One of the most egregious manifestations of gender bias is the phenomenon of “missing women.” The number of missing women is projected to increase to 150 million by 2035, as a result of prenatal sex selection and excess female mortality relative to men, and is reflected in male-biased sex ratios at all ages. The economics literature identifies several proximate causes of the deficit of females, including the widespread use of prenatal sex selection in many Asian countries, which has been fueled by the diffusion of ultrasound and other fetal sex-detection technology. The use of prenatal sex selection has become even more expansive with a decline in fertility, as parents with a preference for sons are less likely to achieve their desired sex composition of children at lower levels of fertility. Gender discrimination in investments in health and nutrition also leads to excess female mortality among children through multiple channels. The deeper causes of son preference lie in the socioeconomic and cultural norms embedded in patriarchal societies, and recent literature in economics seeks to quantify the impact of these norms and customs on the sex ratio. Particularly important are the norms of patrilineality, in which property and assets are passed through the male line, and patrilocality, in which elderly parents coreside with their sons, whereas their daughters move to live with their husbands’ families after marriage. Another strand of the literature explores the hypothesis that the devaluing of women has roots in historical agricultural systems: Societies that have made little use of women’s labor are today the ones with the largest female deficits. Finally, economic development is often associated with a decline in son preference, but, in practice, many correlates of development, such as women’s education, income, and work status, have little impact on the sex ratio unless accompanied by more extensive social transformations. A number of policies have been implemented by governments throughout the world to tackle this issue, including legislative bans on different forms of gender discrimination, financial incentives for families to compensate them for the perceived additional costs of having a daughter, and media and advocacy campaigns that seek to increase the inherent demand for daughters by shifting the norm of son preference. Quantitative evaluations of some of these policies find mixed results. Where policies are unable to address the root causes of son preference, they often simply deflect discrimination from the targeted margin to another margin, and in some cases, they even fail in their core objectives. On the other hand, the expansion of social safety nets has had a considerable impact in reducing the reliance of parents on their sons. Similarly, media and advocacy campaigns that aim to increase the perceived value of women have also shown promise, even if their progress appears slow. Analysis of the welfare consequences of such interventions suggests that governments must pay close attention to underlying sociocultural norms when designing policy.
Aparajita Dasgupta and Anisha Sharma
Francine J. Lipman
Since 2010, Congress has significantly cut the annual budget of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) while requiring the IRS to manage more responsibilities, including last-minute comprehensive tax reform, health care, broad-based antipoverty relief, and a variety of economic stimulus provisions. As a result, the IRS has sustained across-the-board decreases in staffing, with the most significant decreases in tax enforcement personnel. The IRS has fewer auditors than at any time since World War II, despite an explosion of concentrated income and wealth. Predictably, the tax gap, the difference between what taxpayers owe and what taxpayers pay, has skyrocketed to almost $1 trillion a year. Economists have estimated that funding the IRS will pay for itself severalfold, raising more than a trillion dollars of uncollected tax revenues over a decade. Despite evidence that funding will remedy budget shortfalls severalfold, Congress continues to defund the IRS. While the bulk of the tax gap is due to unreported income by high-income individuals, the audit rate of these households has dropped precipitously. By comparison, the lowest income wage earners are being audited five times more often than all other taxpayers. Given centuries of racist policies in the United States, households of color are disproportionately impoverished and white households are disproportionately wealthy. Accordingly, lower income working families of color, especially in the South, are audited at rates higher than their white northern counterparts. Moreover, because these households and the IRS have limited resources, many of these audits result in taxpayers losing antipoverty benefits that they have properly claimed. This discriminatory treatment is counter to Congressional intent to support these families and exacerbates existing racial income and wealth gaps. With President Biden’s 2021 executive order on advancing racial equity and support for underserved communities through the federal government, the U.S. Treasury, IRS, and Congress have been charged to “recognize and work to redress inequities in their policies and programs that serve as barriers to equal opportunity.” Properly funding the IRS is a necessary step to advancing racial equity.
Parental choice over public schools has become a major policy tool to combat inequality in access to schools. Traditional neighborhood-based assignment is being replaced by school choice programs, broadening families’ access to schools beyond their residential location. Demand and supply in school choice programs are cleared via centralized admissions algorithms. Heterogeneous parental preferences and admissions policies create trade-offs among efficiency and equity. The data from centralized admissions algorithms can be used effectively for credible research design toward better understanding of school effectiveness, which in turn can be used for school portfolio planning and student assignment based on match quality between students and schools.
