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Depression-era Migration

For two years, within the Institute of Behavioral Science at the University of Colorado, I worked with Dr. Myron Gutmann and Angela Cunningham on a digital history study of migration. This project was based on special access the Institute had to a restricted dataset: individual data for 131 million Americans recorded in the 1940 United States population census. In this census, every household was asked where they had lived five years prior in 1935. Of seventy-eight million adults twenty years or older in this dataset, approximately ten percent had moved to a new county since 1935.

In this project, we contextualized this individual dataset with a variety of county-level data to help explain why people moved. This county-level data included:

  1. County-level data from the Agricultural Censuses of 1930, 1935, and 1940.
  2. County-level demographic and economic data from the Population Censuses of 1930, 1935, and 1940
  3. Temperature and precipitation data aggregated to annual averages for every county, 1920-1940

The first question asked was: what factors caused people to move? My research partners conducted statistical regression analysis to identify which of our thousands of county-level variables was most correlated with the decision to move out of a county. Meanwhile, I constructed a series of county-level chloropleth maps to explore the spatial variation of these various factors. The map below, for example, plots the rate of emigration for each county in the United States, between 1935 and 1940. Laid over this map are outlines of the regions devastated by the wind and dust storms of the "Dust Bowl." The most interesting thing to note is that the Dust Bowl region - the focus of most research on environmental disaster and migration during the 1930s - forms just one small part of a much larger region experiencing high-outmigration during the period. As can be seen here, counties from the Texas-Mexico border to northeastern Montana saw high proportions of their residents move out, with many counties losing 20% or more of their residents in 1935.

Emigrants, by County
Proportion of each county's population which emigrated out between 1935 and 1940.

The explanation for the wide-spread emigration becomes clear after examining climate maps. As can be seen below, drought and high temperatures plagued all of the Plains states from Texas to Montana. Much earlier scholarship focused on the Dust Bowl region, whose experiences were widely publicized by journalists, photographers, and later authors. A larger, quantitative analysis - with the aid of digital mapping - makes evident the much wider extent of this environmental disaster.

[include climate maps]

Next, we turned our attention to the question of why people moved where they did. In particular, we examined links between origin and destination locations by constructing a database of origin-destination pairs. Our previous analysis had relied on data for the approximately 3000 counties* in our project, computing the number of emigrants who left each county after 1935 and the number of immigrants who arrived before 1940. The origin-destination pairs dataset, however, compiled data for the number and demographics of all people who moved from County A to County Z, for example. Thus, each of the nearly 3000 counties* in our dataset had nearly 3000 potential pairs, meaning this dataset could potentially include nine million (3000 x 3000) observations. However, most lightly populated counties only saw migrants leave for a small handful of other counties, usually to neighboring rural counties or the nearest metropolitan area. In the end, this origin-destination pairs dataset ended up containing approximately 600,000 pairs.

Top metropolitan destinations
Top metropolitan destinations for each non-metropolitan origin county, 1935-1940.

The map above plots the most frequent metropolitan destinations for emigrants leaving each non-metropolitan county. The majority of counties "sent" most of their emigrants to nearby metropolitan areas with two exceptions. In the first, some major metropolitan areas pulled migrants from slightly further away. These are places like Detroit, Chicago, and New York. The second exception is Los Angeles and southern California more generally. It was the top metropolitan destination for many rural counties in the Great Plains.

Given the size of this dataset, with nearly 3000 counties and approximately 600,000 county pairs, it makes sense to aggregate this data to identify and analyze trends in migration in a more meaningful way. The difficult question is how to do so. At first we experimented with existing algorithms to identify "communities" or regions. These programs - such as R's "louvain" package - create "communities" where county migrants are more likely to move within the "community" or region than to leave it. Unfortunately, most of these packages crashed when applied to our dataset of 600,000 pairs. Those that worked - most notably the "louvain" package - aggregated at too high a level, only creating ten to twelve regions, with one of those regions containing nearly every county west of the Mississippi.

We then experimented with a more improvised method. In particular, we examined whether or not we could identify top nearby metropolitan destinations as a means to identify regions within each metro area's "orbit." We came up with a semi-complex multi-step process to identify metropolitan regions or orbits through the identification of top metropolitan destinations within a certain distance and then reconfigured outlying or non-contiguous region parts by reassigning them to other neighboring metropolitan regions. This method is certainly not perfect, but does allow for the assignment of all non-metro counties to a metropolitan cluster or region.

metro clusters
Metropolitan clusters, orbits, or regions created by identifying the top metropolitan destination within 600km for each non-metro county, or, when no metro area is within this distance, the nearest of the top three destinations.

The resulting regions are shown below. However, I should note, we later noticed some of the metro areas we were using were only defined as such for 1950 and not for 1940. We then eliminated those new metro areas, which reduced our total number of metro areas - and therefore, metro regions - from 162 to 143.

metro clusters

[to be continued... more on the resulting analysis]