The social safety net: Attitudes and values

The Pew Global Forum highlights a hefty paper by some folks at the New America Foundation (.pdf here) today on Americans’ attitudes towards the social safety net. There are enough facts in it that trying to summarize it here would be futile, but you can probably guess the results. Americans are less supportive of programs for the poor than their European counterparts. One of the most striking revelations is how much Republican support for taking care of those who cannot take care of themselves has declined, since the Reagan administration, but perhaps more interesting, since the end of the George W. Bush administration. Somehow, being in the biggest recession that most of us can remember led those who identify as Republicans to think we should support the poor less.

I won’t say I’m not baffled.

Though the study does not go into it, part of this likely has to do with the increased distaste for the national debt, a war that is raging in Congress right now with little end in sight. I’m not going to enter that fray or even link to the madness because I think it’s ludicrous and irresponsible, but you can google “debt ceiling” and see for yourself, if you like.

Reading the Pew survey reminded me of a conversation I had with my dad about Social Security. He’s eligible to collect benefits and is trying to decide whether to get on the rolls now or wait. He’s afraid that means testing will be implemented and then he will not be eligible, but starting to collect also means that he will not be able to work one or two days a week as he has done since he retired. Means testing turns Social Security into one of the programs for people who cannot take care of themselves, and if Pew is right, support for it will dramatically drop. Many of my father’s generation seem to be of the mindset that “I paid into Social Security; it’s my right to collect,” while many of my generation see a small chance of Social Security existing into the future (rightly or wrongly), and perhaps have tended to write off that portion of our incomes.

There is a lot more in the NAF report about the intersection of value and attitudes. It is worth a read.

The cutting edge of social norms research

At the conference in London last week, more than a few people were curious about who is doing work on social norms and in what contexts. The simplest answer is that Betsy Levy Paluck, Princeton professor of psychology and my coauthor on a piece about reducing gender-based violence, is working at the forefront of this research. Read pretty much anything by her if you want an idea of things that are going on.

Last year, a World Bank blog post declared social norms to be one of the most exciting areas of research for development, but there’s still a lot of confusion about what exactly social norms are. In our work last week, we heard many wanting to conflate social norms with societal norms or cultural norms.

From the issues paper Laurie Ball Cooper and I presented in London (2012):

Norms are often defined as models or patterns, and societal norms are often defined as the customary rules that govern behavior in a given community (Geertz, 1973). By contrast, social norms are “individuals’ perceptions about which attitudes and behaviors are typical or desirable in their community” (Paluck and Ball, 2010; Cialdini and Trost, 1998). This definition is derived from an extensive social psychological literature focusing on social norms as “socially shared definitions of the way people do behave or should behave” (Paluck, 2007; Miller, Monin and Prentice, 2000). Social norms include both descriptive norms (perceptions about behaviors that are common in the community) and injunctive norms (perceptions about which behaviors are desirable in the community) (Prentice, 2008; Cialdini, Reno, and Kallgren, 1990). Individual attitudes and beliefs can be distinguished from these community-oriented concepts of norms: attitudes are individuals’ “evaluative stance toward the self or something in the environment,” and beliefs include “understandings (thought of as factual) of the self or something in the environment” (Paluck and Ball, 2010).

Social norms research is starting to appear in more and more venues. A paper I mentioned briefly in this space examined the intersection between social norms and inheritance laws. This paper reflects how legal reform must take into account local context if it hopes to effect change. The inheritance reform had particularly significant effects because it interacted with the social norm that fathers provide for their sons in Ghana. And a recent World Bank working paper examines corruption through the lens of social norms.


Ball Cooper, Laurie, and Erin K Fletcher. “Reducing societal discrimination against adolescent girls: Using social norms as a tool for behavioral change.” DFID Adolescent Girls technical paper. October 2012. (Available December 2012, hopefully).

Cialdini, R. B., L.J. Demaine, B.J. Sagarin, D.W. Barrett, K. Rhoads, and P.L. Winter (2006). “Managing social norms for persuasive impact.” Journal of Social Influence, 1(1), 3-15.

Cialdini, Robert B., Carl A. Kallgren, and Raymond R. Reno (1991), “A Focus Theory of Normative Conduct: A Theoretical Refinement and Reevaluation of the Role of Norms in Human Behavior,” in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 24, ed. Leonard Berkowitz, San Diego: Academic Press, 201–34.

