The Journal of Economic History


Time on the Ladder: Career Mobility in Agriculture, 1890–1938

a1 Professor of Economics and Director, Environment and Behavior Program, Institute of Behavioral Sciences, Campus Box 4832, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309; and Research Associate, NBER. E-mail:
a2 Gerald F. and Marjorie G. Fitzgerald Junior Professor of Economic History, Department of Economics, Northwestern University, 2001 Sheridan Road, Evanston, IL 60208-2600; and Research Associate, NBER. E-mail:


We explore the dynamics of the agricultural ladder for black farmers in the U.S. South using individual-level data from a retrospective survey conducted in 1938 in Jefferson County, Arkansas. We develop and test hypotheses to explain the time spent as a tenant, sharecropper, and wage laborer. The most striking result of our analysis is the importance of individual characteristics in career mobility. In all periods—pre–World War I; the war years, and subsequent boom; the 1920s; and the Great Depression years—some farmers moved up the agricultural ladder quite rapidly while others remained stuck on a rung.

Movement from rung to rung has been predominantly in the direction of descent rather than ascent. … [There is] an increasing tendency for the rungs of the ladder to become bars—forcing imprisonment in a fixed social status from which it is increasingly difficult to escape.National Resources Committee 1


1 National Resources Committee, “Report.”