Investing in Children Breaks Cycles of Poverty and Criminal Justice Involvement

Crayons beside child coloring

Spotlighted Study:Breaking the Cycle? Intergenerational Effects of an Anti-Poverty Program in Early Childhood,” by Andrew Barr and Chloe R. Gibbs.

Policy: Many Americans are calling for greater community investment – outside of the criminal justice system – as a way to reduce crime. A variety of anti-poverty services provided by the government and nonprofit organizations target children, in the hopes that such investments will have long-term benefits for those individuals and their communities. One such program is Head Start, a federally funded, free preschool program for low-income children. It was an early feature of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty in the 1960s, and initially included educational programing as well as healthcare and community development components. The hope was that Head Start would not just benefit direct recipients of its services, but help to actually break the cycle of poverty. If successful, this approach could reduce future generations’ criminal behavior and criminal justice involvement.

Research challenge: Linking those who were children in the 1960s with data on their children’s outcomes is difficult enough, but separating the effect of Head Start from other factors that might have independently affected the next generation is even harder. Communities had to apply for federal funding in order to implement a Head Start program, so simply comparing outcomes for residents of communities that provided Head Start to outcomes for those who lived elsewhere could be misleading. Differences in outcomes might be due to differences in leadership or resources that led a community to apply for funding in the first place. Similarly, simply comparing the children of those who enrolled in Head Start to children of those who did not enroll could also be misleading, because those eligible for Head Start were, on average, economically worse off than those who were not eligible. Even if one could restrict the sample to similarly disadvantaged groups, researchers would worry that those who enrolled in Head Start had parents who were more proactive or focused on getting their kids additional resources. Any observed differences in long-run outcomes could be due to differences in their parents’ actions and the other opportunities that might result.

Research strategy: To overcome this challenge, the researchers took advantage of the phased rollout of Head Start – combined with the specific age-targeting of the preschool program – as a natural experiment. Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), researchers focused on girls born between 1960 and 1964. They focused on girls in order to link the experience of the Head Start students to their children’s outcomes, as the research goal was to examine effects on the next generation. Girls who were four years old (or younger) when Head Start arrived in their county had access to the program; otherwise identical girls who were five (or older) were just barely too old and did not have access. Comparing those two sets of girls within any single county provides useful information. Even better, similar communities received Head Start funding in different years, which allowed researchers to control for broader cohort effects that might, for instance, make all children born in 1960 different from those born in 1961. By comparing long-run outcomes for low-income students just above and below the preschool age cutoff, across counties with and without Head Start, the researchers were able to measure the causal effects of access to this anti-poverty program.

Results: The researchers focus on a disadvantaged group that was a primary target of the program: girls whose mothers did not graduate from high school. Some of these girls had access to Head Start in the 1960s, as described above. The researchers then looked at what happened to those girls’ children. They found that having access to the Head Start preschool program when they were four years old reduced the likelihood that their own children (the next generation) reported engaging in criminal behavior (including any arrest or incarceration) by 49%. Access to Head Start also reduced the next generation’s rates of teen parenthood (35%), and increased high school graduation (18%) and college enrollment (34%).

What drove the effect?: Several other studies show that early childhood investments like Head Start can have long-term effects on the academic outcomes and labor market success of participants. The health and education services provided by Head Start apparently also made the girls considered in this study better off as adults, but the reasons for the big effects on the next generation are less clear. The girls’ better outcomes as adults could have enabled them to provide better opportunities to their own children in a variety of ways. Higher education and incomes might have changed who the Head Start recipients married when they were adults, made it possible to live in safer neighborhoods with better schools, and even altered their peer groups and parenting styles. All of these factors could have affected their children’s trajectories. That’s probably why the effects on the next generation were so large.

Cost-benefit analysis: Previous studies on the direct effects of Head Start on students’ own education and employment outcomes found that the benefits of the program outweighed the costs. These new findings show that those studies dramatically underestimated those benefits, because they did not account for the positive spillovers to the next generation. This program was thus even more cost-effective than it first appeared.

Policy implications: This study shows that providing healthcare and higher quality education to young girls can have big benefits in terms of reducing the next generation’s criminal behavior. In this way, programs such as Head Start help break the cycle of poverty, as well as related cycles of incarceration and other criminal justice involvement. Today’s Head Start program looks different than the 1960s version studied in this paper; it focuses more on education and less on health services, which are now provided by programs such as Medicaid. In addition, children in high-poverty neighborhoods in the 1960s were far more disadvantaged than those in such neighborhoods today, so the value added by this program was probably larger then than it would be now. That said, this paper shows that past investments had big crime-reduction benefits that likely contribute to today’s comparatively low crime rates. It is always difficult to know if today’s investments will have similar long-run returns (we’ll need to wait decades to find out!), but we now have stronger evidence that anti-poverty programs are likely to be an effective crime-reduction strategy, at least over the long term.

More information:

Changing Police Recruitment Messages Attracts a Larger and More Diverse Applicant Pool

Spotlighted Study: “More Than Public Service: A Field Experiment on Job Advertisements and Diversity in the Police” by Elizabeth Linos. 2018. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory.

