Monday, October 23, 2017

After Incarceration: How Many and Male Labor Force Participation

Getting data on the number of people in prison or more broadly under the supervision of the criminal justice system at a point in time is easy. But estimating how many people have at some previous time been in prison or under probation for a felony (not all felonies result in prison terms) is harder.
Sarah Shannon, Christopher Uggen, Jason Schnittker, Michael Massoglia, Melissa Thompson, and Sara Wakefield take on this question in “The Growth, Scope, and Spatial Distribution of People with Felony Records in the United States, 1948-2010,” which was published in the October 2017 issue of Demography (54: 5, pp. 1795-1818). The journal version is not freely available online, although often accessible through a library subscription, but a pre-press version of the paper is available here.

Their approach requires doing some extrapolating: for example, one needs to take into account recidivism rates and death rates, and for state-level estimates, one needs to take cross-state migration into account. Taken together they estimate that there are more than 20 million people in the US population who were either previously in prison or who have a felony conviction that led to probation rather than imprisonment.

It was highly popular in most states to increase incarceration rates, and there is some evidence that doing so helped to reduce crime rates up through the 1990s--although the trend toward greater incarceration seems to have had diminishing marginal returns on reducing crime after that point (for discussion, see here and here). However, getting the 20 million ex-prisoners and ex-felons integrated back into the US labor market is a less popular task. Nicholas Eberstadt put the effects of the Shannon et al. study in context of the broader US labor market in his article, "Where Did All the Men Go?" whjich appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of the Milken Institute Review (19:2, pp. 18-33).  Eberstadt wrote:
"Start with the fact that the past half century has seen an explosive rise in criminal sentencing and incarceration in America on a scale unlike anything witnessed in other Western societies in modern times. Today, the United States is home to a vast and largely invisible army of felons and ex-prisoners, overwhelmingly men of prime working age. These men are disproportionately high school dropouts, disproportionately native born, and disproportionately black. These ex-convicts fare very poorly in the labor market — and their diminished prospects constitute the key missing piece to the puzzle of understanding the collapse of work for men in modern America.
"Few of us today are aware of the staggering size of this group. In a forthcoming study, Sarah Shannon, a sociologist at the University of Georgia, and five colleagues estimate that America’s criminal class (people with a felony conviction or prison time in their background) roughly quadrupled between 1980 and 2010 — from 5 million to nearly 20 million. Given the flow of sentencing since then, we might expect that population to have topped 23 million by now. And since roughly two and a half million people are behind bars today, this means that 20 million released felons and ex-prisoners are living outside institutions. This implies that at least one in eight adult men in the at-large population has been sentenced for a felony. And the ratio for prime-age men could be even higher, given the upsurge of sentencing in recent decades.
"In light of these ghastly numbers, the obvious question concerns the employment profiles for men who have served prison time or have been convicted of felonies but not incarcerated. Try as one might, however, it is impossible today to glean such information from official statistics. The federal government simply does not collect data on their social or economic condition. This scandalous oversight helps explain why policymakers and researchers have paid so little attention to institutional barriers in America’s problem of men without work.
"For my own research I reconstructed employment profiles for sentenced men using nongovernment data. The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, for example, asks respondents about delinquency, arrest and prison time in its considerable battery of interview questions. And since the survey began in 1977, some of the youths it has tracked are now well into their 50s. Given the arcane particularities of the survey, its employment figures are difficult to harmonize with official Bureau of Labor Statistics data. But the findings from NLS are stark, and absolutely unambiguous, nonetheless.

