Kevin Lewis

August 01, 2018

Declining mental health among disadvantaged Americans
Noreen Goldman, Dana Glei & Maxine Weinstein
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 10 July 2018, Pages 7290-7295


Although there is little dispute about the impact of the US opioid epidemic on recent mortality, there is less consensus about whether trends reflect increasing despair among American adults. The issue is complicated by the absence of established scales or definitions of despair as well as a paucity of studies examining changes in psychological health, especially well-being, since the 1990s. We contribute evidence using two cross-sectional waves of the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study to assess changes in measures of psychological distress and well-being. These measures capture negative emotions such as sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness, and positive emotions such as happiness, fulfillment, and life satisfaction. Most of the measures reveal increasing distress and decreasing well-being across the age span for those of low relative socioeconomic position, in contrast to little decline or modest improvement for persons of high relative position.

Do Walmart Supercenters Improve Food Security?
Charles Courtemanche et al.
NBER Working Paper, June 2018


This paper examines the effect of Walmart Supercenters, which lower food prices and expand food availability, on household and child food insecurity. Our food insecurity-related outcomes come from the 2001-2012 waves of the December Current Population Study Food Security Supplement. Using narrow geographic identifiers available in the restricted version of these data, we compute the distance between each household’s census tract of residence and the nearest Walmart Supercenter. We estimate instrumental variables models that leverage the predictable geographic expansion patterns of Walmart Supercenters outward from Walmart’s corporate headquarters. Results suggest that closer proximity to a Walmart Supercenter improves the food security of households and children, as measured by number of affirmative responses to a food insecurity questionnaire and an indicator for food insecurity. The effects are largest among low-income households and children, but are also sizeable for middle-income children.

Family Income and the Intergenerational Transmission of Voting Behavior: Evidence from an Income Intervention
Randall Akee et al.
NBER Working Paper, June 2018


Despite clear evidence of an income gradient in political participation, research has not been able to isolate the effects of income on voting from other household characteristics. We investigate how exogenous unconditional cash transfers affected voting in US elections across two generations from the same household. The results confirm that there is strong inter-generational correlation in voting across parents and their children. We also show — consistent with theory — that household receipt of unconditional cash transfers has heterogeneous effects on the civic participation of children coming from different socio-economic backgrounds. It increases children’s voting propensity in adulthood among those raised in initially poorer families. However, income transfers have no effect on parents, regardless of initial income levels. These results suggest that family circumstance during childhood — income in particular — plays a role in influencing levels of political participation in the United States. Further, in the absence of outside shocks, income differences are transmitted across generations and likely contribute to the intergenerational transmission of social and political inequality.

U.S. Safety Net Programs and Early Life Skills Formation: Results from a Prospective Longitudinal Cohort Study
Corneliu Bolbocean, Frances Tylavsky & James West
NBER Working Paper, July 2018


A large body of literature suggests that the first years of life are critical for long-term economic, health and social outcomes. However, the effect of public programs on early life skills formation is largely unknown due to data limitations. In this paper we use novel data from a large longitudinal prospective cohort study to estimate the effects of WIC, SNAP, and home visitation programs on early life outcomes up to two years of age. We find that participation in these programs has a positive and statistically significant effect on language development and boosts early life noncognitive outcomes.

Taxed Out: Illegal Property Tax Assessments and the Epidemic of Tax Foreclosures in Detroit
Bernadette Atuahene & Christopher Berry
University of Chicago Working Paper, June 2018


Detroit is experiencing historic levels of property tax foreclosure. More than 100,000 properties, or one-in-four throughout the city, have been foreclosed upon for nonpayment of property taxes since 2011. Simultaneously, there is strong evidence that the City is over assessing homeowners in violation of the Michigan Constitution, calling into question the record number of property tax foreclosures. This Article is the first attempt to measure the impact of unconstitutional tax assessments on property tax foreclosures. Controlling for purchase price, location, and time-of-sale, we show that residential properties with higher assessment ratios sold in Detroit since 2009 were more likely to experience a subsequent tax foreclosure We estimate that 10 percent of all these tax foreclosures were caused by illegally inflated tax assessments. Moreover, since lower priced homes were over assessed at a greater frequency and magnitude than higher priced homes, we estimate that 25 percent of tax foreclosures among homes in the bottom price quintile (less than $9,000 in sale price) were due to unconstitutional property tax assessments. Consequently, property tax malfeasance has unjustly displaced thousands of Detroit homeowners, most of whom are African-American. While the numbers in Detroit are extreme, there is reason to be concerned that similar practices are widespread.

