Links I liked

The persistence of extreme poverty in the US

Vox had a thought-provoking article last week on people in the US who live on less than $2 per person per day.  It’s adapted from the book of the same title by Kathryn Edin & Luke Schaefer.  They find that millions of Americans (including up to three million children) have months where they live on next to nothing, frequently going hungry and facing homelessness as a result.  The entire article is essential reading.  Here are some of the main points:

  • There’s no clear demographic pattern among people who face extreme poverty.  As Edin says, “It’s racially and ethnically diverse, it’s regionally diverse. You see both married and unmarried couples in this situation.”  However, poverty tends to be worse in rural areas and in the South, where fewer services are available.
  • People want to work, but find it difficult to hold down jobs.  Edin notes that “almost all of these households actually do have workers… You still see these pretty lengthy spells in extreme poverty, but these people are in and out of the low-wage labor market. Seventy percent of them have had a worker in the low-wage labor market in the past year.”  Schaefer adds that “it’s very hard to find a job. The unemployment rate has been very high for low-educated workers for a long time. These folks are at the back of the line.”
  • Social services and family support networks rarely help.  Many eligible households either don’t apply for TANF, or (in some cases) have been told mistakenly that they’re not eligible.  Only a million people in the entire country receive TANF at present, although 15% of the population or 45 million people live below the poverty line.  In addition, few people seem to receive much assistance from their families.
  • People come up with creative ways to access even small amounts of money if they can’t work.  Selling plasma is one of the most common, followed by cashing out food stamps (which cuts the value of the stamps by about half), collecting scrap metal for redemption, and doing sex work.  Selling sex can be a way to access housing or food as well as cash.
  • And my own takeaway: While the availability of formal employment is different, overall this is quite similar to what extreme poverty looks like in countries around the world.  People find various ways of making claims on others in order to access food, shelter, and clothing, or the cash to buy the same.

Perhaps what’s most striking in this context is that, while we do have a wide range of social safety nets, none of them are designed to address this type of poverty. Nor has half a century of prolonged economic growth done much to reduce it.  I came away from this article thinking that it’s one of the strongest claims I’ve yet seen for the value of a universal basic income grant.

Going the last mile in ending extreme poverty

Brookings had an excellent blog series last month on going the last mile to end extreme poverty.  The posts were adapted from a book of the same name which was just released.  I was most struck by Raj Desai’s article on the role that welfare programs played in ending extreme poverty in today’s high income countries.  As he pointed out, when the US, UK, and Germany adopted major welfare programs in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they had the same GDP per capita (in real terms) as India, Indonesia and China do today.  Welfare subsequently played a major role in eliminating extreme poverty in these countries.  So why haven’t today’s middle income countries done the same?

His answer is worth quoting at length.

The earliest social protection programs in Western Europe were of the contributory variety—financed out of taxes on wages—as a way of preventing social conflict. Otto von Bismarck’s pension, sickness insurance, and worker compensation programs were, after all, created to pre-empt a Social Democratic victory in Germany. These systems, combined with the political changes taking place in the continent, would lead to dramatic expansions in social protection in later decades. Even as industrialization initially caused poverty, it also created rising wages for workers. Eventually, organized working classes formed a strong alliance with the fast-growing, urban middle class. This political coalition sought policies that would protect itself from economic cycles—especially after the economic turmoil of the 1920s and 1930s—that would eventually result in the postwar welfare system. Indeed, the durability of these welfare programs may be attributed to the participation of the middle class, which shaped program design: welfare programs provided universal coverage so that the middle class itself was not excluded from benefits.

Many of today’s developing countries have followed a very different path. Labor tends to be less organized and have weaker relative bargaining strength. Much of the labor force remains in the informal sector and is left out of any contributory schemes, which tend to have limited scope. Social protection is more reliant on a fragmented system consisting of a large number of non-contributory programs financed out of general revenues. More importantly, the preferences of both governments and donors are mainly for programs that target particular sub-populations to achieve cost efficiency.

Consequently, an opposite political dynamic appears to be playing out in developing countries. Instead of middle class “buy-in” resulting in broader and more comprehensive programs, targeted and fragmented programs are inhibiting median-voter support for social protection and leading to middle-class exit. The consequences are familiar to designers of targeted social protection—their vulnerability to shifts in political winds, their susceptibility to abuse or capture by elites, and their occasional failure to outlive the aid programs that may finance them. The overall result is that the demand for comprehensive welfare programs in middle-income countries remains weak.

One of the best succinct descriptions of the political economy of social protection that I’ve yet come across, and an interesting consideration thinking about novel social protection delivery mechanisms like GiveDirectly’s potential partnerships with regional governments in Kenya.

Informed consent vs control of information

I was really struck by Lua Wilkinson’s recent post on the ethics of photography in low income countries.  She included a fascinating anecdote about Dorothea Lange’s famous photo of a California sharecropper and her children, which later turned into one of the iconic images of the Great Depression:

According to reports, [Florence] Thompson and her family were not happy that they had unknowingly become the poster children for poverty. They voiced concern that the information surrounding the photo wasn’t even accurate… Thompson gave permission for the photo to be taken but was under the impression that the photos would never be published publicly, and even Lange herself notes that she failed to send the final prints to the family as promised.

The point is this: Lange asked Thompson if her photo could be taken and Thompson said yes. The problem was not lack of permission. The problem was that Lange had control over that photograph, and there was little communication about what that actually meant. Lange controlled where the photo ended up, as well as how Thompson and her family were portrayed.

