Reflections on the APPAM Spring Conference

Our names are Mike McCarthy, Trevor Mattos, and Jason Wright, and we are graduate research assistants at the Public Policy Center (PPC). The PPC graciously funded our trip to the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM) spring conference entitled “How policymakers use APPAM member research.” The overarching theme of the conference was creating a dialogue among policymakers, practitioners, and researchers, in essence connecting those who make, implement, and study policy. Such a dialogue has the potential to enrich policy debates and the policy process in general by infusing them with empirical knowledge.

One of the main challenges surrounding such an effort is that these actors tend to remain isolated within their respective fields. Researchers, for instance, may not have experience in translating their findings to a large audience or marketing their research within policy circles. The concurrent sessions were designed to highlight examples of when cross-fertilization was successful and strategies and tools for facilitating such interaction.

We attended a session that examined the impact of research, and specifically evaluation of state policy innovation, surrounding the 1996 welfare reform. The session focused on how research on welfare programs contributed to the final reforms and the ways in which this research reached the reform’s architects. One of the main points was that confidence in a research team’s ability and integrity built trust on the part of managers, thus reputation matters greatly. Unfortunately, these individuals do not necessarily have the time or resources to devote to learning about advanced statistical methods, meaning that trust is crucial in ensuring that research findings make their way into the decision making process. To this point, panelists closed the session by discussing how scholars can best market their research to policymakers. A major takeaway for us was that connections between researches and government are often strongest at the local level, mostly through the presence of university centers that provide a service to their communities in the form of objective research.

Another session examined recent developments in federal research clearinghouses. These websites feature research related to federally funded programs. The “What Works Clearinghouse” is particularly well developed. It includes practice guides for educators, intervention reports, and reviews of single studies and research efforts at large. Perhaps the best aspect of these resources is that they are in the public domain, increasing access to individual practitioners and their institutions regardless of available resources.

We also attended a session entitled “Simple isn’t Stupid” that focused on disseminating research findings in the digital age. Doing so involves an active effort and multiple platforms, formats, and instances of release are key to success. Comparisons were drawn with the timeline of a movie release. First, we hear news that a project has started and learn who the major actors are. Next, a trailer is seen, which is comparable to a project update, research brief, or infographic highlighting preliminary findings. Then, there are reviews that offer a synopsis of the film, which parallels the executive summary. Finally, it was suggested that the release of the final report should have a number of well-timed publicity pushes, like we would expect to see from a major film release. Having a thoughtful dissemination plan for research ensures that all potentially interested parties have an opportunity to come into contact with some aspect of the project.

Over lunch, we heard from a congressional staffer. This talk was eye opening because it showed how little members of Congress are briefed on the important issues before them. The staffer mentioned that they often had only a two to three minute train ride from the office complex to the capitol during which they could brief their boss. Thus, a translatable summary of research findings is critical!

Fortunately, we were able to enjoy the city around the conference events. The capital is a bustling city made even more so by the cherry blossom festival that was still ongoing that weekend. The trees were beautiful, and the National Mall is a great tribute to civic virtues. We also had some great food and toured Georgetown. We were able to learn a lot, meet great people, and see great sights thanks to the support of the PPC.

Below is a picture of us near the White House

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Trevor, Mike, and Jason

Seeking summer high school interns

The Public Policy Center at UMass Dartmouth is seeking applicants for its 2015 Summer Internship Program for area high school students. The internship program is designed to give students hands-on experience conducting applied policy research on topics relevant to our region’s cities. Students will work alongside UMass Dartmouth undergraduate and graduate students to develop a project that is aligned with their interests and the needs of urban SouthCoast. In previous years, our interns undertook a research project to examine the issue of college access, explored the representativeness of local elected officials, and researched placemaking in the SouthCoast. These projects have resulted in reports, presentations, and local media coverage. We’re eager to see what this year’s interns will do!

Click here for a complete application and instructions.

Online Survey Programs

Online survey programs have extended the capabilities of social scientists to conduct research. The Public Policy Center has used several online survey programs in the past and has utilized SoGoSurvey successfully for the past 12 months.

The basic functionalities of most online applications are available for free (e.g., SoGoSurvey, SurveyMonkey, QuestionPro), with expanded capabilities available for a fee. Users can build surveys easily using these programs, often with more complicated structures like conditional branching. Administration is simple, as users can send the survey to specific e-mails or provide participants with either a general or specific link. Links can be assigned that allow only one-time access to the survey for data quality and confidentiality concerns. Data can also be easily downloaded into Excel or SPSS for analysis. These types of comprehensive features generally require a paid subscription, which can run anywhere from $9.99 to $99.00 per month depending on the number and type of features.