The Role of Information in Disability Insurance Application: An Analysis of the Social Security Statement Phase-In
Philip Armour
American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, August 2018, Pages 1-41


This paper exploits a natural experiment in information provision on US Disability Insurance (DI) applications: the Social Security statement. Although the effect of the statement on DI application was negligible in the general health and retirement study population, among those previously reporting a work limitation, biennial DI application rates approximately doubled. This effect was driven by previously uninformed individuals. Additional analyses show these were new applicants and were no less likely to be accepted onto DI, accounting for a substantial fraction of the rise in DI rolls from 1994 to 2004 and indicating the importance of informational frictions in disability policymaking.

Local Food Prices, SNAP Purchasing Power, and Child Health
Erin Bronchetti, Garret Christensen & Hilary Hoynes
NBER Working Paper, June 2018


The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) is one of the most important elements of the social safety net. Unlike most other safety net programs, SNAP varies little across states and over time, which creates challenges for quasi-experimental evaluation. Notably, SNAP benefits are fixed across 48 states; but local food prices vary, leading to geographic variation in the real value – or purchasing power – of SNAP benefits. In this study, we provide the first estimates that leverage variation in SNAP purchasing power across markets to examine effects of SNAP on child health. We link panel data on regional food prices to National Health Interview Survey data and use a fixed effects framework to estimate the relationship between local purchasing power of SNAP and children’s health and health care utilization. We find that lower SNAP purchasing power leads to lower utilization of preventive health care and more days of school missed due to illness. We find no effect on reported health status.

The Age of Belonging: Friendship Formation After Residential Mobility
Anna Rhodes
Social Forces, forthcoming


Neighborhoods are an important social context for children’s development; however, a growing body of research illustrates that there is often significant heterogeneity in how neighborhoods influence children’s outcomes. Scholars have therefore focused greater attention on understanding neighborhood effect heterogeneity and the social processes that underpin this variation. Recent quantitative work has pointed to heterogeneity by age in the effects of moving to low-poverty neighborhoods, but questions remain about the mechanisms that explain why youth of different ages have divergent outcomes after this move. This paper examines the social processes that drive differences in neighborhood effects by age through analysis of qualitative interviews with low-income Black youth who moved to lower-poverty and more racially integrated neighborhoods with a housing mobility program. The findings show that the process of friendship formation serves as an important mechanism for age differences in school engagement after moving to non-poor neighborhoods. Adolescents in this sample hesitated to form new friendships after moving, choosing a strategically cautious approach to engaging with new peers. In contrast, youth who moved during middle childhood quickly formed friendships in their new communities. These new friends then encouraged children’s engagement and motivation in their new schools, amplifying the potential for children to experience positive educational effects following this move. Younger youth experienced the dual advantages of less exposure to high-poverty neighborhoods and an easier process of establishing new friendships in their suburban communities.

Less Bang for Your Buck? How Social Capital Constrains the Effectiveness of Social Welfare Spending
Mallory Compton
State Politics & Policy Quarterly, forthcoming


Rising economic insecurity in recent decades has focused attention on the importance of social welfare programs in managing household financial stability. Some governments are more effective than others in managing this outcome, and informal social institutions help explain why. Social capital is expected to shape economic security through multiple mechanisms, but whether the effect is to magnify or mitigate volatility is an open question. Part of the answer has to do with how social capital interacts with policy implementation, and whether it conditions the effectiveness of government spending. Evidence from the U.S. states from 1986 to 2010 fails to support a benevolent social capital thesis — not only is social capital associated with greater economic insecurity, there is no evidence that it improves social welfare effectiveness. However, greater spending on some social programs can mitigate the adverse impact of social capital on economic security.

The Impact of the Earned Income Tax Credit on Household Finances
Lauren Jones & Katherine Michelmore
Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Summer 2018, Pages 521-545


Using a simulated instrument strategy, we analyze how expansions to the federal and state Earned Income Tax Credits (EITC) affected household finances over the past two decades. Using data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation wealth topical modules, we also test whether responses differ over time, as well as whether there are different responses to the federal and state expansions, and how responses vary by educational attainment. A $1,000 policy‐induced increase in the average household EITC leads to a 3 percentage point increase in the likelihood of holding money in a savings or checking account, and approximately $700 more held in savings balances. These results are coupled with large increases in pre‐tax family earnings. We also find some evidence of decreases in unsecured debt holdings. We interpret these results as further evidence that the EITC increases the financial stability of low‐income single mothers.

