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Geographic Migration of Black and White Families Over Four Generations


This article analyzes patterns of geographic migration of black and white American families over four consecutive generations. The analysis is based on a unique set of questions in the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) asking respondents about the counties and states in which their parents and grandparents were raised. Using this information along with the extensive geographic information available in the PSID survey, the article tracks the geographic locations of four generations of family members and considers the ways in which families and places are linked together over the course of a family’s history. The patterns documented in the article are consistent with much of the demographic literature on the Great Migration of black Americans out of the South, but they reveal new insights into patterns of black migration after the Great Migration. In the most recent generation, black Americans have remained in place to a degree that is unique relative to the previous generation and relative to whites of the same generation. This new geographic immobility is the most pronounced change in black Americans’ migration patterns after the Great Migration, and it is a pattern that has implications for the demography of black migration as well as the literature on racial inequality.

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Fig. 1


  1. Household heads were asked a very simple set of questions about the county and state in which they grew up. The same questions were asked of the household head about the household head’s parents. In later years of the survey, the questions also were asked about the parents of the spouse of the household head, but this information is not included in the analysis because it is not available for most of the sample.

  2. Children who are living in a household in which the household head is not the child’s mother or father are excluded from the analysis because some children are raised by grandparents or other relatives who are substantially older than their own parents. In this scenario, the analysis would skip a generation in the family: the analysis would span four generations for most families and five generations for a small portion of the sample, leading to a more muddled picture overall. This restriction excludes 565 individuals from the final sample. I conducted analyses of staying in place and return migration with this sample included in order to assess the sensitivity of the results. I found no differences in results.

  3. Technically, the children who are observed over the longest period of adulthood are selected. This is usually the firstborn child in the household.

  4. The maps were constructed using software developed by sociologist Manish Nag called “Sonoma Network Mapping Software” (Nag 2009), which allows for the visual display of network data with a spatial component. The software is available online (

  5. The racial gap in geographic immobility is reflected in national data from the census (Ruggles et al. 2010). An analysis of non-Hispanic black and white adults’ current state of residence compared with their state of birth shows that in census years from 1930 to 1980, black Americans age 26–45 were equally or less likely than whites to live in their state of birth. In census years 1990, 2000, and 2010, black American adults were more likely than whites to live in their state of birth. For instance, in 2010, 69 % of black American adults lived in the same state in which they were born, compared with 62 % of whites.

  6. This analysis is not possible for earlier generations because survey data were not collected for Generations 1 and 2 during childhood. Because the analysis is restricted to Generations 3 and 4, the sample for the analysis is not restricted to the firstborn children in Generation 3 households but includes all individuals in families with nonmissing data on state and county of residence in all four generations.

  7. Long (1988) argued that receipt of public assistance may tie families to specific places that offer limited economic opportunity. In the results reported in Table 4, receipt of cash welfare is not associated with remaining in place. However, in separate results (not shown here), a measure of residence in public housing is significantly associated with remaining in the same state and the same region/division from Generation 3 to 4. Including the measure of public housing does not reduce the size of the racial gaps in geographic immobility shown in Table 4. This measure is not included in the main results because it has extensive missing data.


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This project was supported with a grant from the UC-Davis Poverty Research Center. I received helpful comments from participants in the UC-Davis Poverty Research Center Small Grants Conference, and in particular from Abigail Wozniak. I would also like to thank Manish Nag, who offered extensive assistance in the construction of maps found in the text, which were developed using the Sonoma Network Mapping Software that he developed.

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Correspondence to Patrick Sharkey.

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Sharkey, P. Geographic Migration of Black and White Families Over Four Generations. Demography 52, 209–231 (2015).

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  • Intergenerational migration
  • Race