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Revising Infant Mortality Rates for the Early 20th Century United States

Listed author(s):
  • Katherine Eriksson
  • Gregory T. Niemesh
  • 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, 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 percent. In this paper, we construct improved estimates of births and infant mortality in the United States for the 1915-1940 period 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 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 back 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.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 23263.

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Date of creation: Mar 2017
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:23263
Note: DAE LS
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  1. Hansen, Casper Worm, 2014. "Cause of death and development in the US," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 109(C), pages 143-153.
  2. Thomasson, Melissa A. & Treber, Jaret, 2008. "From home to hospital: The evolution of childbirth in the United States, 1928-1940," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 45(1), pages 76-99, January.
  3. David Cutler & Grant Miller, 2005. "The role of public health improvements in health advances: The twentieth-century United States," Demography, Springer;Population Association of America (PAA), vol. 42(1), pages 1-22, February.
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