One of the main benefits to using electronic surveys is that the marginal cost of survey research decreases to essentially zero when these tools are utilized. That is, a large number of surveys can be programmed and administered with one subscription. Another benefit is that most of the online survey software allows viewing on multiple platforms (e.g. computer, tablet, cellphone).

Electronic surveys are not appropriate for all situations, however. For instance, community surveys administered to random samples of households are better served by mail- or phone-based surveys. Furthermore, some members of a study population may not have access to technology, or they may not prefer to answer electronically. The PPC experienced the latter challenge while conducting an alumni survey of UMass electrical and computer engineers. You might think that presumably tech-savvy engineering alumni would prefer completing an online survey, yet in our study about a third of respondents still preferred to complete a paper survey. The lesson is that there is more than one way to get the job done, and in these days of declining survey response rates, multi-mode survey administration (e.g., on-line combined with mail or telephone) may be necessary to achieve representative samples.

-Jason

New Resources: The Power of Microdata

By Trevor V. Mattos, MPP Candidate, Graduate Research Assistant, Public Policy Center at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

Recently, the Public Policy Center tapped into the American Community Survey Public Use Microdata Samples (PUMS) for two ongoing projects: [1] Socioeconomic Conditions for Immigrants in Worcester, [2] Pay Equity for Women in SouthCoast, MA. These new, extensive datasets allow us to measure a wide range of factors that affect outcomes for women and immigrants in communities around Massachusetts.

Since 2005, the American Community Survey (ACS) has collected detailed socioeconomic data from 250,000 individuals per month, or 3,000,000 people per year. The ACS now serves in place of the since-retired decennial census long form survey, dramatically improving accessibility to current data.  The U.S. Census Bureau provides ACS data to the public in two ways. First, ACS data is published on  census.gov in pre-tabulated formats, which users can access via American FactFinder. Second, a subset of microdata files (roughly two thirds) for both households and individuals are made available for download and independent data analysis.

Microdata allows researchers at the Public Policy Center to answer highly specific, relevant questions about social and economic conditions in many different settings. Microdata are separated into state-level files, within which geographic areas containing roughly 100,000 people, called Public Use Microdata Areas (PUMA), further delineate the data. Careful use of PUMS’ complex survey data can yield nearly endless options for statistical inference and estimation. Using PUMS can be tricky though, as one first has to isolate the data of interest using less-than-intuitive geographical area codes, then weight the data appropriately. Finally, researchers must navigate statistical software like SPSS or Stata to derive estimates, margins of error, and statistics. A few examples of the analytic potential of such data follow:

[1] The median annual income, in 2013 U.S. dollars, for white, employed women over the age of 16, with a high school education (or less) in SouthCoast, MA is $23,880.27, while that of Hispanic or Latino women with matching characteristics is $16,398.19.

 

[2] In Worcester county central, or Worcester city proper, there are 17,943 native born individuals holding a 4-year university degree, while for the foreign-born population there are 6,401. However, comparing these estimates to total population estimates reveals that 16% of the foreign-born population holds a degree, while only 13% of native-born individuals in Worcester are 4-year degree-holders.

 

[3] For the average foreign-born worker in Massachusetts, a statistically significant relationship exists between ‘years in country’ and ‘average annual income’. Regression analysis of ACS microdata shows that for each additional year in country, the average foreign-born Massachusetts worker earns an additional $927.11 per year, in 2013 US$.

 

The Public Policy Center is surging ahead with a number of different projects supported by the new analytic potential of ACS Public Use Microdata Samples. We are excited to use these new tools to inform the conversation on social and economic issues that impact SouthCoast, Massachusetts and beyond!

 

 

Moving Forward: Acushnet Avenue Economic Impact Study

By Michael P. McCarthy, MPP Candidate, Graduate Research Assistant, Public Policy Center at UMass Dartmouth

Our study of the economy of the Acushnet Avenue commercial corridor in New Bedford, “Corridors of Opportunity: Acushnet Avenue Economic Impact Study,” was posted on the Public Policy Center’s website a few weeks ago. This marks the end of the research process that saw myself, along with my fellow research assistants, trekking through the Acushnet Avenue neighborhood and surveying businesses.

The nearly 70 business owners the research team spoke to provided in-depth informant interviews, which allowed us to develop a report that conveys the concerns of the business community. The major takeaways from these interviews can be found in the Key Findings section of the report’s executive summary. Also, some these topics are explored in detail in other posts I’ve written about the project.

