Author Archives: Haley Dagenais

Could “Location-based” Scholarships Lead to Greater Success in College?

High school students at public schools in Kalamazoo, Michigan, get a pretty sweet deal: if they graduate, they are eligible for the Kalamazoo Promise, a scholarship that covers up to 100 percent of tuition for any public postsecondary institution in the state of Michigan. A team of economists wanted to explore whether this type of scholarship could increase the number of students who enroll in a university or community college, as well as whether it would impact postsecondary graduation rates. The results of this study, conducted by Timothy J. Bartik, Brad Hershbein, and Marta Lachowska, will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Human Resources. We spoke with the authors about their research process and the origins of their study. To learn more, read the full Journal of Human Resources preprint article, “The Effects of the Kalamazoo Promise Scholarship on College Enrollment and Completion,” freely available until the end of May.

Tell us about the history of the Kalamazoo Promise scholarship—how did it come about, what is the nature of this scholarship, and what initial questions did you have about it?

The Kalamazoo Promise was initiated in 2005 in a mid-sized, urban school district that had gradually been losing enrollment, but still retained many middle-class as well as low-income students, and in a community that had suffered recent job cutbacks, but still had many college-educated workers. The Promise came about through discussions between the Kalamazoo Public Schools superintendent and anonymous private donors about how to revitalize the community and the school district. The solution? A “simple” gift: any graduate who had lived and attended school in the district long enough could receive a generous scholarship to any Michigan public university or community college. The intent was to grow the local economy and school district by attracting families to the community and boosting students’ educational attainment and—presumably—their local job opportunities. Our initial question, addressed in prior research (Bartik, Eberts, and Huang 2010; Hershbein 2013), was the impact of the Kalamazoo Promise on district enrollment. Our current paper addresses whether the Promise succeeded in increasing educational attainment.

What is one takeaway from your article that you’d like to communicate to readers outside of the economics community?

The Kalamazoo Promise program, which is one specific design of a “free-tuition” program, worked! The program increased the attainment of a post-secondary credential by one-third. If one compares the predicted lifetime increase in earnings from this additional educational attainment with the Promise’s scholarship costs, the program’s rate of return is over 11 percent.

Why did it make sense to publish in the Journal of Human Resources

The Journal of Human Resources is a top journal in empirical microeconomics and has published numerous articles on the effects of scholarship programs. Therefore, it felt like a natural fit for us. In addition to being well-regarded and influential, it also has a reputation for being a well-run journal. 

Will you continue to pursue similar questions, or will you take your research in another direction?

Absolutely! There are relatively few studies of the long-term impacts of college scholarships on outcomes beyond education, such as employment, earnings, or financial health. Two prominent examples of such studies are Judy Scott-Clayton and Basit Zafar’s study of the West Virginia Promise and Bettinger et al’s study of the Cal Grant program in California. But the first of these is a merit scholarship and the second is need-based, and both are state programs; to date, there are no completed studies of workforce impacts of universal, place-based scholarships, even as these have continued to proliferate. With funding from the Strada Education Network, we and teams of other researchers are studying workforce impacts of the Kalamazoo Promise, the Pittsburgh Promise, Knox Achieves (the predecessor of the Tennessee Promise), and the Denver Scholarship Foundation. We expect to have preliminary results presented at conferences later this year, so stay tuned!

If a community is considering implementing a place-based scholarship like the Kalamazoo Promise, what factors should be considered to ensure they achieve the desired results?

This is a great question. Place-based college scholarships vary considerably in both their goals and their parameters and these two factors are not always aligned. Our paper demonstrates that a universal-access program can yield sizable increases in college completion, although it may not be the cost-minimizing approach to doing so. On the other hand, as we discuss in the paper, place-based college scholarships often have other goals besides just increasing educational attainments, such as strengthening K-12 achievement and local workforce and economic development. From our paper and related analyses, we’ve learned a few lessons that other communities should keep in mind:

  1. Simplicity generally leads to greater take-up. It’s often tempting to impose significant merit or financial need criteria to limit costs or reward “good students,” but the research doesn’t back this up as an effective strategy. Universal scholarships in communities with high financial need can provide simplicity while reducing the likelihood that scholarships subsidize relatively wealthy students. (This is one of the reasons place-based scholarships may be more compelling than statewide ones.)
  2. Money alone does not fix all problems. Even with one of the most generous scholarships in the country, only about half of Kalamazoo Promise students complete a credential within the ten years over which they can use the scholarship (and less within the first six years). Less generous scholarships often produce even smaller impacts. The Kalamazoo Promise, other scholarship programs, and even colleges have increasingly turned to provide additional supports, such as college coaching and navigators, to help students succeed. These supports have shown potential in several contexts, although we know relatively little about how effective these additional supports are with and without scholarships for tuition.
  3. To measure effectiveness, good data are imperative. We used National Student Clearinghouse data to measure postsecondary outcomes for our paper, but as more states continue to develop longitudinal data systems that track students from K-12 into college and beyond, it will be possible to create better estimates and examine additional outcomes, such as credit attainment, earnings, or use of social safety net programs. Currently, obtaining these data for evaluations is challenging even for the most successful and well-connected researchers, and often nearly impossible for local communities. States should make it easier for these data to be used for research purposes while protecting student confidentiality.

Timothy J. Bartik’s research focuses on how broad-based prosperity can be advanced through better local labor market policies. This includes both policies affecting labor demand, such as state and local economic development policies, and policies affecting labor supply, such as place-based scholarships. Bartik is co-editor of Economic Development Quarterly, the only journal focused on local economic development in the United States. Bartik received both his PhD and his MS in economics from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1982. He earned a BA from Yale University in political philosophy in 1975. Prior to joining the Upjohn Institute in 1989, he was an assistant professor of economics at Vanderbilt University.

Brad Hershbein is an economist at the W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a labor studies research organization in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and a non-resident fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution. He also serves as the Institute’s director of information and communications services. His fields of interest focus on labor economics, demography, and economics of education, and especially the intersection of the three. His work has appeared in Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, and American Economic Review. He earned his BA in economics from Harvard College, and his PhD, also in economics, from the University of Michigan.

Marta Lachowska completed her Ph.D. in economics at Stockholm University in 2010. Lachowska has research interests in labor economics, economics of social insurance, and economics of education. Her work has been published in the American Economic Journal: Economic PolicyJournal of Human ResourcesLabour Economics, and Oxford Economic Papers, among others. She has been the PI or co-PI of several investigator-initiated grants, including projects funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, the William T. Grant Foundation, and the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

Advanced Placement Classes Improve Skills, Increase Anxiety, Study Finds

Each year, more high schools across the United States are integrating Advanced Placement (AP) classes into their course offerings, providing students with a cost-effective alternative to general college courses. AP scores are seen to indicate college readiness and a student’s ability to succeed in a specific subject. According to a study recently published ahead-of-print in the Journal of Human Resources, more than 70% of US high schools have adopted AP courses into their curriculum, some even requiring students to take them. In the first-ever experimental study of the AP program, authors Dylan Conger, Alec I. Kennedy, Mark C. Long, and Raymond McGhee Jr. found that the classes succeed in improving students’ skills but conversely may also lead to reduced confidence.

The study offered enrollment in AP biology or chemistry courses to randomly selected students from twenty-three US high schools. At the end of the semester, researchers measured AP- and non-AP students’ ability to analyze and develop arguments about science and participants were surveyed to assess their confidence in the subject, their interest in a future STEM degree, and their levels of stress. As many high schoolers could attest, students in AP science classes were found to have increased stress levels and lower grades due to pressure and rigor. Additionally, taking AP classes decreased students’ confidence that they could succeed in STEM courses in college. But despite the negative impacts, the study found that these classes do successfully increase students’ scientific skill levels and prepare them for college-level coursework, as well as increasing high schoolers’ interest in majoring in STEM in college.

Study author Dylan Conger discussed with us these surprising findings, as well as the origins of tracking AP performance effects. To learn more, read the full Journal of Human Resources preprint article, “The Effect of Advanced Placement Science on Students’ Skills, Confidence and Stress.”