The Thompson family was turned into a symbol of poverty. Lange, widely respected for her work in social justice, likely saw the family as such and knew the power that symbol would have on policy-makers and humanitarian aid. But in doing so, by turning the Thompson family into a symbol, she also took away their power. She controlled their identities. They had just one story, and that story was of poverty, whether they (as the story’s central characters) agreed or not.

There are some obvious similarities here with the process of gaining informed consent in survey research in low income countries.  Every researcher I know is scrupulous about getting consent before beginning an interview, but I don’t think most respondents really know what will happen to the data they provide after the interview is finished.  The consent form never mentions that information about their household and others like it will be discussed by academics and policymakers at high-flown conferences around the world in a few years.  Call it partially informed consent – lots of information provided about the circumstances of the interview, but very little about who controls the data and how they interpret it afterwards.

Should Lange not have published that photo?  Its publication did help spur an increase in food aid to depressed areas of California, and it’s a truly striking piece of art as well.  But it remains the case that Thompson’s consent was only partial – to have the photo taken, but not to have it published.  Lange ought to have asked for her permission before releasing it.

And what of informed consent, then?  Admittedly the parallels are not exact.  Thompson and her family were easily identifiable and upset precisely because they could be identified in a way that they didn’t want, while IRB requirements mean that survey data is kept rigorously anonymous, and that respondents are promised that they won’t face any other problems as a result of participating in the study.  The fact that there’s a power imbalance between the respondents (who provide the information) and the researchers (who control its use) doesn’t inherently mean that the interaction is unethical.  Indeed, there’s a strong ethical case for research that aims to reduce poverty.  But it’s still important to think critically about the power dynamics present in this work, and particularly the question of whose voices get heard in development.  What might respondents say differently if they knew that their information wasn’t just of interest to the researcher, but might be presented on a global stage?

Recent conference highlights

It’s been a busy few months of conference attendance recently, and I wanted to share some of the papers that really stood out to me.  At ISA:

  • Lior Lehrs had a very interesting presentation on what he calls “private peace entrepreneurs” – people who act without state support to reach out to the opposing side in a conflict and promote peace.  It doesn’t appear that the paper is public, but Ynetnews has a short summary of his work.
  • Olukunle Owolabi also presented a fascinating comparative study on the extension of political rights to former slaves in the US South and the French Antilles.  It’s currently under review, so keep an eye out for it!

Next up was a workshop on “clientelism in comparative perspective,” organized by the Center on the Politics of Development at Berkeley.

  • Nancy Hite discussed her current book project on how economic development changes citizens’ perceptions of the state in the Philippines, building on an earlier microfinance RCT by Dean Karlan and Jonathan Zinman.  No public paper yet, but I’d definitely look for this book when it comes out – it’s a really interesting micro-level look at how growth affects political behavior.
  • Another highlight for the sheer quantity of data used was Pablo Querubin‘s work with Cesi Cruz and Julien Labonne on political family networks in the Philippines.  Because Filipino surnames contain the family names of both parents (for unmarried people) or a father’s family name plus a husband’s name (for married women), they constructed a database of more than 20 million people and traced family and marriage relationships of everyone in 15,000 villages.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that politicians tended to come from disproportionately well-connected families.

Finally, I had a great time (as always) at PacDev.

  • Berk Özler presented joint work with Sarah Baird, Ephraim Chirwa and Craig McIntosh on a five-year follow-up to a program in Malawi which offered young women cash transfers aimed at getting them to stay in school.  The program had offered conditional grants to women who were already in school, and unconditional grants to women who had already dropped out, both of which were effective in getting them back into school.  Five years later, however, the women who got the CCTs (who might have stayed in school anyway) had marital and economic outcomes that looked similar to the control group, while the UCT group (who otherwise would have dropped out) did have persistently better outcomes.
  • David Yang and Yuyu Chen had a fascinating paper on how people perceive the credibility of the Chinese government in trying to shift the narrative around the Great Leap Forward.  The government blamed the famine of that period on drought, and Yang and Chen find that people living in famine-affected areas where there was in fact a drought reported higher levels of trust in the state than those who didn’t observe drought in their region.  The effects persisted for more than half a century, and tended to get reinforced by marriage, as people who didn’t trust the state disproportionately married each other.

Are Mexican cartels anything like Boston gangs?

As long as I’m busy comparing patterns of violence within the US and abroad, here’s another article worth a look.  At Foreign Intrigue, Dan Fisher writes that Mexican authorities might do well to replace their failed tactic of taking down cartel kingpins with an approach targeted at suppressing only the most violent cartels.  This strategy was used to successfully reduce armed violence by Boston gangs in the 1990s.

A different, and potentially more effective, approach would be to focus enforcement on the most violent DTOs, and on the most violent individuals within those DTOs.[iii] Such an approach would represent a permutation of the highly successful Operation Ceasefire, which involved a whole-of-law-enforcement and judicial system effort to pull all available “levers” in order to reduce gang-related gun violence in Boston, MA.  … Operation Ceasefire accounted for a 60% decline in youth homicide victimization in Boston. To achieve this outcome, authorities publically announced a new enforcement strategy targeting the most violent street gangs. The strategy accounted for the fact that a relatively small number of youth were the most prone to killing or being killed, reflecting an iteration of the Pareto Principle described earlier. The public announcement was coupled with conversations with gang members, in order to communicate that acts of gun violence would be prioritized for enforcement. This, along with the “pulling levers” approach, produced a substantial deterrence effect, resulting in the aforementioned significant decline in youth homicide victimization.

I’m trying to think through whether this type of strategy would also be applicable to rebel groups – the analogy doesn’t seem exact to me, but I’m still trying to figure out why not.  Would love to hear others’ thoughts as well!