Urban migration harms health

A new study published by a group of economists from Duke University found that African Americans who moved North into urban areas during the early 20th century made gains in education and finances. But their health suffered tremendously. In fact, they didn’t live nearly as long as their peers did who stayed in the South.

I have a several problems with the economists’ interpretation of their data, which I’ll tell you about in a moment. But first, I want to give these researchers a lot of credit for the importance of the facts they did uncover.

First, they used mortality rates, or death rates, to make their conclusions. And that was an excellent approach.

I have warned you before how statisticians manipulate data about diseases to make drugs, invasive surgical procedures, and screening procedures for early detection look good on paper. For example, the government likes to gloat that we detect more early-stage breast cancers than ever, thanks to mammograms. And–yes–that’s true. We catch more early cancer. But this approach hasn’t lowered mortality rates, the ultimate benchmark.

Fortunately, we have a wealth of data on death rates in historical records starting from the Civil War era. And the new study focused on the African Americans who migrated from the South to the North during the early 20th century.

The politically correct version of this migration portrays rural areas in the South as some kind of “hell on Earth” in the early 20th century. And in this version of reality, when African Americans moved North, they encountered better opportunities, better health, and longer life.

The researchers were “shocked” to find the facts don’t support this fantasy.

African Americans who moved to the North experienced much higher mortality and shorter lifespans. In fact, men who lived to age 65 years had an 83 percent chance of living to age 70 years if they stayed in the South. They only had a 75 percent chance of making it to 70 years old if they migrated to the North.

Among women who lived to age 65 years, they had a 90 percent chance of making it to age 70 if they stayed in the South. But only an 85 percent chance of living that long if they migrated North.

Focusing on the period between 65 and 70 years was another good choice by the Duke economists. It’s the right interval to analyze deaths from chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, lung disease and liver disease.

Their analysis wisely avoided looking at men and women who died at younger ages, when mortality is more influenced by violence, substance abuse, and child-bearing (among women).

The researchers said men and women who migrated North found it stressful to acclimate to life in urban environments. Though remember–in these economists’ view, homes in the South were horrible compared to the urban “nirvana” of the North.

But this is where they went wrong.

The economists hypothesized that this increased stress “must have” led African Americans in the North to pick up more “unhealthy vices” such as smoking and drinking. And that these behaviors killed them earlier.

At this point in reading the study–I literally had to shake my head in disbelief.

They didn’t have any evidence to support that conclusion. They simply took their good, solid facts and tried to make them fit into some politically correct version of their alternative, make-believe world.

Of course, what the economists didn’t acknowledge is that stress itself is a big killer–whether or not it leads to specific politically incorrect behaviors. The acclaimed African American author, Richard Wright (Black Boy, Native Son), once said, “the North symbolized all that I had not felt or seen; it had no relation to what actually existed. “

What did exist in the urban North in the early 20th century was an unhealthy environment–with dirty air, crowded conditions, lack of sunlight, infectious diseases, and poor access to nutritious foods. Of course, we still have those urban hazards in the early 21st century. And, no surprise, urban dwellers still don’t live as long.

So–while I found the economists’ explanations and interpretations quite flawed, the facts they uncovered in this new study are instructive and consistent with essentially everything I have been writing about for years.

The vast majority of medical and scientific researchers never stop to consider history. They think all they have to do is design more new, expensive, repetitive, high-tech experiments with the power to predict “new” outcomes. They never realize history is often the most powerful proof of all.

So, although the economists’ looked to history for their data, their conclusions fell short because they didn’t consider these points…

First, the rural South had better access to more nutritious, farm-fresh foods. And they certainly ate less in the way of “processed foods.” In the March issue of my Insiders’ Cures newsletter, I report that “modern,” processed foods in the early 20th century lacked key nutrients, including critical B vitamins. We can probably link the rapid spike in heart disease in the mid-20th century to this problem.

Second, people who live in the rural South encounter more sunlight. Especially if they work outside. Also, the sun stays stronger throughout more of the year in the South. And this simple difference allowed African Americans in the South to convert more vitamin D in their skin.

As you know, vitamin D is critical for virtually every metabolic process in the body. And strong evidence links higher vitamin with lower rates of every disease (including skin cancer). On the other hand, research links lower vitamin D with higher rates of disease. Furthermore, darker-skinned individuals have a harder time producing vitamin D in the first place.

Third, research shows living in the “country,” closer to Nature is healthier–physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. By comparison, life in dense, overcrowded urban environments leads to greater physical and mental health problems.

To earlier generations, this fact was just common sense. Today, researchers do studies to “prove” being closer to Nature is healthier.

Some writers who reported on this study said it has implications for similar migrations all over the world today. And I would agree. When you move from a rural to an urban area, you may find more opportunities. But don’t count on living longer. And the further you move away from the equator, there are greater health challenges as well.

The Duke economists said they don’t know exactly what caused the higher mortality when migrants moved North from the South. Maybe they’re too educated to take an educated guess, or to have some common sense.


1. “The Impact of the Great Migration on Mortality of African Americans: Evidence from the Deep South,” American Economic Review; 105(2): 477-503