"Regardless of a man’s age, ethnicity or educational attainment, he is much more likely to be out of the workforce if he has served time in prison than if he only has an arrest record — and also much more likely to be out of the labor force if he has an arrest record than if he has never been in trouble with the law.
"These relationships do not tell us why men who have been through the criminal justice system fare so much more poorly in the job market. There are multiple possible explanations — discrimination and loss of skills lead the list. But the numbers leave no doubt that America’s unique trends in criminality and criminalization are a critical part of America’s unique contemporary men-without-work problem."
This is not a problem with an easy solution. For example, a number of studies have now shown the "ban-the-box" which prevent employers from asking about previous criminal status have the undesired effect of reducing job offers to African-Americans as a group. The cost-benefit analysis of retraining people in middle age is often not encouraging. A rising number of jobs in the US, now at about 25 percent of the entire workforce, requires some kind of occupational license, which can make those jobs hard or impossible for those with a prison record or a felony conviction to obtain. The hard reality is that many of those convicted of a felony or sentenced to prison end up serving an ongoing sentence after their explicit legal punishment is over: that is, they are implicitly sentenced to the risk of never holding a well-paid job with decent career prospects for the rest of their life. That additional implicit punishment isn't good for them, or for the US economy, or for society as a whole.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Cicero: On Grazing, Money-Lending, and Murder

Here's a slightly obscure passage that made me cackle. Among the ancient Greek philosophers, the virtues were considered to be philosophy and involvement in public life. Making money was not a virtue in itself, but rather a duty to be carried out so as to allow a life that could focus on the virtues, Moreover, make money was only to be done by honorable means--which in the view of the time emphatically did not include money-lending.

With that brief background, here's a story related by Cicero ( that is, Marcus Tullius Cicero), in his book De Officiis, which is commonly translated as "On Duties" or "On Obligations." I quote here from the classic translation by Walter Miller, first printed in 1913. Cicero is writing in  44 BC, the fall of the year when Julius Caesar had been stabbed to death on the ides of March. He is discussing how to behave, and the story comes at the end of Book 2 on "Expediency" and just before Book 3 on "The Conflict Between the Right and the Expedient." Cicero writes:
"As for property, it is a duty to make money, but only by honourable means; it is a duty also to save it and increase it by care and thrift. These principles Xenophon, a pupil of Socrates, has set forth most happily in his book entitled “Oeconomicus.” When I was about your present age, I translated it from the Greek into Latin.
"But this whole subject of acquiring money, investing money (I wish I could include also spending money),is more profitably discussed by certain worthy gentlemen on “Change” than could be done by any philosophers of any school. For all that, we must take cognizance of them; for they come fitly under the head of expediency, and that is the subject of the present book.
"But it is often necessary to weigh one expediency against another ...  Physical advantages are compared with outward advantages in some such way as this: one may ask whether it is more desirable to have health than wealth; [external advantages with physical, thus: whether it is better to have wealth than extraordinary bodily strength;] while the physical advantages may be weighed against one another, so that good health is preferred to sensual pleasure, strength to agility. Outward advantages also may be weighed against one another: glory, for example, may be preferred to riches, an income derived from city property to one derived from the farm. 
"To this class of comparisons belongs that famous saying of old Cato's: when he was asked what was the most profitable feature of an estate, he replied: “Raising cattle successfully.” What next to that? “Raising cattle with fair success.” And next? “Raising cattle with but slight success.” And fourth? “Raising crops.” And when his questioner said, “How about money-lending?” Cato replied: “How about murder?”
From this as well as from many other incidents we ought to realize that expediencies have often to be weighed against one another ... 
For more on what Xenophon wrote in “Oeconomicus,” as well as how the ancient Greeks thought about economic activity and human virtue, a useful starting point is the article by Dodan Leshem in the Winter 2016 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, "Retrospectives: What Did the Ancient Greeks Mean by Oikonomia?" From the abstract: "[B]oth Ancient Greek oikonomia and contemporary economics study human behavior as a relationship between ends and means which have alternative uses. However, while both approaches hold that the rationality of any economic action is dependent on the frugal use of means, contemporary economics is largely neutral between ends, while in ancient economic theory, an action is considered economically rational only when taken towards a praiseworthy end. Moreover, the ancient philosophers had a distinct view of what constituted such an end—specifically, acting as a philosopher or as an active participant in the life of the city-state." For an earlier discussion of Leshem's previous work on this blog, see "Oikonomia, Revisited" (October 30, 2014).

