Real evidence linking taxes and death

With U.S. income taxes due today, there will surely be banter around water coolers across the country on the subject of taxes, including a myriad of jokes about paying Uncle Sam.

“If my business gets much worse, I won’t have to lie on my next tax return.”

“When it comes to taxes, there are two types of people. There are those that get it done early, also known as psychopaths, and then the rest of us.”

“Drive carefully. Uncle Sam needs every taxpayer he can get.”

It turns out, there’s actually something to that last one.

A study in the most recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, reviewed data on fatal road crashes from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from the past 30 years. The study found there are consistently more fatal car crashes on Tax Day each year, compared with other days. On average there are 13 more deaths – approximately a 6 percent increase – compared with other days.

What is going on?  The study authors speculate that added stress of a deadline could lead to more distracted driving, or that people could be consuming more alcohol on tax day.  Whatever the reason, they suggest a public health campaign to remind people to drive carefully on Tax Day.

Drive safely today!

The evidence on child abuse

No one needs an academic study to understand that child abuse and neglect has horrible effects on children and families.  The toll on young people and their caregivers – emotionally, socially and developmentally – is tremendous. But the problem also takes a broader toll on our health care system and society as a whole.

A new study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control quantifies the toll on society in financial terms. The study examined nearly 600,000 confirmed child maltreatment cases over the course of a year. Approximately 1,740 of the cases resulted in the death of a child. It found the financial costs associated with these cases to be $124 billion, which includes the costs of medical care, special education, the criminal justice system and lost productivity.

Researchers totaled the lifetime cost for each victim of child maltreatment who lived at $210,012 – a figure the matches the cost of other health conditions such as stroke, which has lifetime cost per person estimated at $159,846, or type 2 diabetes, which is estimated between $181,000 and $253,000.

Much of the data for the study came from a project at Cornell called the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect (NDACAN), housed in the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research (BCTR). The project makes high-quality datasets available to researchers, including data from individual studies and  annual federal data collection efforts, such as state child abuse and neglect and foster care statistics.

“This study very likely underestimates the actual burden as we learn more about the impact of early childhood adversity on brain development and health and well-being  across the life span,” said John Eckenrode, director of NDACAN, professor of human development and director of the BCTR.

“Fortunately, there are now evidence-based programs that may prevent child maltreatment and the associated costs to society,” he said. Among them is the Nurse Family Partnership, a program founded at the College of Human Ecology that aims to improve the lives of disadvantaged mothers and their children.

The take home message: Child abuse and neglect is a big problem. The better we can understand its intricacies and impacts, the better we’ll be able to prevent it in the future.

New evidence on global warming

An international team of researchers have developed a new plan to slow climate change – one that involves reducing levels of two of the lesser-known contributors to global warming.

Their paper, published this week in the journal Science, recommends 14 actions to reduce emissions of methane gas – a greenhouse gas more powerful than carbon dioxide – and black carbon – the technical term for soot, which absorbs heat from the sun’s rays.

Among the measures they suggest are:

  • encouraging people to use switch cleaner diesel engines and cookstoves
  • building more efficient kilns and coke ovens
  • capturing methane at landfills and oil wells
  • reducing methane emissions from rice paddies by draining them more often.

Adopting the study’s recommendations would reduce projected temperatures by approximately 0.5°C by 2050, as well as avoiding millions of premature deaths due to air pollution and increasing crop yields thanks to reductions in ozone.

The proposal is a projection, to be sure.  But there is a large body of evidence available that shows there are many benefits to reducing these contaminants.

Systematic reviews show that reducing soot levels improves lung function and pregnancy outcomes. And it’s been clearly documented that methane gas warms the atmosphere, and that reducing its levels will boost agricultural yields.

So, in fact, the new study delivers another benefit, as noted in this New York Times column: it offers practical solutions with the immediate benefits of improving health and helping farmers produce more.

To us, it seems like a proposal worth putting into practice.

The simple facts on layway – and a grateful reminder

During undoubtedly the biggest shopping week of the year, several major retailers  – including Walmart, Sears and Toys R Us – are bringing back a purchasing tool of by-gone days: layaway.

