Train to opportunity: the effect of infrastructure on intergenerational mobility
What is this research about and why did you do it?
Can transport infrastructure promote long-term labor market opportunities and sever the occupational tie between parents and their children? While the economic impacts of transport infrastructure have received significant attention, the focus has generally been on aggregate outcomes or providing a snapshot of individual level outcomes at a given point in time. Much less is known about how access to transport infrastructure affects individuals’ economic opportunities, especially in the long run. Yet, transport infrastructure arguably improves individuals’ economic opportunities by connecting them to employment possibilities that are farther away, and by creating better options locally.
How did you answer this question?
We use census data from England and Wales in 1851-1911 to create a new dataset of close to one million father-son pairs where we observe their occupations at similar points in life. Using a simulated railway network, we estimate the effect of growing up closer to a train station on occupational and geographical mobility.
What did you find?
We find that individuals who grew up closer to a train station were more likely to work in a different occupation to their father. Better connected sons were also more likely to experience mobility "up the occupational ladder", particularly those whose fathers had occupations at the middle of the socio-economic distribution. Of course, this begs the question as to whether this ‘rail opportunity effect’ materialised because of improved geographical mobility. While we find that growing up closer to a train station has some positive effect on geographical mobility, most of the effect on occupational mobility takes place through improved local opportunities. This supports the notion of the railway creating socio-economic opportunities by improving local conditions.
Occupational mobility. The map shows the probability of father and sons working in different, detailed, occupations. These probabilities are computed at the parish level. Parishes are those used in the 1851 Census.
What implications does this have for the research on socio-economic mobility?
The British Industrial Revolution was a time of profound social, economic, and political change: it weakened the relationship between father's and son's occupation and the development of the railroad was an important driver of this transition. Better understanding the long-run implications of infrastructure improvements for individuals' socio-economic opportunities is of interest not only for historical reasons but also in terms of current debate. We show that a specific infrastructure improvement - the railroad - has large, localized and heterogeneous effects on social mobility. While the evidence is based on nineteenth century England and Wales, the broad channels we identify may be relevant when considering the potential impact of current infrastructure investments on local community development.
What are the next steps in your agenda?
Most research on socio-economic mobility, particularly from a historical perspective, is male-centric. In ongoing work we try to narrow this gap by documenting women's social mobility and emancipation at the turn of the twentieth century.
This paper can be cited as follows: Costas-Fernández, J. (2022) "Train to opportunity: the effect of infrastructure on intergenerational mobility." Working paper