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Teacher Absenteeism in the U.S.

It is of course arbitrary to draw a line about what level of absence of a K-12 teacher should be considered "chronic," but a common line seems to be more than 10 absences per year. The data on teacher absence is collected nationally by the federal Office of Civil Rights. The most recent data is for the 2013-14 school year, and it's now being used by various researchers. Here's one bottom line from David Griffith in "Teacher Absenteeism in Charter and Traditional Public Schools (Thomas B. Fordham Institute, September 2017).
"In June 2016, OCR [the Office of Civil Rights] released teacher absenteeism data for 2013–14, showing that 27 percent of US teachers were chronically absent in that year. ... [I]t noted that fifty-eight school districts with more than one thousand teachers had reported chronic absenteeism rates above 50 percent." 
For clarity, here's the definition of teacher absenteeism used by the OCR:
"A teacher is absent if he or she is not in attendance on a day in the regular school year when the teacher would otherwise be expected to be teaching students in an assigned class. This includes both days taken for sick leave and days taken for personal leave. Personal leave includes voluntary absences for reasons other than sick leave. Teacher absenteeism does not include administratively approved leave for professional development, field trips, or other off-campus activities."
When I end up (for my sins) discussing this data with K-12 teachers, a common response is to point out that sometimes teachers have legitimate reasons for a large number of absences: maybe a personal health condition, maybe a family crisis. And this is of course true. But one would tend to believe that these kinds of situations would arise at about the same rate across different states and different kinds of schools. That is not in fact true.

As noted above, a number of large districts have teacher absenteeism rates above 50%. To the best of my knowledge, there is no evidence showing that teachers in these districts are especially susceptible to debilitating illnesses or family emergencies.

Or here's an analysis of the same teacher data on a state-by-state basis. Nevada had 49% teacher absenteeism on a statewide basis; Hawaii had 75% teacher absenteeism on a statewide basis. Meanwhile, Idaho, South Dakota, and Utah had teacher absenteeism rates under 20%. Again, I am unaware of evidence showing that teachers in high-absentee states are systematically more prone to illness and emergency than teachers in other states.


Another difference, pointed out by the Griffith report mentioned earlier, is: "Nationally, 28.3 percent of teachers in traditional public schools are “chronically absent,” meaning they miss more than ten school days a year for sick and personal leave. In contrast, only 10.3 percent of teachers in charter schools are chronically absent."

How does use of sick leave and personal days by teachers compare with non-teachers?  Griffith writes:
"Because of the lack of similarly comprehensive absenteeism data for other industries, putting these numbers in context is challenging. However, according to one study that used data from the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), only 7.7 percent of US workers with access to paid sick leave take ten or more sick days per year, and just 17.6 percent take five or more sick days. In other words, the percentage of teachers in traditional public schools who take more than ten sick and personal days is almost four times higher than the percentage of employees in other industries who take at least ten sick days ..."
International comparisons can be tricky as well. But for what it's worth, here is Griffith's take:
"Clearly, some absence is unavoidable—teachers are only human. Yet US teachers seem to have poor attendance compared to their counterparts in other industries and other countries. Early studies estimated that 5.2 percent of American teachers are absent on a typical school day, compared to just 3.2 percent of British teachers and 3.1 percent of Australian teachers. However, a more recent analysis pegged the teacher absenteeism rate in the United States at 4.4 percent."
What policies might be useful in reducing teacher absence? A 2014 report looked at data across 40 large school districts, and found that most policies to encourage attendance had only a small effect. Some of the policies considered included: payment for unused sick leave, either at the end of each year or at retirement; rewarding excellent attendance with money or additional leave; restricting dates when personal leave can be used (like not right before or right after scheduled school vacations); requiring a medical certificate for sick leave; and others. But this evidence is hard to interpret; for example, it might be that districts with a bigger teacher absence problem are more likely to adopt these kinds of policies, making it hard to interpret the effects of such policies.

