Working Paper Series

The Grandchildren of Brown: The Long Legacy of School Desegregation


  • Rucker Johnson, Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley


  • Goldman School of Public Policy Working Paper (March 2012)


In the US, there is a high degree of persistence in economic status and health status across
generations, particularly in the lower and upper tails of the income distribution. For example, it
has been shown that 42 percent of men raised in the bottom quintile of incomes remain there as
adults, while only 8 percent of US men at the bottom rise to the top quintile (Jantti et al., 2007).
While public policies that promote equalization of educational opportunity have been
emphasized as keys to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty, there exists limited causal
evidence of the mechanisms that underlie intergenerational immobility. Few studies have
attempted to isolate the causal effect of education on the next generation’s well-being. This is in
part due to formidable empirical challenges that arise from the paucity of large nationallyrepresentative data sets with information both on parental and child outcomes over the life cycle, and the difficult search for a credible identification strategy.

This paper uses the Panel Study of Income Dynamics spanning 4 decades (PSID: 1968-2009) to
link three generations of adult outcomes. The analyses exploit the historical period and quasirandom timing of court-ordered school desegregation to quantify the extent to which children’s well-being can be improved by increased parental education and document the intergenerational
returns to education. The first stage of the analysis (using the “parent sample” that consists of
cohorts born between 1950-1970) builds on prior findings that demonstrate for blacks, school
desegregation significantly increased educational attainment, with no significant desegregation
effects on whites’ educational outcomes (Johnson, 2011). The present study provides new
evidence on the causal influence of parental education across generations by using the timing of
initial court orders and resultant differences in childhood exposure to school desegregation as an
instrument for parental education, linked (in the second stage) with their children’s subsequent
life outcomes (using the “child sample” that consists of cohorts born since 1980). The 2SLS/IV
framework and intergenerational research design utilized enables this work to assess the impact
of school desegregation on children and their families into the third generation. I find a
considerable impact of school desegregation that persists to influence the outcomes of the next
generation, including increased math and reading test scores, reduced likelihood of grade
repetition, increased likelihood of high school graduation and college attendance, improvements
in college quality/selectivity, and increased racial diversity of student body at their selected
college. The findings demonstrate that part of the intergenerational transmission of inequality
can be attributable to school quality related influences. The results in turn highlight parental
education as a causal determinant of generational mobility.

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