Miller, D. T., B. Monin, B., & D.A. Prentice (2000). Pluralistic ignorance and inconsistency between private attitudes and public behaviors. In D. J. Terry and M. A. Hogg (Eds.), Attitudes, behavior, and social context: The role of norms and group membership. pp. 95- 113. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Paluck, Elizabeth Levy, and Laurie Ball (2010). “Social norms marketing aimed at gender based violence: A literature review and critical assessment.” New York: International Rescue Committee.

Paluck, E.L. (2007). “Reducing Intergroup Prejudice and Conflict with the Media: A Field Experiment in Rwanda.” Yale University.

Prentice, Deborah A. (2008). “Mobilizing and Weakening Peer Influence as Mechanisms for Changing Behavior: Implications for Alcohol Intervention Programs.” In Prinstein, M.J., & Dodge, K.A. (Eds.). Understanding Peer Influence in Children and Adolescents. New York: Guilford Press.

The unit of analysis

Bill Easterly put a quote on his non-blog yesterday from a Jane Jacobs book, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, (now almost 30 years old) on the unit of analysis in development questions. It makes a case for considering other units of analysis than the nation.

Nations are political and military entities… But it doesn’t necessarily follow from this that they are also the basic, salient entities of economic life or that they are particularly useful for probing the mysteries of economic structure, the reasons for rise and decline of wealth.

As a labor economist, I’m kind of surprised that it’s still an issue, but it seems necessary to reiterate even 30 years after Jacobs brought it up in her book. Though Easterly and Jacobs were talking about wealth and economics in particular, I think the insight is relevant for all kinds of decision making, and especially important when we’re talking about social norms (yes, I’m on a social norms kick–it doesn’t help that a friend told me last night that all my research was boring except for the social norms stuff. I’m here all night, folks).

At the risk of sounding like an echo, I was a bit taken aback last week how many of the people at the conference wanted to talk about scaling up to national level, how to effect change at a national level, and how to measure national-level social norms (some confusion around the term, here), even while admitting how watered down programs get at that level and how difficult it is to generalize across countries. Research suggests that reform and program implementation at that level are not very compatible with leveraging social norms for behavioral change due to lack of identification with the relevant social group (the nation).

Examining a different “why” in development, aid, and girls

I was in London last week at the behest of the Nike Foundation and DFID for what I’m told was a very unique event, the first of its kind, on the status of adolescent girls in the world. It was a whirlwind couple of days with lots of amazing conversations, lots of confusing conversations, and lots of learning. My coauthor and I were both struck by the tremendous amount of experience and wealth of knowledge around that room. I could not have fathomed anything like it before getting on a plane to the UK.

It was definitely the first time I’d ever been in a room like this. 70 people from various development agencies–both funding and programmatic–people who work in the field, people who work in development administration and a few like me, who work with numbers and evidence and research.

At the end of it all, I was totally exhausted. By the time we even finished our first dinner, I was curious as to whether I would make it through the rest of the week, but I left with a much greater sense of the work that is being done and the challenges of implementing the kinds of programs and collecting the data I study. I hope that practitioners also left with some insight into how they can make my job of evaluating easier.

Given that the work we produced for this conference was on using social norms to reduce societal discrimination against girls, I spent a lot of time this week thinking about the “why?” I don’t mean the “why are we here?” or “why are we doing this kind of research?” I think the community convened this week has a very clear idea of why they think this research is important, though I think they have a harder sell to some of those that fund it. I mean the why rather in a sense of why does this work? And why doesn’t it work? I think a lot that was discussed is about “what works” and “how should we proceed” and the other why is actually very important if we’re concerned about expansion, replication, and scale.

What works is only so useful a question in development if you are looking at comparable populations, comparable implementers, comparable geographies, and similarly changing economies. That’s almost impossible. But if we can say this works, and this works because of they way it interacts with more global phenomena–like desire to conform to a group, or desire not to be embarrassed–, that helps us figure out how to take it somewhere else. Because then the question of how to effect the same behavior change in another environment becomes not “what worked over there?” but rather “how does the mechanism through which we achieved change there come to work over here?”

I grant that it’s a more complicated question. And it may seem silly coming from me compared to someone with decades of experience in the field, but I do think there are big contributions to come from social norms research and other mechanisms. There are several avenues to be explored, but it’s nice to have a bit of a grasp on one of them.

