The Progressive Era War on Vice: Public Health Consequences of Closing Red-Light Districts

Grant Goehring, Boston University

Abstract: In the late nineteenth century, many city leaders in the United States established red-light districts to confine prostitution to particular areas of the city. Progressive Era reformers began lobbying against this policy, arguing that the districts made health and crime outcomes worse. This led to the widespread closure of these districts in the 1910s where many sex workers were forcibly removed from their homes. This paper assesses the public health consequences of closing red-light districts using city-level mortality statistics. I find that infant mortality increased by approximately 7% after districts closed. Congenital syphilis was a significant problem during the period, and this finding is consistent with an increase in syphilis transmission rates after districts were closed. Using a proxy for homicides, I find no evidence that homicides increased after closures. Overall, the results suggest the public health concerns raised by reformers were likely overstated, and closing districts may have had the unintended consequence of increasing infant mortality.

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 Presented in Session 80. Government and the Economy