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.

The aftermath of the tsunami. Photograph: Getty Images

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.