This post is about two issues that are closely related. The first are some facts and history that help explain why internal migration in post-World War II America was an important component of that economic expansion and likely to be as important in future growth. Some of this data has applications for future research into the role migration plays as a stimulus to and reaction of economic growth. The second is how studying this period of American migration could inform the academic literature on the probable effects of removing all or most of America’s immigration restrictions – an admittedly radical policy but one that should be understood.
The facts and history surrounding the post-World War II boom are somewhat controversial. Some critics of immigration argue that post World War II economic growth occurred with relatively little immigration so therefore immigration is unnecessary for economic growth today. Those critics are mistaken for many reasons, but fundamentally they misunderstand the role that national migration played in feeding economic growth during the 1950s and 1960s. Ironically, economic growth at the 1950s and 1960s rate would be exceedingly difficult or impossible to achieve without immigration.
The economic growth of the 1950s and 1960s with relatively closed borders can likely not be repeated today because there are fewer underutilized Southerners, Puerto Ricans, and women who could enter the workforce as substitutes for immigrants. Growth during that time was partly fueled by the great migrations (migration is internal movement, immigration is international movement) of Americans from much poorer parts of the country, namely the South and Puerto Rico, to wealthier locations. After the government began to severely restrict low-skilled immigration in 1921, migrants from the South and Puerto Rico moved in larger numbers to fill the economic gap left by the curtailment of low-skilled immigration, some migrants moved from rural areas to urban ones, and women began to enter the workforce in greater numbers. Without the great migrations that brought tens of millions of black southerners, white southerners, and smaller numbers of Puerto Ricans to Northern and Western cities, American economic growth during those boom years would probably have been much smaller.
Furthermore, American internal migration during the 1950s and 1960s was a one-time event due to unique historical, demographic, and economic circumstances that would not repeat today if immigration were similarly restricted. Migrants and immigrants together as a percentage of the U.S. population move similarly with the average annual hours worked per worker and, thus, the labor component of production. Lawful immigration is essential to recapturing the labor force growth necessary for approaching the economic growth rates of the 1950s and 1960s.
The Great Migration
The growth of the post-war American labor force was dramatic. From 1948 to 1982, the size of the U.S. labor force grew from 60 million to 111 million. Over the same time, the number of people employed in the U.S. labor market increased from 58 million to 99 million. The Labor Force Participation Rate (LFPR) increased from 58.6 percent to 64.1 percent and the total number of hours worked per worker decreased by 9.3 percent from 898 hours a year to 814 hours a year – likely because wealthier American workers opted to “purchase” more leisure time – meaning that they can afford not to work so many hours. Here are the history and economics behind the post-World War II great migrations organized by group.