The concept is simple.  If you can’t afford a purchase, the store will set it aside for you (for a fee, or course) and allow you to make payments on it.  Once you’ve paid off the item, you’re free to take it home. The system was set up before credit cards were common-place in American homes.

But there’s a problem with layaway. Compared to credit card interest rates, layaway fees are exorbitant. Louis Hyman, an assistant professor at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, explains in a New York Times column:

“Imagine a mother going to Walmart on Oct. 17 and buying $100 worth of Christmas toys. She makes a down payment of $10 and pays a $5 service fee. Over the next two months she pays off the rest. In effect, she is paying $5 in interest for a $90 loan for two months: the equivalent of a credit card with a 44 percent annual percentage rate, a level most of us would consider predatory.

“In comparison, even a card with an 18 percent A.P.R. would charge only half as much interest — and she could take those presents home the same day.

“Then consider what would happen if she couldn’t finish all the payments. Walmart would give her the money back, less $10. If she borrowed that $90 and paid $15 in interest for two months, she would have the equivalent of a jaw-dropping interest rate of 131 percent.”

The bottom line is that most layway program don’t pay.  Instead, it’s better to save up for your holiday presents.


During this week of Thanksgiving, we’d also like to remind you that the feeling of thankfulness or gratitude is actually good for you.  Before you head out the door for those Black Friday sales, take a few minutes to remember what you’re grateful for.

The real story on unemployment

Since late in 2007, people across the globe have been coping with an economic downturn that’s led to decreased house values, falling stock prices and higher unemployment rates. The financial crisis has impacted people across the world in different ways.

In the United States, unemployment has been especially troublesome.  And a new report from the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute details exactly who has been hit the hardest.

Although all groups of Americans have experienced rising unemployment, increases have been significantly larger for men, young adults, the least educated, and single parents.

The report shows that unemployment has rose more in central cities and suburban places than in rural places, most likely because rural unemployment was already high prior to the start of the recession.

Rural areas have continued to suffer from the highest unemployment rates for unmarried people. Single fathers in rural areas registered the single larg­est increase in unemployment throughout the recession, rising almost 11 percentage points to 23 percent in 2010.

Young adults who finished high school since 2007 have been some of the hardest hit.

“This is particularly disturbing in that not only are these youths losing income in the short term, but may also suffer from long-term ‘scarring’ in terms of lost wages,” the report says. “In most cases, unemployment was high among the young and less-educated groups in 2007, only to increase rapidly by 2010.”

The report used data from the Annual Social and Economic Supplement of the Current Population Survey, a monthly survey of about 50,000 households conducted by the Bureau of the Census for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Evidence-based energy: What we really know about hydraulic fracturing

A newer method for extracting natural gas from layers of shale deep below the earth’s surface – called hydraulic fracturing or hydrofracking – has ignited debates across the nation. Proponents say that natural gas key to the country’s energy future. (Burning natural gas produces fewer greenhouse gases emissions than coal and oil.) But opponents say this method for extracting it poses risks to ground water supplies.

Over the past several years, Cornell researchers have mounted an unprecedented response to the issue. They’ve stepped up research efforts to collect and develop as much evidence as possible about hydrofracking. And they are reaching out to help individuals and communities across New York to help them make decisions about the benefits and dangers of drilling.

They have created the Cornell Cooperative Extension Natural Gas Resource Center, which is made of a 12 faculty members from a wide array of disciplines—including sociology, environmental sciences, and geology—and 20 extension educators. The group has compiled information for people impacted by hydraulic fracturing including individuals considering leasing their land, community groups, and local governments.

The Resource Center’s web site is a treasure trove of information on the topic including how geologists use seismic data to determine if natural gas is accessible, how to negotiate a lease for gas drilling and the economic impacts of drilling.

If you live in an area where natural gas drilling is a possibility, you’ll definitely want to dig into this resource.

Evidence-based house hunting

Since my daughter was born this spring, our family has felt a bit crowded in our three-bedroom ranch home.  So we decided to put our house on the market this spring and look for a new place that will provide more space.

