the rate at which mobility patterns improve or occupational segregation declines levels off for those born after 1950.

“The momentum achieved during the Civil Rights Era visibly slows in later decades,” says Durlauf.  “Our findings make clear the difficulties faced by twentieth-century Black Americans compared to their white counterparts in trying to move away from the occupational conditions of their parents’ generation and create better lives for themselves.”

“It’s clear both in the magnitude of parental influences on offspring’s mobility opportunities and in the rates at which the gains achieved in the 1960s dissipate,” he added.

This research emphasizes the ongoing challenges faced by Black Americans in achieving upward mobility and, from a policy standpoint, underscores the importance of addressing historical mobility barriers to promote greater equality of opportunities moving forward, the authors say.

“These findings shed light on the impact of intergenerational mobility on the enduring legacy of American racial disparity,” says Durlauf, “as well as offering fresh insights for policymakers seeking to identify the necessary interventions to reduce Black-white inequality.”

The study was released as a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research.