VAWA passes!

This is old news by this point, I know. I tell ya, you go to lunch and big things happen. The Violence Against Women Reauthorization bill passed the House of Representatives today in the form passed by the Senate earlier this month. Yay! And given President Obama’s comments, I think we can safely say it will be law soon. I am very disappointed to see that Scott Perry voted against it. I guess he just needs to hear from me more often.

Now, fix the sequester?



As long as we’re talking about violence against women…

It’s VAW week here, it seems. I railed about the Oscar Pistorius trial last week and how it obscures the larger pictures of violence against women in South Africa. As of last night, it seems that the House is ready to (sneakily?) pass the Senate version of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, replete with protection for LGBTQ individuals and college students, and a strengthened ability for trial courts to act within their own borders (call your congressperson). The CDC also released a special report of its violence and victimization data with a focus on gender and sexual orientation. This is huge because national level surveys often don’t provide large enough samples of LGBTQ individuals or victims of violence in general to extrapolate to national level statistics.

Last, but not least, the UNFPA released a pamphlet advertising its commitment to data-gathering on violence against women and girls and gender-based violence. In the era of big data, it’s perhaps hard to believe. But while we may be able to track all of the things you buy and the time you spend driving and how much time you spend on the internet at work instead of working, we know very little about gender-based violence all over the world. In my own field work, perhaps the biggest constraint I found is that there is not a good consensus on how to define violence. UNFPA agrees:

Why is it so hard for the humanitarian community to generate quality data and meet ethical and safety standards?
• Lack of standardization in GBV terminology, data collection tools and incident classification; also, lack of uniformity in how and what data is collected.
If I have to be a brat about it, I’d say what data are collected, but I think the spirit is right. Consensus on what is included in violence and better attention paid to the dangers and pitfall associated with measuring violence against women and girls should be a significant part of the work going forward.

CDC intimate violence report by gender and sexual orientation

For what appears to the be the first time, the CDC has released a report on intimate partner violence separated out by sexual orientation. As most national level surveys that address domestic violence include very limited samples of out LGBT populations, this is pretty huge. After a quick read, the report seems to confirm what we already knew, that lesbian and bisexual women are more likely to have been stalked and experienced rape or physical violence by an intimate partner. While 35% of heterosexual women report one or more of these, 43.8% of lesbian women and 61.1% of bisexual women report the violations. Heterosexual and bisexual women reported mostly male perpetrators (98.7% and 89.5%), while lesbian women reported mostly (67.4%) female perpetrators.

Bisexual men also reported higher levels than heterosexual men of lifetime prevalence of rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner, but gay men had the lowest rate. The numbers might surprise you. 29% of heterosexual men report such violations, while 35.0% of heterosexual women did, with the vast majority of both reporting that the offender was of the opposite sex.

It’s important to note that the takeaway message from these findings is not that men and women batter at the same rate. These statistics are well in line with survey results from national level longitudinal studies such as the National Survey on Families and Households in spirit, if not in absolute percentages (underreporting on such surveys is expected). Extensive work on surveys like this repeatedly emphasize that incidence and report of violence are not the same as power and control. While relatively similar numbers of men (~25%) and women (>30%) report light to moderate physical violence, far more women (23.6% of hetersoexual women to 29.4% of lesbian women) than men (13.9%-16.4%)report severe physical violence, including half of bisexual women.


These statistics underscore the disproportionately large role that men play in perpetrating violence, even while it obscures the larger reasons behind it. They also show those in the LGBT community are at much greater risk for violence and stalking by intimate partner, be it a man or a woman, and hopefully calls attention to the need for the House of Representatives to pass VAWA in the form passed with a strong bipartisan majority in the Senate.

I wrote my Congressman

I’m kind of new to this Pennsylvania resident thing. Despite having taught at Gettysburg for a year and a half now, I still pay a lot of attention to Colorado politics, to Venezuelan politics, even to North Carolina politics. However, I’m also a whiz at writing to my representatives in Congress and Senators, and I figure it’s time I do that a little more regularly with the people I voted for (or didn’t vote for) in November.

The Violence Against Women Act is a piece of legislation that’s very close to my heart, having studied it in depth as a graduate student and tried everything in my power to get an economics dissertation out of it. It didn’t fly, but you can bet Scott Perry‘s going to go get a few letters from me this week as the House version makes its way through committees. I thought I’d share his latest response to my letter urging him to pass VAWA in the form the Senate had passed it, which I was surprised to see was rather specific and didn’t commit to a position.

