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Early Life Environment and Racial Inequality in Education and Earnings in the United States (WP-14-16)

Kenneth Y. Chay, Jonathan Guryan, and Bhashkar Mazumder

Chay, Guryan, and Mazumder (2009) found substantial racial convergence in AFQT and NAEP scores across cohorts born in the 1960s and early 1970s that was concentrated among blacks in the South. They demonstrated a close tracking between variation in the test score convergence across states and racial convergence in measures of health and hospital access in the years immediately after birth. This study analyzes whether the across-cohort patterns in the black-white education and earnings gaps match those in early life health and test scores already established. It also addresses caveats in the earlier study, such as unobserved selection into taking the AFQT and potential discrepancies between state-of-birth and state-of-test taking.

With Census data, the researchers find: i) a significant narrowing across the same cohorts in education gaps driven primarily by a relative increase in the probability of blacks going to college; and ii) a similar convergence in relative earnings that is insensitive to adjustments for employment selection, as well as time and age effects that vary by race and state of residence. The variation in racial convergence across birth states matches the patterns in the earlier study. The magnitude of the earnings gains is greater than can be explained by only the black gains in education and test scores for reasonable estimates of the returns to human capital. This suggests that other pre-market productivity factors also improved across successive cohorts of blacks born in the South between the early 1960s and early 1970s. Finally, Chay, Guryan, and Mazumder’s cohort-based hypothesis provides a cohesive explanation for the aggregate patterns in several, previously disconnected literatures.

Kenneth Y. Chay, Professor of Economics, Brown University

Jonathan Guryan, Associate Professor of Human Development and Social Policy, Faculty Fellow, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University

Bhashkar Mazumder, Senior Economist and Research Advisor and Director of the Chicago Census Research Data Center, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago

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