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.

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When the world seems dark and terrifying, we shouldn’t feel ashamed to dream of Utopia

Right now, the future seems dark and frightening and it is precisely now that we must continue to imagine other worlds and then plot ways to get there.

There are many cruel and routine lies we tell to children but perhaps the most indicative is this: if you tell anyone your wish, it won’t come true. This parable was probably invented by parents trying to avoid the trauma of not being able to give their children what they want but we carry it with us to adulthood, when it is repeated to us by our leaders. Don’t tell anyone the sort of world you would like to see – at best you’ll be disappointed and at worst you’ll be arrested.

“We want more.” This week, exhausted by the news, I dragged myself out of the house to a book fair, where I came across a new collection of utopian fiction by radical women. That was the first line and it stopped my breath in my throat. When basic survival seems like a stretch goal, caught as we are between the rich and the rising seas, hope feels like an unaffordable luxury. The precise words I used to the bookseller were, “Shut up and take my money.”

There has never been a more urgent time for utopian ideas, precisely because the concept of a better world has never felt further away. Right now, world leaders are deciding how many cities are going to sink before something is done to reduce carbon emissions. They are meeting in Paris, which very recently saw the opening scene of a new act in everyone’s least favourite dramatic franchise, “War in the Middle East”. We seem to be living in a dystopian trilogy scripted by a sadistic young-adult author and I very much hope that our plucky young heroes show up to save the day soon, even if there’s a clunky love triangle involved.

Dystopias are easy to construct: to paraphrase the novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, you might as well pick five news headlines at random, make a collage and there’s your plot. Utopias are harder. Utopias require that we do the difficult, necessary work of envisioning a better world. This is why imagination is the first, best weapon of radicals and progressives.

Utopian stories existed long before the word was coined by Thomas More in the 16th century to mean an ideal society, or “no-place”. Plato’s Republic has some claim to being the first but there are as many Utopias as there are communities that dreamed of a better life. The greatest age of utopian fiction was the turn of the last century and it is no accident that the early 21st century is a great age of dystopian fiction. The ideology of late-capitalist patriarchy has become so all-encompassing that it no longer looks like ideology. Fredric Jameson observed, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” – and the reason for that is not that capitalism is the inevitable destiny of humankind but that we have spent our lives being told that even thinking about any other future makes us ridiculous.

Most leftists do have an idea of the sort of world they would prefer to see. We don’t say what we want for the same reason that we were told as children not to tell anyone else what we wished for – because it’ll be awkward and painful if we don’t get it.

When I think about Utopia, I think about my grandmother. My mother’s mother left school at 13, lived through the Maltese blockade and was obliged by religion and circumstance to marry young, suffocate all her dreams of education and adventure and spend her life taking care of a husband and six kids. Half a century later, I can choose when and whether to have children. I can choose to live independently from men. I regularly travel alone and there are no legal restrictions on getting any job I’m suited for.

The kind of independence many women my age can enjoy would have been almost unimaginable half a century ago – but somebody did imagine it and that is why we got here. A great many somebodies, over centuries of struggle and technological advancement, asked how the world could be different for women and set about making it happen.

Exactly a century ago, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel Herland envisioned a society of women in which production was communal, motherhood was valued, relationships were equal and rape and violence were unknown. Reading Herland today, it is striking that for every proposition that came true – women are now allowed to divorce their husbands and participate fully in political life – there are two more that seem as far-fetched now as they did in 1915. Motherhood is still not valued as work. Women are still expected to organise our lives around the threat of sexual violence. But all that can change as long as we continue to ask for more.

For as long as I have been a feminist, I have been asked – usually by grumbling men – when, exactly, we will be satisfied; when women and girls will decide we have enough. The answer is contained in the question: because the instant that we do decide that we are satisfied, that there can never be a better world than this, is the instant that the future shuts down and change becomes impossible.

Utopia is the search for Utopia. It is the no-place by whose light you plot a course through a harsh and unnavigable present. By the time you reach the horizon, it is no longer the horizon but that doesn’t mean you stop going forwards.

Right now, the future seems dark and frightening and it is precisely now that we must continue to imagine other worlds and then plot ways to get there. In the midst of multiple global crises, the only truly ridiculous proposition is that things are going to stay exactly the same.

Human societies are going to change beyond recognition and from the conference table to the streets, our best shot at surviving that change starts when we have the courage to make impossible demands – to face down ridicule and say, “We want more.”

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State