Researchers challenge the myths behind the US’s very own refugee crisis in the 1930s

A rethink.
A rethink.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Arthur Rothstein/Library of Congress
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The Dust Bowl in the 1930s was an environmental and economic calamity. Some 2.5 million people fled the areas in the American South hit by severe dust storms and headed west. It was in some ways America’s very own refugee crisis, similar in scale to what Europe is facing now.

The Dust Bowl, which has been described as “the largest migration in American history” is subject of some of America’s most iconic cultural works, including John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath with the Joad family’s move to California, Dorothea Lange’s photographs of migrants, and Woody Guthrie’s folk music. At the heart of these cultural work was the mass exodus of destitute farmers during the 1930s from the Southern Plain states of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.

Image for article titled Researchers challenge the myths behind the US’s very own refugee crisis in the 1930s
Image: Library of Congress/Dorothea Lange

The combination of the environmental disaster (drought and bad farming practices) and the economic depression is thought to have driven many farmers to pack up everything they own and head to California.


The state appeared overwhelmed by the number of migrants turning up on its doorsteps during a time of joblessness brought on by the Great Depression. They were often referred to as ”Okies” and “Dust Bowl refugees.”

The most vivid example of this resentment was when the Los Angeles police sent 125 policemen to patrol the state border and turn away “the undesirables.”

But the number of migrants moving to California may not have been all that exceptional.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia challenge some long-held views about the Dust Bowl in their working paper, “Refugees from dust and shrinking land: tracking the Dust Bowl migrants.” The paper, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, analyzed migration flows during this event and puts these numbers into perspective.

“First, relative to other occupational groups, farmers in the Dust Bowl were the least likely to move,” researchers note in the working paper, published by the National Bureau for Economic Research. “Second, while the out-migration rate from the Dust Bowl was high (relative to other parts of the country), it was not much higher than from the same region in the 1920s.”

Instead, researchers conclude that the depopulation of the Dust Bowl occurred as a result of a sudden decline in people migrating into these areas. The percentage of people migrating into the Dust Bowl between the 1920s was approximately 47.3%. During the 1930s, this figure dropped to about 15.5%.

In comparison, the number of people migrating out the Dust Bowl was approximately 38.4% between 1920 and 1930, this increased to 45.6% between 1930 and 1940. Researchers also suggest that the so-called “Dust Bowl migrants,” who faced the resentment that we often see towards newcomers, were not more likely to move to California than migrants from any other part of the country.

Researchers claim their working paper is the first attempt to systematically measure gross migration during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

Some draw parallels between the Dust Bowl and the current refugee crisis in Europe. In fact, Thomas Friedman famously linked Syria’s drought with growing political instability (paywall).

In the last few years, scientists have been calling on the world to act on the US to act on “the next Dust Bowl“—droughts much worse than the one that struck the US in the 1930s is set to hit Mexico and Central America. These “mega droughts” will put millions of people at risk and they will most likely do what others like themselves have done so in the last few centuries: find a new home.