How did you decide to pursue this topic?

My collaborator, Mark Long, and I had been studying advanced high school courses for a few years and we were struck by the lack of causal evidence in support of the AP program despite its near-ubiquitous presence in US schools. Determining how the AP program affects students is difficult because students self-select into the program and teachers often decide which students are allowed entry. We started to brainstorm about how we might successfully randomize access to AP courses. We landed on a research design that was ethical and that would minimize concerns among parents, students, and educators. We decided to focus on AP science courses in particular because these courses were being promoted by policymakers and educators as a key tool for improving the STEM workforce in the US.

Though AP courses are often seen as a tool for college preparedness, how would you explain the low confidence that AP science students have for achieving success college STEM courses?

We spent some time reading the literature from psychology and learned, perhaps somewhat intuitively, that reduced confidence doesn’t necessarily have a negative effect on student performance. In fact, some of the literature suggests that overconfidence can lead to academic failure. AP courses are very challenging and they cause some students to lower their estimation of their own ability. In our study, we found suggestive evidence that this loss of confidence did not interfere with their learning in the AP class itself.  We found that the AP students gained more knowledge in science than the students in other honors and regular courses. How that affects learning in college is an open question.

What is one takeaway from your article that you’d like to communicate to a non-specialist?

The schools that participated in our study tend to have above-average shares of low-income students. Many of the students in our study were eligible for subsidized school meals. For these types of schools and students, our findings suggest that the AP program has both benefits and costs. For instance, we find that students appear to have learned more about science in the AP course than they would have learned in other regular and honors courses. At the same time, the AP courses led to worse grades, losses in confidence, and higher levels of stress.

Why did it make sense to publish in the Journal of Human Resources?

As one of the leading journals focusing on policies that promote human capital, the JHR was a natural fit for our paper. The JHR has also been intentional about disseminating the research to a broad audience.  

What’s one question that emerged from your research that you’d like to follow up on, or that you hope someone else looks into in the future?

This paper focuses on the short-run impacts of the AP program on students’ cognitive and socioemotional outcomes. Ultimately, everyone wants to know how the AP program influences students’ college-going, and in particular, college-going at selective institutions. We are currently working on a follow-up paper that estimates the effect of AP science on these important life outcomes. We also plan to follow our cohorts for a few more years to determine whether and how the AP science program influences their college graduation.

Dylan Conger is a Professor of Public Policy at the George Washington University and a research affiliate at New York University’s Institute for Education and Social Policy. Conger’s research focuses on explaining disparities in achievement between social groups and evaluating policies aimed at reducing those disparities. 

Postnationalism in the Street Carnival of Rio de Janeiro

Pre-carnival parade of Céu na Terra. Photo by Andrew Snyder.

For the next five days, the streets of Rio de Janeiro will fill with the sounds of diverse musical traditions. The music of carnival has traditionally played an important role in Brazilian national identity, explains Andrew Snyder in “From Nationalist Rescue to Internationalist Cannibalism: The Alternative Carnivalesque, Brass, and the Revival of Street Carnival in Rio de Janeiro,” from the Luso-Brazilian Review. Snyder shows, however, how new movements are expanding Rio’s street carnival repertoires, creating diverse new affinities and identities. In the following interview, he describes the ethnographic fieldwork that led him to write the article, including his experience playing trumpet among the four hundred musicians of Orquesta Voadora (the Flying Orchestra) in Rio’s street carnival.

How did you decide to pursue this topic?

This Luso-Brazilian Review article was part of my dissertation research for my PhD in ethnomusicology, and it examines the national and international repertoires of the brass movement known as neofanfarrismo (“new brass band-ismo”) that emerged from Rio de Janeiro’s street carnival. I came very haphazardly to write my dissertation on this musical community and its engagements in local activism. Though I had always loved and played Brazilian music and had majored in music and Romance languages, my earliest graduate studies were focused elsewhere. In 2011, Occupy Wall Street exploded, and I found at those protests the Brass Liberation Orchestra (BLO), a brass band in the Bay Area that emerged to play solely for protests during the 2003 Iraq War and is still going strong. Though I was also a music major focused on guitar and piano, I hadn’t been playing trumpet much, but I was quickly swept up into playing in the BLO during those exciting political times. Now trumpet is my main performing instrument!

