Posted on April 5, 2021

Advanced Cognitive Skill Deserts in the US

Brookings Institution, March 24, 2021

Middle schoolers in U.S. counties where fewer adults have advanced cognitive skills seem less likely to develop advanced skills themselves, according to a paper presented at a Brookings Papers on Economic Activity conference on March 25.

In Advanced cognitive skill deserts in the U.S.: Their likely causes and implications, Caroline M. Hoxby of Stanford University maps county-level data from standardized tests to show which regions have higher percentages of adults and children with advanced skills and which areas have lower percentages. {snip}


Hoxby’s data map for adults shows advanced cognitive skills are generally, but not always, most prevalent in counties with colleges, high-tech companies, and other employers requiring advanced skills. These include the areas around Boston, New York City, and Washington, D.C.; coastal Washington state and Oregon; the Salt Lake City area; and, in California, San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles, and San Diego. But they are also prevalent in the so-called “Lutheran Belt” (southern Minnesota and parts of Wisconsin, Iowa, and the Dakotas).

The map shows “advanced cognitive skills deserts” including one that runs through Appalachia (northeastern Mississippi, northern Alabama, northern Georgia, eastern Tennessee, eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, southeastern Ohio, Pennsylvania, and parts of the Carolinas, Virginia, Maryland, and New York), another in the Ozarks, and yet another that runs through inland areas of the South (parts of Louisiana and Mississippi, north Florida, northeastern Georgia, and parts of South Carolina and North Carolina). {snip}

Hoxby concludes that evidence suggests that the scarcity of adults with advanced cognitive skills affects adolescents more than younger children. {snip}


The paper also provides speculative evidence on possible links between advanced cognitive skills, economic fatalism, social trust, and politics. Students who reach the end of high school without acquiring advanced cognitive skills may see little hope for achieving economic security, Hoxby writes. They may resent and distrust intellectual “elites” with better prospects and support politicians who oppose trade and immigration