Thank you to Chris Blattman for leading last week’s brown bag discussion.
Blattman discussed research examining the behavioral roots of poverty, crime, and violence. This research study, which collected experimental data from 1,000 high risk young men in Monrovia, Liberia, aimed to shed light on the following questions:
What are the causes of persistent poverty?
Does violence have the same roots as poverty?
Can adults modify the skills and behaviors that can lead to poor investment behaviors and violent tendencies?
Blattman hypothesizes that persistent poverty stems from the combination of economic constraints such as lack of capital and what he terms a “skills and behavior” constraint. This constraint relates to non-cognitive skills shaped in early childhood, such as those that enable adults to plan for the future or to develop discipline, patience, and self-esteem.
He also wanted to examine whether violence is triggered by the same constraints found in persistent poverty. Economic constraints mean a lower opportunity cost of participating in violence, and a constraint in skills and behavior could lead individuals to lose their temper more quickly or to more easily join in spontaneous violence.
The research study implemented two treatments in order to test how economic constraints and behavioral constraints are related to persistent poverty and violent tendencies. To address economic constraints, the researchers gave the young men an unconditional cash grant of $200. To address behavioral constraints, the researchers designed and implemented a 8-10 week behavioral transformation program (TP) focusing on body-image, self-esteem and future-planning. The sample was divided into four groups: 25% received the cash transfer and participated in the TP, 25% received only the cash transfer, 25% participated only in the TP, and 25% served as the control and did not receive any interventions.
Preliminary results are interesting. The common thread across treatment groups is a sustained drop in antisocial behavior, with the largest impact on the group that received both cash and the TP. Although the initial purpose of the TP was to change the future orientation of the participants in order to increase their investment and income, it does seem to have had positive changes on some social behaviors. Blattman’s preliminary conclusion is that the TP changed self identity and norms around criminal and antisocial behavior.
Additionally, the participants used the cash transfers effectively — for example to pay rent, or to make business investments. However there were only limited changes in business stocks, savings, and consumption behaviors across the treatment groups. Perhaps the cash transfer was not a large enough sum, or there are other constraints to poverty that need to be addressed.
There is further analysis to be done on these preliminary results, but one thing is clear. Poverty alleviation will not come simply by focusing on one type of intervention. For example, reducing homelessness, increasing capital, or increasing access to school each on their own are positive but will not have the desired long-term effects if they are not combined to address the multitude of constraints affecting the poor. The challenge is to figure out both the combination of constraints to address and the appropriate amount of intervention.
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Assistant Professor of Political Science & International and Public Affairs, Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs
Chris Blattman is an Assistant Professor of Political Science & International Public Affairs at Columbia University, where he teaches on the political economy of development, African politics, applied statistics, and the causes of war and violence. Dr. Blattman’s research examines the causes and consequences of poverty and violence. Past work has focused on the political and economic consequences of war violence. His present work looks at the determinants of youth employment and poverty alleviation, and the link between economic success and aggression and social instability. Much of his work employs field experiments and natural experiments in conflict and post-conflict regions. He has ongoing studies in Liberia, Uganda, and Ethiopia.