Siri, Cell Phones, and Patterns of Migration
Developmental economics offers one of the most exciting fields for experimental research. Throughout Africa, researchers have been able to take advantage of NGOs and aid organizations working in randomly-selected communities and villages to cleanly identify the impact of aid efforts.
A new working paper by Jenny Aker, Michael A. Clemens and Christopher Ksoll looks at the impact of distributing cell phones in rural communities on patterns of mobility in Niger. One of the obstacles facing poor citizens in the developing world, the authors argue, is “asymmetric information with respect to potential employment or wages.” Villagers don’t know where potential jobs are, or the differences in wages that would result from migrating to other regions.
Because villagers can gather information about potential labor markets outside their villages through their social networks, cell phones may decrease information asymmetries. With more information (and therefore less uncertainty), villagers would be more likely to migrate to find employment. The authors capitalize on two programs – a Catholic literacy program designed to increase adult education and a cash transfer program designed by Concern Worldwide – to evaluate how cell phones shift migration patterns. In both of these programs, cell phones were randomly distributed to villages or individuals.
Unsurprisingly, the authors report that using cell phones increases the communication between villagers and people outside their village. In doing so, cell phones help villagers learn about wage rates or labor markets from people in their social networks. From the sociological standpoint, it is an excellent example of technology enabling individuals to access information from their social networks and capitalize on their social capital. The authors report that access to cell phones significantly increases the probability of a household member migrating out of the village. It also increases the number of household members who migrated. By increasing the availability of information, cell phones help would-be migrants make decisions about their movement and reduce uncertainty in the migration process.
If the findings hold, economists may argue that the widespread use of cell phones across the developing world will help correct imbalances in the labor market by addressing asymmetries of information. Would-be migrants will text and call, gathering information on regional labor markets otherwise unavailable to them. And soon enough, villagers might be able to just ask Siri about about employment opportunities (and it will be development economists searching for new jobs).
Communities, Crimes and Foreclosures
Discussions of the foreclosure crisis tend to focus on the impact of foreclosure on individuals and families. Foreclosures disrupt social bonds between neighbors, force children to switch schools midway through the year, and wipe away household wealth held in the home. But the effects of foreclosures are not limited to just individuals and families. A new working paper from the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy shows that foreclosures increase neighborhood crime, pointing to a broader impact of the crisis on American communities.
There are several reasons why foreclosures could lead to spikes in neighborhood crime. On one hand, they might decrease the number of “eyes on the street” and, in doing so, decrease the likelihood of getting caught after committing a crime. An increase in foreclosures could contribute to a general sense of social disorder that enables criminal activity. Foreclosed properties might offer an easy target for would-be criminals.
The authors of the paper focus on three types of crimes – property crimes, public order crimes and violent crimes. To test the impact of foreclosures on criminal activity, they investigate whether an increase in foreclosures in one quarter (e.g., January-March, 2009) leads to an increase in crime in the following quarter (e.g., April-June, 2009). Looking specifically at New York City, they report that foreclosures increase both public order crimes and violent crimes, but are unrelated to property crimes. These results are particularly strong for low-crime neighborhoods. Where crime is generally low, foreclosures attract criminal activity; where neighborhood crime rates are higher, foreclosures don’t seem to matter much.
Most neighborhood researchers measure outcomes at the geography of the census tracts (or occasionally an agglomeration of contiguous blocks). But this paper looks at crimes and foreclosures that occur on a block face, defined as both sides of an individual street segment (e.g., Bergen St. between Smith St. and Hoyt St.). The figure below illustrates this. Measuring this relationship at the level of the block face is extremely important. If foreclosures encourage criminal activity, we would expect these crimes to occur on the same block face as the foreclosure, rather than elsewhere in the census tract.
But can we be confident that foreclosures cause crime? It’s possible that foreclosures simply occur in neighborhoods where crime is more likely to occur. If so, what appears to be a causal relationship between foreclosures and crime could, in fact, just be the result of other neighborhood factors leading to both foreclosures and criminal activity. The authors creatively explore this possibility by testing whether future foreclosures are related to crimes that already occurred. Are the number of foreclosures that occur between July and September 2009 related to the number of crimes committed between April and June 2009? If so, we should be suspicious about whether foreclosures are actuallydriving criminal activity. Fortunately, these tests lend credibility to the authors’ causal claims. Foreclosures that precede crimes are related to spikes in public order and violent crimes, but those that occurred after criminal activity show no statistically significant relationship to the location of criminal activity.
