Cognitive effects of poverty

A new paper by Anandi Mani, Sendhil Mullainathan, Eldar Shafir, and Jiaying Zhao shows some pretty profound effects of poverty on cognition and decision making. The paper says that poverty is equivalent to pulling all-nighters in terms of its effect on your ability to perform routine tasks and make good decisions. It reminded me of a conversation I had with Mark Hecker, director of Reach, Inc., a nonprofit working on literacy in DC, about children who’ve been abused. He asked me to think about that feeling of indigence and anger that shoots up when someone bumps into you. It’s startling, difficult to process, and affects everything we do next. Children who’ve suffered abuse feel that way all the time, which puts additional stress on them to make good decisions, to concentrate in school, and more.

It’s a good reminder that putting ourselves in someone else’ shoes is often impossible; someone who has grown up middle class never worrying about money is not going to approach large expenditures the same way that someone who grew up poor will. Analyzing decision making of poor and disadvantaged individuals is subject to so many more constraints that we realize.

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Reading to girls

An Atlantic piece today outlines some current research that is very much in line with my own.

The researchers found a gender difference in what they call “teaching activities” that build cognitive skills in children as young as nine months old. Girls, not boys, in all three countries received more time from parents on three activities: reading, storytelling, and teaching letters and numbers. Baker and Milligan scrutinized data for first-born children, to control for differences arising when parents slack off after baby number two or three arrives. They also examined parents’ time spent with boy-girl twins and again found boys receiving less time than girls on the three teaching activities.

I’ve found a small, but statistically significant difference in the amount of time parents spend reading to girls at ages one, three, and five as part of a paper focused on relationship quality and investments in children.

They’ve got a very economist-y explanation for the behavior: “It is just more costly to provide a unit of reading to a boy than to a girl because the boy doesn’t sit still, you know, doesn’t pay attention,” Michael Baker told NPR (on his research with Kevin Milligan).

Costs are not just about money, people.

More on adolescent girls, because, yeah

I just realized that I never shared this work with you all. This post was written almost four months ago, but I think it’s still relevant. And even more so now as the papers are all live on the Girl Effect website. I hope you enjoy it!

My coauthor and I spent the last week finishing up our issues paper on adolescent girls for DFID and the Nike Foundation. It’s been this super crazy, whirlwind kind of project where I’ve learned so much and met so many amazing people. It’s exciting, but it sure was exhausting. I’m really excited to be able to share our findings, here they are!

So, what do we find? For the most part, programs that seek to use social norms to reduce societal discrimination against adolescent girls aren’t very well-studied. With the exception of a very small number of programs, both quantitative and qualitative analysis are lacking; overall there has been little effort to sufficiently randomize participants and perform rigorous pre- and post-intervention analysis. Thus the ability to causally identify statistically significant effects of these programs is incredibly limited.

There are a few rays of light, however. We found three programs–Tostan, Meena Communication Initiative, and Promises–that promote gender-equitable behaviors and discourage violence and discrimination against adolescent girls using social norms language or methods. All three of these programs employ multifaceted interventions. That is to say that while each has a goal of reducing discrimination or ending FGM/C, the actual process includes community conversations, social norms marketing through popular culture medium such as comic books and television shows, community declarations, school programming and more.

It seems that this is the way programs in the developing world are going. Recently, Markus Goldstein posted about his new paper on a child club program to promote the status and welfare of adolescent girls in Uganda. Though it doesn’t seem to have a strong social norms component, ELA is multifaceted, and thus multi-outcome.

In terms of sexual behavior, the girls who participate in the clubs show significantly better HIV and pregnancy knowledge than the control group.   They are also 12.6 percentage points more likely to report always using a condom when they have sex (which matches up with a reduction in those reporting often or occasional use of a condom).   They also experience a striking reduction in fertility – at follow up, treatment girls are 2.7 percentage points less likely to have a kid (26 percent of the baseline mean).   Now since they also report no increase in use of other forms of contraception, these things taken together strongly suggest that they are markedly reducing their risk of exposure to HIV.

My favorite part of reading this paper was this interactive effect. It’s very cool and I think will provide an strong template going forward for programs that wish to engage communities and have profound, lasting effects. Both Markus’ research and ours suggest that the narrowly focused, difficult-to-replicate, difficult-to-scale-up RCTs such as those heralded in Poor Economics and More Than Good Intentions have some growing to do.

Lean In, Dad, if you can

I’m in that period of my life where my friends are starting to have babies. The wedding invitations that filled my mailbox up until last year have been replaced with baby announcements and family photos. It’s hard to believe that I have no weddings to attend this year. Like an actual zero.

