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.
Upcoming Journal of Human Resources article uncovers the hidden effects of pollutants on cognitive development and academic performance in adolescents
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.
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
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)?
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.
Note: Toxic Release Inventory facilities are shown in blue and sites on the Superfund National Priorities List are shown in red.
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.
Forthcoming Journal of Human Resources article finds evidence of distance-based discrimination in the hiring process
It’s a vicious cycle: those living in poverty are often unable to afford housing in city centers, putting them far from jobs. And, according to new research set to appear in The Journal of Human Resources, employers may discriminate against job seekers who have longer commutes. This could be one factor making it difficult for many Americans to escape poverty, posits David Phillips, the study’s author.
Phillips had a hunch that a person’s address might impact their chances of getting hired. To measure the effects of distance on an applicant’s performance, Phillips’s team sent 2,260 resumes in response to low-wage position openings (requiring only a high school education) in Washington, DC. The findings were clear: the farther away an applicant lived from the job location, the less likely they were to receive a callback from the employer. To clarify these results, Phillips wanted to determine whether employers looked more favorably on addresses from wealthier neighborhoods, even if they were far from the place of work. When resumes were sent from neighborhoods with similar levels of affluence but different commute lengths, Phillips found that applicants from the more distant neighborhoods received 14 percent fewer callbacks than applicants who lived closer to the job site, even though both applicants could be presumed to have the same socioeconomic status. Overall, Phillips determined that employers weigh an applicant’s distance from the job more heavily than their neighborhood’s affluence.
Phillips, a researcher at the University of Notre Dame, joined us to discuss the genesis of his interest in this topic and the larger implications of this study. To learn more, read the full Journal of Human Resources preprint article, listen to Phillips’s interview with NPR, and check out some of the press that this study has been receiving, here, here, and here.
How did you decide to pursue this topic?
During my dissertation, I spent some time working with a non-profit employment agency in Washington, DC. Most of their clients lived in less affluent neighborhoods in Southeast DC and transportation was a common question. I helped them run a pilot testing whether public transit subsidies could facilitate the job search process for people looking for low-wage jobs. It became clear that their clients were working with major transportation issues. At some point in that project, the idea came up that employers were probably aware of the transportation difficulties that people face and might respond to the address listed on the job application.
Why did it make sense to publish in The Journal of Human Resources?
The JHR has a great reputation for publishing rigorous work on the most important questions in empirical economics. As a result, it reaches a broad audience of applied economists. I thought the paper’s topic would be a good fit for that audience given increased attention to neighborhood effects and urban geography in the literature lately. The JHR also has a track record of publishing correspondence experiments. This paper fits with earlier work by David Neumark and Joanna Lahey that has shown up in the pages of The JHR.
How does the distance bias interact with other discrimination applicants might face—due to class, race, or gender, for example?
Discrimination based on commute distance could compound existing inequity. Other things equal, remote places are cheaper and thus attract people with other disadvantages. For example, on average a black person in DC lives one mile farther from jobs than a white person. Even if employers have a clear, rational, unbiased reason for avoiding people with long commutes, that penalty disproportionately falls on people who face other barriers.
What part of your findings surprised you the most, and why?
An interesting topic is one where you suspect an effect exists where other people think it doesn’t. So, I went into this betting employers care about addresses, and the response to distance was not a surprise to me. I was more surprised that employers do not respond much to neighborhood affluence. I expected employers to really penalize distant, poor neighborhoods both because of their remoteness and because of poverty. And I don’t find evidence of the latter despite the fact that the fake applicants come from very, very different neighborhoods in terms of affluence.
Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame
David Phillips, PhD, works in the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO) within the Department of Economics at the University of Notre Dame. His research focuses on poverty, particularly as it relates to low-wage labor markets, crime, housing, and transportation. His research has been published in high quality economics field journals and presented widely for policy audiences. Prior to coming to Notre Dame, David received a Bachelor’s degree from Butler University, earned a PhD in Economics from Georgetown University, and worked for 4 years at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.
The University of Wisconsin Press Journals Division Reflects on the Past Year
This year, our journals underwent several personnel changes, which will continue into 2019. Daniel W. Bromley celebrated his retirement after forty-four years of editing Land Economics, and Daniel J. Phaneuf began his tenure as editor. Ecological Restorationrecently welcomed new Assistant Editor Tabby Fenn. Look for an introduction to Fenn in the next issue of ER, Vol. 37.1. After seventeen years of serving as the editor of Monatshefte, Hans Adler will begin to transition into retirement, with Hannah Eldridge and Sonja Klocke joining him as co-editors in 2019 and taking over in 2020. The official announcement will be published in Monatshefte 110.4.
In other journals news, Ghana Studies celebrated its twentieth anniversary with a special issue featuring reflections on the journal. And in the spirit of looking back, we are working to digitize the Ghana Studies archive for inclusion on Project MUSE. Land Economics implemented submission fees as a supplementary source of revenue for the journal. Finally, the Journal of Human Resources announced that, starting in Fall 2019, it will publish two additional articles per issue. We’re excited to see what the coming year holds for our journals.
