Poverty intervention: child stimulation and parent-child interactions

I’ve recently come across innovative interventions in different contexts to address poverty. The title of the first paper is quite descriptive Labor Market Returns to Early Childhood Stimulation: a 20-year Followup to an Experimental Intervention in Jamaica. Overall, the authors find large positive effects from experimental conditions. From the abstract:

We find large effects on the earnings of participants from a randomized intervention that gave psychosocial stimulation to stunted Jamaican toddlers living in poverty. The intervention consisted of one-hour weekly visits from community Jamaican health workers over a 2-year period that taught parenting skills and encouraged mothers to interact and play with their children in ways that would develop their children’s cognitive and personality skills. We re-interviewed the study participants 20 years after the intervention. Stimulation increased the average earnings of participants by 42 percent. Treatment group earnings caught up to the earnings of a matched non-stunted comparison group. These findings show that psychosocial stimulation early in childhood in disadvantaged settings can have substantial effects on labor market outcomes and reduce later life inequality.

And a second family-level intervention focusing on childhood stimulation recently won a $5 million dollar grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies. The excellent Emily Badger reported it here Can We Disrupt Poverty by Changing How Poor Parents Talk to Their Kids?

Apparently the idea proposes a way to measure the quality and quantity of parent-child interaction. From the article:

The device, a 2-ounce specialized recorder about the size of a deck of cards, maps the intensity of communication between parents and children. The infants and toddlers in Providence Talks will wear it twice a month, tucked into a custom-made vest, for 12 to 16 hours at a time. The recorder then plugs into a computer, where software automatically converts the audio files into charts that can be used by Meeting Street to coach the parents on how and when they might speak to their children more often.

Radio pieces on poverty and social development

I’m not sure if it’s my confirmation bias, but it certainly seems that US media are talking more and more about poverty, inequality, and social stratification. Over the last few weeks, I’ve come across the following pieces (they’re great to listen to while doing the dishes!).

On Point from WBUR Boston, interviewed Richard Florida on September 26, 2013. He spoke about a recent article he wrote, at the Atlantic. It’s a nuanced argument. He finds that the post-crash US growth model is working, but that high inequality threatens the sustainability. In the interview at minute 32:00, he recognizes that his previous arguments about clustering (advanced in his work on the creative class) were misguided. Richard Florida is the director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto’s School of Management.

This American Life from PRI did a piece on unconditional cash transfers in developing African countries over the summer. The piece, explains what UCTs are, why they might work, and why charities (in this case, they interviewed someone from Heifer International) by and large are against them. It’s a great, thought-provoking, and complicated discussion. A few weeks ago, an economist from the World Bank came to McGill to discuss findings that show that conditional cash transfers are related to better outcomes for families than unconditional cash transfers.

Planet Money from NPR also has been delving into the issue of poverty with episodes (they’re short!) on the trouble with the US poverty line and welfare. The poverty line episode is a great introduction to why poverty has been measured the way it has in the US and exactly why this methodology is often divorced from current phenomena that better describes deprivation and hardship.

Dazinger – The Mismeasure of Poverty

In the following article, Sheldon Dazinger explains how a limited measure of poverty skews our perception of the degree of poverty in the United States.  He argues for the use of a measure that incorporates anti-poverty policies in order to provide evidence of the success of the “safety net” in reducing poverty overtime.  In addition, Dazinger explains that economic growth has done little to alleviate poverty in the last few decades.  Growth has not reached the poor because of high levels of inequality and the concentration of growth at the highest end of the income distribution.  He argues for an increase of the minimum wage to begin correcting this.


Fewer people in poverty?

Andrew Coyne in the National Posts reviews poverty measurement and trends over time in the article Fewer people sit below the poverty line now than ever before. Why are we not talking about it?His overall point is that poverty has gone down in Canada.

But still: a much smaller proportion of the population now lives on low income, using a benchmark that was considered the acme of progressivism just a few years ago. The numbers that would be considered poor by the standards of 1965 must be a fraction of that.

