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.

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Time use and hindsight

I am in the midst of revising a paper that uses a very specific question from the Fragile Families Data set about reading to children. When I began writing the paper, I started looking for evidence with time-use surveys, such as the American Time Use Suvey (ATUS) which asks participants to record everything they do and for how many minutes on two given days (a weekday and a weekend, usually). I noticed, particularly at the PAA meetings this Spring, that there was a lot of controversy about these surveys. What, exactly, can they tell us about general effects, when we are looking at such a small sample of time for any given individual? More specifically, if we want to examine the effects of a particular policy, how does looking at one individual’s day give us a causal effect of a policy? Time use surveys are incredibly useful for seeing exactly how individual spends his time on any given day, and the possibilities for understanding the dynamics of child-rearing and marriage are far-reaching. The trade-off is that you have no way of knowing whether this is a typical day or not. On average, for the population, if we have a random sample of individuals and days are sufficiently randomly assigned, we should get an idea of what the population does, on average. But asking if a particular impetus leads to a specific behavioral change (for instance, does an increase in income mean you invest more in child’s education) is a little more problematic. The alternative is to ask questions in a survey setting about time-use behaviors without specifying the time. That’s what the Fragile Families does, and the question about how many days per week you read with your child has its own problems. I have long argued that when individuals answer the question, they must do some averaging over time. The question is not “how many days did you read with your child last week” as might be preferred or indicated by the literature on work (did you work last week?), but rather a sort of what do you usually do? I’ve been surprised at how much pushback I’ve received on this matter from discussants and reviewers. Most say the natural model to use is a count model, like negative binomial or Poisson, but I think it makes more sense to use an ordered probit, which allows for 4 to be more than 2, but not necessarily twice as much as 2. I don’t think the reading days answer is as firmly countable and identifiable as something like parking tickets, where a count model is the readily apparent model. I imagine the question is a lot like exercise. Over the weekend, I helped a friend with her match.com profile and one of the questions is how many days a week do you exercise? For some, the answer is absolutely 7, every single day. For others, zero, not lifting a finger. For most, though, I’d guess it varies from week to week. One week, you go every day, the next week is busy at work, so you go less often. Perhaps you go on a whole-day hike and tell me two days instead of one because you don’t want to seem lazy. Thus, when I ask you the question of how many days a week you exercise, you’re not really giving me a straight answer, through no fault of your own. You’re averaging over the last couple of weeks, you’re perhaps adjusting your answer to reflect what you think the surveyor is looking for, and you’re partially giving an impression of how much you value exercise. I’m having a hard time making this same argument regarding time spent with children to discussants and reviewers, and I’m not sure what I’m missing in my explanation to make it more convincing.  

Fun stuff on infant health and taxes

I’m not a huge fan of the US tax code. I think it’s far too complicated and full of ridiculous things you can do to get around paying your taxes. This makes for rent seeking and a huge time suck. That said, I’m always interested in the types of incentives that certain taxes provide to change behavior, particularly when it comes to child health and investments in children. A new NBER working paper examines the relationship between infant health and the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Without having read the paper, my first thoughts are 1) why do we think the EITC would affect infant health specifically? and 2) those are pretty large effects for an increase in income. The authors argue that an exogenous increase in income means mothers will seek out more prenatal care, but it seems that a 10% reduction in the rate of low birth weight babies would require a large portion of the tax credit (increase in income) to go towards prenatal care for most mothers (or all for some and a small amount for others). Maybe they address it later on, but this, too, will make for some good plane and train reading this week.

The abstract is here:

This paper evaluates the health impact of a central piece in the U.S. safety net for families with children: the Earned Income Tax Credit. Using tax-reform induced variation in the federal EITC, we examine the impact of the credit on infant health outcomes. We find that increased EITC income reduces the incidence of low birth weight and increases mean birth weight. For single low education (<= 12 years) mothers, a policy-induced treatment on the treated increase of $1000 in EITC income is associated with 6.7 to 10.8% reduction in the low birth weight rate, with larger impacts for births to African American mothers. These impacts are evident with difference-in-difference models and event study analyses. Our results suggest that part of the mechanism for this improvement in birth outcomes is the result of more prenatal care and less negative health behaviors (smoking). We find little role for changes in health insurance. We contribute to the literature by establishing that an exogenous increase in income can improve health, and illustrating a health impact of a non-health program. More generally, we demonstrate the potential for positive external benefits of the social safety net.

Source: “Income, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and Infant Health.” Hilary W. Hoynes, Douglas L. Miller, David Simon. NBER Working Paper No. 18206, July 2012
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CESifo Conference on Children

I think this looks pretty cool. Call for papers comes due on July 15. And I’ve never been to Germany!

CESifo Economic Studies and UCLS Conference on Families, Children and Human Capital Formation

From 19/Oct/2012 to 20/Oct/2012

Among the issues to be covered include the causes and (short-and long-run) consquences of child health, early-life interventions and events, education and familiy poilicies and divorce (including the role of the family more generally). The keynote lectures will be delivered by Anna Aizer (Brown University) and Kevin Milligan.

Scientific organiser(s):  Matz Dahlberg ,  Eva Maria Mörk and  Anna Sjögren

See call for papers 
Submit a paper
Contact for queries: office@cesifo.de

Chapter 2

I’m going a little out of order here because I’m trying to deal with something random on my first chapter that arose this week.

The second chapter of my dissertation has to do with expectations, incidentally the unifying theme of this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics.

Believe me, I’m not there.

In this chapter, (chapter2_health) I show that a mother’s expectations of financial support from her child’s father influence how she invests in her child’s health. In the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing survey, women are asked a the birth of their child whether the father promised financial support. Around the child’s first birthday, they are asked when the child last went to the doctor and for long they breastfed. Interestingly, the promise of financial support is a significant predictor of whether the last doctor’s visit was in the last three months, but the effect is much more pronounced for black women. For white women, the promise of financial support is a significant predictor of how long a woman breastfed.

When I started this paper, I imagined I would be addressing a simple problem of financial (doctor’s visits) versus non-financial (breastfeeding) investments. The promise of support would make you feel richer and thus more likely to invest where you might feel constrained financially.

It turns out, however, that the effect is much more complicated that. The differences by race, which are largely differences of SES and class given the sampling strategy, indicate that a promise of support likely means very different things to people in different circumstances. The lack of distinction in terms of affecting financial versus non-financial investments also indicates that the question likely has a psychological or cultural angle that is not captured by the question itself.

In short, be careful with questions about expectations.

Vaccines–or the lack thereof

A recently released study in Pediatrics shows that more than 1 in 10 children don’t receive their vaccinations as scheduled by their doctor, and likely as scheduled by the American Academy of Pediatrics. There are indicators that race and class have some bearing on whether parents follow the recommended schedule, but also a strong sense that the decision not to follow a schedule is often made before birth of the child. This may seem unsurprising to some, as often parents discuss and establish how they are going to raise a child before it’s brought into the world, but from an economic standpoint, kind of flies in the face of treating a vaccination as an investment. I am careful, in my research, to include controls for things like current medical insurance or medicaid assistance when it comes to measuring a similar outcome. As economists, it makes sense to assume that the marginal decision of taking the child to the doctor at any given scheduled checkup is subject to financial constraints. But if those decisions are made before the child is even born, then perhaps marginal analysis isn’t the correct way of approaching the problem.