Joseph Ferrie

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In the early 1800s, the newly formed state of Georgia had a lot of new land under its control. The land had been taken mostly from the native Muskogee and Cherokee people, and leaders of the young American state were looking for ways to transfer the land to white settlers. What they ultimately decided on was a series of lotteries. 

The forced transfer of property from native people to white settlers was common in America during the 19th century, but the lottery system was not. It meant that basically any white male adult in Georgia, rich or poor, had the same shot at winning a valuable piece of land. And, while the system itself was unjust and just plain wrong on multiple levels, it also set up an ideal research experiment.

If you're a social scientist looking back, what you see in Georgia in the early 1800s isn't just a lottery, it's a randomized controlled trial. And it allows economists to ask a question that's still relevant today: What happens to a family when it suddenly comes into wealth? 

flickr user Biscarotte

Here is a question that is at the core of our work at State of Opportunity: How much of your economic destiny is tied to your parents, and how much do you control?

When scientists try to answer this question, what they’re measuring is something called “social mobility.”

We've been looking into new research that suggests your fate is not just tied to your parents, but to ancestors hundreds and hundreds of years ago. And improving opportunity across generations might be a lot harder than anyone imagined.