Gavin Wright: Voting Rights Act Brought Major Economic Benefits

tags: economic history, Voting Rights Act, Bloomberg Echoes, Gavin Wright



Gavin Wright is the William Robertson Coe professor of American economic history at Stanford University. He is the author of “Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South.”

The Supreme Court’s rejection yesterday of a central element of the 1965 Voting Rights Act took aim at a measure that not only broke down barriers to political participation in the South but also made significant contributions to the economic wellbeing of black southerners and to the region as a whole.

Some of the economic benefits were apparent almost immediately after enactment. Surveys reported more paved roads and streetlights in black residential areas, better access to city and county services, and increased black hiring in public-sector jobs, including police and fire departments.

A comparative study of North Carolina (where only 40 counties were covered by the act) found that VRA counties recorded greater increases in black voting and elected officials, experienced faster growth in black incomes and occupational status, and attracted more revenue from both county and outside government sources. Recent work by the economists Ebonya Washington and Elizabeth Cascio showed that the elimination of literacy tests in 1965 was systematically associated with an increase in the share of state transfers to counties with higher black populations.

Longer-term economic gains were slower in coming, in large part because the path from registration and voting to fair representation in Southern politics was far from smooth. The initial response of many white-controlled governments was to alter jurisdictions and voting rules to dilute the black vote. It took decades of litigation, reinforced by supportive congressional votes, before the number of black elected officials began to reflect black population shares in the South....



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