In the American media, the foreclosure crisis has been largely framed around the impact of foreclosure on families and children. But this paper reminds us that communities suffer as a result of foreclosure, as well.
On the Likelihood of Sharing Your Birthday with Cupid and Satan
Having your birthday overlap with a holiday has its perks. If you like partying into the waning hours of sunlight, the Summer Solstice is a great birthday. Thanksgiving inevitably brings your family together in celebration. But shared birthday-holidays can be difficult, too. If you’re picky about sharing your birthday with other people, then being born on Christmas might take the focus off your special day. And the celebration is probably never about you on New Year’s Eve.
In a new study from the Yale School of Public Health, researchers take a look at two additional holidays – Halloween and Valentine’s Day. Given the cultural representations of death and love associated with Halloween and Valentine’s Day, respectively, they ask whether women are more or less likely to give birth on both holidays.
The authors reviewed data on all the births in the United States from 1996 to 2006. They focused on a two-week window surrounding both holidays, comparing births on Halloween and Valentine’s Day to the average number of births in the two-week period surrounding them. And indeed, they find that women are substantially more likely to give birth on Valentine’s Day and less likely to do so on Halloween.
On Valentine’s Day, the number of birth spikes by more than 5 percent. This spike includes both natural births and C-section births. Halloween, on the other hand, made women substantially less likely to give birth compared with the two weeks surrounding the holiday. The likelihood of giving birth – either naturally, by C-section, or induced – dropped by an average of more than 11 percent on Halloween.
We might expect women to avoid C-sections or induced pregnancies on Halloween (given the holiday’s themes of death and gruel) and seek them on Valentine’s Day (given the holiday’s association with love and romance). But the authors also report a dip and spike in spontaneous births. These changes in natural births, according to the authors, suggest “that pregnant women can expedite or delay spontaneous births, within a limited time frame, in response to cultural representations.” Woah. Nice work, Hallmark, in changing the pattern of natural births on for the holidays you created.
Does it Pay to be Gay?
Are job applicants punished for self-identifying as gay or lesbian on their resume? In a recent study published in the American Journal of Sociology, Andras Tilcsik, a graduate student at Harvard, tests for discrimination in the job market against openly gay men. Tilcsik sent out pairs of fictitious resumes to more than 1,700 jobs in seven states. On one set of resumes, he listed involvement in Gay and Lesbian Alliance; in the other set, he listed involvement in the Progressive and Socialist Alliance. In all other respects, the resumes were perfectly comparable, making Tilcsik’s study a clean experiment. He recorded the callback rate from these resumes, and argued that any differences in the callback rate between resumes listing the Gay and Lesbian Alliance and those without it can be attributed to this difference.
In his cleverly-titled paper, Pride and Prejudice: Employment Discrimination Against Openly Gay Men in the United States, Tilcisk finds that resumes listing the Gay and Lesbian Alliance are less likely to receive callbacks than those listing the Progressive and Socialist Alliance. In total, 9.35% of resumes received a callback in Tilcisk’s study. However, only 7.2% of resumes listing involvement in the gay organization received callbacks, compared to 11.5% listing involvement in the other organization.
One of the important findings from Tilcisk’s research comes when he looks at variation across states. Through an online job posting site, he sent resumes for jobs in seven states: California, Nevada, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida and Texas. In three of those states - California, New York and Pennsylvania - Tilcisk reported no difference in callback rates between resumes listing involvement in the Gay and Lesbian Alliance and those without it. In three states - Ohio, Florida and Texas - resumes listing involvement in the Gay and Lesbian Alliance were substantially less likely to get called back for an interview. (There was a difference in callback rates in Nevada, but the difference is not significant at conventional levels.) But not only does he report variation across states; Tilcisk finds that jobs that advertised for stereotypically male traits (e.g., assertiveness or decisiveness) were substantially less likely to call back applicants who reported involvement in the Gay or Lesbian Alliance on the resume.
How should we interpret Tilcisk’s findings? First, his methodology lends credibility to his finding of substantial discrimination in the labor market against self-identified gay applicants. The audit study is a clean, experimental method where researchers can isolate the effect of a single variable - in this case, involvement in a gay and lesbian organization. However, we should be cautious about over-generalizing Tilcisk’s findings. He posed as a recent college graduate and applied for jobs through Monster.com. In a tighter job market, or with a set of jobs that require specific skills, we might expect employers to pay less attention to the perceived sexual orientation of applicants. Indeed, in New York, Pennsylvania and California, at least, they already do.