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Shocking Behavior: Random Wealth in Antebellum Georgia and Human Capital Across Generations (WP-14-07)

Hoyt Bleakley, Joseph Ferrie

Does the lack of wealth constrain parents’ investments in the human capital of their descendants? Bleakley and Ferrie conduct a fifty-year follow up of an episode in which such constraints would have been plausibly relaxed by a random allocation of wealth to families. They track descendants of those eligible to win in Georgia’s Cherokee Land Lottery of 1832, which had nearly universal participation among adult white males. Winners received close to the median level of wealth – a large financial windfall orthogonal to parents’ underlying characteristics that might have also affected their children’s human capital. Although winners had slightly more children than non-winners, they did not send them to school more. Sons of winners have no better adult outcomes (wealth, income, literacy) than the sons of non-winners, and winners’ grandchildren do not have higher literacy or school attendance than non-winners’ grandchildren. This suggests only a limited role for family financial resources in the transmission of human capital across generations and a potentially more important role for other factors that persist through family lines.

Joseph Ferrie, Professor of Economics, Faculty Associate, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University

Hoyt Bleakley, Associate Professor of Economics, University of Chicago

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