The 2014 report also notes that the institutional culture involving teacher absence may matter more than the formal rules. "Anecdotally, teachers and principals often cite school-based norms that shape the culture and tone around teacher attendance – perhaps more effectively than the broader and more distant formal district policies. Something as straightforward as principals expecting their teachers to call them directly when they must take leave can often shape school culture concerning teacher attendance. Other teachers report that absenteeism is held low when the school has a policy of not hiring substitutes, but distributing an absent teacher's students to other teachers in the school."

For the record, all three of my children have either gone through public K-12 schools or are still doing so. My experiences with their teachers have been overwhelmingly positive. But yes, every other year or so, there will be a teacher in one of the classes who misses a lot of classes. My own philosophy about education is that the students come first. That subset of teachers who are chronically absent--especially year after year--needs to be actively monitored, and in some cases changes need to be made.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Housing Markets: A European Perspective

Americans are all-too-familiar with issues in the US housing market: fluctuations in housing prices, along with problems of affordability and even homelessness. I'm not sure whether it is consoling or confounding to observe that similar problems exist across the European Union, but The State of Housing in the EU 2017, just published by Housing Europe, which is a federation of 45 national and regional housing-related organizations  that in turn represent about "43.000 public, social and cooperative housing providers in 24 countries." Here are a few comments  of the report:

  • "Residential construction as a share of GDP is currently just over half than its 2006 level, and construction is recovering much slower than prices. ... 
  • High building standards and requirements are posing a significant challenge to the provision of social and affordable housing in a number of countries. ,,, 
  • As a consequence of construction not keeping up with demand, housing shortages are emerging more clearly, especially in large cities/metropolitan areas with a growing population. ...
  • Shortage contributes to increasing prices and rents."

Overall, the homeownership rate in the EU is similar to the United States. But one ironical pattern is that the countries with the highest homeownership rates tend to be the formerly Communist states that were part of the Soviet Union, because people in those countries were able to receive ownership of the homes in which they had been living for a low price. The report explains:
"The most common tenure in Europe is owner occupation, with an average 69.4% of the population living in owner-occupied housing against 30.6% tenants. However, this masks wide variations in tenure distribution across countries. Most former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe show a very high share of home-owners without mortgage, as after the fall of the communist regimes tenants were offered to buy the dwellings in which they lived at a low price. In Southern European countries outright ownership rates are also high. In most English-speaking and Nordic countries, Belgium and the Netherlands owners with outstanding mortgages are the most common tenure type. Only in Switzerland and Germany renting is more common than owning ..." 
Here's a figure showing homeownership shown by the blue bars across countries of the EU, while private rental appears as the orange bars.



In addition, homeownership rates have been declining in Europe in the 21st century:
"However, a number of countries have registered a decrease in the share of owner-occupation since the turn of the century, corresponding to an increase in the share of tenant households in the private rental market - for instance in Ireland and the United Kingdom. This trend is reflected in the EU average: keeping in mind that there are significant cross-country variations, since 2007 the share of owners with a mortgage increased slightly (from 25.6 to 27%), that of owners outright decreased (from 47.2 to 42.2%). Over the same period, the proportion of tenants at market price increased significantly (from 12.6 to 19.9%) and that of tenants paying a reduced rent decreased (from 14.6 to 10.9%) ..."
A further irony is that the high rates of homeownership in a number of eastern European countries may be deceiving in the sense that a substantial share of this housing stock is in extremely poor quality, and the new owners don't have the resources to fix it up. Others experience "fuel poverty," meaning they don't have the resources to keep the property heated or cooled. 