ScottPerryLetterI’m used to getting replies from members of Congress that say something to the effect of, “thanks for your concern and taking time to write,” but this one outlined the VAWA saga for me. It’s just a form letter, I know, (though you can bet I made sure to put the Dr. part in there) but he’s new and he doesn’t seem to have committed to a side yet. Maybe there’s hope.

Write your congressperson!

Update: As I was writing this, Roll Call published a piece saying that the House might actually vote on the Senate version as early as Thursday. Cautiously optimistic?

Children’s health and recall

One of the primary problems with survey research is that it relies on recall of past events. In as much as humans are subject to forgetting things (and we are actually designed to forget things), asking someone about how often they perform an activity or how often something has happened in the past few weeks or how much they paid for something is problematic. This is before we even factor in the cultural norms and expectations around the behavior. We probably exaggerate the things we’re proud of of or that match social norms and downplay the incidence of events we’re ashamed of. Econometrically, we tend to say this kind of error is only a problem if it is systematic. That is, if some people overestimate and some people underestimate (with mean zero and some constant standard deviation), it won’t affect our estimates. However, if everyone underestimates, this causes our parameter estimates to be biased. In simpler terms, we don’t accurately assess the relationship between two variables because we’re missing a lot of information about at least one.

A paper explains this problem as it relates to diarrhea incidence recall by parents and definitions (which also gets me thinking about language, and education, but that’s another post or two or three).

Several methodological issues may have an impact on the incidence rates of childhood acute diarrhea reported by community-based studies. This study was performed to assess the impact of parental recall ability and definition of diarrhea on the estimate of incidence of acute diarrhea. Eighty-four children younger than 40 months were randomly selected and visited every other day for four weeks and the occurrence of diarrhea was registered. On the last day of the study, another visit was performed and the informants were inquired about the occurrence of diarrhea during the previous four weeks. Data gathered during the four weeks were compared to those obtained on the last visit. Additionally, the informants’ definition of diarrhea was investigated and compared to the one adopted by this study. During the observation period, 33 children suffered diarrhea, but only 10 (30.3%) informants reported the occurrence of diarrhea. Although 42.4% of those informants reported that their children had been ill over that period, they did not report diarrhea. Further, 60.6% children who had diarrhea suffered at least one episode in the two weeks prior to the visitation. The same definition of diarrhea used in this study was adopted by 52.1% of the informants inquired. Parental recall is an unreliable method to estimate the incidence of diarrhea and studies with a short interval between the visits should be necessary to correctly evaluate this important health problem. Moreover, assessing the informants’ own definition of diarrhea is a significant contribution to the interpretation of the results.

The rub is that we’re not very good at recalling past events, even when we’re being constantly reminded of them. As a separate, but related question, I wonder whether our ability to recall changes over time, or more specifically, over the course of an intervention. I wonder if the percentage of recall changes when you’ve been a recipient of an education program or a new latrine or whether that percentage stays constant. Depending on what the answer is, it could have a large impact on how we evaluate the effectiveness of health and sanitation interventions.

The South African OJ

I awoke early this morning to a twitter stream full of live tweets from the Oscar Pistorius bail hearing (just a bail hearing, truly, not even a murder trial, what are we in for?), and one grumpy twitterer state-side complaining about it. Does every African correspondent have to live-tweet this trial?, he asked. One of those correspondents responded indignantly that the legions of new twitter followers disagreed with him, perfectly illustrating a collective action problem. Individually, each correspondent is likely to get more attention, more followers, more renown, by live-tweeting the case. Collectively, there’s a ton of overlap in what comes out of that courtroom via any number of news sources. Do we really need all of it? Or, a more pointed question, do we really need all of it when it clearly means neglecting the wealth of other news that is coming out of South Africa?

This whole ordeal reminds me of the trial OJ Simpson for the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend Ron Goldman. I remember the bustle around cameras in the courtroom. I have a distinct memory of Johnnie Cochran screaming in verse “The glove does not fit; you must acquit.” I don’t know if that memory comes from 1995—when I surely should have been in school—or if it was from later years of my brother practicing either his lawyering skills or his comedy routine. That trial was weirdly formative for both of us. I study intimate partner violence and he’s studying to practice criminal defense. But I digress.

