Economists: "Losing both parents sucks"

Have you ever wondered whether losing both parents to a tragedy might be a bad thing or not? Well, economists did.

When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. And when you're trying to study the effects of parental death on children, you need to get your victories where you can find them. For four economists writing a working paper for the US National Bureau of Economic Research (highlighted by the ASI's Ben Southwood), their break came from the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

The problem the researchers were faced with is that parents don't die randomly. Deaths by disease, violence and accidents are all highly correlated with other social factors – most obviously, wealth. Really, that's just another way of saying "rich people live longer".

But the tsunami offered a chance to see what happened when the chance of parents dying was equal across all classes. They write:

Survival was to large extent attributable to idiosyncratic factors revolving around the combination of where the waves hit and people’s precise locations at that moment. For these reasons, it is possible that parental death is independent of prior behaviors, including previous investments in children.

As it is, there were in fact a few differences between the group of children who lost parents and the group who didn't. The former group were slightly older, had slightly more boys in it, and the kids were "significantly better educated and significantly more likely to be enrolled in school prior to the tsunami."

But those differences are tiny compared to what they normally are between those two groups, which gave the researchers a chance to carefully examine the effect of losing one or both parents on children's wellbeing.

Unsurprisingly, it was negative.

A year after the tsunami, older children – between the ages of 15 and 17 – are less likely to be enrolled in school, especially if it were the father who died. Five years on, older male children who've lost both parents completed almost two years less schooling, but are more likely to be in work, indicating that doing so forced them to move into to role of "adult" earlier than similar young men. "These older male orphans are likely to carry the costs of the tsunami into adulthood and possibly through the rest of their lives."

A similar effect is found, reversed, in older girls. Losing just a father actually lead to higher rates of school enrolment in the short term, but losing both parents or a mother results in the opposite. And five years after the tsunami, the older girls – young women – are considerably more likely to be married if they lost both parents than if they lost none.

For younger children, there's a confounding factor: various scholarship programmes were instituted for kids who lost parents. Perhaps as a result, younger boys were no more or less likely to be enrolled in school, but they were 32 percentage points more likely to have received a scholarship if their father or both parents died. Perhaps surprisingly, "there is little evidence suggesting significant longer-term impacts of orphanhood on these younger male children apart from a slightly higher probability of helping with housework if either the mother or father died." And loss of both parents for young girls results in a 24 per cent increase in the probability that they'd be working five years later.

It may seem like an obvious conclusion, but research like this is crucial if we want to actually make the most of things like our emergency aid. For instance, focusing scholarships on younger children may have worked from a PR perspective; but it was actually the older children who were most at risk of dropping out of school, as suddenly-alone parents demanded help at home or in the labour market. God forbid anything like the 2004 tsunami happens again; but if it did, this research helps us narrow down who needs help in the long term, not just immediately.

The aftermath of the tsunami. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.

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