Busting myths about the Dust Bowl

Alex Verkhivker | Sep 22, 2016

Sections Economics

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s hit the Great Plains of the United States with drought, dust, and desolation, and was ingrained in the American consciousness through John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Woody Guthrie’s blues songs, and the iconic photographs of migrants by Dorothea Lange. They formed an impression of farming families decamping from the southern Great Plains to start new lives in California.

But research by Wheaton College’s Jason Long and University of British Columbia’s Henry E. Siu find novel evidence contradicting some widely held perceptions about the Dust Bowl.

Using data from the US Census Bureau and Ancestry.com, the researchers focus on the 20 counties in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas where high winds, crop failure, and drought were most severe. They find that residents of those counties migrated to other regions of the US at a faster rate than anywhere else in the US during the 1930s, but also that emigration had already been relatively high from those same counties in the 1920s. Residents leaving the Dust Bowl counties rose from 38 percent of the population between 1920 and 1930 to 46 percent between 1930 and 1940.

Going to California
A widely held perception—made popular, in part, by Steinbeck’s Joad Family—is that Dust Bowl migrants moved to California en masse. While a powerful image, it is far from accurate.


Farmers may have been the face of the Dust Bowl exodus, but data indicate that, compared with other occupational groups such as high-skilled workers and low-skilled laborers, farmers were the least likely to migrate during the Dust Bowl. Moreover, the researchers find that relatively few of the migrants actually moved to California—only about 10 percent. Of those who relocated, some 52 percent chose another county within the Dust Bowl region.

“The westward exodus from the Dust Bowl to California was unexceptional; migrants from the Dust Bowl were no more likely to move to California than migrants from any other part of the country,” the researchers write.

A broader finding from Long and Siu’s work: people didn’t simply desert the region during the Dust Bowl—rather, they failed to move there. The depopulation reflected a sharp drop in migrant inflows during the 1930s. Immigration to Dust Bowl counties from other US regions fell from 48 percent during the 1920s to 16 percent a decade later.