Like most things in life, we’ve found house hunting is a fairly subjective activity.  There is a range of features we’re looking for: a nice yard for the kids to play in, a modern kitchen, storage space, a two-car garage, and a friendly neighborhood.  Of course, we haven’t found one house with everything we want, so we’re weighing the pros and cons to make the best choice for us.

But there are some elements of house hunting where the evidence comes into play. It’s these items you don’t necessarily think about when you walk into a house for the first time, but seem to be those important basics that can cost a lot of money, or can make living in a new home a miserable experience. 

To find out what I needed to know, I turned to Cornell Cooperative Extension.  They have a whole topic area dedicated to home, including some useful information about buying a home.  Their research-based fact sheets on mold, lead, and radon have helped us to keep an eye out for potentially hazardous conditions.  Thanks to the information they provided, here are a few specific actions we’re taking in our house hunt:

  • If we find a house that was built before 1978, we plan to test for lead-based paint.
  • No matter what house we find, we will have a radon test to make sure that it doesn’t have high levels of this dangerous gas, especially since Tompkins County is considered a high radon-risk zone.
  • Moisture in closets and basements will be a sign for us to check for mold in potential new homes.

In addition to these safety aspects, the Internet now provides financial histories of houses with only a few mouse clicks. Most county assessor’s offices offer background such as previous sale prices, tax bills and a list of renovations made. While this has always been public information, it’s now much easier to access. In addition, web sites like and  compile assessor’s data to provide neighborhood averages and comparisons.  

When making a large purchase like a home, it’s wonderful to have all of this data – literally at your fingertips.

Drinking in college? Yep, it hurts your GPA

When those in authority try to get college students to drink less, they typically go for scare tactics. They remind students about the dangers of alcohol poisoning, arrest, or accidents. Because binge drinking can be so hazardous, over 100 college presidents have signed on to a movement called the Amethyst Initiative that seeks to reduce bouts of heavy drinking. (And believe it or not, the main policy recommendation of this group is to lower the drinking age!)

So students have heard about the most extreme (and low-frequency) negative effects of alcohol consumption on campus. But what about more frequent outcomes? There’s one concern common to all college students: academic performance. There aren’t many people like the Delta frat brothers in the movie Animal House, who are proud when Dean Wormer tells them: “Here are your grade point averages. Mr. Kroger: two C’s, two D’s and an F. That’s a 1.2. Congratulations, Kroger. You’re at the top of the Delta pledge class.”

But it’s tricky to test the effects of alcohol consumption on academic performance. One big problem is that there may be another variable explaining both poor student performance and drinking (for example, mental health issues) so the connection could be what scientists call “spurious” (seemingly correlated, but there’s something in the background that promotes both behaviors).

I love to report on a truly clever research design, and that’s what we have from economists Scott Carrell of UC-Davis and his colleagues Mark Hoekstra and James West. Their article published by the National Bureau of Economic Research takes advantage of a unique data set, allowing them to test the effects of starting to drink more heavily.

Their data come from the 2000-2006 classes of the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA). Unlike most college campuses, the ban on underage drinking is strictly enforced and can lead to expulsion. Surveys show that drinking before age 21 is much lower at the USAFA than at most college campuses. Another advantage: The USAFA has a highly standardized curriculum where students don’t choose their subjects or professors in core courses and everyone takes the same exams.

So hand it to the researchers for finding an ideal research setting to answer their question (there ought to be a prize for this)!

Now if you’ve followed me this far, using these data, what would be the ideal test of the effects of alcohol? You’ve got it: Each cadet’s 21st birthday. Prior research clearly shows a sudden increase in drinking immediately following turning 21. So they were able to look at students who turned 21 shortly before final exams versus those who turned 21 afterwards.

The results: Drinking definitely affects academic performance. In an interview, Scott Carrell notes that the reduction is approximately half a letter grade. And the effect is strongest for high-performing students. The trend doesn’t just last for the week of the birthday party, but continues for around eight months afterward.

So college binge drinking doesn’t just lead to low-frequency, high-impact outcomes like fatalities. It can also lower GPA and, the authors’ suggest, future life chances as a result.