I’m not sure if it’s the labor economist in me, but I ask pretty much everyone what their parental leave policy is. How much time are you taking off? How much time is your partner taking off? How much is paid, how much is unpaid? I just learned Gettysburg offers a one-course reduction for “secondary caregivers” (I must say, I do like the gender neutral language, even if it is implied that the dad is the secondary). There are all sorts of restrictions about when you can take it and how often, because I’m sure that parents are going to time their childbearing to maximize the number of classes they can get out of (no, they’re not; that’s ridiculous). Sometimes people just offer the information:

The fact remains that there isn’t a lot of support for two-parent caregiving, at least in this country. I am impressed, though, with how many of my male friends and colleagues have taken time off, even if unpaid, and have taken the time to actually caregive, as opposed to using it for personal or professional gain. 

Catherine Rampell has an op-ed in the NYT today on increasing parity among caregivers’ leave policies. She suggests that parental leave, or rather paternal leave, is an important aspect of not only equity in the workplace and ensuring that we continue to chip away at the gender pay gap, the glass ceiling, and other forms of discrimination. In addition, she suggests that mere exposure to full-time caregiving in the early stages of a child’s life might lead to more equitable distribution of household and caregiving work as the child ages. It’s actually a big deal!

This might not sound like such a big deal, but social scientists are coming around to the notion that a man spending a few weeks at home with his newborn can help recast expectations and gender roles, at work and home, for a long time. A striking new study by a Cornell graduate student, Ankita Patnaik, based on a new paid paternity-leave quota in Quebec, found that parents’ time use changed significantly. Several years after being exposed to the reform, fathers spent more time in child care and domestic work — particularly “time-inflexible” chores, like cooking, that cut into working hours — than fathers who weren’t exposed to the reform. More important, mothers spent considerably more time at work growing their careers and contributing more to the economy, all without any public mandates or shaming.

Perhaps the most amusing part of the article is that the comments section is filled with screeds against “procreators.” Yes, I get it. The planet has a lot of people on it and you’ve made a personal decision not to procreate. But, two things. One, individuals don’t make the decision to put hundreds of thousands of dollars into a child because they’re going to get two weeks off. If you think that, you need to take an economics class. And two, if you want to reduce population growth, donate to programs that work to educate children, improve access to contraception and family planning services, reduce child mortality, and give young women jobs, all of which are actually proven to reduce fertility rates.

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.

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.

A rant on fertility rates and other nonsense

Amid the great twitter shutdown of Thursday morning, I inadvertently got myself into my first twitter fight. I’m still not entirely sure how we got to the point of this person, previously unknown to me, accusing me of believing that condoms were not a form of conception, but I think it had to do with her not reading a post of mine from last year.

When it ended, we somehow were talking about the US fertility rate. I was trying to make that point that if only 1% of women of child-bearing age in the US were pregnant, trying to get pregnant or breastfeeding, we would have far fewer than 4 million babies born per year, while she wanted to insist the the right wing agenda was fighting abortion in order to increase the fertility rate of whites.

We were clearly talking past each other. Nonetheless, I thought of the conversation Saturday morning when a friend forwarded me this “the world is coming to an end because white women in the US aren’t having babies” article from the WSJ. There are so many things wrong with this piece, starting with the inherent racism (the fertility rate may be 14/1000 inhabitants, but it’s the immigrants who are having babies, which is going to wipe us out), to the misuse of statistics (I’m not sure how a slight increase in fertility constitutes “sinking like a stone,” but hey, I’m not a statistician or demographer or economist or anything…oh, wait…).

The set of solutions proposed by the author are equally problematic and short-sighted. While I admit that universities are in need of reform and education is too expensive, I am flummoxed by the observation that we should send fewer people to college. Apparently, fewer people (read: women) in college means people will have more babies which means more people paying taxes. Women leave college or the workforce to get pregnant or take lower wage jobs so that we can have more tax revenue? I’m confused. Despite the apparent appeal to the mercantilists who wanted to keep people poor so they would work hard, it goes entirely counter to his contention that we need people to be innovative and entrepreneurial. How do you expect people to be innovative if you don’t let them receive training in what’s already been done? Besides, I think the idea that we’re innovative because our population is growing is backwards. We don’t need more people in order to be more innovative, we need more efficient and effective use of taxpayer dollars to incentivize discovery, to provide opportunities, and to care for people who cannot take care of themselves.

Further, nowhere does the author promote pro-child policies that don’t utilize the tax code. There’s no talk of parental leave or support (such as expanding the Family Medical Leave Act, which just turned 20), child care, or other pro-parent policies. There’s no talk of improving public schools, so that having a child in a place like Chicago or New York isn’t subject to the constraint (held for some, not all) to be able to pay for private school.

Sisters and Partisanship

Andres Marroquin highlights a recent paper on his blog regarding the presence of sisters and its effect on political leanings and attitudes toward gender roles. The paper is clear, concise, seems statistically sound, and declares confidently that “having sisters causes young men to be substantially more likely to identify as Republicans and to express conservative viewpoints, particularly with regard to gender roles.”

In some ways, this outcome is counter intuitive. My initial thought was that having sisters should lead to a less rigid adherence to traditional gender roles because caring about one’s siblings means you would like them to be free to live their lives as they pleased, etc.

Oh, folly.

