World War II: Japanese-American Internment Entrenched Economic Inequality for 50 Years, Study Finds

Japanese-American Internment camp
A bird's-eye view of grounds from the guard tower at the Manzanar War Relocation Center in California, in this 1943 handout photo. Japanese-Americans relocated to camps often stayed nearby after their release. Ansel Adams/Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-A35-4-M-10/Handout/Reuters

The World War II internment of Japanese-Americans in desolate prison camps across the United States has had sweeping effects on the economic status of internees and their children, a study has found.

The government forced more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans to leave their homes following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and sent them to 10 camps across seven states: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming. The camps were all in similarly bleak locations, though some were closer to wealthy areas than others.

According to a new paper, "The Causal Effect of Place: Evidence from Japanese-American Internment," by Harvard economist Daniel Shoag and Nicholas Carollo, a Ph.D. candidate in economics at the University of California, the economic condition of Japanese-Americans before the war was fairly uniform.

But following the end of internment in 1945, researchers found that many internees stayed near the site where they'd been locked up rather than returning home, due both to housing shortages and a fear of racial enmity.

The opportunities available to the internees in different areas meant that those in wealthier regions did better than those in poorer regions—and the inequality generated was also passed to their children, the study found.

"Internment is a tragic period in American history," said Shoag in a press release, "There was some random component to where people were imprisoned, and yet these randomly assigned locations had a big impact on people. It affected the lives of the internees in every single economic outcome you can think of—income, education, housing, socioeconomic status, all sort of things, and their descendants as well."

Those who were interned in wealthier regions earned more, lived in better housing and were more likely to complete a college education and work in high-status careers after release than their peers who were packed off to poorer places.

The effects lasted for decades: In 1980, Japanese-Americans who'd been placed in the poorest camp earned 17 percent less than those placed in the richest.

"People do get stuck," Shoag said, "and this has consequences for future generations."

In addition to serving a historical purpose, Shoag's research, he believes, is useful for contemporary policymakers debating the placement of refugees in America. "There have been discussions about allowing refugees into the country, maybe sending them to depressed parts of the country to bolster population," he said. "But when you send a refugee family to a low-income place, that is going to have a huge impact on them, their families and their future generations."