The report also outlines recommendations for building upon the foundation of recent improvements and revitalization activities underway in the neighborhood. Our conversations with business owners and stakeholders highlighted the need for a merchants association. Most of these conversations were spurred by a survey question about the feasibility of creating a business improvement district (BID) for the commercial corridor, similar to the efforts underway in downtown New Bedford. When they were willing to speak on the subject, business owners expressed that while the services a BID would provide may be beneficial, there are a number of services the city should be providing more frequently. A merchants association would give the Acushnet Avenue business community a collective voice to advocate for increased and improved services.

Writing about commercial revitalization in Economic Development Quarterly, Stacey Sutton (“Rethinking Commercial Revitalization: A Neighborhood Small Business Perspective,” 2010) explores the value of merchants associations over BIDs in minority and immigrant neighborhoods. “As voluntary organizations,” Sutton says, “merchants associations typically have less public leverage but greater latitude over organization mission, operations, delivery of support services, and participation in political activities.” With interviewees regularly citing the complexity of New Bedford’s licensing and permit process as an obstacle towards doing business, there is a clearly a need for, as Sutton puts it, “institutional mechanisms, such as associations, that can efficiently coordinate and disseminate information regarding the regulatory environment, as well as the norms, practices, and politics shaping day-to-day business activities.” The benefits of a merchant association are two-fold. They can improve communication between existing businesses and city hall, and act as a guide on how aspiring entrepreneurs can best conduct business in the neighborhood.

The point on helping new businesses getting off the ground is particularly important for the Avenue’s future. Many businesses interviewed for the study have been open for five years or more. These interviewees also predicted flat growth for the coming years, saying they did not anticipate increases in their customer base. So sustaining the revitalization momentum may mean opening new businesses, these fledgling establishments will need assistance navigating regulatory requirements. An active merchants association can fill this role.

Also, a merchants association can help shape the future of this changing neighborhood, which has long a destination for immigrants arriving in New Bedford. While the Portuguese were the dominant cultural influence for decades, a recent increase in Latin American immigrants is diversifying the ethnic make up of the Avenue. As new businesses open to support the shifting needs of the immigrant community, they will need guidance in norms and day-to-day practicalities, as Sutton discussed.

Above all, the creation of a merchant’s association would give the Avenue’s business community a collective voice in future decision-making. If a group of merchants were able to collaborate upon and independently articulate a shared vision for the future of Acushnet Avenue, then they could play a key role in shaping discussions on neighborhood’s future.

Major themes emerging from Acushnet Ave study

As you may know from my previous posts, we have been studying the economic impact of businesses in the Acushent Avenue commercial corridor with the help of grant from the Garfield Foundation. With the assistance of the CEDC, we convened a steering committee to help us define a study area for the project and help inform our research team. At the end of September, we began a survey of business owners. Among other things, the survey asked for employment and revenue history, business longevity and estimated customer residency. We also asked for general thoughts on neighborhood conditions, and gauged receptiveness to the formation of a business improvement district. Throughout the survey period, which lasted until early November, we conducted interviews with 69 business owners or managers. The population we spoke with reflects the range of establishments doing business in the neighborhood, from auto service stations and large manufacturers to fledgling cafes and multigenerational restaurants. While, the people we spoke with expressed an array of opinions, they agreed on a few key issues.

A major theme throughout our interviews was the number of opportunities for the neighborhood:

  1. Owners identified the conditions of the neighborhood as crucial to their success. These opinions were tied to questions about cleanliness, safety, and the public perception of the neighborhood. Some owners cited what might be called a lack of pride in the neighborhood, noting that they often have to clean trash left on the sidewalk outside of their business by residents and visitors. Others pointed the lack of proper lighting and a low police presence near their business as incubators for criminal activity. Regardless of their major concern, our interviewees recognized that these elements feed a negative perception of the neighborhood, which they feel limits the number of customers from other areas. Indeed, nearly half said that 50 percent or more of their customers live within walking distance.
  1. However, since their clientele is so hyper-local business owners have many direct interactions with residents throughout the day. There is an opportunity for the business and residential communities to build on this relationship, recognize their shared interests, and work together to effect change. Neighborhood groups must actively engage with the vibrant business community here. Greater alignment between the missions of these major stakeholders means a greater chance of having the needs of this neighborhood met. Through organization, they can broadcast a clear message to city officials.
  1. Our interviews revealed that the business community is ready to organize and receptive to the formation of a merchant’s association. Such a group could advocate for the needs of the community at state and local level, securing more resources for the part of the city they represent. Indeed, our research demonstrated that under current conditions many interviewees lacked knowledge of the number of assistance and incentive programs available. An active and aggressive merchant’s association would be an effective intermediary between the government and nonprofit entities that administer such programs and the community.