Here at the Press, in a move to expand our in-house editorial services, Chloe Lauer was promoted to Editorial and Advertising Manager. Chloe serves as a production editor for African Economic History and Ghana Studies, and she provides editorial support for several other publications—on top of coordinating advertising sales for all of our journals.
In April, the Press welcomed Claire Eder as Journals Marketing Specialist. Claire has been focused on author and community outreach for our journals, representing the Press at the Charleston Library Conference and bringing two journals (Land Economics and Contemporary Literature) into the world of social media. In coordination with our journals’ editorial teams, she created a resource for authors with advice for publicizing their articles.
In 2019, the Journals Division will work on several initiatives, such as sending out a Request for Bids for online hosting providers and reviewing our editorial standards. This review involves formalizing a statement of publication ethics and increasing transparency with regards to peer review procedures. John Ferguson, our Production Manager, is in the process of rethinking our metadata standards in order to make articles more discoverable. Additionally, we aim to work more closely with journal editorial offices in the coming year, increasing our reporting frequency from annually to quarterly for those journals published four times a year, as well as organizing an annual get-together where staff from our editorial offices in the Wisconsin area can meet to discuss issues in scholarly publishing. It is shaping up to be another busy year, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. We are grateful to our publication partners, who provide us with the drive to innovate and improve.
Journal of Human Resources contributor Matthew A. Kraft believes that we do teachers and students a disservice when we assess teachers based mainly on students’ standardized test scores. His article “Teacher Effects on Complex Cognitive Skills and Social-Emotional Competencies,” which will be published in the Winter 2019 issue of JHR, examined teachers’ influence on students’ social-emotional abilities. These include such qualities as growth mindset, perseverance, and effort in class, which have been linked to employment and health outcomes in later life. Kraft also studied student performance on complex open-ended tasks in math and reading—problems more complicated than those required by multiple choice tests—to understand how teachers affect critical thinking skills. Kraft found that a teacher’s ability to impact students’ standardized test scores was not always a good indicator of that teacher’s effectiveness at fostering complex cognitive skills and social-emotional skills, suggesting that we need better methods of evaluating teacher performance.
Kraft, who is an Associate Professor of Education and Economics at Brown University, joined us for a conversation touching on his background as an educator, his ideas on effective teaching techniques, and other topics. To learn more, read about the article on the JHR blog.
How did your time as a public school teacher influence your drive to research topics in education and/or the direction of that research?
As a public school teacher in Oakland and Berkeley, California, I often felt that teaching social-emotional skills had to come before teaching academic content. I tried to help my ninth grade students, most of whom were identified as at risk of dropping out, to feel like they belonged in school, to control their behavioral impulses, and to see value in what they were learning. My students did not take standardized tests, but if they did I doubt their performance would have captured the multiple ways in which I attempted to help them develop as young adults.
Do you remember any particular teachers that helped you develop social-emotional skills as a student?
I don’t ever remember being explicitly taught social-emotional skills. Instead, I remember teachers like Ms. Thomas, my tenth and twelfth grade English teacher, who set extremely high expectations but provided constant support to help us meet these expectations. She helped me to develop my own self-efficacy and perseverance by the way she taught core academic content.
Do you have a sense of what techniques teachers could use to develop students’ complex cognitive skills? Social-emotional skills? Maybe give an example or two.
In my opinion, project-based learning holds great promise for developing complex cognitive skills. Examples such as the curriculum developed by EL Education (formerly Expeditionary Learning) illustrate how authentic and complex tasks require students to use a multitude of skills rather than practicing individual skills in abstract isolation on worksheets.
How to teach social-emotional skills is very much an open question. I’m convinced that the best teachers both explicitly narrate and reinforce the value of these skills, while also designing their curriculum and pedagogical approaches to support their development through academic work. I think we learn things like persistence not by being told about the value of this skill, but by experiencing small successes in overcoming challenges with the support of educators.
What is one takeaway from your article that you’d like to communicate to nonscholars or policy makers?
Our understanding of teacher effectiveness, as well as the multiple measures used in new teacher evaluation systems, fail to capture the full range of ways in which teachers affect students’ success in school and life.
After this publication, where did your research go? Did you find yourself pursuing similar questions or changing course?
My current work in this area is focused on the importance of students’ sense of belonging in schools. Preliminary results suggest that schools and teachers who help support students to feel like they belong are creating environments where students develop their academic and social-emotional skills at faster rates.
Matthew Kraft is an Associate Professor of Education and Economics at Brown University. His research and teaching interests include the economics of education, education policy analysis, and applied quantitative methods for causal inference. His primary work focuses on efforts to improve educator and organizational effectiveness in K–12 urban public schools. He has published on topics including teacher coaching, teacher professional growth, teacher evaluation, teacher-parent communication, teacher layoffs, social and emotional skills, school working conditions, and extended learning time. His research has been featured in The Economist, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Education Week, The 74 Million, public radio, and several blog sites.