International Day of the Girl

Today is International Day of the Girl, the first Day of the Girl, in fact, as established by the United Nations. My twitter and inboxes are overflowing with tributes to girls, and links citing the value of empowering (one of my least favorite development buzzwords) girls, and reminders to check out various girl-positive campaigns. By coincidence or design, next week, I’m headed to London for a meeting on this very topic with DFID and Girl Hub. A coauthor and I have just finished a paper on using social norms interventions to reduce discrimination against and adverse treatment of adolescent girls. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we find that most programs aren’t studied with the rigor that would lead us be confident in definitive, causal effects. Worse, still, many of the programs we found seem more likely to reinforce social norms that make discriminatory behavior seem common or accepted (such as: people in this community marry off their girl children at an early age), which might justify discriminatory behavior or harmful practices. I cannot share the final product just yet, but hope to be able to by the end of November.

It also happens that today follows the shooting of a child education activist in Pakistan by the very anti-girl Taliban. Fourteen year-old Malala Yousufzai gained notoriety for her anonymous blog on education in Pakistan for the BBC and has become an outstanding spokesperson for gender equality and girls’ education in Pakistan. Former First Lady Laura Bush encourages all to speak out against such violence in the Washington Post and to support girls’ education and safety around the world. The New Yorker calls Malala “the girl who wanted to go to school” and gives a bit more background.

Now that I’ve depressed you, if you’re looking for something uplifting, I suggest reading a Meena comic book (this one, for example: Rosa_meena_Count_your_chickens). The Meena Communication Initiative is a social norms marketing program that’s been in place for almost 15 years all over Southeast Asia. It does a great job of encouraging gender-equitable behavior through community involvement without reinforcing stereotypes or emphasizing the prevalence of discrimination.

Below is a list of a few things I’ve found around the internet today on girls and International Day of the Girl. Updates forthcoming and suggestions welcome. Happy Day of the Girl!

The UN is taking this day to call for an end to child marriage, and World Learning reminds us that despite advances, there’s “still a long way to go.” TrustLaw Women highlights a program by ICWR and CARE-Ethiopia called Gatekeepers, which encourages community members to go door-to-door, educating their neighbors about the health consequences of child marriage.

Inheritance and education as substitutes

The effect of inheritance laws on gender equity is a subject that remains largely understudied; most of the information we have is anecdotal or follows from intuitive reasoning. It makes sense that in places where land ownership is a significant predictor of future outcomes and job opportunities are limited, not owning land (or not inheriting it) would likely lead to worse outcomes. Given that inheritance laws tend to favor male children (and in some cases first-born male children), it stands to reason that women and girls would have the most to lose from disinheritance.

In a twist, a working paper by two Italian economists shows that inheritance actually leads to less investment in schooling, and more investment in health for male children, but not for female children. The paper relies on a policy change in Ghana which changed inheritance from a primarily matrilineal system to a more patrilineal system, leading to more male sons inheriting land from their fathers. The authors show, using a difference-in-difference strategy, that males who were subject to the new laws, and thus more likely to inherit land, eventually obtained one less year of education than boys who weren’t subject to the law. They were also healthier using a height-for-weight z scores, indicating higher investments in nutrition and health, which would be necessary for more efficient working of land.

The argument is that inheriting land/investments in health and education were close substitutes due to the social norm that fathers provided for their sons’ livelihoods. If a father could not provide for his child by giving him land, he could send him to school or set him up with an apprenticeship. Given limited resources, the parents might choose education over investments in health. With inheritance laws favoring sons of fathers, that “over-investment” in education ceases and higher investment in health follows. This is likely only an issue for parents for whom the constraints are binding–i.e., they have a limited amount of resources to spread around. The poorer a family is, the more likely they are to run up against this constraint, and thus the effect of the patrilineal inheritance laws is likely greater for the landowning poor than wealthier landowners.

For girls, the results are somewhat ambiguous, and theoretically, the outcome is difficult to predict. Whether girls are affected by disinheritance of land as a result of the changed law (through lower nutrition and higher education?), is likely closely tied to the social norms regarding providing for girl children. If the social norm is “people in this community (should or do) set up girls to provide for themselves,” as it appears to be for boys, we would likely see such changes in investments. If the social norm doesn’t reflect an obligation to girl children, then the change in inheritance laws shouldn’t have a great effect.

