Heirs’ Property and Persistent Poverty among African Americans in the Southeastern United StatesThis article is part of a larger document. View the larger document here.
Historically, relatively few African Americans in the Southeastern United States (the “South”) wrote wills; there were few African-American lawyers, and most White lawyers of the courthouse gang did not inspire trust. As a result, upon death, property in the form of homes and land was distributed as undivided shares among surviving kin. As generation followed generation, title to such property became ambiguous or “clouded,” sometimes with scores or even hundreds of claimants. This phenomenon, known as heirs’ property, is an overlooked contributing factor to persistent poverty among African Americans in the South. We identify three factors that we believe connect heirs’ property and persistent poverty: (1) insecurity of ownership; (2) disincentives to make improvements that increase productive use and value of heirs’ property; and (3) the absence of collateral value of property. Using secondary data, we conservatively estimate over 1.6 million acres of heirs’ property having a value of $6.6 billion in counties of the demographically defined Black Belt of the South. We discuss the need for additional research and for policy changes that would make it possible for heirs’ property owners to access programs designed to improve housing conditions and productivity of farmland and timberland.