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Time on the Ladder: Career Mobility in Agriculture, 1890–1938

  • LEE J. ALSTON (a1) and JOSEPH P. FERRIE (a2)

We explore the dynamics of the agricultural ladder for black farmers in the U.S. South using individual-level data from a retrospective survey conducted in 1938 in Jefferson County, Arkansas. We develop and test hypotheses to explain the time spent as a tenant, sharecropper, and wage laborer. The most striking result of our analysis is the importance of individual characteristics in career mobility. In all periods—pre–World War I; the war years, and subsequent boom; the 1920s; and the Great Depression years—some farmers moved up the agricultural ladder quite rapidly while others remained stuck on a rung.

Movement from rung to rung has been predominantly in the direction of descent rather than ascent. … [There is] an increasing tendency for the rungs of the ladder to become bars—forcing imprisonment in a fixed social status from which it is increasingly difficult to escape.National Resources CommitteeNational Resources Committee, “Report.”

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