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 http://zillow.com and http://trulia.com  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.

Local Foods: Research and policy reviewed in new resource

I love the Ithaca Farmer’s market. It’s a regular Sunday ritual in our household to drive down to the market’s home on the shore of Cayuga Lake, listen to local musicians, have breakfast courtesy of the baked goods booth, and of course fill our re-usable bags with local produce. And we’re not the only ones: The “buy local” movement is rapidly growing nationally, based on the idea that we can reduce energy use and enjoy fresher food by purchasing items grown near our home towns.

 For those of you interested in research and evidence-based policy on this topic, I recommend to you the most recent issue of Choices Magazine, published by the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association. Unlike some other journals, Choices Magazine is available on-line, free of charge. The issue — Local Food—Perceptions, Prospects, and Policies — presents survey data, review articles, and policy analyses about local food, from a variety of perspectives.

One question taken up by several authors is: What does “local” mean, exactly? Although “local food” is typically defined along the lines of a “geographic production area that is circumscribed by boundaries and in close proximity to the consumer,” the article by Michael S. Hand and Stephen Martinez shows that consensus stops there.

I found the article by Yuko Onozaka, Gretchen Nurse, and Dawn Thilmany McFadden among the most interesting. They conducted a national survey to better understand the underlying factors that motivate consumers to buy local food. They also looked how these motivations vary among buyers living in different market venues.

Why do people buy local food? Somewhat surprisingly, they found the major motivation to be an interest in health benefits, followed by several “altruistic” reasons, like supporting the local economy and helping local farmers (see figure below).

Overall, the take-home message is that most consumers think highly of locally grown products, and there is a large and growing market for food grown close to home. And hey, it gets people like me out of the house on Sunday morning!

Drugs, Medicare, and the older consumer: Economics to the rescue

Okay, let’s have a show of hands. First, how many of you have a relative or someone you care about who is age 65 or older? Thanks.

Now, how many of you tried to help one of these beloved relatives or friends understand and choose a plan under Medicare Part D, the prescription drug benefit for older Americans? Thanks again.

My final question: How many of you who tried to help someone understand their options under Medicare Part D sighed, wept, and eventually wanted to pound your head against the wall in an attempt to lose consciousness? I thought so.

I had this experience myself, trying to help my 80-year old mother-in-law decide which program was best for her. I’m a gerontologist, for heaven’s sake, and I tore out what little hair I have left trying to figure out what her best option was.

 To the rescue comes a highly innovative and effective translational research project, led by Cornell Professor Kosali Simon (Department of Policy Analysis and Management). An economist, Prof. Simon’s desire to apply her expertise to this real-world problem has helped people in New York and across the country make this complex and important decision.

 Medicare Part D was passed in 2003 and is the federal program that subsidizes the costs of prescription drugs for people on Medicare (the federal health insurance program for Americans 65 and over). Some people were basically going broke paying for prescription drugs, and the federal government stepped in.

It sounds good, but here’s the problem: It is extraordinarly difficult to understand the coverage. A beneficiary has to choose among dozens of plans, which include dizzying combinations of deductibles and co-payments, and use different terminology for what they cover.

 

That’s the problem Prof. Simon took on. She had spent her career studying things like the economics of state regulation of private health insurance markets for small employers. But then she did an exercise for one of her classes, and students looked at Medicare Part D. Their work led her to become interested in the topic, and she began to do research on it.

Then she got in touch with psychologist Joe Mikels (Cornell Department of Human Development), who looks at how older people make decisions. Together, they used psychological theory and experimental methods to study older persons’ perceived difficulties of choosing a plan when the number of options available under Medicare Part D is increased in a lab setting. She also studied how seniors may actually benefit from increased breadth of choice in plan offerings using econometric methods and data on plan enrollment.

But here’s where it gets really interesting. Prof. Simon saw that there was practical value in learning how to help older people to understand the differences in medication coverage between plans. She used her data to create guides that can form the basis for choosing the right plans based on examining the coverage of medications, rather than simply going by general marketing materials that were mailed to older people.

Working with Project Manager Robert Harris, an experienced pharmacist, she has expanded the reach of the program in many different ways. Based on the research evidence, they have created a variety of materials such as pocket guides to Medicare Part D, posters, counter cards for pharmacies, customized mailings to residents of nursing homes, and an email newsletter and website with thousands of hits per month. 

All of this is very nicely summarized on her project web site CURxED, which I recommend you visit not just for the information, but as a great example of how complex information can be disseminated on the web.

Prof. Simon summed up the translational research approach very well when she told me: “It is very rewarding to be able to use the same data I collect for my research in ways that are practically useful to actual human beings being served by the program I study.”

