, Volume 55, Issue 6, pp 2001–2024 | Cite as

Revising Infant Mortality Rates for the Early Twentieth Century United States

  • Katherine Eriksson
  • Gregory T. NiemeshEmail author
  • Melissa Thomasson


Accurate vital statistics are required to understand the evolution of racial disparities in infant health and the causes of rapid secular decline in infant mortality during the early twentieth century. Unfortunately, U.S. infant mortality rates prior to 1950 suffer from an upward bias stemming from a severe underregistration of births. At one extreme, African American births in southern states went unregistered at the rate of 15 % to 25 %. In this study, we construct improved estimates of births and infant mortality in the United States for 1915–1940 using recently released complete count decennial census microdata combined with the counts of infant deaths from published sources. We check the veracity of our estimates with a major birth registration study completed in conjunction with the 1940 decennial census and find that the largest adjustments occur in states with less-complete birth registration systems. An additional advantage of our census-based estimation method is the extension backward of the birth and infant mortality series for years prior to published estimates of registered births, enabling previously impossible comparisons and estimations. Finally, we show that underregistration can bias effect estimates even in a panel setting with specifications that include location fixed effects and place-specific linear time trends.


Infant mortality Birth registration Vital statistics Underregistration 



A set of machine-readable files of revised births and infant mortality rates is available online through the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR 37076, version 1). We are particularly grateful to William Even, Analisa Packham, the editors of this journal, and three anonymous referees for helpful suggestions. We also thank Jeremy Atack, William J. Collins, Dora Costa, Gordon Hanson, Adriana Lleras-Muney, Seth Sanders, Marianne Wanamaker, and Sven Wilson for comments when portions of this work were included in the paper “Death In the Promised Land: The Great Migration and Black Infant Mortality.” Brian Lee and Man-Ting Chang provided excellent research assistance.

Supplementary material

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ESM 1 (PDF 433 kb)


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Copyright information

© Population Association of America 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Katherine Eriksson
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
  • Gregory T. Niemesh
    • 3
    • 4
    Email author
  • Melissa Thomasson
    • 3
    • 4
  1. 1.Department of EconomicsNational Bureau of Economic ResearchDavisUSA
  2. 2.LEAP, Department of EconomicsStellenbosch UniversityMatielandSouth Africa
  3. 3.National Bureau of Economic ResearchCambridgeUSA
  4. 4.Department of EconomicsMiami UniversityOxfordUSA

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