Source: La Ferrara, E. and A. Milazzo (2011) ‘Social Norms, Inheritance and Human Capital. Evidence from a Reform in the Matrilineal System in Ghana’. A preliminary draft.

Peer effects, health behaviors and adolescents

Some months ago I was at a conference, listening to a presentation on breastfeeding initiation and the presenter cited a paper by Fletcher. My first and second thoughts were, “how did that person get my breastfeeding paper?” and then “I didn’t say that in my paper.” Thanks to my trusty smartphone, I went searching for the paper, thinking perhaps my Gettysburg colleague, Jean Fletcher, had actually written it (a source of endless confusion for students, believe me), but found instead that it was Jason Fletcher, at Yale’s School of Public Health. Since then, I’ve run into a number of his papers and today, one came out in the NBER Working Paper series (gated), a paper on adolescent health behaviors and network effects with Stephen L. Ross.

The paper seeks to identify the effect that adolescents’ peers’ choices have on an individual’s health. If that sounds complicated, you’re not alone. Basically, the idea is that we want to know how strongly a child’s friend’s choices affect the child’s choices. The problem of how to causally identify this effect has plagued researchers for some time. In particular, the issue is that ideally, we would want to observe one student’s choices in different peer groups. But even if we can identify an exogenous change in peer groups (or in peer groups’ choices, but most likely through a change in peer group), the change in peer group is generally coupled with a dramatic change in environment as well. For instance, Fletcher and Ross cite one paper that shows that children who move from high-poverty areas to lower poverty areas experience better outcomes. Clearly, their peer group changes because the kids in one area have access to different activities, different stimuli, etc, but also the general environment changes. Mothers of these children report reduced stress, for example, which in and of itself has been shown to improve outcomes for children (or more precisely, children in high-stress living situations have worse outcomes–memory is failing me at the moment, I’ll update when I recall a relevant paper). So, when the environment changes and the peer group changes, it’s difficult to separate out the effects.

Using Add Health, which is a really cool survey instrument, by the way, the authors identify the effect by arguing that there is rather little variation in cohorts within a grade, but friend groups that look similar (on characteristics observable to the researcher)

At any rate, I think it’s a pretty neat identification strategy. It rests on some pretty strong assumptions, primarily that when groups cluster on observable characteristics, they’re unobservable characteristics are also similar, but dissimilar on the characteristics that influence health behaviors. This assumption is a bit problematic, I think, but I’m resolving it in my head by thinking of the insertion of one student with a particular tendency to smoke (his older sister does it, perhaps?) into a peer group in 9th grade, while a similarly made-up peer group in 10th grade doesn’t receive that idiosyncratic shock. Thus, the two groups look pretty similar, but by virtue of being in different grades, they have exposure to different kids and thus end up with different health behaviors.

Neat, no?

One concern I do have, though, is the idea that these friend groups are really that separate. I’m not very familiar with the way Add Health identifies friend groups, but I seem to recall some issues arising for researchers given a) the definition changing, and b) there being a limit on the number of friends that could be identified. From my own experience (clearly the most relevant), there was also a lot of grade mixing of friends in high school, even more so in dating. Sports, off periods, electives, and activities all gave way to friends in classes above and below. I grant that I went to a rather unique high school (billed as a sort of mini college campus), but it seems like it might be even more pronounced in a small schools. The assumptions of separation might be easier to make with middle schoolers, although incidence of averse health behaviors are going to be lower there and perhaps harder to identify.


  1. Jason M. Fletcher and Stephen L. Ross. Estimating the Effects of Friendship Networks on Health Behaviors of Adolescents. NBER Working Paper 18253. July 2012.
  2. Kling, J.R., J.B. Liebman, & L. Katz. (2007). Experimental Analysis of Neighborhood Effects. Econometrica 75(1): 83-119.

No loo, No I do

A few weeks ago, a coauthor sent me a job market paper from an environmental economics student at Yale. Though in a very different department than me, we have similar interests and she thought I would find the paper interesting. Not only did I find it interesting, I found myself wishing it had been my job market paper. Apparently, so did a lot of people. The paper has been blowing up my twitter feed and was featured on the World Bank’s Development Impact Blog.