In 2012, we played at the HONK! Festival of Activist Street Bands in the Boston area, where alternative and activist brass bands play on the streets for free in support of social and political causes. Through that festival network, I learned of a vibrant musical world in Rio de Janeiro where brass ensembles historically connected to the street carnival were experimenting with diverse global repertoires and playing on the front lines of protest. In search of a dissertation topic, I first visited Rio de Janeiro for a preliminary fieldwork trip during the momentous 2013 June protests, which these bands were musically supporting. Still, I couldn’t grasp the full, massive scope of what goes on in the neofanfarrismo community until undertaking fieldwork in Rio de Janeiro between 2014 and 2016 spanning two carnival seasons. This was a fascinating eighteen months between the World Cup and the Olympics and, in retrospect, it was the beginning of the end of the Workers’ Party and the Pink Tide, which had helped set the conditions for the street carnival revival to explode in the early twenty-first century.

What is one part of your research that surprised you, and why?

It would be quite an understatement to say that the neofanfarrismo community “surprised me”—more that it stunned me—but I would say that the biggest thing that stuck with me is the difference between a musical scene and musical movement, the street carnival and neofanfarrismo communities most certainly being the latter. I had no concept of the level of dedication and organization that could be put into community-led mass street music events. The scale of carnival beyond the samba schools, which I also participated in and are also amazing, is bafflingly awe-inspiring. The main group I worked with, Orquestra Voadora, the band that really pushed the neofanfarrismo community beyond traditional repertoires like the marchinha (traditional carnival songs), is a band of about 15 people who organize around 400 people to play for over 100,000 people on carnival day. That’s not even a really big bloco (carnival music ensemble). The more traditional brass bloco Bola Preta brings two million to the streets!

Despite, or because of, this enormity, the neofanfarrismo community is incredibly close-knit and collaborative, with musicians actively working through oficinas (classes or workshops) to teach music to other people. The “-ismo” suffix really underlines the fact that the bands are not just a loosely-connected scene but a social movement. Though the Bay Area also has a vibrant musical scene, I can’t say that there is anything that comes close to neofanfarrismo in the United States; though the international HONK! movement and New Orleans come to mind as related phenomena, they seem quite small in comparison. I certainly believe that this difference between the countries is especially due to the availability of playing in, and yes also drinking in, public space. I have come to see the ways public space is regulated as being a crucial part of the abilities of social movements, especially culturally defined ones, to thrive. Scenes are what evolve in a more splintered cultural worlds like the Bay Area where we are bound to celebrate most often in private clubs.

How did your role as a musician combine with your role as an ethnomusicologist to guide the direction of your research?

As a professional trumpet player, I was immediately “dentro do cordão,” or inside the cords that separate bloco musicians from the crammed audiences that would follow the musicians. It would certainly be possible to study street carnival and neofanfarrismo from alternative perspectives (which some are doing), focusing, for example, on the experiences of the audience or what it is like to be a new musician learning in the movement’s oficinas. But certainly playing trumpet was an asset in accessing “key informants,” getting the insider perspectives, and being a “participant-observer.” That research methodology language really does not capture my experience with the community, however, which could be summed up, with all due respect to more “sober” disciplines, by what I would tell people at the time: if you can’t do academic research while playing music and drinking in the street, is it really worth doing?

As a trumpeter, I was able to play in almost all of the bands and blocos I wrote about. I taught trumpet in the oficinas and participated in their movement of mass musical education. In 2016, I went on tour with the Carioca band Bagunço for five weeks in France. I helped organize the very first HONK! Rio Festival de Fanfarras Ativistas, which Mission Delirium, a band I co-founded, attended in 2015. The HONK! festivals are grass-roots international street/brass band festivals that originated in the US in 2006 and are spreading around the world. There are now five HONK! Festivals in Brazil alone! During preparations for that first festival, I and some co-organizers were robbed at gunpoint in Santa Teresa, and I lost my trumpet, my most crucial “fieldwork tool.” The local community took it upon themselves to organize busking events to help me, an American researcher, with the finances of my loss. I can’t speak for my informants, but I felt known first and foremost as a musician who was firmly part of the movement, rather than a researcher. I wouldn’t want to have done it any other way.

