“The Dust Was Long in Settling”: Human Capital and the Lasting Impact of the American Dust Bowl | Abstract

I use variation in childhood exposure to the Dust Bowl, an environmental shock to health and income, as a natural experiment to explain variation in adult human capital. I find that the Dust Bowl produced significant adverse impacts in later life–especially when exposure was in utero–increasing rates of poverty and disability, and decreasing rates of fertility and college completion. These results hold even after accounting for the effects of the Great Depression, migration, and selective fertility and mortality. ¬†Agriculture-dependence exacerbates these effects, suggesting that the Dust Bowl was most damaging via the destruction of agricultural livelihoods. The collapse of farming, however, had the positive effect of reducing the demand for child farm labor and thus decreasing the opportunity costs of secondary schooling, as evidenced by increases in high school completion amongst the exposed; in these outcomes, unlike in college completion, family income and student ability were irrelevant. Lastly, I find that public spending via New Deal programs helped remediate Dust Bowl damage, a finding which suggests that timely and substantial policy interventions can aid in human recovery from natural disasters.