Quantifying the Benefits of Social Insurance: Unemployment Insurance and Health
Elira Kuka
NBER Working Paper, June 2018


While the Unemployment Insurance (UI) program is one of the largest safety net program in the U.S., research on its benefits is limited. This paper exploits plausibly exogenous changes in state UI laws to empirically estimate whether UI generosity mitigates any of the previously documented negative health effects of job loss. The results show higher UI generosity increases health insurance coverage and utilization, and leads to improved self-reported health. Moreover, these effects are stronger during periods of high unemployment rates. Finally, I find no effects on risky behaviors nor on health conditions.

Trends and Disparities in Diet Quality Among US Adults by Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Participation Status
Fang Fang Zhang et al.
JAMA Network Open, June 2018

Design, Setting, and Participants: This survey study examined a nationally representative sample of 38 696 adults aged 20 years or older: 6162 SNAP participants, 6692 income-eligible nonparticipants, and 25 842 higher-income individuals from 8 cycles of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (1999-2014). Data analysis was conducted between January 1, 2017, and December 31, 2017.

Results: The survey included 38 696 respondents (20 062 female [51.9%]; 18 386 non-Hispanic white [69.8%]; mean [SD] age, 46.8 [14.8] years). Participants of SNAP were younger (mean [SD] age, 41.4 [15.6] years) than income-eligible nonparticipants (mean [SD] age, 44.9 [19.6] years) or higher-income individuals (mean [SD] age, 47.8 [13.6] years); more likely to be female (3552 of 6162 [58.6%] vs 3504 of 6692 [54.8%] and 13 006 of 25 842 [50.4%], respectively); and less likely to be non-Hispanic white (2062 of 6162 [48.2%] vs 2594 of 6692 [56.0%] and 13 712 of 25 842 [75.8%], respectively). From surveys conducted in 2003 and 2004 to those conducted in 2013 and 2014, SNAP participants had less improvement in AHA diet scores than both income-eligible nonparticipants and higher-income individuals (change in mean score = 0.57 [95% CI, −2.18 to 0.33] vs 2.56 [95% CI, 0.36-4.76] and 3.84 [95% CI, 2.39-5.29], respectively; P = .04 for interaction). Disparities persisted for most foods and nutrients and worsened for processed meats, added sugars, and nuts and seeds. In 2013 to 2014, a higher proportion of SNAP participants had poor diet scores compared with income-eligible nonparticipants and higher-income individuals (461 of 950 [53.5%] vs 247 of 690 [38.0%] and 773 of 2797 [28.7%]; P < .001 for difference), and a lower proportion had intermediate diet scores (477 of 950 [45.3%] vs 428 of 690 [59.8%] and 1933 of 2797 [68.7%]; P < .001 for difference). The proportion of participants with ideal diet scores was low in all 3 groups (12 of 950 [1.3%] vs 15 of 690 [2.2%] and 91 of 2797 [2.6%]; P = .26 for difference).

Conclusions and Relevance: Dietary disparities persisted or worsened for most dietary components among US adults. Despite improvement in some dietary components, SNAP participants still do not meet the AHA goals for a healthful diet.

Diet Quality Over the Monthly Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Cycle
Eliza Whiteman, Benjamin Chrisinger & Amy Hillier
American Journal of Preventive Medicine, August 2018, Pages 205-212

Methods: Multivariate linear regression with SNAP households in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey to evaluate changes in diet quality as time from SNAP distribution increased. Diet quality of food purchases was measured by Healthy Eating Index–2010 total and component scores. Data were collected 2012–2013 and analyzed 2016–2017.

Results: Overall dietary quality was low throughout the SNAP-cycle (n=1,377, mean Healthy Eating Index 46.14 of 100). SNAP households had significantly lower Healthy Eating Index scores compared with eligible and ineligible nonparticipants (p<0.05). After controlling for covariates, households in the final 10 days of the benefit cycle had Healthy Eating Index–2010 total scores 2.95 points lower than all other SNAP households (p=0.02). Significant declines in Healthy Eating Index fruit and vegetable scores contributed to worsening diet quality over the SNAP-cycle.

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