The paper evaluates the effects of a media campaign in Haryana, India designed to encourage women to make latrine presence a requirement for marriage. The project is particularly interesting because it allows for reasonable evaluation of a campaign targeting social norms without the the randomized control component so in vogue in economics right now. In addition, it provides real evidence as to the causal effect of skewed sex ratios. While we have speculated and reported on the effects of sex ratios, many of which I’ve discussed here, there is little statistical evidence. Now, we have some. It’s pretty great.

In summary, the paper shows that men of marrying age are more likely to build latrines when they live in areas with a more skewed sex ratio. Thus, a woman’s bargaining power in demanding a good that has an outsized benefit for her (privacy, sanitation, health) increases when she becomes relatively ‘scarce’ on the marriage market. While this doesn’t discount the other, more undesirable possible effects of a skewed sex ratio (bridenapping, increased violence against women, etc), it is certainly evidence that women are leveraging their bargaining power to improve their outcomes.

In addition, the means to test a social norms marketing campaign are huge. My own work on such campaigns directed at reducing gender-based violence showed the near impossibility of successfully and credibly evaluating their impact. The use of a sex ratio as a (somewhat?) exogenous measure of potential impact is novel, exciting, and I’m sure will be in use by many papers to come. There’s the obvious question of whether it’s plausibly exogenous, but perhaps we’ll save that conversation for another day.

The paper has two parts, one presents a theoretical model to explain the mechanism and the other presents empirical evidence from the program itself to show how a skewed sex ratio has increased women’s bargaining power, at least on this one dimension in Haryana, India. I have some nitpicky comments, like the theory section needs to be more thoroughly explained, or there are square brackets where there should be curly ones, but overall, I think it’s a great paper. It’s kind of wonkish, but you can download the paper here, if you’re interested. Good luck in Chicago, Yaniv!

Trafficking and how to fight it

One of the last things I did in Colorado before moving East was hike Longs Peak (no apostrophe, weird, I know). Longs is one the famous 14ers in Colorado, or a mountain whose summit lies higher than 14,000 feet above sea level. On my way down, I met up with a group who was climbing to raise awareness for an anti-trafficking organization, which warms my heart a little bit.

Whether to include trafficking, and particularly sex trafficking in a review I was working on was a particularly difficult decision. Trafficking is a problem that I feel is pretty understudied. It affects many diverse groups of people, so you don’t see women’s groups jumping on the larger problem–though plenty of them work on sex trafficking–and I don’t think there is much of a consensus on how to combat it. While a good thorough search yields numerous programs, advertising campaigns, raids, plays and more that aim to create awareness of trafficking, there’s not much analysis of their success. And truthfully, it would be very difficult to measure success. If we think domestic violence is an underreported problem that is difficult to measure, human trafficking is all the more so. For that reason, and likely others, economists have a hard time modeling it and so steer clear of it. Maybe I just have a blind spot. If economists haven’t tried to study it, I think it’s understudied.

So, we have no idea whether these work, but the NYT unveiled a collection of global anti-trafficking campaigns that is just really cool. In development work, people talk a lot about including local people in development plans, but it rarely happens as perhaps it should. For programs like these, that attempt to increase awareness or affect social norms, local direction is equally important, and sadly, often equally ignored.

Though I can’t speak to their veracity, the campaigns herein seem to reflect the cultures and unique problems that the countries face around trafficking. I like the Jamaican one, for instance, that equates trafficking to slavery–a historical and close-to-home reference–but encourages the reader to think about the problem in a more nuanced way.

It’s a shame, of course, that there’s no good way to measure the effectiveness of these programs. Or rather, now that they are in place, we cannot easily tell whether their dissemination had any effect on attitudes. The lack of good counterfactuals, the problem of measuring secondary effects versus primary effects, externalities, etc, all make for a nightmare of an econometrics problem. There might be room for good qualitative analysis, but again with the underreporting, etc.

Regardless, the visuals are pretty cool. I highly recommend you check them out.

More of them or more willing to say it?

Today’s NYT had an article on the cities with the highest proportion of gay couples. Interestingly, the list doesn’t include many high-density cities or the well-known gay neighborhoods. The lack of historical data and rapidly changing social norms make it difficult to differentiate between whether there are simply more gay couples living in places like Rehoboth Beach, DE, or whether they’re simply more visible and more willing to disclose their orientation.

While this limitation means we cannot make  statements about the changing demographics in these cities, I think it does say something pretty profound about standards of acceptable social behavior in small towns and, to some extent, all over the country.