Andrew Snyder’s research explores the political and social impacts of mass public festivity, especially focused on brass and percussion ensembles in diverse locations including Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans, San Francisco, and beyond. He completed a PhD in Ethnomusicology at UC Berkeley in 2018 with a dissertation focused on the carnival brass band community in Rio de Janeiro, the basis for his current book project with Wesleyan University Press. Beyond his article in the Luso-Brazilian Review, his research appears in Journal of Popular Music Studies, Latin American Review, Yearbook for Traditional Music, and Ethnomusicology, and he is co-editor of HONK! A Street Band Renaissance of Music and Activism (Routledge 2020). An avid trumpet player in diverse musical groups, he is co-founder of San Francisco’s Mission Delirium Brass Band, which has toured to Brazil and throughout Europe. Currently a Research Associate at UC Santa Cruz, he has taught at UC Berkeley, University of the Pacific, and UC Davis.

Articles We Love: A Valentine’s Reading List

For all our fellow nerdy types out there, this Valentine’s Day, we’re highlighting scholarship from our journals on the literature and economics of love. The selection includes a study on falling divorce rates, an analysis of the courtly love lyrics of medieval Spain and Germany, an article on queer erotics and political action in poetry, and more. All articles listed here are freely available until the end of the month.

Motifs of Love in the Courtly Love Lyric of Moslem Spain and Hohenstaufen Germany by Charles M. Barrack, Monatshefte 105.2 (2013)

“My intention is to demonstrate the striking—even contradictory—attitude of the supplicant minstrel in both traditions to the object of his affection, viz., a noble but distant lady. Let us term this the ‘Platonic-Erotic Dilemma’: Is the beloved a distant, sublime, edifying force or a mere mortal capable of physical love?”

Why Have Divorce Rates Fallen? The Role of Women’s Age at Marriage by Dana Rotz, Journal of Human Resources 51.4 (2016)

“American divorce rates rose from the 1950s to the 1970s peaked around 1980, and have fallen ever since. The mean age at marriage also substantially increased after 1970. I explore the extent to which the rise in age at marriage can explain the decrease in divorce rates for cohorts marrying after 1980.”

Life, War, and Love: The Queer Anarchism of Robert Duncan’s Poetic Action during the Vietnam War by Eric Keenaghan, Contemporary Literature vol. 49.4 (2008)

“The queerness I associate with Duncan’s poetic anarchism, then, is related to the emphasis he places on how eroticism facilitates subjects’ resistance to the liberalist attitudes promoted by the biopolitical state. Whereas many gay and lesbian thinkers and activists promoted sex and eroticism as a means of resisting the state, Duncan was preoccupied with how language is an erotic vehicle mediating embodied experience and promoting transformative passions.”

Lucky in Life, Unlucky in Love? The Effect of Random Income Shocks on Marriage and Divorce by Scott Hankins and Mark Hoekstra, Journal of Human Resources 46.2 (2011)

“There are several reasons why positive income shocks could affect marital decisions. For married couples, more generous cash transfers may have a stabilization effect and relax financial constraints and arguments that lead to divorce. . . . On the other hand, increased resources may enable unhappy couples to incur the costs associated with divorce.”

Cosmopolitan Love: The One and the World in Hari Kunzru’s Transmission by Ashley T. Shelden, Contemporary Literature 53.2 (2012)

“Most critics will agree that the adjective cosmopolitan describes not just a way of organizing the world or a type of subject position but also a stance that pertains, in particular, to the ethical relation to the other. Few critics, however, in their explorations of the ethics of cosmopolitanism, inquire into what one might call the fundamental analytical category of ethics: love.”