The paper does expand upon this more, but I don’t think it does a really good job of explaining the effect it actually finds. The result is not really that having a sister makes you more conservative, it’s rather likely that when boys have sisters and their parents reinforce typical gender roles by assigning gender-specific chores or other means, men are more conservative. It’s a more nuanced outcome and not as shocking, but it’s the more correct way to view it, I think. The paper is sold as a departure from the “parents influence children” literature and its contribution as “siblings influence each other,” but they don’t provide a clear mechanism for how the siblings actually influence each other outside of how the parents influence the children.

Statistically, having a sister might mean you are more conservative, but that doesn’t mean that boys with sisters will automatically be more conservative. There is still likely significant room for parental influence in establishing (or bucking) gender roles.

Totally don’t get Amazon’s pricing schemes

About a week ago, I visited a friend and colleague in DC and got to meet her beautiful baby boy. While I and another friend played and cooed and giggled, my friend raved about a baby mobile (Wimmer-Ferguson Infant Stim-Mobile). The baby loved it, she loved it, her husband loved it and apparently it made everyone in her household happier. Since my college roommate welcomed the arrival of her fourth little one a few weeks ago, I decided to send her a “hey you made it through three weeks with four kids” present and what better gift than one that will totally enrapture an infant for multiples of minutes, like even tens of minutes. Peace and quiet? Yes, please.

Another good friend is due this month, (yes, it’s the year of babies, and I’m behind, sorry y’all!) and I thought, well, the mobile’s two for two, why not send it to V as well? Last Friday, I went to buy it and imagine my surprise when the price on Amazon went up by $2.64 between this week and last week. A more than 10% increase in the price of the good when I’m buying the second one? While I can’t say that I’m seeing different prices based on my purchases (if so, I just guaranteed higher prices by declaring it’s the year of babies on my blog), it does seem odd that the price would go up on something I had just purchased. I was in such a principles of micro frenzy at the moment: Marginal benefit is decreasing! Willingness to pay falls as the number of goods increases. Why aren’t they charging me less, not more? That’s what the law of demand says, #goshdarnit.

That’s flawed thinking, of course. If they are actually offering me a different price based on my buying history, and I’m going back for another one, the first one probably already proved its worth (a chorus of “I love it” from my college roommate is what prompted me to look again for V), and so perhaps now I’m willing to pay more for it.

If that didn’t confuse me enough, I got over my mini-fit enough from the other day to go back and buy it regardless of the price increase, and it was back down again, within a few cents of what I had paid the first time.

One savvy small-business owner friend suggested that Amazon might be trying dynamic pricing to determine the best price for the product. That is perhaps even more fascinating than them trying to charge individuals different prices based on their purchase history or demographics. They did some of this before, denied it, and got in trouble for it, back in 2000, if you didn’t remember. Then, they were accused of charging different prices based on demographics, but claimed it was an experiment and totally random, and promised not to do it again.

At my last look, the price is back up on the baby mobile, the highest I’ve seen it. I don’t know what’s going on, certainly something.

Update: I’m not the first to notice this. Apparently, Amazon and other retailers are experimenting with airline-like pricing. h/t @ericmbudd

Update  #2: The New York Times is ON it. h/t @thomaspace

The long-term effects of food stamps

I was so confused yesterday when the NBER email arrived because I didn’t remember it being Monday. Last week just kind of crept into this week and though I’m ready for my mountains and family, I didn’t expect it to come so fast!

A paper on that sells itself as a ray of sunshine in the midst of a bleak and dreary literature on children’s lifelong outcomes from exposure to poverty, maternal stress, fires, and more. And it’s kind of true. The maternal stress/in-utero distress papers seem to be getting a lot of play lately (here’s one). Hillary Hoynes, Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach and Douglas Almond think perhaps we should look at long-run positive outcomes from the things (read: policies and social safety net programs) we can control. The abstract for “Long Run Impacts of Childhood Access to the Safety Net” reads:

A growing economics literature establishes a causal link between in utero shocks and health and human capital in adulthood. Most studies rely on extreme negative shocks such as famine and pandemics. We are the first to examine the impact of a positive and policy-driven change in economic resources available in utero and during childhood. In particular, we focus on the introduction of a key element of the U.S. safety net, the Food Stamp Program, which was rolled out across counties in the U.S. between 1961 and 1975. We use the Panel Study of Income Dynamics to assemble unique data linking family background and county of residence in early childhood to adult health and economic outcomes. The identification comes from variation across counties and over birth cohorts in exposure to the food stamp program. Our findings indicate that the food stamp program has effects decades after initial exposure. Specifically, access to food stamps in childhood leads to a significant reduction in the incidence of “metabolic syndrome” (obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes) and, for women, an increase in economic self-sufficiency. Overall, our results suggest substantial internal and external benefits of the safety net that have not previously been quantified.

I tried to read it on the plane, but was distracted by an early, incorrectly used semi-colon. Yes, that’s enough to make me stop reading a paper (especially after wading through 19 student papers with many incorrectly used semi-colons). I’ll get back it to it later, promise.