Forced Migration and Human Capital: Evidence from Post-WWII Population Transfers

Sascha O. Becker, Irena Grosfeld, Pauline Grosjean, Nico Voigtländer, Ekaterina Zhuravskaya

NBER Working Papers 24704


This paper examines the long-run effects of forced migration on investment in education, by studying the population transfers of millions of Poles in the aftermath of WWII when Polish frontiers were moved westward. The former Eastern Polish territories (Kresy) became part of the Soviet Union, while the former German areas (the Western Territories) became Polish. The authors combine historical censuses with newly collected survey data to compare Poles with ancestors from Kresy (11 percent of respondents) to all other Poles. They find:

  • While there were no pre-WWII differences in education, Poles with a family history of forced migration are significantly more educated today. Descendants of forced migrants have on average one extra year of schooling, driven by a higher propensity to finish secondary or higher education.
  • Those forced migrants who had likely finished school by the time they were expelled from Kresy (i.e., the cohort born before 1930) do not differ from other Poles in terms of their education. For younger cohorts, there is a significant education advantage for Kresy descendants, even for those born two generations after their ancestors had been expelled.

Excluding other possible mechanisms, the authors suggest that forced migration led to a shift in preferences, away from material possessions and towards investment in transferable human capital; the effects persist over three generations. They support this interpretation by survey evidence, showing that descendants of forced migrants value material goods less, while having a stronger aspiration for education of their children. They also possess fewer physical assets, relative to the number of physical assets they can afford.