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Poverty and Prosperity: A Longitudinal Study of Wealth Accumulation, 1850-1860


  • Richard H. Steckel


This paper depicts and analyzes the wealth distribution and wealth mobility in a national sample of nearly 1,600 households matched in the 1850 and 1860 manuscript schedules of the census. Gini coefficients, a transition matrix, the Shorrocks measure, and a regression model of wealth accumulation are estimated from these data. The findings shed light on theories of the wealth distribution, life-cycle behavior, regional economic performance, and the empirical basis for critiques of capitalism. Blacks accumulated slowly but the foreign born performed remarkably well. The distribution of wealth was relatively unequal on the frontier but the region performed well in reducing propertylessness. Residents of eastern cities were less fluid than other residents of the rural North. Blue collar workers and the unskilled declined relative to farmers and white-collar workers during the decade, which suggests that other aspects of wealth determination may have outweighed stretching of the wage structure as an explanation of growing inequality during industrialization. Comparisons with data on net family assets collected by the National Longitudinal Survey in the 1960s and 1970s show that mid-nineteenth century households were less mobile at the lower end but more mobile at the upper end of the wealth distribution.

Suggested Citation

  • Richard H. Steckel, 1989. "Poverty and Prosperity: A Longitudinal Study of Wealth Accumulation, 1850-1860," NBER Historical Working Papers 0008, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberhi:0008 Note: DAE

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Michael R. Haines, 1989. "Consumer Behavior and Immigrant Assimilation: A comparison of the United States, Britain and Germany, 1889/1890," NBER Historical Working Papers 0006, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    2. David, Paul A., 1977. "Invention and accumulation in america's economic growth: A nineteenth-century parable," Carnegie-Rochester Conference Series on Public Policy, Elsevier, vol. 6(1), pages 179-228, January.
    3. Thomas Weiss, 1987. "The Farm Labor Force by Region, 1820-1860: Revised Estimates and Implications for Growth," NBER Working Papers 2438, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    4. David, Paul A., 1967. "The Growth of Real Product in the United States Before 1840: New Evidence, Controlled Conjectures," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 27(02), pages 151-197, June.
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    Cited by:

    1. Sok Chul Hong, 2010. "Marriage and Men's Wealth Accumulation in the United States, 1860-1870," Korean Economic Review, Korean Economic Association, vol. 26, pages 27-58.
    2. Joshua L. Rosenbloom & Gregory W. Stutes, 2005. "Reexamining the Distribution of Wealth in 1870," NBER Working Papers 11482, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    3. Scott A. Carson, 2016. "Frederick Jackson Turner and the Westward Expanse: Changing Net Nutrition with Economic Development," CESifo Working Paper Series 5869, CESifo Group Munich.
    4. Burger, Ronelle & Booysen, Frikkie & Berg, Servaas van der & Maltitz, Michael von, 2006. "Marketable Wealth in a Poor African Country," MPRA Paper 9063, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    5. Livio Di Matteo, 2016. "Wealth Distribution and the Canadian Middle Class: Historical Evidence and Policy Implications," Canadian Public Policy, University of Toronto Press, vol. 42(2), pages 132-151, June.
    6. Richard H. Steckel & Jayanthi Krishnan, 1992. "Wealth Mobility in America: A View from the National Longitudinal Survey," NBER Working Papers 4137, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    7. Burger, Ronelle & Booysen, Frikkie & van der Berg, Servaas & von Maltitz, Michael, 2006. "Marketable Wealth in a Poor African Country: Using an index of consumer durables to investigate wealth accumulation by households in Ghana," WIDER Working Paper Series 138, World Institute for Development Economic Research (UNU-WIDER).
    8. Shireen Al Azzawi, 2010. "The Dynamics of Poverty and Inequality in an Era of Economic Liberalization: The Case of Egypt," Working Papers 539, Economic Research Forum, revised 09 Jan 2010.
    9. Di Matteo, Livio, 2013. "Women, wealth and economic change: An assessment of the impact of women's property law in Wentworth County, Ontario, 1872–1927," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 50(2), pages 285-307.
    10. Livio Di Matteo, 2008. "Wealth accumulation motives: evidence from the probate records of Ontario, 1892 and 1902," Cliometrica, Journal of Historical Economics and Econometric History, Association Française de Cliométrie (AFC), vol. 2(2), pages 143-171, July.

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