The results of our study will be released on December 15, and it is our hope that neighborhood organizations, such as this one, will be able to use our findings to advocate for more resources and better services. Check back here for more updates on this report’s release.

 

Minimum Wage

I have been writing a paper about the minimum wage for our microeconomics course, and I found the topic quite interesting. Most of the public favors raising the minimum wage (Dube, 2013), which is not surprising given that the real value of the minimum wage has fallen since the 1960s even as worker productivity has doubled (Krugman, 2013). The current federal minimum wage is $7.25, and some state minimums are higher.

One of the arguments against raising the minimum wage is that the increased cost of labor has a negative effect on employment. However, much of the evidence seems to suggest that negative effects on employment are small or non-existent (e.g., Blanchard, Jaumotte, & Loungani, 2014; Dube, Lester, & Reich, 2010; Leonard, Stanley, & Doucouliagos, 2014). For context, note that the Congressional Budget Office (2014) estimates that raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour would increase the earnings of 16.5 million workers and lift 900,000 people out of poverty while costing the economy 500,000 jobs. Given this estimate, it seems favorable to raise the minimum wage. It is worth mentioning that a debate is still ongoing regarding the best methodology to use in this line of research.

Some opponents of raising the minimum wage claim that the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is more effective at assisting low-income workers. The EITC is a refundable tax credit that is available to low-income households that earn income from wages, salaries, tips, business or farm revenue, or disability income (IRS, 2014). Interestingly, the EITC puts downward pressure on wages, and the minimum wage helps to mitigate this (Dube, 2013). Thus, the EITC and the minimum wage are complementary policy tools.

Furthermore, some claim that the minimum wage only benefits teenagers from well-to-do families. Cooper and Hall (2013) provide demographic information for low-income workers that debunks this myth. Nearly 88 percent of workers earning the minimum wage are over 20 years old, around 55 percent work full-time, nearly 45 percent have some post-secondary education, and nearly 70 percent of workers’ families earn less than $60,000 per year. Furthermore, the average minimum wage worker earns nearly half of their household income.

Given this evidence, it seems that raising the minimum wage is a good idea. Doing so would provide security to working families and may lift a significant number of workers out of poverty. Some of the arguments against raising the minimum wage seem out of date given the knowledge that we now have regarding the effects of such a policy choice. Please see this blog post, written by SOC 350 students Victoria Wood and Lioma Terrero Soto, for local context.

-Jason Wright

Blanchard, O. J., Jaumotte, F., & Loungani, P. (2014). Labor market policies and IMF advice in advanced economies during the Great Recession. IZA Journal of Labor Policy, 3(2), 1-23. Retrieved from http://www.izajolp.com/content/3/1/2

Congressional Budget Office. (2014) The effects of a minimum-wage increase on employment and family income [Publication 4856]. Congress of the United States, Congressional Budget Office. Retrieved from http://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/44995-MinimumWage.pdf

Cooper, D., & Hall, D. (2013, March 13). Raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 would give working families, and the overall economy, a much-needed boost. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute. Retrieved from http://www.epi.org/publication/bp357-federal-minimum-wage-increase/

Dube, A. (2013, November 30). The great divide: The minimum we can do. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/30/the-minimum-we-can-do/

Dube, A., Lester, T. W., & Reich, M. (2010). Minimum wage effects across state borders: Estimates using contiguous counties. The Review of Economics and Statistics, 92(4), 945-964.

Internal Revenue Service. (2014, February 25). Do I qualify for EITC? Retrieved from http://www.irs.gov/Individuals/Do-I-Qualify-for-EITC%3F

Krugman, P. (2013, February 17). Raise that wage. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/18/opinion/krugman-raise-that-wage.html?_r=0

Leonard, M. L., Stanley, T. D., Doucouliagos, H. (2014). Does the UK minimum wage reduce employment? A meta-regression analysis. British Journal of Industrial Relations, 52(3), 499-520.

Context and Poverty: Mental Health

An observation about American political life that leaves me perplexed and saddened is that we, as a society, seem to ignore the influence of context on individuals. I generally consider “context” in this discussion to mean factors both internal and external to the individual over which they have no control. This observation is most readily detected in debates surrounding poverty in which some argue that the impoverished are responsible for their plight. Yet, contextual factors are strong. For instance, perhaps two children have similar medical conditions that affect school performance but only the family of child A can afford insurance. Child B may not have the same educational opportunities later due to interference from their untreated ailment. Loss of educational opportunities may, in turn, leave child B vulnerable to financial strain or extended poverty. This is an extreme hypothetical case, but we can all find less salient examples of the influence of contextual factors if we are honest about our own lives.