Building extension’s public value: We can be more convincing

Those of us who work in the Cooperative Extension system tend to love it. Over the past weeks, I’ve been involved in an interview project with older people who have been involved in extension most of their lives, either as volunteers or as paid employees. Their devotion to extension’s mission shines through every interview. From the inside, the value of what we do seems self-evident.

Then we come up against the harsh reality: Extension is heavily dependent on public funding. Many other constituencies, and in particular elected officials and the general public, need to see the value of what we do. How can we convince those who hold the purse-strings that the work of extension has public value, worth spending government funds on?

I recently came across the work of Laura Kalambokidis, a faculty member in the Department of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota. One of the pleasures of writing a blog is that you start reading other people’s, and Laura’s brings a fascinating perspective to extension.

In an article in the Journal of Extension, Laura raises the issue of identifying the public value of extension. She lays out the problem facing us succinctly:

The current economic climate has placed significant pressure on the budgets of state and county governments. In turn, those governments have compelled state Cooperative Extension Services to defend their continued receipt of state and county funding. Even when policymakers are persuaded of the efficacy of an Extension program, they have questioned whether the program should be supported with scarce public dollars rather than through user charges.

To address this issue, Laura translates economic theory and research from public sector economics to practical issues of extension. What policymakers need to be convinced of is that extension work has public value – that is, why should the public pay for our services rather than being purchased on the private market? The challenge is to show that extension activities are a public good, one that benefits society as a whole (in addition to benefitting specific program participants). In her words: “Extension staff must also be able to explain why citizens and policymakers who are not direct program participants should value the program.”

In the extension programs I’ve created, I confess that I haven’t done this. When I justify my programs, I point to the good outcomes and satisfaction for program participants. But I don’t really look at the public good – how they have benefits  for the larger community, beyond my participants. For example, I’ve created extension programs to train nursing home staff. But someone could ask: “That’s well and good, but why shouldn’t those programs be paid for by nursing homes as a private good? What’s the public value for what you do?”

Laura’s work suggests that the most effective case can be made for public value when there is market failure – we provide something that isn’t effectively offered privately – and when there are issues of fairness and justice not addressed by private markets. Her article gives a detailed process for identifying public value.

To give one example, extension folks typically believe that they address market failure by providing information. But Laura suggests we consider this carefully, asking questions like:

  • Is there a demonstrable information gap?
  • Can you show that other entities are providing wrong or incomplete information to consumers?
  • Does your information direct consumers (and producers) toward activities that have external benefits?
  • Are you providing information to a population that does not have access to private information sources?

Laura has developed a workshop program where she helps extension associations determine public value of their programs and how to present them as such. More information is available on her web site, which includes a blog.

Food Revolution or Evidence-Based Solutions?

I tuned in to Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution the other night. I’m not a lover of reality shows, but, in this case, my curiosity got the best of me. For those of you who haven’t watched TV in the past few months, Food Revolution is a show that documents the antics of celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver, as he rides into the “fattest city in the US” and turns the population (especially the school kids) into healthy eaters. All this in slick, sensationalistic, sixty-minute segments!

As we all know, childhood obesity is taking a terrible toll on our kids. There’s no doubt that a crisis of this magnitude requires us to enact policy changes and programs aimed at addressing the problem. But do programs like Oliver’s Food Revolution really work? How do educators, concerned citizens, and policy makers know which programs will give us the best return on our investment?

John Cawley, a professor in the College of Human Ecology’s Policy Analysis and Management department, has recently published a study that addresses this question. Cawley, an economist, examined recent studies of several programs to reduce obesity, and found that CATCH (Coordinated Approach to Child Health), a multistate program that teaches elementary schoolchildren how to eat well and exercise regularly, is the most cost-effective. On the other hand, the study found that many other popular programs are not as effective and were much more costly than CATCH. Cawley’s study can be found here.

Cawley, who has served on the Institute of Medicine’s committee to prevent childhood obesity, says “It’s a bit of a Wild West, anything-goes environment when it comes to creating anti-obesity programs and policies. With limited resources, it would be counterproductive to rush into programs that are not cost-effective and won’t provide the greatest return on investment.

So, what does any of this have to do with Oliver’s Food Revolution? It suggests that policy makers need to look beyond the glitz when they consider which programs to invest in. It’s important to investigate which programs are “evidence-based” and which are merely entertainment. Food Revolution has not been rigorously evaluated. A preliminary study conducted by the West Virginia University Health Research Center to investigate the program suggests that the program had few positive impacts and a negative impact on meal participation and milk consumption.

In the end, as with most persistent societal challenges, the obesity epidemic is a complex problem best addressed by concerned citizens and policy makers who are committed to finding the best evidence-based solutions. And, unfortunately, it’ll probably take us longer than the sixty-minute segments of a reality TV show to fix the problem.

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