Published on Development Impact

The stressful condition

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I came across this piece by Mullainathan and Datta in the Annual Report of the William Kellogg Foundation (HT Marginal Revolution), which is a behavioral economist’s take on the reasons why some parents are less likely than others to undertake actions beneficial to their children. The whole piece is worth your read, but here are some excerpts to set things up:

“The science doesn’t just agree on what not to do. Sadly it agrees on something else: low-income parents are much more likely to do these things. We know children born to low-income families do poorly on average. And one culprit seems to be the behavior of low-income parents.

While there is agreement on the behavior, there is little agreement on why. Why are low-income parents not giving their children as much attention, help and encouragement as they need? Different ends of the political spectrum point in different directions. The left tends to see a lack of parenting skills. They look for solutions that emphasize improving these skills. The right tends to see more personal failures. They look for solutions that emphasize getting parents to take more responsibility.

As behavioral economists, we believe something else is going on.”

Mullainathan and Datta go on to talk about the importance of psychic resources: low income parents have not only lower financial resources, but they also suffer a tax on the mental space – attention, self-control, patience, etc. – required for good parenting. My dear friend, colleague, and co-blogger Jed Friedman blogged about an experiment, in which “…participants were asked to remember a number – the number was randomly selected to either be a short two digit number or a seven digit number – and then to walk down a hallway to another room for an interview. As a seeming afterthought, they were told there is a snack cart in the hallway and to help themselves to one of the snacks. The snack choice was either fruit salad or chocolate cake.  The subjects asked to remember the two-digit number selected the fruit salad in equal proportions to the chocolate cake. The subjects tasked with remembering the longer seven digit number overwhelmingly chose the chocolate cake.”

You get the point that when we’re stressed, it’s harder to make better decisions: this morning, after spending two whole hours on the phone with the World Bank’s IT folks from home (unsuccessfully) trying to fix a remote access bug on my laptop (instead of posting this piece in a timely manner), I ate leftover cold pizza for breakfast instead of my usual fare of yoghurt and granola. And, that aggravation is nothing compared with what poor folks go through every single day and night…

Continuing with the piece, the part that really resonated with me, however, was the following:

“When cash is tight, that feeling you have when that deadline was looming, becomes a constant mental state. Well-off people have the luxury of freedom of mind. Their psychic resources are reserved for “difficult,” “important” things that have a big impact on their well- being in the long run. But those with less income are not as fortunate. They have the same (limited) capacity for self-control and attention – but are forced to expend a large fraction of it on dealing with the ups and downs of everyday life. Simply managing the basics of life uses psychic resources. This leaves less psychic resources for the important things in life. Part of the mind is constantly fretting about putting food on the table. Put in this light, is it any surprise that low-income parents look like worse parents?

This has dramatic implications for policy. For instance, many standard policies that aim to improve outcomes for children from low-income families impose additional conditions – take your child to an additional program, monitor his progress, attend regular meetings – that amount to a further tax on already limited available mental bandwidth. Behavioral science thus suggests that such policies by themselves are unlikely to be as successful as one might hope.”

This resonated with me (and some of my collaborators on our Malawi study who also read the piece) immediately. Why? Because, we actually have quantitative evidence that the conditions imposed in Conditional Cash Transfer programs (CCTs) may be psychologically taxing. In this working paper, we show that while CCTs and UCTs (unconditional cash transfers) both reduced psychological distress among school-age girls compared to a control group that received nothing in Malawi, the reduction was much smaller in the CCT group: the condition was stressful to the person to whose behavior the transfers were linked. In contrast, cash with no strings attached reduced psychological distress by almost 40%! (As an aside, unconditional cash transfers also substantially delayed marriage and pregnancy among adolescent girls in this study, a current topic of debate in the US econ blogosphere on the effect of income shocks on marriage among young women – see Matt Yglesias on this in here)

And, right through to the end, the authors kept speaking to me:

“Instead, a very good parenting program may not look like one at all. Deal with the economic instability that taxes psychic resources. For example, stabilize incomes, provide low-income credit alternatives to deal with the ups and downs of life, or ensure stable housing. These may not be “parenting” programs in the conventional sense of the term. But by freeing up psychic resources they allow people to be the parents they want to be. They allow more traditional parental skills programs to be more successful.

So, what does it take to be a good parent? Freedom of mind. And that is a luxury low-income parents often cannot afford.”

This idea that an intervention to tackle a specific problem may look nothing like a program that is normally designed to tackle that problem is something we’ve been trying to communicate for a while, and I hope that Sendil and Saugato will be more successful. One thing that our experiment comparing CCTs and UCTs in Malawi did is to show that a program that had no explicit aim to reduce risky sexual behavior and prevent STIs, improve mental health, prevent teen pregnancy and marriage, could be effective in doing all of those things (I hope to post the findings on STIs next week). What was that program? $10/month with no strings attached. Colleagues in the HIV prevention field were initially stunned that a program that deliberately avoided talking about sex could have that much effect on sexual behavior.

It may sound crass (especially if you’re not an economist) but sometimes people just need a little more money to improve a whole lot of important things in their lives. As my colleagues who recently wrote the World Development Report on “Gender Equality and Development,” there are some things growth can fix, while with many other problems growth will help very little. In the meantime, it would help if policymakers and researchers were not always looking for the key under the lamppost.


Berk Özler

Lead Economist, Development Research Group, World Bank

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