There exist tangled webs of relationships and befuddling patterns of causation that surround the development and maintenance of poverty. To explore this may induce headaches, but it is worth doing. Why, you might ask? If we fully reject the influence of context and instruct the impoverished to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps,” then we write them off as a loss and do not feel compelled to help. This is misguided at best and inhumane at worst. Yet, intuitively we know that contextual factors are not the only ones involved. Reality lies somewhere between these extremes. Exploration of this issue through research allows us to better understand the complex nature of poverty and to develop more effective ways of addressing this social ill. I am planning on posting multiple times regarding this issue, but I thought that I would start by examining mental health and poverty.

A social gradient in mental and physical health exists (Reiss, 2013), which means that health status depends on socioeconomic status such that the poorest citizens have the worst health. Unfortunately, this phenomenon can be observed around the world in both poor and rich nations (World Health Organization, 2014). Please see the graph below for an example of the social gradient. It shows self-reported health status by income for the state and select cities. The data in this graph come from the Massachusetts Community Health Information Profile (MassCHIP), which is managed by the Massachusetts Department of Health.

Consistent with the social gradient, research suggests that poverty-related stress increases the risk for mental illness and that severe mental illness increases the risk of experiencing poverty (DeCarlo Santiago, Kaltman, & Miranda, 2013). The former illustrates the power of the external context of poverty (e.g., increased stress, lack of social support) over the individual, and the latter underscores the impact of “internal context.” Again, I define “internal context” as an attribute of the individual over which they have no control. Moreover, this bi-directional relationship suggests a vicious cycle in which an individual could easily become trapped in poverty. This may have the strongest effect on children in poverty, as development of a mental illness as a child would likely have lifelong negative effects. What can research tell us about the social gradient in mental health in children?

Reiss (2013) reviewed studies published in either English or German that examined the relationship between low socioeconomic status (SES) and mental health issues in individuals between the ages of four and 18. Of the 55 studies reviewed, 52 found an inverse relationship between SES and mental health such that children experiencing poverty were two to three times more likely to develop mental health issues than their peers. Sadly, the review also found that the gradient was strongest in early childhood. Importantly, mental health problems were reduced by an increase in SES, suggesting that societal intervention can be beneficial to children in poverty. Thus, we can short-circuit the bi-directional relationship mentioned above.

In sum, there are complex relationships surrounding the issue of poverty in America. While we often downplay the role of context in our political debates, it is an influential force in the generation and perpetuation of poverty. Development of a mental illness is not a choice, but rather the result of an intricate set of interactions between genetic predispositions and physical and social context. The social context of poverty contributes to the development of mental illness, but mental illness itself is a contextual factor in the social condition of poverty. This bi-directional relationship can be overcome, which has strong and positive implications for efforts to raise children out of poverty.

-Jason Wright

References
DeCarlo Santiago, C., Kaltman, S., & Miranda, J. (2013). Poverty and mental health: How do low-income adults and children are in psychotherapy? Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session, 69, 115-126. doi: 10.1002/jclp.21951

MassCHIP, Massachusetts Department of Health. (2014). Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System: General health status. Retrieved from http://www.mass.gov/eohhs/researcher/community-health/masschip/general-health-status.html

Reiss, F. (2013). Socioeconomic inequalities and mental health problems in children and adolescents: A systematic review. Social Science and Medicine, 90, 24-31. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2013.04.026

Poverty Demographics for Fall River & New Bedford, Massachusetts

Poverty, like many other economic phenomena, does not affect all population sub-groups equally. Historically marginalized populations like racial minorities, women and youth are often disproportionately affected by poverty. This is especially true in Southcoast Massachusetts cities Fall River and New Bedford.

Data from the US Census Bureau shows that 23.2% of Fall River and 21.6% of New Bedford residents live below the poverty line. However, in Fall River, 36% of youth live in poverty, and in New Bedford, 31.1% of youth live in poverty. The highest poverty rates are among Hispanics (59.7% in FR and 39.9% in NB) and single mothers of 3 or 4 children (77.8% in FR and 72% in NB).

The charts below present poverty data by race, family type and age group, gathered from the American Community Survey’s 2008-2012 5-year estimates. The percentages depicted represent varying rates of poverty among different demographic groups that compose a portion of total city population.

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image(4)                                  *High margin of error for families with 5+ children, small sample size

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*Very high margin of error for families with 5+ children, small sample size, not included

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Data comes from the US Census Bureau, American Fact Finder. 2008-2012 American Community Survey 5-year Estimates. Access at http://factfinder2.census.gov.

View data tables below.

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