Affordable housing is a problem across the European Union, too (citations omitted):
"Housing costs is the single highest expenditure item for households, at about a quarter of total households’ budget in 2015, increasing from 21.7 in 2000 and 22.5% in 2005 to 24.4 in 2015 ... A large number of households are ‘overburdened’ by housing costs (i.e. they spend over 40% of their disposable income on housing) ...  11.3 of the overall EU population was ‘overburdened’ by housing costs in 2015 ... Most interestingly, although the average housing overburden rate for the overall population has remained more or less stable in recent years, the share of poor people overburdened by housing costs has increased significantly over the past decade, from 35% in 2005 to over 39% in 2015. This increase has been particularly steep in some crisis-ridden countries where the housing cost overburden rate among the poor has more than doubled over this period (Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain) ..." 
Affordable housing policy across the European Union has been shifting away from having governments building additional housing to providing housing support to those with lower income levels.
"[T]he literature on housing research broadly distinguishes between supply and demand side interventions or, sometimes also referred  to as object and subject subsidies. Historically, the housing shortages many European countries faced in the wake of World War I and II have been tackled by large government investment programmes into building new homes. Building subsidies were seen as the most effective way of dealing with this problem. In many cases this was achieved via the construction of public or social housing. As a result the most severe housing shortages have been alleviated and housing standards have improved. Despite the diversity of European housing systems and several exceptions in this regard (notably Austria for instance), there has been a noticeable shift from supply to demand side subsidies over recent decades in many European countries, with many now spending more on housing allowances than on supply-side subsidies or building new homes. A trend towards declining capital investment into housing has been particularly prevalent in countries with a comparatively large rented sector, including Denmark, France, the Netherlands and Sweden."

Finally, the report expresses considerable concern about the high cost of housing in cities. Along with the common problems of a rising urban population, and limited amounts of land in urban centers, issues of foreign investors buying up properties and existing owners using options like  AirBnB to turn their properties into short-term rentals are big topics. And a backdrop for all of this is that construction is not only down, but in many European cities faces a semi-hostile regulatory environment. From the report:
"Some of Europe’s most fashionable cities are indeed facing a ‘housing gap’: a large number of people wanting to live in these cities in order to benefit from the education, jobs, lifestyles and cultural life that they offer. At the same time the buoyant demand for property in some of Europe’s most popular cities has also attracted investors, many of whom seek to establish property portfolios. Given that land in urban centres is a finite resource, such an increase in demand may result in spiralling property and rental prices (unless adequately regulated). ... In “hedge cities”, prime destinations for global capital seeking safe havens for investments, housing prices have increased to levels that most residents cannot afford, creating huge increases in wealth for property owners in prime locations while excluding moderate- and low-income households from access to homeownership or rentals due to unaffordability. Those households are pushed to peri-urban areas with scant employment and services ..."
Europeans are quite likely to report that their cities lack affordable housing. Only in Greece (EL) and Croatia (HR) do a majority of people believe that in their city it is easy to find good housing at a reasonable price. (A list of two-letter country codes is available here.)
It seems to me that American political discourse can sometimes have a tendency to romanticize how life is better in European nations. When it comes to  housing markets, at least, both the US and EU are struggling with a lot of similar issues.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Online Dating and Interracial Marriage

Online dating has already altered romance, and it may be on its way to altering society more broadly by changing the way that people from different groups make connections.  JosuĂ© Ortega and Philipp Hergovich provide some evidence and analysis in "The Strength of Absent Ties: Social Integration via Online Dating" (posted online October 2, 2017). Here's some striking evidence that they cite from another paper on the rise of online romance.

The top graph shows heterosexual couples; the bottom graph shows same-sex couples. In each case, the red line that starts shooting up a few years before 2000 shows the share that "met online." Met in "bar/restaurant" has also rise, and one suspect that some of these meetings have an online component as well.Meanwhile, "met through friends," "met in church," and other categories have declined.


The Ortega and Hergovich working paper lays out a mathematical model of marriage matching that will be heavy going for most readers. But much of the intuition behind the model is fairly straightforward. Their focus is on the implications of online-dating for interracial marriage.

Here's a figure from their paper, showing the upward trend in interracial marriage (in this data, marriage of newlyweds) over time. As it explains under the diagram, "The red, green, and purple lines represent the creation of Match.com, OKCupid, and Tinder, three of the largest dating websites." They argue that it is not a coincidence that the rate of interracial marriage rises faster than it's long-term trend as dating websites arrive.