The coverage of the Pistorius case is alarming and problematic for many of the same reasons the OJ SImpson case was. It’s about him; it’s never about her. In an early article on the murder of Reeva Steenkamp in the New York Times, her name didn’t appear until the 8th graf.

The eighth. Poor woman was murdered and she’s relegated to the sideshow. And so it is with the some 55,000 women who report rape every year in South Africa. With the approximately 2000 women who die every year at the hands of their partners, husbands, and boyfriends.

Meanwhile, Mr. Narcissistic showman will get to spend months telling the world what an upstanding guy he is and how much he loved his girlfriend.

I know the response to this will be the knee-jerk reaction of “surely more attention on the case will lead to more attention on this issue of domestic violence.” Perhaps, but I don’t think it’s the good kind of attention. It’s the kind of attention that leads people to talk in secret about their neighbors’ fights, but never call the police. It’s the kind of attention that makes a clearly dysfunctional relationship look run of the mill, happy, even, and thus perfectly normal. It’s the kind that glorifies the accomplishments of the accused in a fall-from-grace-surely-he-couldn’t-have scenario which minimizes the gravity and prevalence of violence and encourages the shaming of help-seekers. My research, and that of many others, shows that unless you normalize and encourage help-seeking, even reeling off all those stats that I did above only makes the behavior seem normal, even accepted, intensifying the shame and dangers associated with reporting.

As far as I can tell, this bail hearing is not about putting domestic violence on trial. The media coverage is not about exposing the total lack of response by authorities to a national problem. None of it is about normalizing help-seeking. It’s about a fallen hero (though whose hero, I’m not sure). It’s sensationalizing the story of a “wronged lover” when the true victim cannot tell her story. It is normalizing domestic violence, the idea that what happens in my home is none of the world’s business.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this trial will result in a national reawakening to the incredible problem that South Africa has with domestic violence, boasting some of the highest rates in the world of intimate partner injuries and killings. Maybe it will prompt more funding for programs and soap operas with a message like Soul City, or better yet, more evaluation, so we can figure out what they’re doing well and how to replicate them. Maybe we could use some of that redundant labor in the courtroom to do just that.

Academia and the Public

Over the past year and eight months or so, I’ve spent a lot more time on twitter than I ever thought I would. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about economics, academia, teaching, women, families, violence, children, marriage, and history than I could have ever imagined as a first-year Ph.D. student. I think that’s why they call this thing called academia a choice to “live the life of the mind,” though I’m not sure that’s entirely an accurate representation at all. With such a defined, rigid path ahead of us, it’s often difficult to imagine anything outside of the trajectory: get a tenure-track job, publish, get pre-tenure, publish, get tenure, publish, get to full professor.

Perhaps it’s the tenuous nature of my position, or perhaps it’s the myriad articles passed my way that decry the future of education, but getting off that path, deviating from it, or expanding it in some way are things I think about often. The public role of academics, sharing their research or influencing policy, or stepping outside the tower, is a constant subject of conversation and visible form of work supported by an online community I have had the pleasure of diving into over the last year or so. It is full of so many amazing individuals, I know I haven’t even begun to explore its depths. Some are academic, some are not. Some are recovering academics, some got a Ph.D., but never took the teaching route, and some remain blissfully ensconced in anonymity. Some are women, most are not. Some are in my field, many are not. All of them, however, make me think every day about the public role of an academic. In the face of increasing education costs, “free” alternatives, attacks on the value of a well-rounded education, and the nagging thought that somehow this house is going to all fall down around us, they make me think and write more deeply about what I do and why it’s important.

All of this is my roundabout way of saying that I’m grateful to be at an institution where there are professors and administrators willing to engage the public about the future of education and about their own research. Gettysburg’s president, in particular, is very vocal, often writing for the Huffington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education. This week, a Gettysburg College history professor has a piece in the New York Times. It’s sponsored, and partially with the goal of maximizing exposure for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, but at least they’re reaching out. I don’t always agree with them, but I think it’s great. I’m finding myself more and more invested in the role of academics as public intellectuals, especially women.

So many NBER papers I want to read today

Good thing I’m traveling this afternoon. (All gated, sorry.)

