Category Archives: Economics

Raising the Minimum Retirement Age: How Do Workers Respond?

As populations are aging, governments around the world are looking for ways to stretch pension programs to accommodate large numbers of retirees. One option is to raise the minimum retirement age, as Germany did in 1999, upping the retirement age for women from 60 to 63. Economists Johannes Geyer and Clara Welteke analyze the impacts of this policy shift in a Journal of Human Resources preprint article. They wanted to know whether women over 60 changed their labor market status as a result of the reform. Did employed women stay in their jobs longer or use unemployment or disability benefits as a way to exit the labor market? Geyer and Welteke joined us to discuss their findings.


Why did you decide to pursue this topic?

Population aging is an enormous challenge for the financial sustainability of public pension systems of many OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries. Germany is facing a rapid increase in the old-age dependency ratio in the coming years. Already every second person in Germany is over 45 years old and every fifth person is over 66 years old. One way to increase the financial sustainability of the pay-as-you-go pension system is to increase the legal retirement age, thereby extending contribution periods whilst simultaneously decreasing pension expenditures. However, legal retirement age increases often have undesired distributional effects. Furthermore, workers may not be able or willing to work longer and may choose other exit routes from employment. Thus, it is of great importance to gain empirical evidence on the effects of pension reforms that increase retirement age thresholds. Our goal is to gain insights into the effects of this important question and inform policy makers.

What is one takeaway from this research that you’d like to communicate to policy makers?

The increase in the early retirement age for women in Germany resulted in a large employment increase in the affected age group (60- to 63-year-olds). One could conclude that the reform was a success and recommend similar measures for other countries and groups. However, the reform was successful in increasing employment because the labor market was in a good state and women were able to continue their employment. We also find that inactive and unemployed women remain longer in their respective status due to the reform. Another factor was the early announcement of the reform, which gave enough time to adjust career plans.

As a main takeaway, we recommend early retirement age increases as an effective tool to increase employment of the affected group, if labor market perspectives and the health of workers enable such an extension of their working life. Retirement age increases should be announced well in advance and those who are not able to work longer should be offered appropriate support, such as disability pension schemes.

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

One of our results was that non-working women affected by the pension reform did not return to the labor market while employed women stayed in employment. In a follow-up project, we look at the distributional effects of the pension reform at the household level. More specifically, we wanted to know if the pension led to increased income inequality. Our results suggest that the distribution of available household income is not affected by the reform. One reason for this result is program substitution. The study is forthcoming in Labor Economics. In a current project, we look at health effects of the reform. We use administrative data from German health insurance that contain detailed information about individual diagnoses from medical practitioners’ records. Preliminary results suggest that the reform led to an increase of psychological symptoms.

What are some of the ways in which raising the retirement age could theoretically backfire on governments? Did you find any evidence that this is happening in the case of Germany?

The reform can be considered a success in retrospect. It did not lead to an increase in unemployment or large increases in disability pensions. However, the positive employment effect is strongly related to the good labor market performance at the time. Our results also show that women at this pre-retirement age do not react very flexibly to changing conditions. The results would have been different if Germany had experienced a large recession. Interestingly, this result is also found in other countries, like Australia and Austria. Therefore, governments should also invest more in labor market opportunities for older workers and develop better strategies to bring the older unemployed back to work.


Johannes Geyer is deputy head of the department of public economics at DIW Berlin. He earned his PhD in Economics in 2012. Between 2012 and 2016 he was a visiting professor at Humboldt-Universität Berlin, in addition to his work at the DIW Berlin. His research focuses on issues of social protection and demographic change. For this he uses empirical methods of microeconometrics and microsimulation.

Clara Welteke is an economist at the German Federal Ministry of Finance since April 2019. Her work focuses on pension provision and the sustainability of public finances. Previously, Clara was a researcher at the Public Economics Department and the Gender Economics Research Group at the DIW Berlin. Clara received her PhD from the Free University Berlin and the DIW Graduate Center in 2017. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy & Economics from the University of Bayreuth and a Master’s degree in Econometrics and Mathematical Economics from the University of Amsterdam. After completing her Master’s degree, Clara worked as a consultant for the World Bank. During her doctoral studies, she worked for the OECD in Paris and the European Commission in Brussels.

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. 

Journal Editor Receives Book Prize from the British Academy

Toby Green, Senior Lecturer in Lusophone African History and Culture at King’s College London and a co-editor of the UW Press journal African Economic History, was recently awarded the British Academy’s 2019 Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for his book A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution (University of Chicago Press, 2019). The Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize honors a non-fiction book that promotes global cultural understanding.

A Fistful of Shells describes the relationship between West Africa and European colonial powers as it evolved through the growth of the slave trade. Prior to the fifteenth century, gold-rich African kingdoms and European economies had been on equal terms, but Green shows through six case studies how European merchants created an imbalance by importing large quantities of objects used as currency in African kingdoms, such as cowrie shells and copper rings, to exchange for gold and slave laborers. This influx of currency created inflation and lead to economic instability and social upheaval in West African societies. The book then traces political developments that led to a revolutionary nineteenth century in Africa.

In an interview on the British Academy’s blog, Green emphasizes the importance of fieldwork to his project and for anyone studying the history of West Africa. “The problem with using just written materials . . . is that in the end you will reproduce the perspectives of the authors. In this case, they were white male slave traders and that’s going to give you a very lopsided view – which is what traditionally has happened.” To avoid this pitfall, Green’s research supplemented written narratives with archival research, oral histories, art, archaeology, and letters. The book is the culmination of over twenty years of research.

To learn more about West African economic history, read an excerpt from the book, and browse the latest African Economic History, a special issue entitled “Colonial Economic History in West Africa” co-edited by Green and George M. Bob-Milliar.

