How The Legacy Of Slavery Still Promotes Inequality In Parts Of America
Researchers are proposing that areas where social mobility is lacking are still feeling the ramifications of slavery. On some level, the fact that this country’s history of slavery would still resonate today isn’t surprising. The fact that more people can’t see that might be more surprising. But that slavery manifests itself through the fabric of America, especially in the South, across a broad swath of the population is the more shocking idea.
According to new report from Standard and Poor’s Rating Services on income inequality and social mobility in the United States, the current levels of inequality were “dampening” growth, and the S&P predicted that “inequalities will extend into the next generation, with diminished opportunities for upward social mobility.”
Former Confederate states seem to be even more behind. The report found that the larger the Black population in a county, the lower the overall social mobility. But “both Blacks and whites living in areas with large African-American populations have lower rates of upward income mobility,” say the report’s authors.
And it’s all tied to slavery.
In 2002 Stanley Engerman and Kenneth Sokoloff, published a paper in which they found that “regions where sugar could be profitably grown invariably gave rise to societies defined by extreme inequality. The reason, they speculated, had to do with the fact that large-scale sugar plantations made intensive use of slave labor, generating institutions that privileged a small elite of white planters over a majority of black slaves,” reportsThe Boston Globe.
But Harvard economist Nathan Nunn has a more detailed analysis of this “Engerman-Sokoloff hypothesis” in a paper he published in 2008. He found a strong correlation between past reliance on slave labor and both economic underdevelopment and contemporary inequality. “He disagreed with Engerman and Sokoloff’s claim that it was only large-scale plantation slavery that generated these effects; rather, he found, any kind of slavery seemed to have begotten long-term economic woes,” reports The Globe.
The theory goes that in areas where there was slavery there was no focus on so-called public goods—schools, libraries, and other institutions—or services that might attract migrants. There was no need because these areas already had free labor. But in the North, they invested in public goods in order to lure workers. And because these public goods were well-developed, even today there is more social mobility for Blacks and Whites in the North.
Some former slave states are trying to reverse this trend and have created regional institutions that will promote social mobility and economic growth. In Georgia, for example, there is now a program called “HOPE Scholarship,” which enables high schoolers with a “B” average or higher to attend in-state public colleges and universities for free and private in-state schools at a deep discount.
“Such programs, with some modifications, could go a long way toward promoting social mobility in the former slave-holding regions of the United States,” concluded The Globe.
What else needs to happen?