The article focuses on the distinction between relative and absolute measures and defines the LICO measurement for the lay audience. Further, the story gets to the heart of the debate between income and consumption and what it means to be poor in a rich society.

The oldest Montreal study of relative poverty

In 1897, Herbet Brown Ames published the first known studies of poverty in Canada. The study looked at the present day Griffintown neighborhood of Montreal. In addition to chapters on composition of family, homes, rental market, density and crowding, religions and deathrates, Ames conducted an analysis of income poverty. His work bears some resemblance to the later developed low income lines we study today.

We have already learned that there are 7671 families resident within ‘the city below the hill’. As near as can be ascertained these families receive, each week, an aggregate amount of not less than eight-five thousand dollars. This means eleven dollars per week to each family. We have also found that these families include 37,652 persons. This gives, on average, an allowance of two dollars and a quarter per week to each individual. Eleven dollars per family, two and a quarter dollars per individual, these then are the standards of average living in ‘the city below the hill’. (p. 32.)

Ames, H. B. (1897). The city below the hill: A sociological study of a portion of the city of Montreal, Canada. Bishop Engraving and Printing.

How do, and should we, measure poverty?

I recently came across this story from the Columbia School of Social Work. Three notable academics address the topic of how to best measure poverty. The analysis is US-centric but includes some valuable content on comparing measures and how municipalities can use poverty measures to inform policy. The story with audio files can be found here.


Poverty 101: Teaching about poverty and inequality

I was lucky to participate in the first Institute for Research on Poverty Workshop on Poverty 101 this past summer in Madison, Wisconsin. The gathering featured a number of world-class speakers presenting the latest information on understanding poverty. Participants were from a diverse range of fields. I brought back a number of new ideas and connections to inform both my research and teaching. Announcement is below

Poverty 101

Materials from the Institute for Research on Poverty (IRP)’s Poverty 101 workshop, held in June 2013, are now available here. The site provides cutting-edge teaching resources for college-level instructors, including slide presentations on the concept of poverty, its causes, policy responses, and more!

Go here for resources

Putting American inequality in perspective

Dylan Matthews at the Washington Post wonkblog pasted a chart based on World Bank data.

The chart puts within country income distribution position on X axis plotted against worldwide position in the distribution on the Y axis. A lot of information here.

Some questions:
1. Does this graph change the way you think about inequality in America? In other countries?
2. How does this graph influence the way you think about relative v. absolute poverty?
3. What additional information would you need to know to change your mind?

I will be recreating this chart, including Canada, the World Income Distribution data via Branco Milanovic.

summary of mobility research

Nice summary here in the NYT on the evoluation of mobility research in the US.

The article discussed Becker initial findings with low correlations and Solon’s response. New data on a social mobility project validates Solon’s work and shows that mobility is more rigid in the US than many thought. (Unfortunately, link to the mobiliy project was not working, hopefully fixed soon)

And, here is the more detail on the story about the importance of geography in determining income mobility.  location matters story also from NYT.

In addition to mobility higher in areas where poverty was dispersed, the article summarizes:

mobility was also higher in areas with more two-parent households, better elementary schools and high schools, and more civic engagement, including membership in religious and community groups.

Give money to the poor?

12 Nov 2013 update

Listen to the follow up story citing research examining the impact, including discussions with Poverty Action Lab researchers and Chris Blattman.


This question comes up more and more often. The FII strategy was the first time I heard of the approach. A recent NPR story HERE examines an initiative called GiveDirectly in Kenya. As most of these stories go, people tend to spend money on things they really need, e.g., roofs. The approach has serious implications for social work/social services.

Methodological note. If you listen to the story you’ll here a clever interview strategy: the reporters, worried about a social desirability bias in the responses when asking people how they themselves spent money, began to ask people what their neighbors spent money on. Not surprisingly, the results were not as positive.

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