Financial education: Behavior change is possible

One-third of U.S. adults report that they have no savings. More than a quarter of them admit to not paying their bills on time. And more than half of American households don’t have a budget.

Given these figures, it’s not surprising that more than 40 percent of U.S. adults would give themselves a grade of C, D, or F for their personal finance knowledge.  These figures come from the 2009 Consumer Financial Literacy Survey by HarrisInteractive, which surveyed more than 1,000 U.S. adults last year.

Given this dim view of personal finance in our nation, it’s clear that many households would benefit from programs that provide financial education.  But do these programs actually help families improve their financial situations?

A new study reveals the answer is yes. Two researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison pulled together evaluations from 41 financial education and counseling programs in a systematic review. Their article is published in the Fall 2010 issue of the Journal of Consumer Affairs. They used a research process called a qualitative systematic literature review to summarize evaluations that measured financial education and counseling’s impacts on financial knowledge and behavior.

The majority of studies cited in their review conclude financial education and counseling are beneficial and hold the promise of improving financial knowledge and facilitating behavior change. But the study also notes that many of these evaluations share methodological weaknesses including selection bias and measurement issues.  Many of the programs also do not utilize an explicit theory or framework for behavior change, which would lend precision to both program development and the measurement of program impacts, the authors wrote.

They encourage researchers and educators who run these programs to pay more attention to theory-based evaluations and invest in randomized field experiments may be fruitful.

Here at Cornell Cooperative Extension, we offer classes to help families develop a household spending plan, save energy and reduce their energy bills and use credit wisely through a program called EmPower New York. The free workshops are offered in 46 counties and sponsored by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA).

EmPower is doing its  part to collect viable data on the programs’ effectiveness.  This year, they’re conducting phone surveys with the Survey Research Institute at Cornell to determine the extent of behavior change for those who’ve participated in the workshop.  They’re expecting results sometime in June.

Why women leave science careers

More women than ever before are pursuing undergraduate degrees in physics, chemistry, mathematics, engineering, and other science and technology fields – commonly referred to as STEM fields.  In mathematics, for example, women now earn 46 percent of all bachelor’s degrees.

Women also pursue advanced studies in STEM fields in increasing numbers. Even in physics, engineering, and computer science – all traditionally male fields – women now number approximately one-fifth to one-quarter of all students in graduate programs. But after they earn a Ph.D., these women begin a process of attrition that results in far fewer women at each successive level up the academic ladder.  They are less likely than men to apply for tenure-track jobs, more likely to leave these jobs, and less satisfied in their careers. Why do they drop out of their fields?

Cornell professors Wendy Williams and Steve Ceci have spent the last several years studying the reasons behind this phenomenon.  They’ve published a major study that reviews more than 400 articles and book chapters on sex differences in math, and written two books on the topic.

Their conclusion is that women tend to drop out of non-math fields not because they lack mathematical ability, but because they simply prefer more people-oriented pursuits, such as medicine, veterinary science, and biology, where they represent one-half to three-quarters of new doctorates.  The demands of childrearing and caretaking also take their toll on the already-low numbers of women in math-intensive fields. 

Now Williams and Ceci have received a $1.4 million from the National Institutes of Health to establish the Cornell Institute for Women in Science. The money is funding five large-scale studies to explore how women and men are recruited to and informally trained in graduate school, and how they are evaluated when they apply for their first tenure-track position. The grant also funds a major outreach campaign designed to increase awareness among college-age women of the demands of an academic career, so that these women can target their career planning more effectively.

The idea is to better understand, and ultimately improve, behaviors that may consciously or unconsciously lead to gender bias in math-intensive fields.

The new institute is part of a broad outreach effort focused on encouraging under-represented groups – including women and minorities – to pursue careers in science. Part of that broader effort includes the Thinking Like A Scientist program, a curriculum that encourages school-aged children to pursue careers in science.

Williams’s and Ceci’s work is a prime example of using research to learn about a problem of national proportions, and then taking action to make improvements that are based on the evidence.

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