The Causal Effect of Place: Evidence from Japanese-American Internment


Recent research has stressed the importance of long-run place effects on income and economic mobility, but the literature has struggled to isolate the causal impact of location. This paper provides new evidence on these effects using administrative data on over 100,000 Japanese- Americans who were interned during World War II. Internees were conditionally randomly assigned to camps in seven different states and held for several years. Restitution payments paid in the early 1990s to the universe of surviving internees allow us to measure their locations and outcomes nearly half a century after the camp assignments. Using this unique natural experiment we find, first, that camp assignment had a lasting effect on individuals’ long-term locations. Next, using this variation, we find large place effects on individual economic outcomes like income, education, socioeconomic status, house prices, and housing quality. People assigned to richer locations do better on all measures. Random location assignment affected intergenerational economic outcomes as well, with families assigned to more socially mobile areas (as designated by Chetty et al., 2014) displaying lower cross-generational correlation in outcomes. Finally, we provide evidence that assignment to richer places impacted people’s values and political views, a new and intriguing mechanism through which place effects operate. Together, this new causal evidence on location effects has broad implications for urban economics, as well as potential policy implications for policymakers struggling to resettle and integrate large refugee or immigrant populations.

Last updated on 05/24/2016