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.”

Thirty Years of Editing African Economic History

By Mariana Candido, Toyin Falola, and Toby Green, co-editors, African Economic History

African Economic History

African Economic History salutes Professor Paul E. Lovejoy for the thirty-plus years of service he has given to the journal. In that time, Paul has performed wondrous feats in maintaining the vitality of a discipline which is fundamentally relevant to so many areas of African Studies, but which had been allowed to wither on the academic vine. The continued existence of the journal is a standing example of Professor Lovejoy’s outstanding service to the discipline of economic history and the field of African history in general. We will miss his contributions and editorial oversight so very much, but are also so grateful for all that he has done.

With Paul Lovejoy’s retirement as an editor, we are delighted to announce the appointment of two new editors: George Bob-Milliar, of Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, and Melchisedek Chétima, Banting Fellow at York University.

The journal is also pleased to announce that we are now accepting submissions in Portuguese. This opens the journal to a wider range of potential contributors in Africa and Brazil,  from which we are very keen to see more submissions. We are pleased to join African Studies Review and the Journal of West African History in taking this step. If you are interested in having your work considered for publication in African Economic History, please see our submission guidelines.

Colonial Economic History in West Africa

African Economic History

A special issue of African Economic History, “Colonial Economic History in West Africa: The Gold Coast and Gambia in Comparative Perspective,” reconsiders the comparative place of economic frameworks in British colonies in West Africa. One of the issue’s important aims is to emphasize the difference in divergent spaces, between the “profitable” colony of the Gold Coast and the “economic drain” of The Gambia colony. Edited by George M. Bob-Milliar and Toby Green, the issue is also characterized by new and distinctive archival research from archives in the countries considered; this empirical detail places the economic impact of colonialism in an important new light.

Browse the table of contents and read the editors’ introduction, freely available on Project MUSE.

Most Read Articles of 2019

As 2019 wraps up, we take a look back at the most read journal articles published this year. The following list presents the most popular article from each of our journals. Many are freely available to read until the end of January.

African Economic History: “The Politics of African Freehold Land Ownership in Early Colonial Zimbabwe, 1890–1930” by Joseph Mujere and Admire Mseba

Arctic Anthropology: “Farming in the Extreme—Animal Management in Late Medieval and Early Modern Northern Finland” by Maria Lahtinen and Anna-Kaisa Salmi

Contemporary Literature: “Don DeLillo, Madison Avenue, and the Aesthetics of Postwar Fiction” by Aaron Derosa

Ecological Restoration: “Five Decades of Wetland Soil Development of a Constructed Tidal Salt Marsh, North Carolina, USA” by Aaron Noll, Courtney Mobilian, and Christopher Craft

Ghana Studies: “Descendant Epistemology” by Ebony Coletu

Journal of Human Resources: “Teacher Effects on Complex Cognitive Skills and Social-Emotional Competencies” by Matthew A. Kraft

Land Economics: “Adaptation, Sea Level Rise, and Property Prices in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed” by Patrick Walsh, Charles Griffiths, Dennis Guignet, and Heather Klemick

Landscape Journal: “Core Knowledge Domains of Landscape Architecture” by William N. Langley, Robert C. Corry, and Robert D. Brown

Luso-Brazilian Review: “Os lugares do morto: O que faz Eça na literatura portuguesa contemporânea?” by Pedro Marques

Monatshefte: “Recent German Ecocriticism in Interdisciplinary Context” by Helga G. Braunbeck

Native Plants Journal: “Successfully Storing Milkweed Taproots for Habitat Restoration” by Melissa L. Topping, R. Kasten Dumroese, and Jeremiah R. Pinto

Land Economics and the history of “Sifting and Winnowing”

Land Economics journal founder Richard T. Ely and the battle for academic freedom

Richard T. Ely
Richard T. Ely

The founder of the field of land economics, and of the journal of the same name, played a pivotal role in the history of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He also scored a victory for academics everywhere when he defended his teaching and scholarship against charges that it promoted a subversive political agenda. Richard T. Ely taught economics at the University of Wisconsin from 1892 to 1925. His Progressivist ideas went against the current of the laissez-faire economic theory of the time, and his support for social reforms and organized labor earned him the scrutiny of the Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction, Oliver E. Wells. Wells charged that Ely was promoting anarchism and socialism to his students, and that he encouraged labor union strikes and boycotts—charges that Ely denied. In fact, he had written articles and books that were critical of socialism. Under media scrutiny, the UW Board of Regents launched an investigation, and Ely was tried in a public hearing in August of 1894. The economics community, as well as other academics, spoke out emphatically in Ely’s defense, and he was acquitted by a unanimous vote. In their report of the hearing, the regents issued a strong statement in support of academic freedom, part of which now graces a plaque on the university’s main administration building. The plaque reads:

Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.

This idea of “sifting and winnowing” has become a cornerstone of the University of Wisconsin’s institutional philosophy, and in this phrase, proponents of higher education can recognize the imperative to preserve the freedom to teach and research without censorship.

Land Economics cover image

Ely went on to found the Institute for Research in Land Economics and Public Utilities in 1920, along with the Journal of Land & Public Utility Economics. In 1948, this journal was renamed Land Economics. For more on Ely, see this excellent history of “sifting and winnowing,” which appeared in September of this year to mark the 125th anniversary of the regents’ statement. Additionally, Ely’s legacy has been a recurring topic in the pages of Land Economics. He is profiled in this tribute from the year of his death, in the published proceedings of a 1948 symposium at UW–Madison on frontiers of housing research, and in the journal’s fiftieth anniversary issue.

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. https://toxmap.nlm.nih.gov/toxmap


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.