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A Great Migration Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

While migration leads to greater wealth, the destination may shorten your life.
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New buildings in Indianapolis' Indiana Avenue Historic District. (Photo: Public Domain)

New buildings in Indianapolis' Indiana Avenue Historic District. (Photo: Public Domain)

For African-Americans, the Great Migration was economic development. The move from the rural agricultural South to the urban industrial North provided an avenue of upward mobility, not just an escape from Jim Crow. Surprisingly, according to new research, those benefits came with reduced longevity:

“Migrants were a self-selected group: Many of them had been preparing all their lives to make the move, and everything suggested they’d be healthier than their counterparts in the South,” said Dan Black, deputy dean and professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy Studies, who co-authored the study. “But it was shocking to learn that, in terms of longevity, the migrants weren’t better off at all.”

Medical records indicate that migrants died at much higher rates from cirrhosis and pulmonary illnesses, which are closely linked to smoking and drinking—bad habits common among city dwellers at the time.

Black said there were other factors as well: chemicals and pollution from factories, higher population density (and, therefore, more contagious diseases), the shock of cold weather, and the stress from discriminatory housing markets and uneven employment prospects.

Bad habits die hard. I doubt that was the issue. Migrants inhabit the spatial leftovers, the places where no one else wants to live. That geographic fact of life exacts an existential cost.

Indianapolis received its fair share of Great Migration. Where did they end up? In the same place as international migrants:

During its heyday in the 1930s and early '40s, Indiana Avenue was the Broadway of black Indianapolis. From New York Street northwest to the old City Hospital near the White River was the center of black business and cultural life. ...

... In the city's early history, settlers avoided the area around White River because they considered it a breeding ground for disease-carrying insects. So from the beginning, the people who lived and worked along Indiana Avenue tended to be immigrants and African-Americans.

In the early 1900s thousands of blacks came to the North in what has become known as The Great Migration. As the black population in Indianapolis increased, Indiana Avenue became its focal point.

Blacks and immigrants ended up in the areas where established residents refused to live. Local folklore would steer most people away from areas deemed dangerous or uninhabitable. Memories of floods or epidemics long ago live on, if untethered from actual events. In other cases, a reminder of the lousy living conditions occurred on a daily basis or when the wind blew in a certain direction. In the United States, the wealthiest neighborhoods are often found in the Northwest quadrant, upwind from factories and stockyards. Downwind foul, on the wrong side of town, is where you would find many of the Great Migrants.

"Downwind foul" maps much of today's hazard geography. Boston's punishing winter begs the question, will they stay? The Beantown climate is downwind foul. But downwind foul doesn't drive long-distance migration. Some hazards are bigger than others:

Still, when things get really bad, as they have these past two months, nature can have a major impact on our options. One ready example is Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005. The storm destroyed huge swaths of housing, especially in low-lying areas where the city’s poorer residents lived. As a result, “New Orleans became whiter, older, and wealthier, because those were the people best able to come back and recover their homes,” says Elizabeth Fussell, a demographer at Brown University and an expert on the demographic consequences of the storm. She points out that natural disasters tend to widen existing inequalities. “Those who have the most resources are best able to avoid the worst effects of the disaster,” Fussell says, “and those with the fewest resources tend to feel impacts most harshly.”

White and wealthy gets to stay. Black and poor has to go. Who you are defines where you will go as a migrant. White and wealthy colonizes post-Katrina New Orleans, treading where the levy never broke.