A standard model of marriage markets works like this. Those on one side of the market propose marriage to those on the other side. Those who like a proposal they receive can retain their preferred proposal--without actually accepting that proposal. However, all of those who are turned down go make another proposal. Again, those who like the proposal they receive can retain it, without saying "yes," and the cycle continues until no one wants to make any additional proposals. At that point, all those who have retained a desired proposal say "yes." This is an application of the famous Gale-Shapley algorithm, which was part of justification behind the 2012 Nobel price in economics.  In the Ortega and Hergovich, people belong to certain communities, and at first you can only marry someone from within your community. Like the survey results above suggest, you are introduced by friends or an organization like your church. But online dating changes these dynamics. People can reach outside their usual community more easily, and a faster rate of increase in interracial marriage is one of the dynamics.

For a longer-term review of patterns related to interracial marriage, a useful starting point is Roland G. Fryer Jr., "Guess Who’s Been Coming to Dinner?Trends in Interracial Marriage over the20th Century," in the Spring 2007 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives

My suspicion is that online dating affects marriage patterns in other ways, too. For example, people have become more likely to marry others with similar educational and socioeconomic background, as I discussed in "Marriage: Homogamy or Heterogamy?" (January 12, 2016).

Monday, October 16, 2017

Learning, Not Just Schooling: World Development Report 2018

The World Development Report 2018, one of the flagship reports of the World Bank, focuses on the theme "LEARNING To Realize Education's Promise." The thrust of the report is that school enrollments are up dramatically in developing countries across the world, but in a disturbingly high number of cases, the larger numbers of children attending school are not leading to a similarly high increase in actual student learning.

For example, here's a figure showing rises in school attendance by region, over the long run. Primary school attendance has become almost (if not quite) universal around the world. Secondary school attendance is rising sharply in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
But as the report says at the very start (footnotes omitted):
"Schooling is not the same as learning. In Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, when grade 3 students were asked recently to read a sentence such as “The name of the dog is Puppy,” three-quarters did not understand what it said.1 In rural India, just under three-quarters of students in grade 3 could not solve a two-digit subtraction such as 46 – 17, and by grade 5 half could still not do so. Although the skills of Brazilian 15-year-olds have improved, at their current rate of improvement they won’t reach the rich-country average score in math for 75 years. In reading, it will take more than 260 years. Within countries, learning outcomes are almost always much worse for the disadvantaged. In Uruguay, poor children in grade 6 are assessed as “not competent” in math at five times the rate of wealthy children. ... 
Although not all developing countries suffer from such extreme shortfalls, many are far short of the levels they aspire to. According to leading international assessments of literacy and numeracy—Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and
Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS)—the average student in low-income countries performs worse than 95 percent of the students in high-income countries, meaning that student would be singled out for remedial attention in a class
in high-income countries. Many high-performing students in middle-income countries—young men and women who have risen to the top quarter of  their cohorts—would rank in the bottom quarter in a wealthier country."

Here's one of many striking figures along these lines. It shows a share of second-graders who cannot read a single word of text, or who cannot subtract two-digit numbers. The footnotes warn that these figures draw upon individual studies, and the ones in India are focuses on rural areas, so the numbers should not be treated as nationally representative. But national data aren't available, and the evidence from the partial data is worrisome.

Of course, the educational system in any country faces difficulties that the schools alone are ill-suited to address. As the report notes: "[C]hildren often arrive in school unprepared to learn—if they
arrive at all. Malnutrition, illness, low parental investments, and the harsh environments associated with poverty undermine early childhood learning. Severe deprivations—whether in terms of nutrition,
unhealthy environments, or lack of nurture by caregivers—have long-lasting effects because they
impair infants’ brain development. Thirty percent of children under 5 in developing countries are
physically stunted, meaning they have low height for their age, typically due to chronic malnutrition.
The poor developmental foundations and lower levels of preschool skills resulting from deprivation mean many children arrive at school unprepared to benefit fully from it ..."