Kathleen Fraser and the Transmutation of Love by Jeanne Heuving, Contemporary Literature 51.3 (2010)

“Fraser changes from writing through a poetic speaker as lover addressing her beloved to a transpersonal love writing, or a libidinized ‘field poetics’ (Translating 176). In the course of her career, Fraser comes to write an erotically charged prosody through a “projective” poetics that rejects individuated poetic speakers and cathects directly with her poems’ others and languages—engaging material aspects of language and of the page itself.”

Reindeer and Arctic Cultures: A Holiday Reading List from Arctic Anthropology

To celebrate the holiday season, we browsed past issues of Arctic Anthropology to find articles featuring our favorite furry friends of the North: the reindeer! Reindeer have played an important role in Arctic cultures for centuries, from European Russia to Alaska, providing people with transportation, food, and livelihood. Below are a few selected articles, freely available until the end of January.

The monument for the reindeer fighting brigades (Dudeck).

“Reindeer Returning from Combat: War Stories among the Nenets of European Russia” by Stephan Dudeck (2018)

Dudeck studies the oral histories of the Nenets, an indigenous group of the northwestern Russian Arctic. The Nenets traditionally herded reindeer as part of their nomadic lifestyle, and from 1942 to 1944, Nenets herders used reindeer and sleds to transport supplies and wounded soldiers to and from the front in the Soviet war with Finland. In this article, Dudeck interviews Nenets elders about their personal experiences during the war.

“Towards a Multiangled Study of Reindeer Agency, Overlapping Environments, and Human-Animal Relationships” by Jukka Nyyssönen and Anna-Kaisa Salmi (2013)

Nyyssönen and Salmi discuss relationships between reindeer and humans, specifically with the Sámi, an indigenous people of northern Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Russia. Through an examination of archaeological sites in Finnish Lapland, the authors describe Sámi religious rituals where reindeer were sacrificed, arguing that the reindeer were able to demonstrate their agency by feeling fear and resisting being killed.

“‘I’d Be Foolish to Tell You They Were Caribou’: Local Knowledge of Historical Interactions between Reindeer and Caribou in Barrow, Alaska” by Karen H. Mager (2012)

Mager studies the reindeer industry in Barrow, Alaska, which began to decline in the 1930s and 40s in part due to reindeer running away to join wild caribou herds. According to the oral histories collected in this study, to this day, locals can identify reindeer-like animals in caribou herds.

To learn more about Arctic Anthropologysubscribe to the journal, browse the latest table of contents, or sign up for new issue email alerts.

The Impact of Pollution Exposure on Educational Outcomes and Inequality

Upcoming Journal of Human Resources article uncovers the hidden effects of pollutants on cognitive development and academic performance in adolescents

Journal of Human Resources Fall 2019 current issue cover

Increasing environmental consciousness means that more people are reaching for metal straws, but we may not be aware of a much larger issue: the hidden toxins in the air. New research set to appear in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Human Resources suggests that pollutants from local Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) sites may impact the productivity and educational development of students in nearby schools.

Over the past four years, Claudia Persico, an assistant professor at American University, evaluated over one million elementary, middle, and high school students in Florida using their Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) scores, their level of academic success, and general wellness. With over 30% of schools in Florida existing within one mile of a TRI site, exposure to air pollution was found to be associated with lower test scores and a greater chance that students will be suspended from school, have greater numbers of absences from school and perform lower on their FCAT exams. Persico expanded on these results to determine if different proximities to TRI sites affected grade repetition, behavior, and health over time. When students’ records were examined, it was revealed that those who had been exposed to the pollution for a greater cumulative time had lower attendance records and more health concerns.

Persico joined us to discuss the genesis of her interest in this topic and the larger implications of the study. To learn more, read the full Journal of Human Resources preprint article, “The Effects of Local Industrial Pollution on Students and Schools.”

1. How did you decide to pursue this topic? What spurred this study?

I used to study the neurobiology of autism at the Boston University School of Medicine, but I became interested in why low-income children perform so much worse in school and are more likely to have disabilities. Because the developing brain is so vulnerable to the environment, this got me interested in studying pollution.

