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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Could Labour implement universal basic income?

The battle over this radical policy is moving gradually into the mainstream.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell has called universal basic income (UBI) “an idea whose time may well have come”. It means a fixed regular payment to each citizen, irrespective of income or behaviour. It is seen by both socialists and Silicon Valley as a panacea for the post-industrial world, addressing unrestrained inequality, economic insecurity, and automation-generated unemployment in the modern economy.

Guy Standing, a professor at Soas and founding member of Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), says a “perfect storm of factors have suddenly pushed us into being a mainstream policy question” in recent years. “A lot of people who were sitting on their hands, as it were, have started to come out in favour ... I'm inundated with requests to speak and involvement in conferences, and it's indicative of the sudden realisation that if the growing inequality and growing economic insecurities persist, then the drift to fascist populism will continue. 

“Of course, in the background, a lot of these techies including prominent names in Silicon Valley have come out in favour because they see robots displacing us all. I don't buy that argument, but it's added to a growing chorus of people saying that we should take it more seriously.”

Standing's recent book charts the long history of thinking about UBI (through ancient Greece, Thomas More, and Martin Luther King). But the idea's rise to prominence is the result of a interlinked developments in the economy and the nature of work. As Labour MP Jonathan Reynolds argues, changes such as the rise of self-employment and the gig economy challenge the appropriateness of the traditional welfare state. It's “based around the principle of compulsion, and broadly believing there's two binary states – people in work, and people out of work. We know it's becoming a much more complicated picture than that... The state can't keep up with the complexity of people's lives.”

For Standing, the prospects of UBI being implemented successfully depend largely on how it is framed. He is wary of libertarians who see it as an opportunity to dismantle the welfare state, and believes it needs to be placed within the context of chronic economic insecurity for a growing number within the post-industrial economy.

“The argument that I think is going to prove really important for the left is linked to the growth of the 'precariat',” he says, meaning those living without predictability or security. “People in the precariat are experiencing chronic insecurity that will not be overcome by any existing policy.” 

Even so, support from business could be key. Peter Swenson's work on the history of the welfare state finds that reforms and expansions of social policy have only succeeded when key sections of the capitalist class are in support. He, and other academics, resist the idea that the welfare state is simply the focal point for the battle between left and right over Robin-Hood style redistribution. If UBI is to make its way into policy, support from business may be more important than the strengthening of the left.

Reynolds claims UBI may solve not just policy problems, but political ones.  "You have to say that Labour's situation, in terms of how we've struggled on all of these issues (the party's polling is significantly behind on running the welfare state) over the last few years, means that we should definitely be open to new thinking in this area.” Both he and Standing  are part of the working group that was brought together by McDonnell in February to produce a publication on the issue before the next general election, which would then be discussed across the country. Understandably, the group didn't quite meet its deadline. But Standing says “the general thrust of the plans hasn't changed”.

Standing is hopeful that important sections of the Labour Party are either in support, or can be won over. Clearly, the leadership is generally supportive of the idea – both McDonnell and Corbyn have expressed as much in public statements. Standing says many MPs are “rethinking their position ... many of them have not taken up a position because they thought that this was not an issue to be considered. I think we're seeing a real opening for a much more constructive discussion.”

Reynolds says that “there's people on the right and the left of the party who are in favour, there's people on the right and the left who are against”.
Nevertheless, discussion is winning over important Labour constituencies. It's not just radical activist groups, but also trade unions, who are coming round to the idea. According to Standing: “Unite now supports it, as well as a lot of unions in Europe. It used to be the case that the unions were among the most fierce critics of a basic income, on the spurious grounds (in my view) that if people had a basic income they wouldn't push for higher wages and employers wouldn't give higher wages.

“We found in our pilots and in our psychological research that people who have basic security have a stronger bargaining position and are therefore more likely to stand up for their rights, and can lead to improvement in wages and working conditions. So I think that all of those objections are gradually being exposed by theoretical arguments against them, or empirical evidence, from pilots.”

Reynolds agrees that “there's a lot of support coming from the wider labour movement”, but warns that people must not be too optimistic about anything happening quickly. “Clearly it's going to need a radical change to how the tax and benefits system would work, and you'd obviously be completely recasting how personal allowances work, and all of that,” he says. “I think this is sort of the cutting edge of thinking about the future and what our economy will look like in 50-100 years' time, that is the frame that we're looking at.” 

Rudy Schulkind is a Danson scholar who recently graduated in philosophy and politics from St Anne's College Oxford.