Kevin Kuruc, Mark Budolfson, and Dean Spears
Nearly all large policy decisions influence not only the quality of life for existing individuals but also the number—and even identities—of yet-to-exist individuals. Accounting for these effects in a policy evaluation framework requires taking difficult stances on concepts such as the value of existence. These issues are at the heart of a literature that sits between welfare economics and philosophical population ethics. Despite the inherent challenges of these questions, this literature has produced theoretical insights and subsequent progress on variable-population welfare criteria. A surprisingly bounded set of coherent alternatives exists for practitioners once a set of uncontroversial axioms is adopted from the better-studied welfare criteria for cases where populations are assumed to be fixed. Although consensus has not yet been reached among these remaining alternatives, their recommendations often agree. The space has been sufficiently restricted and well explored that applications of the theoretical insights are possible and underway in earnest. For reasons both theoretical and empirical, the applied literature studying optimal policy and its robustness to welfare criteria has documented a surprising degree of convergence between recommendations under quite different ethical stances on existence value. This convergence has appeared even in cases where population size itself is the choice variable. Although it may not always be the case that policy recommendations are invariant to population welfare criteria, tools have been developed that allow researchers to easily and transparently move between such criteria to study the robustness in their context of interest. The broader point is that the remaining theoretical uncertainties need not prevent population ethics from playing a role in policy evaluation—the tools are available for determining whether and which policies are broadly supported among a range of ethical views.
Gregory N. Price
In 1894, W. E. B. Dubois completed coursework for a doctorate in economics at the University of Berlin, and in 1921, Sadie Alexander was the first Black American to earn a doctorate in economics at the University of Pennsylvania. Notwithstanding these rare early accomplishments by Black Americans in economics, there seems to be a more than one century “color line” in the hiring of Black economists in the United States academic labor market. The persistence of Black economist underrepresentation in economics faculties in the United States suggests that a color line constraining the hiring of Black economics faculty endures. In general, and in particular among economics doctorate–granting institutions in the United States, when sorting them by the number of Black Americans on the economics faculty, the median economics department has no Black economics faculty. Findings from the extant literature on the hiring and representation of Black economists suggest that the underrepresentation of Black PhD economists in economics faculties is consistent with, and conforms to, a history of racially discriminatory employment exclusion. This color line could be constraining the production of economics knowledge that can inform public policies that would reduce racial inequality and improve the material living standards of Black Americans in the United States. Future research on the underrepresentation of Black PhD economists in economics faculties in the United States could potentially benefit from accounting for unobservables that may matter for the supply and demand of Black PhD economists. This includes, but is not limited to, what is not observed about individual PhD economist mentoring experiences and parental occupational backgrounds.
Martin Karlsson, Daniel Kühnle, and Nikolaos Prodromidis
Due to the similarities with the COVID–19 pandemic, there has been a renewed interest in the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic, which represents the most severe pandemic of the 20th century with an estimated total death toll ranging between 30 and 100 million. This rapidly growing literature in economics and economic history has devoted attention to contextual determinants of excess mortality in the pandemic; to the impact of the pandemic on economic growth, inequality, and a range of other outcomes; and to the impact of nonpharmaceutical interventions. Estimating the effects of the pandemic, or the effects of countermeasures, is challenging. There may not be much exogenous variation to go by, and the historical data sets available are typically small and often of questionable quality. Yet the 1918–1919 pandemic offers a unique opportunity to learn how large pandemics play out in the long run. The studies evaluating effects of the pandemic, or of policies enacted to combat it, typically rely on some version of difference-in-differences, or instrumental variables. The assumptions required for these designs to achieve identification of causal effects have rarely been systematically evaluated in this particular historical context. Using a purpose-built dataset covering the entire Swedish population, such an assessment is provided here. The empirical analysis indicates that the identifying assumptions used in previous work may indeed be satisfied. However, the results cast some doubt on the general external validity of previous findings as the analysis fails to replicate several results in the Swedish context. These disagreements highlight the need for additional studies in other populations and contexts which puts the spotlight on further digitization and linkage of historical datasets.
Samuel Muehlemann and Stefan Wolter
The economic reasons why firms engage in apprenticeship training are twofold. First, apprenticeship training is a potentially cost-effective strategy for filling a firm’s future vacancies, particularly if skilled labor on the external labor market is scarce. Second, apprentices can be cost-effective substitutes for other types of labor in the current production process. As current and expected business and labor market conditions determine a firm’s expected work volume and thus its future demand for skilled labor, they are potentially important drivers of a firm’s training decisions. Empirical studies have found that the business cycle affects apprenticeship markets. However, while the economic magnitude of these effects is moderate on average, there is substantial heterogeneity across countries, even among those that at first sight seem very similar in terms of their apprenticeship systems. Moreover, identification of business cycle effects is a difficult task. First, statistics on apprenticeship markets are often less developed than labor market statistics, making empirical analyses of demand and supply impossible in many cases. In particular, data about unfilled apprenticeship vacancies and unsuccessful applicants are paramount for assessing potential market failures and analyzing the extent to which business cycle fluctuations may amplify imbalances in apprenticeship markets. Second, the intensity of business cycle effects on apprenticeship markets is not completely exogenous, as governments typically undertake a variety of measures, which differ across countries and may change over time, to reduce the adverse effects of economic downturns on apprenticeship markets. During the economic crisis related to the COVID-19 global pandemic, many countries took unprecedented actions to support their economies in general and reacted swiftly to introduce measures such as the provision of financial subsidies for training firms or the establishment of apprenticeship task forces. As statistics on apprenticeship markets improve over time, such heterogeneity in policy measures should be exploited to improve our understanding of the business cycle and its relationship with apprenticeships.