It turns out that in 2014 alone, Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) sites in America (which represent only one type of industrial plant) released 3.95 billion pounds of (untreated) toxic chemicals into the air, land, and water, out of 25.45 billion total pounds of toxic chemicals created in production-related wastes. Although we do not currently have comprehensive evidence on which pollutants are most harmful, the evidence we do have is worrisome and suggests a source of inequality that has not yet been explored in depth. Namely, since African American, Hispanic, and low-income families are more likely to live and attend school in close proximity to sources of pollution like toxic waste and TRI sites, where housing is less expensive, it is possible that exposure to pollution—which more affluent families can avoid because they can afford more costly housing—is one mechanism through which poverty produces negative cognitive and health outcomes over time.

2. You note that about 30 percent of children in Florida live within one mile of a TRI site. Is Florida an extreme case? How are the effects of pollutants on cognitive development applicable to other areas of the United States and the world?

There are currently about 21,800 TRI sites operating across the United States and the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 59 million people (about 19 percent of the population) live within one mile of a TRI site (EPA 2014). We find that nearly 22 percent of all public schools were within one mile of a TRI facility in 2016 serving more than 11 million public school students.

While other countries don’t call their factories TRI sites, it is likely that my findings could generalize to power plants, pharmaceutical industry, chemical, metal, and concrete manufacturers, as well as other factories that produce pollution containing carcinogens or known developmental toxicants worldwide. It is difficult to know how many people this would affect given that there isn’t a central database for international pollution, but my guess is that many people are affected. 

3. What is one takeaway from your article that you’d like to communicate to non-scholars (or policymakers)?

These findings have strong implications for where we locate schools, playgrounds, public housing and places children or pregnant women congregate. For a long time, we have known that neighborhoods matter to children’s long-term outcomes. We are starting to realize that pollution is one major reason why this is the case, that pollution might drive more inequality than we are comfortable with, and that the true costs of pollution are only beginning to be understood.

4. To what extent do you feel that your research could inspire change in policy?

I think policymakers are starting to be interested in these findings, and I am optimistic about the future. While the land near TRI sites is cheaper to build a school on in the short run, the truth is that these sites might jeopardize the very mission of the schools located there. This also says nothing of the long-run costs on the children exposed to this type of pollution. In the back of the envelope calculation, we find that being exposed to TRI pollution in school leads to a US$4,361 decrease in lifetime income per person (in present value terms). With 436,088 children in Florida ever attending school within one mile of an operating TRI site during this sample period, this result implies US$1,875,178,400 in lost lifetime earnings.

5. Will you continue to pursue similar questions or will you take your research in another direction?

Yes, I am pursuing several new projects about the true costs of pollution. For example, I have another new working paper (along with David Simon and Jenni Heissel) in which we compare students who have to switch from elementary to middle school or from middle school to high school as they progress through the school system. We compare children who switch from a school that is upwind from a highway to a school that is downwind of a highway, and again find that highway pollution affects students’ test scores, behavior, and absences. Children who attend school near a major highway are again more likely to be low income or minority than children attending school elsewhere.

Figure 1. Locations of Toxic Release Inventory and Superfund sites in the United States in 2015.

Note: Toxic Release Inventory facilities are shown in blue and sites on the Superfund National Priorities List are shown in red.

Source: National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services.

Claudia Persico is an applied policy scholar whose research focuses on environmental policy, inequality, health and education policy using causal inference methods. Persico is also an IZA Research Affiliate, and a Research Affiliate with the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. Her research has recently been featured in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, the Journal of Labor Economics, and the Journal of Human Resources. Her current work examines the social and biological mechanisms underlying the relationships between poverty, the environment, and children’s cognitive development and health. In particular, much of her current research focuses on how early exposure to environmental pollution can cause inequality by affecting child health, development, behavior, and academic achievement. She has also studied how school funding affects long term outcomes, how school segregation impacts racial disproportionalities in special education, and how childhood exposure to pollution affects academic outcomes. Her research has been covered by the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, the Atlantic, and many other major media outlets. She was formerly an Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.