But with these outside issues and others duly noted, the report is also explicit and clear on the problems of teachers who lack skills and motivation, operating in a system of poor governance. education systems suffering under poor governance.  The report summarizes the needed policy reforms under three categories: 
  • Assess learning—to make it a serious goal. Measure and track learning better; use the results to guide action.
  • Act on evidence—to make schools work for all learners. Use evidence to guide innovation and practice.
  • Align actors—to make the whole system work for learning. Tackle the technical and political barriers to learning at scale.
The report rewards reading with a number of examples of such policies in action. But it's worth noting two broader points as well. One is that the report suggests that lack of inputs to education is not the primary problem in most places: "Public discourse often equates problems of education quality with input gaps. Devoting enough resources to education is crucial, and in some countries resources have not kept pace with the rapid jumps in enrollment. For several reasons, however, input shortages explain only a small part of the learning crisis. First, looking across systems and schools, similar levels of resources are often associated with vast differences in learning outcomes. Second, increasing inputs in a given setting often has small effects on learning outcomes. Part of the reason
is that inputs often fail to make it to the front lines."

The other issue is that all education-related policy reforms happen in a broader context. The report emphasizes over and over that education reforms happen in a context of whether a society is genuinely committed and dedicated to raising the educational performance of its young people. A society that is not committed will find numerous and ever-multiplying reasons to hesitate from any serious action: Can we really measure education outcomes accurately, after all? Is it worthwhile to track students? Might tracking make some students and teachers feel bad? Isn't experimenting with alternatives often a waste of time? Who decides what incentives should be built into the system, and will such incentives be allocated fairly or politically? Can't pretty much anyone teach young children, so there's no need to worry much about training? Shouldn't teachers be able to run their classrooms without outside interference? Shouldn't teachers or principals who have been in place for a long time receive considerable deference to their experience? 

These kinds of questions aren't wrong, or illegitimate. But they can very easily become an excuse for inertia. Only if a society is able to put the learning of children clearly first, in a way that makes flexibility and change imperative, will these kinds of questions turn into ways of usefully shaping new policies, rather than excuses for keeping the same system on track. The report notes various success stories.
"When improving learning becomes a priority, great progress is possible. In the early 1950s, the Republic of Korea was a war-torn society held back by very low literacy levels. By 1995 it had achieved universal enrollment in high-quality education through secondary school. Today, its young people perform at the highest levels on international learning assessments. Vietnam surprised the world when the 2012 results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) showed that its 15-year-olds were performing at the same level as those in Germany— even though Vietnam was a lower-middle-income country. Between 2009 and 2015, Peru achieved some of the fastest growth in overall learning outcomes—an improvement attributable to concerted policy action."
It's difficult to overstate the importance of education in economic development and growth. To put it bluntly, there are zero examples of countries in the modern world economy that have experienced lasting growth and development without a workforce of growing educational attainment and skills. The report includes various comments like this:
"When delivered well, education cures a host of societal ills. For individuals, it promotes employment, earnings, health, and poverty reduction. For societies, it spurs innovation, strengthens institutions, and fosters social cohesion. But these benefits depend largely on learning. Schooling without learning is a wasted opportunity. More than that, it is a great injustice: the children whom society is failing most are the ones who most need a good education to succeed in life."
It's easy to skim over such statements, and to view them as just another dose of overbroad feelgood boilerplate rhetoric. Except when you read it slowly, it's all true.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Independent Workers and Policy: Krueger's Moynihan Lecture

Alan B. Krueger delivered the annual Daniel Patrick Moynihan Lecture on Social Science and Public Policy, on the topic of "Independent Workers: What Role for Public Policy," for the American Academy of Political and Social Science on May 18, 2017. Video of the roughly hour-long actual lecture, which also shows the slides, is here. A revised and written-out version of the lecture, which I'll draw upon for this post, is posted here as Working Paper #615 for the Industrial Relations Section at Princeton University (September 2017). 

