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Title page for ETD etd-03282011-102521

Type of Document Dissertation
Author Shester, Katharine L.
URN etd-03282011-102521
Title American Public Housing's Origins and Effects
Degree PhD
Department Economics
Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title
William J. Collins Committee Chair
Cindy D. Kam Committee Member
Jeremy Atack Committee Member
John J. Siegfried Committee Member
Malcolm Getz Committee Member
  • public housing
  • economic history
  • economics
  • urban
  • urban history
Date of Defense 2011-03-22
Availability unrestricted
Between 1933 and 1970, over 1 million units of public housing were built with federal funds and operated by local public housing agencies. New building was subsequently curtailed as many came to believe that public housing encouraged crime, discouraged work, and intensified the negative effects of poverty and segregation, with potentially strong local spillovers.

This dissertation documents the diffusion and effects of public housing during the period of the program’s expansion. I begin with a historical account of the origins and details of the public housing program (Chapter II). In Chapter III, I compile a comprehensive dataset of public housing diffusion covering the entire United States between 1940 and 1970. I take a closer look at the diffusion of public housing in Chapter IV by empirically assessing the pre-existing community characteristics that were associated with rapid public housing adoption.

I then examine the effects of public housing intensity on county-level outcomes in 1970, at the peak of the public housing program (Chapter V). My findings suggest that communities with high densities of public housing had significantly worse economic outcomes in 1970, and a variety of further tests suggest that these empirical links are causal. Next, I assess whether these public housing effects worked through a “human capital channel” and whether similar effects were present in 1950 or 1960 (Chapter VI). Part, but not all, of the effects appear to work through changes in human capital. I also find no negative effects of public housing in 1950 or 1960, implying that long-run negative effects only became apparent in the 1960s, or that decade-specific factors interacted with public housing in a way that intensified negative local spillovers.

I continue my analysis of public housing effects in Chapter VII by assessing the effects of public housing exposure on women’s childbearing and household headship decisions. It appears that young women exposed to public housing in 1950 and 1970 were somewhat more likely to become single mothers. This relationship is stronger for African American women and women without a high school degree.

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