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Summer Reading, Government Jobs And Charitable Donations

inthepapersEvery Monday, the National Bureau of Economic Research, a nonprofit organization made up of some of North America’s most respected economists, releases its latest batch of working papers. The papers aren’t peer-reviewed, so their conclusions are preliminary (and occasionally flat-out wrong). But they offer an early peek into some of the research that will shape economic thinking in the years ahead. Here are a few of this week’s most interesting papers:


Title: “Does Reading During the Summer Build Reading Skills? Evidence from a Randomized Experiment in 463 Classrooms”

Authors: Jonathan Guryan, James S. Kim, David M. Quinn

What they found: Third-grade girls in a summer reading program showed significant gains in comprehension, while third-grade boys did not. Second-grade boys and girls did not see gains. (That’s consistent with other research showing summer reading programs are not developmentally appropriate for second-graders.) The quality of the students’ reading — whether it was sustained and focused — was more important in increasing reading skills than the number of books read.

Why it matters: For kids, summer is fun. But it’s also the time when gaps in reading comprehension widen. Over the past decade, the gap in reading skills between kids in rich and poor homes has persisted, and research shows it grows over the summer. Other research points to the presence of books in the home as a catalyst for reading development. But it’s still unclear whether it’s the books themselves, or the families’ characteristics, that are behind the reading gap.

To tease out these issues, the paper’s authors did a randomized experiment in 463 classrooms (covering 59 schools) in North Carolina in 2013. Second- and third-grade students were randomly assigned to the Project READS summer program; they were mailed one book a week for 10 weeks and given a reading comprehension test at the start and end of the summer. On average, the third-graders in the program read 1.3 more books over the summer than those in the control group, but the effects on post-summer comprehension varied by gender. Third-grade girls saw a statistically significant increase in reading ability, but the boys did not. Second-graders of both genders were found to be too young to get much out of the program. And, interestingly, the researchers showed that it’s the quality, not just the quantity, of reading that mattered. Sustained, focused reading — the kind which girls did more often — accelerated reading skills more than the sheer number of books read.

Key quote: “Taken together, the results of this study suggest that the answer to the question posed by the title is not a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Going through the motions of reading without being focused enough to remember basic facts about the book may not be effective at building lasting reading skills. Reading carefully and with enough focus to be able to answer reading comprehension questions about the book appears to build reading skills that improve comprehension of other texts weeks or months later. How best to get children learning to read in an engaged and focused way remains an open question, and would be a promising area for future research.”

Data they used: Project READS experiment on more than 11, 000 second- and third-grade students in 463 classrooms, covering 59 schools in seven North Carolina school districts.


Title: “Are Public Sector Jobs Recession-Proof? Were They Ever?”

Authors: Jason L. Kopelman, Harvey S. Rosen

What they found: Public-sector jobs offer more job security than private-sector ones, after accounting for worker and job characteristics. The advantage in government workers’ job security rises during recession years, depending on the level of government (federal, state or local).

Why it matters: Jobs can be desirable for reasons beyond the level of salary or how generous the benefits. One such non-pecuniary benefit is job security. Government jobs are thought to have a lot of security and are seen as being “recession-proof.” The authors of this study comb through data on more than 800,000 workers to model the likelihood of losing a job after controlling for the worker’s characteristics (such as education). They find that government workers are less likely to lose their job in non-recession years — about 4.2 percentage points less likely at the federal and local levels, and 3.3 percentage points less likely at the state level. This advantage widens during recession years and holds regardless of race, gender or education.

Key quote: “We find that workers in all levels of government are substantially less likely to be displaced than their counterparts in the private sector even after differences in worker characteristics are taken into account.”

Data they used: Displaced Worker Survey supplements from the Current Population Survey from 1984 to 2012, totaling more than 800,00 respondents.


Title: “The Emotional Consequences of Donation Opportunities”

Authors: Lara B. Aknin, Guy Mayraz, John F. Helliwell

What they found: A few people giving a lot experience enough of a boost in well-being to outweigh that most people don’t give or give very little (and subsequently feel a little worse).

Why it matters: The benefits of altruistic behavior are well-documented; people who give to charity live longer, those who volunteer are happier, etc. But the authors of this paper use an experimental design to test the emotional well-being of the entire population in response to a request for a donation. This includes both those who give a large donation, but also those who give very little or not at all. What they find is that the aggregate well-being (of large donors, small donors and non-donors) increases when large donors represent a certain critical mass of the population — about 16 percent. That is, the slight drop in happiness experienced by those who weren’t large donors is outweighed by the emotional benefits seen by the large donors.

Key quote: “Our results may offer helpful insight for policy directed at increasing prosocial behavior and citizen well-being. Specifically, our results suggest that presenting opportunities for prosocial action are beneficial in that they offer citizens the opportunity to contribute to their community or causes of interest and reap emotional rewards of doing so. While we focused on monetary requests, it is possible that similar outcomes may occur in response to other charitable campaigns, such as requests to assist with community cleanup initiatives or to volunteer at a local homeless shelter. Thus, policy supporting prosocial campaigns might not only make prosocial behavior more prevalent, but also foster greater well-being for citizens.”

Data they used: Experimental study on giving behavior, conducted with 287 undergraduate students at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.

Andrew Flowers wrote about economics and sports for FiveThirtyEight.