Jo Blanden and Birgitta Rabe
Governments around the world are increasingly investing resources for young children, and universal provision of early childhood education and care (ECEC) has become widespread. Children’s development is affected by the investments they receive both within and outside the household. A simple theoretical framework predicts that the provision of public childcare will improve children’s development if it offers more stimulation than the care it replaces. Generally, carefully designed studies show that the provision of early childcare is beneficial, especially for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is in line with expectations that the alternative care experienced by children from less affluent, less educated, and immigrant backgrounds is likely to be of lower quality. Interestingly, however, studies show that the children who would benefit the most are least likely to receive care, providing a challenge for policy makers. Some programs, such as the $5-per-day childcare in Quebec, have negative effects and therefore may be of poor quality. However, comparing results across programs that vary in several dimensions makes it difficult to separate out the ingredients that are most important for success. Studies that focus on identifying the factors in ECEC that lead to the greatest benefit indicate that some standard measures such as staff qualifications are weakly linked to children’s outcomes, whereas larger staff–child ratios and researcher-measured process quality are beneficial. Spending more time in high-quality childcare from around age 3 has proved to be beneficial, whereas the effect of an increase in childcare for younger children is particularly sensitive to each program’s features and context.
Simon Burgess and Ellen Greaves
School choice and accountability are both mechanisms initially designed to improve standards of education in publicly provided schools, although they have been introduced worldwide with alternative motivations such as to promote equality of access to “good” schools. Economists were active in the initial design of school choice and accountability systems, and continue to advise and provide evidence to school authorities to improve the functioning of the “quasi-market.” School choice, defined broadly, is any system in which parents’ preferences over schools are an input to their child’s allocation to school. Milton Friedman initially hypothesized that school choice would increase the diversity of education providers and improve schools’ productivity through competition. As in the healthcare sector and other public services, “quasi-markets” can respond to choice and competition by improving standards to attract consumers. Theoretical and empirical work have interrogated this prediction and provided conditions for this prediction to hold. Another reason is to promote equality of access to “good” schools and therefore improve social mobility. Rather than school places being rationed through market forces in the form of higher house prices, for example, school choice can promote equality of access to popular schools. Research has typically considered the role of school choice in increasing segregation between different groups of pupils, however, due to differences in parents’ preferences for school attributes and, in some cases, the complexity of the system. School accountability is defined as the public provision of school-performance information, on a regular basis, in the same format, and using independent metrics. Accountability has two functions: providing incentives for schools, and information for parents and central authorities. School choice and accountability are linked, in that accountability provides information to parents making school choices, and school choice multiplies the incentive effect of public accountability. Research has studied the effect of school accountability on pupils’ attainment and the implications for teachers as an intermediate mechanism.
Severe economic downturns are typically characterized by a high incidence of job losses. The available evidence suggests that job losers suffer short-run earning losses that persist in the long run, are more likely to remain unemployed, suffer negative health impacts, and experience an increased likelihood of divorce. Job losses have therefore the potential to generate spillover effects for other members of the household, including children. This comes about because most of the negative consequences of job loss have a direct effect on variables that enter both the production function of cognitive achievement and the health production function. Workers who lose their jobs are likely different from those who remain employed in ways that are unobserved to the researcher and that might, in turn, affect child outcomes. Omitted variable bias poses a challenge to obtaining causal estimates of parental job loss. The way the literature has tried to approximate the ideal experiment has mainly depended on whether the child outcome under analysis could be observed both before and after the shock (i.e., both before and after parental job loss), normally relying on job losses coming from plant closures or downsizes and/or individual fixed effects. A survey of the literature shows that father’s job losses seem to have a detrimental impact on outcomes measuring children’s health and school performance. The impact of mother’s job losses on these same outcomes is mixed (including negative, null, and positive impacts). The impact on more long-term outcomes is less clear, with very mixed findings when it comes to the effect of parental job loss on college enrollment, and small impacts on earnings. In many studies, though, average effects mask important differences across subgroups: the negative impact of parental job loss seems to be mostly concentrated on disadvantaged households.