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

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 April 2018

Vellore Arthi*
Vellore Arthi is Assistant Professor, Department of Economics, University of Essex, Wivenhoe Park, Colchester CO4 3SQ, United Kingdom. E-mail:


I find that childhood exposure to the Dust Bowl, an environmental shock to health and income, adversely impacted later-life human capital—especially when exposure was in utero—increasing poverty and disability rates, and decreasing fertility and college completion rates. The event's devastation of agriculture, however, had the beneficial effect of increasing high school completion, likely by pushing children who otherwise might have worked on the farm into secondary schooling. Lastly, New Deal spending helped remediate Dust Bowl damage, suggesting that timely and substantial policy interventions can aid in human recovery from natural disasters.

Copyright © The Economic History Association 2018 

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I am grateful to James Fenske and Jane Humphries for their support in the preparation of this article, as well as to Bill Collins and two anonymous referees for their invaluable comments on this work. I would also like to thank Douglas Almond, Stephen Broadberry, Mary Elisabeth Cox, Price Fishback, Jed Friedman, Walker Hanlon, Richard Hornbeck, Cormac Ó Gráda, Kevin O'Rourke, Deborah Oxley, Eric B. Schneider, Igor Zurimendi, and audiences at the 2015 Economic History Society Conference, 2015 Oxford-Warwick-LSE Workshop, 2014 ASSA Annual Meeting, 2014 Economic History Association Annual Meeting, 2014 Cliometrics Annual Conference, 2013 Economic History Society Residential Training Course, 2013 Merton Graduate Research Forum, 2013 Centre for Economic and Business History Postgraduate Conference, 2013 Oxford Economic and Social History Graduate Workshop, and seminars at the University of Cambridge, the University of Essex, Harvard University, the London School of Economics, the Paris School of Economics, Royal Holloway University of London, and the World Bank for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this work.



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