The issue here involves workers who do not have a "traditional" employment relationship: that is,  a job with a given employer and an expectation that the job is likely to continue into the future. Instead, independent workers work for themselves, and earn their living through a series of short-term interactions or time-limited contracts. As a result, they don't receive employer-provided benefits like health insurance, a pension plan, paid vacation, life insurance, and the like. 

How many workers fall into this category? Perhaps oddly enough, some main data sources disagree. Back around 1979, the tax data on people who reported self-employment income and the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey both suggested that about 8% of workers were self-employed. But since then, more people are reporting that they are self-employed on tax data, while fewer people are telling the survey that they are self-employed. On this one, I trust the tax data more! Krueger writes that this divergence "suggests to me that the job market has changed so quickly that many workers are fundamentally confused about the nature of their employment relationship."
 

Krueger reports survey results that the employer-provided benefit which most concerns independent workers, far and away, is a lack of access to health insurance. While that concern is obviously immediate and foremost in people's minds, I'll add my own belief that many of the independent workers should probably also be quite concerned about longer-term issues, like a lack of retirement savings and a lack of ongoing job-training. What might be done here? Krueger suggests a number of small-scale policies, and one bigger policy. Without passing judgment on them, here are some of the options, with small-scale possibilities first:
"One policy proposal that has gained some traction is to have a carve out for intermediaries that permits them to provide benefits without risk that their contractors will be deemed employees. Indeed, my sense is that many of the new online intermediaries would like to provide some benefits to their workers but they refrain from doing so because they are worried that they will be classified as an employer if they provided access to benefits, such as life insurance. ...
"For the self-employed, however, health insurance expenses are excluded from income taxes but not from payroll taxes. With payroll taxes of around 15 percent, this creates a significant additional tax on the self-employed. That could easily be rectified through tax policy.

"As mentioned, the self-employed receive relatively little job training. The IRS is tough on the deductibility of training expenses for the self-employed. Particularly when it comes to safety-related training, it would make sense for the IRS to be more permissive in allow training deductions as a business expense. Congress could also enact tax credits to encourage job training, particularly for safety training, for self-employed workers. ...

Extend coverage under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to independent contractors. The self-employed currently have few options if they face discrimination. The arguments in favor of this proposal are obvious: (1) it would extend protections that already exist for employees to the self-employed; (2) discrimination is plainly unfair and economically inefficient if it originates from personal animus or ignorant stereotypes; and (3) there is an administrative system in place to enforce the policy. ...

Here’s a really ambitious, big idea: Hanauer and Rolf (2015) have proposed the idea of `Shared Security Accounts,' in which all workers would be covered by a universal system that provides health insurance, retirement benefits, paid leave, and so on. Employers and online platforms like Uber would contribute 25% of their workers’ compensation into a fund to pay for those benefits. Workers could choose which benefits they want. ... I should also note that Shared Security Accounts are not a total head-in-the-sky idea. Washington State and New Jersey have considered legislation along these lines for self-employed workers.
When thinking about public policy for such workers, Krueger describes some of  his objectives this way: 
  • Policy should be neutral with respect to self-employment vs. traditional W-2 employment (e.g., tax treatment of health insurance should be equivalent).
  • Policy should avoid creating incentives for employers to convert W-2 jobs into self-employed jobs. ... 
  • Self-employed workers should be covered by the same essential protections and benefits as W-2 employees (i.e., social compact applies equally).
It should be noted that these objectives are debatable. For example, consider a household with two adult workers: one has a job with health insurance, pension, and all the rest, while the other is an independent worker without such benefits. It's not obvious that public policy should seek to assure the same benefits for both workers. But it is obvious that if public policy does not make some efforts in this direction, we will end up--either when independent workers don't have a partner to provide benefits, or when our hypothetical two-person household separates or divorces--with a substantial number of workers who lack health insurance, life insurance, and retirement saving. If or when this happens, it will be a problem for the political system, not just for those workers. Better to think about some ways to address these issues in advance. 

Readers who would like more on the "gig economy" and independent jobs might start with these posts: 
(Full disclosure: Krueger was the Editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, and thus my boss, for the six years from 1996-2002.)