THE 1930s DUST BOWL: New evidence of the long-term human toll of natural disasters

Skip to Navigation

Skip to Search

25 Mar 2015

Full Text:

Americans exposed to the 1930s Dust Bowl in early life suffered permanent and meaningful damage to their health and human capital, according to research by Vellore Arthi to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2015 annual conference. The study finds that people exposed in the earliest developmental stages, particularly in utero, were the most sensitive to the Dust Bowl’s negative effects on health – and they have suffered the worst outcomes as adults.

Vellore Arthi comments:

‘My results suggest that we have long underestimated the full human cost of this seminal event in US history – but they also provide hopeful lessons for the future.

‘In particular, the findings indicate that timely and substantial policy interventions can aid in recovery from natural disasters. They also provide insight into when and how in a child’s development these investments are likely to be most effective.’

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s – during which a series of massive dust storms ravaged the Great Plains, destroying agricultural lands and causing injury to health and nutrition – was one of the most devastating environmental catastrophes in American history. Understandably, this crisis still looms large in American popular culture: John Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, Dorothea Lange and other contemporary artists expertly evoked the grinding poverty and despair of the Great Plains farmer, the migrant mother, the struggling everyman. But what became of these people after the dust settled?

Using data on individuals’ outcomes as adults today, and the patterns of soil erosion and drought they experienced as children during the 1930s, Arthi quantifies the long-term human costs of this disaster, and shows that the Dust Bowl had meaningful consequences for the later-life wellbeing of those who lived through it. Among the findings:

  • The Dust Bowl had negative effects on human capital above and beyond those due to the Great Depression.
  • Compared with their peers not exposed to the Dust Bowl, survivors are up to 2% likelier to experience physical and cognitive disabilities; 1.5% likelier to be living below the federal poverty line; 2% less likely to have completed college, a large reduction in an era when only roughly 15% of Americans earned a degree.
  • Exposed women experienced large reductions in fertility, giving birth to an average of roughly 0.3 fewer children over the course of their lifetimes, all while their unexposed peers gave rise to the famous post-war Baby Boom.
  • The effects are up to three times worse for those exposed in agricultural states.
  • Those exposed in earlier developmental stages – particularly in utero – are the most sensitive to the Dust Bowl’s negative effects on health, and suffer the worst outcomes as adults.

These findings suggest that much of the Dust Bowl’s adverse effects stem from its destruction of agricultural livelihoods. This loss of income in turn disadvantaged children’s health, nutrition and early-life development, and also constrained parents’ ability to invest in their children’s recovery.

But the collapse of farming was not without a silver lining: high school completion rates went up among those exposed to the Dust Bowl – in some cases by nearly 6.5% – as the demand for child labour in farming decreased.

Although the Dust Bowl did long-term harm, public spending via President Roosevelt’s New Deal programmes helped mitigate Dust Bowl damage, for example, raising rates of college completion among the exposed by nearly 1% and reducing their rates of disability by over 4%.


‘’The Dust Was Long in Settling’: Human Capital and the Lasting Impact of the American Dust Bowl’ by Vellore Arthi

Vellore Arthi
University of Oxford

Add This Social Media Links