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American Economic History: Water and Health

Paper Session

Friday, Jan. 7, 2022 10:00 AM - 12:00 PM (EST)

Hosted By: American Economic Association
  • Chair: Todd Guilfoos, University of Rhode Island

Public and Private Investment in Drainage: U.S. Agricultural Development and the Eradication of Malaria

Eric Edwards
,
North Carolina State University
Wally N. Thurman
,
North Carolina State University

Abstract

Areas of the eastern United States have poorly drained soils that are not suitable for farming absent some form of drainage. It was the invention in 1835 of drain tile in upstate New York, and its gradual diffusion across the upper Midwest and eventually the entire U.S., which allowed the cultivation of swampland without inefficient bisection via ditches. Eastern swamps, prevalent in the upper Midwest, on the southeastern seaboard, and along the Mississippi River, were prime habitat for mosquitoes which made these areas prone to malarial infections, one of the country’s leading causes of death prior to 1900. Draining these swamps, to provide farmland and public goods related to disease control, required considerable capital, and collective action to coordinate and fund the building of larger drainage ditches and channels into which individual drains empty. In 1870, malarial deaths were highly correlated with poorly drained areas in all three regions. In this paper, we test the extent to which the arrival of tile drainage to a county, by lowering the private cost of drainage, made the collective drainage needed for malarial eradication successful. We classify county drainage need from a soil-based drainage index which we then link to the conversion of agricultural land via spatial drain tile using a spatial technology diffusion model. While successful public-private drainage organizations were established by statute in the upper Midwest, their adoption in the South lagged, as did tile-drainage and the eradication of malaria. We regress county-level data, initially overall death rate, and then malarial deaths later in the sample, on our farmland conversion measure. We find that presence of dual investment in public and private goods, made possible by technological innovation and the formation via legislation of drainage management organizations, contributed to the eradication of malaria.

Playing Checkers in Chinatown

Jose-Antonio Espin-Sanchez
,
Yale University
Santiago Truffa
,
University of Los Andes

Abstract

From 1905 to 1935, the city of Los Angeles bought rights to water and land from Owens Valley farmers and built an aqueduct to transfer the water to its residents. The dark version of the story is that Los Angeles bullied and isolated reluctant farmers in order to get cheap water. A map of the plots farmers sold at any given point in time, however, could look like a checkerboard either because the city intentionally targeted specific farmers, whose land sales would create negative externalities for the remaining farmers, or because farmers were heterogeneous and sold at different times. To assess the checkerboarding claim, we analyze sales between the city and farmers and evaluate the effects that farmers' actions had on one another. We estimate a dynamic structural preemption model of farmers' decisions to sell to the city. We find large externalities when farmers sold which are larger for neighboring farmers and when the seller was closer to the river.

The Value of Water Power during the American Industrial Revolution

Todd Guilfoos
,
University of Rhode Island

Abstract

What drives the spatial dispersion of growth and industry? How important are natural geographic endowments to growth compared to market integration or infrastructure such as railroads? This work measures the historical value of water power during the Industrial Revolution in the United States. I use the variation in agricultural land prices in 1880 to identify the aggregate value of water power. County level water power estimates are based on the 1880 Water Power Census to measure the aggregate value of water power and the importance of natural endowments in economic growth. The aggregate value of a horsepower of water power is valued at $294. The aggregate value is decomposed into direct values (power as a prime mover) and indirect values (attracting infrastructure); approximately 75% of the total value is the direct effect of water power as a prime mover. Indirect value is gained by water power sites attracting railroad infrastructure, affecting the endogenous growth of transportation networks. Validity of the direct value of water power estimates are supported by estimating the elasticity of water power as an input into production using establishment level production data from the Manufacturing census rolls. I find that water power endowments were just as important as infrastructure to the value of the economy in the 19th Century.

Does Wealth lead to Health? Public Health Expenditure, Local Wealth, and Mortality Declines in the Early Twentieth United States

Lauren Hoehn-Velasco
,
Georgia State University

Abstract

Over 1900-1940, mortality conditions transformed in both rural and urban areas. While a portion of this substantial mortality decline has been attributed to public health and water infrastructure improvements, local governments also allocated funding towards public health independent of these separate outlays. In this study, we attempt to separate whether targeted funds towards public health or overall local wealth explain the mortality gains over the early twentieth century. To separate these factors, we examine whether localities with both the earliest public health spending and largest outlays experienced the largest declines in overall, infant, and infectious disease mortality. Or instead, per-capita taxation, property wealth, or targeted initiatives (such as health departments) were more important. Our findings have implications for understanding whether the epidemiological transition was driven by increased public health (and public health awareness) or growing wealth and living standards.
Discussant(s)
Carl Kitchens
,
Florida State University
Gary Libecap
,
University of California-Santa Barbara
Richard Hornbeck
,
University of Chicago
Melissa Thomasson
,
Miami University
JEL Classifications
  • N5 - Agriculture, Natural Resources, Environment, and Extractive Industries
  • N3 - Labor and Consumers, Demography, Education, Health, Welfare, Income, Wealth, Religion, and Philanthropy