Job listing of the month

It’s August. Well, almost August. And in Econoland, that means that Job Openings for Economists has come out again after taking its July break. This means the start of the job-hunting season for many, and sure enough, there are already a few positions to be had, or at least applied for. We all know none of these people are making decisions until January or February. Such a long process.

At any rate, I thought this position at Colgate was notable. Mostly, it’s interesting to me because it’s pretty applicable to my field and research interests–gender and economics, but I’m also intrigued to see an economics position posted as really, truly interdisciplinary. My PhD institution has a strong interdisciplinary component, with students melding history and economics, environment and economics, and many professors holding joint appointments with the somewhat unfortunately named Institute for Behavioral Science, but I don’t think that’s the norm. Maybe we’re working our way there.

Shove vs. Nudge vs. None

When I first read about this new paper by a slew of economists including Esther Duflo, it was presented as part of the wave of evidence that has recently come out saying that unconditional cash transfers are just as effective at changing behavior as conditional cash transfers. The primary difference being that monitoring costs were significantly smaller, needier households would be more likely to get assistance, and there would be more flexibility in what individuals will spend the money on, likely, as they’re not being asked to do any one particular activity or investment with it.

It may be a matter of semantics, but I don’t think that this paper is actually making that claim (nor do I think they authors are really making that claim). One of the problems with measuring effects of unconditional cash transfers is that flexibility. Because individuals can spend the money where they deem it most useful or necessary, aggregate effects, or averaged effects tend to be small or even zero. In the simplest of terms, if I give three people $100 and one spends it on new shoes to plow his fields in, one spends it on school fees, and one spends it on hospital bills, the first may have a better crop output, the second may spend more time in school, and the third may be healthier but on average, income, education, and health effects are small for the group. They may all be better off, or perceive themselves as better off, but as they are better off on different metrics, we can’t observe the effect.

This idea of targeting “labeled cash transfers” as opposed to conditional ones or unconditional ones is an attempt at getting to somewhere in the middle. If we label the transfer, it implies it’s for a specific purpose, which means that we should be able to see the effect on a single metric. We know that some individuals will use the cash transfer for something other than what is labeled, but likely compliance will be high without significant monitoring costs.

Overall, though, it’s hard to imagine that recipients don’t imagine they are in some way being monitored. I can’t imagine being handed money, told explicitly it was for school, and then going and spending it on something else. Even if I were up for that, I’d be afraid of getting caught, or not being eligible for a subsequent payment. So, while this program reduces monitoring costs, which are high and probably not very effective, I don’t think this paper shows that unconditional cash transfers are as good as conditional ones, but rather that labeled cash transfers are as good as conditional ones but with fewer costs associated with them.

I also don’t doubt the principle in theory that unconditional transfers are just as good. Basic economic theory says that individuals are rational and though I may doubt that in principle, I’d guess that on average individuals will use additional funds to make themselves better off as it makes sense to them. If someone wants new shoes and someone wants to send their kids to school, and someone needs to pay hospital bills, they likely know better what will increase their own welfare. But I do think an aggregate effect on welfare is more difficult to measure with the unconditional transfers.

Conditional Cash Transfers (CCTs) have been shown to increase human capital investments, but their standard features make them expensive. We use a large randomized experiment in Morocco to estimate an alternative government-run program, a “labeled cash transfer” (LCT): a small cash transfer made to fathers of school-aged children in poor rural communities, not conditional on school attendance but explicitly labeled as an education support program. We document large gains in school participation. Adding conditionality and targeting mothers make almost no difference. The program increased parents’ belief that education was a worthwhile investment, a likely pathway for the results.

Benhassine, Najy, Florencia Devoto, Esther Duflo, Pascaline Dupas, and Victor Pouliquen. Turning a Shove into a Nudge? A “Labeled Cash Transfer” for Education. NBER Working Paper 19227.

Traditional gender roles and marriage quality

This is the second paper I’ve come across recently that attempts to link gender dynamics and understanding of gender roles by heterosexual couples to relationship quality or longevity.

This study examined the implications of gender attitudes and spouses’ divisions of household labor, time with children, and parental knowl- edge for their trajectories of love in a sample of 146 African American couples. Multilevel modeling in the context of an accelerated longitudinal design accommodated 3 annual waves of data. The results revealed that traditionality in husbands’ gender attitudes was linked to lower levels of love. Furthermore, divisions of household labor and parental knowledge moderated changes in love such that couples with more egalitarian divisions exhibited higher and more stable patterns of love, whereas more traditional couples exhibited significant declines in love over time. Finally, greater similarity between spouses’ time with their children was linked to higher levels of marital love. The authors highlight the implications of gender dynamics for marital harmony among African American couples and discuss ways that this work may be applied and extended in practice and future research.

Link is here (gated). Stanik, McHale and Crouter. 2013. Gender Dynamics Predict Changes in Marital Love Among African American Couples. Journal of Marriage and Family 75.

Hunger seasons

This week’s events have reminded me why I don’t want to go back to school. As I struggle through writing an application essay and wonder whether I’m really too old for this, my thoughts turn to grandiose schemes of changing the world.

Last week, a colleague and I were discussing the seasonality of hunger in some farming communities, particularly in East Africa, or Sub-Saharan Africa. I was so pleased with myself, thinking about a “Hunger Season,” and my journalist brain got a little revved about how I could write a book about it, only to find this one: The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change.

My take so far, it’s a little grandiose and self-pat-on-the-back-y, but it’s well written and very well researched. It paints a fascinating and illuminating portrait of subsistence farmers in Kenya, going hungry, seasonally, for just the reasons my colleague and I had been discussing earlier. It’s definitely worth a read.

I hope to finish it this week, if my own grandiose essay writing doesn’t get in the way.