  1. Long-Term Neighborhood Effects on Low-Income Families: Evidence from Moving to Opportunity Abstract: We examine long-term neighborhood effects on low-income families using data from the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) randomized housing-mobility experiment, which offered some public-housing families but not others the chance to move to less-disadvantaged neighborhoods. We show that 10-15 years after baseline MTO improves adult physical and mental health; has no detectable effect on economic outcomes, youth schooling and youth physical health; and mixed results by gender on other youth outcomes, with girls doing better on some measures and boys doing worse. Despite the somewhat mixed pattern of impacts on traditional behavioral outcomes, MTO moves substantially improve adult subjective well-being.
  2. New Evidence on the Impacts of Access to and Attending Universal Childcare in Canada Abstract: In Canada, advocates of universal child care often point to policies implemented in Quebec as providing a model for early education and care policies in other provinces. While these policies have proven to be incredibly popular among citizens, initial evaluations of access to these programs indicated they led to a multitude of undesirable child developmental, health and family outcomes. These research findings ignited substantial controversy and criticism. In this study, we show the robustness of the initial analyses to i) concerns over whether negative outcomes would vanish over time as suppliers gained experience providing child care, ii) concerns regarding multiple testing, and iii) concerns that the original test measured the causal impact of childcare availability and not child care attendance. A notable exception is that despite estimated effects stemming from the policy indicating declines in motor-social development scores in Quebec relative to the rest of Canada, our analyses imply that on average attending childcare in Canada leads to a significant increase in this test score. However, our analysis reveals substantial heterogeneity in program impacts that occur in response to the Quebec policies and indicates that most of the negative impacts reported in earlier research are driven by children from families who only attended childcare in response to the implementation of this policy.
  3. Profitability of Fertilizer: Experimental Evidence from Female Rice Farmers in Mali Abstract: In an experiment providing fertilizer grants to women rice farmers in Mali, we found that women who received fertilizer increased both the quantity of fertilizer they used on their plots and complementary inputs such as herbicides and hired labor. This highlights that farmers respond to an increase in availability of one input by re-optimizing other inputs, making it challenging to isolate the returns to any one input. We also found that while the increase in inputs led to a significantly higher level of output, we find no evidence that profits increased. Our results suggest that fertilizer’s impact on profits is small compared to other sources of variation. This may make it difficult for farmers to observe the impact of fertilizer on their plots, and accordingly this affects their ability to learn about the returns to fertilizer and could affect their decision to adopt even in the absence of credit constraints.

Correlation is not Causation, clearly

Repeat after me:

Internet Explorer vs Murder Rate Will Be Your Favorite Chart Today

We discussed causation and correlation in my Methods class this morning. I generally use the ice cream sales and murder rates example, but since this has been floating around the internet lately, I figured I would throw it in. It got a few chuckles out my class, from those who also wanted to insist that ice cream made people deranged and thus more likely to murder someone, but a good reminder nonetheless. A regression of murder rates on ice cream sales or internet explorer market share will have a positive and statistically significant coefficient estimate, but it doesn’t mean that either is causing more murders to occur.


Why study social sciences?

Monkey Cage Blog has a great post up in response to criticism of his exhortations to study social sciences. He makes a broad argument about the validity of social science research because it has effects on the way that people live their lives. To be selfish for a moment, he highlights some important questions that I examine every day:

Families.  What makes families more or less successful?   What makes marriages more successful?  What makes them fail?  What are the effects of divorce?  Does it hurt the children of divorce?  How much, in what ways, and for how long?  A medical doctor can treat the effects of family dysfunction and divorce—say, with anti-depressants or therapy and so on—but we can learn and know more about how to prevent some of this dysfunction from doing social science.

The post is really about funding for social science research rather that defending my everyday work. It’s also not really about teaching undergrads social sciences, but clearly, we have train undergrads in social sciences if we eventually want some of them to do research in the social sciences. I think there’s a point to be made about how learning about these wide-reaching social phenomena—families, schools, economies, politics, attitudes, networks and norms—forces students to think about cause and effect in a nuanced way. When it’s not clear how X might affect Y or how Z has effects on X that in turn effect Y, it takes creativity and imagination and critical thinking to sort it out. It’s not that social sciences can do this exclusively, but the nature of the topics student lends itself to varied analysis and the development of skills that are useful in many careers.