Program: Police departments are facing public pressure to increase diversity in law enforcement, and to replace poorly performing officers. Changing the composition of police forces requires changing who applies to become an officer in the first place, but many police departments across the country were struggling to attract a broader set of qualified applicants even before the George Floyd killing and ensuing protests. Recruiting more and different people will likely require different strategies than those used in the past. An intervention in Chattanooga, TN, aimed to attract more and different people to apply to become police officers. Postcard advertisements were sent to local households. Some postcards featured traditional messages related to public service, while others featured messages about the challenge of the job or policing as a long-term career.

Research challenge: Most studies of what motivates people to become police officers focus on the characteristics of those who are already officers. Those studies typically find that current officers are strongly motivated by public service. It is unclear, however, if appealing to public service motivation is the best way to recruit more and different candidates who would also be good at the job. What would happen if departments appealed to different motivations? Often recruitment campaigns are changed due to recent events or as part of a broader policy shift. In such cases, it is difficult to distinguish the effects of the recruitment efforts from those other factors. Recruiters might also target different messages based on what they think will be most effective for a particular candidate. Again, this makes it difficult to tell whether the message itself has an impact, relative to what the prospective applicant would have done on his or her own.

Research strategy: In partnership with the police department, the researcher conducted a field experiment to test the effectiveness of different recruitment messages on application outcomes. From an initial pool of approximately 22,000 households in the county (based on a list of registered voters), nearly 10,000 were randomly selected to receive postcards urging the recipients to apply to the police. Within that treatment group, four different messages were randomly assigned across the postcards that were sent. The remaining 12,000 registered voters did not receive postcards; they were the control group. Because it was random whether a household received a postcard, and which message they saw, we can be more confident that any observed effects of receiving postcards on application behavior was due to the postcards and messages themselves.

Results: People who received a postcard were twice as likely to apply to the police as those who did not receive a postcard. The effects varied by message. Those receiving traditional messages related to public service (“Are you ready to serve?” or “What would it mean to you?”) were no more likely to apply than those who were in the control group. In other words, recruitment strategies that emphasized the public service aspect of the job failed to bring in more or different applicants. The two other messages were much more effective. One emphasized that good officers “thrive in challenging environments” (“Are you up for the challenge?”) and the other stressed that policing “isn’t just a job” (“Looking for a long-term career?”). People who received either of these postcards were three times as likely to apply to the police as those who did not receive a postcard. These effects were even larger for people of color: non-white recipients of the “challenge” or “career” messages were four times as likely to apply to the police as those in the control group. Since this was a mass marketing campaign, the number of people who actually applied was relatively small (73 total applicants), but applicants from the treatment group were just as qualified (based on test scores) and persistent (based on drop-out rates) as those from the control group.

What drove the effect?: The study’s author argues that effective recruitment strategies provide information about the organization and the job that is (1) new to the candidate, (2) realistic, and (3) meaningful to the type of person the organization is trying to attract. In this case, the “challenge” and “career” messages were chosen because they could appeal to a different type of applicant but are still true to the role of a police officer and are likely to draw applicants who are a good fit for the job.

Cost-benefit: The cost of sending postcards to 10,000 households was $4,000. Eight of the recipients ultimately joined the police force in Chattanooga; the implied cost is thus $500 per recruit. During this time period, the police department also had a referral program that paid officers a $500 bonus if an applicant made it to the final round. In addition, the postcard campaign is likely more effective at diversifying the police force. (A referral program necessarily draws from existing officers’ networks, which will typically be similar to the referring officer.)

Policy implications: This study demonstrates that low-cost ways to recruit more and different police officers are currently underutilized. Traditional campaigns that only appeal to public service motivations will miss many potential applicants who could be well-suited for police work. The author of this study has run similar experiments with other police departments, finding some variation in results across contexts. Marketing campaigns like the one described here are relatively inexpensive, and could easily be conducted elsewhere to figure out what works best for a given police department.

Making Fair and Respected Cops: Procedural Justice Training in Chicago Proves Successful

Spotlighted Study:Procedural justice training reduces police use of force and complaints against officers” by George Wood, Tom R. Tyler, and Andrew V. Papachristos. 2020. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Program: There is tremendous interest in finding interventions that can improve relationships between community members and law enforcement, and reduce the use of force by police. A new, one-day training developed for police officers in Chicago “emphasized the importance of voice, neutrality, respect, and trustworthiness in policing actions,” consistent with principles of procedural justice. The program’s goals were to increase the level of respect with which officers treat the public, ensure police listen to civilians’ views before making decisions, and, in general, encourage officers to demonstrate an interest in working as members of the community they are sworn to serve and protect.

Research challenge: Officers who voluntarily sign up for procedural justice trainings, or who are assigned by their superiors to undergo such trainings, may be different from other officers. For instance, they may be more or less inclined toward the standard “command and control” approach to policing. For this reason, simply comparing the behavior of officers who have had such trainings with the behavior of officers who haven’t doesn’t tell us much about the effect of the training itself. Similarly, in some cases a specific event (such as a violent incident on the job) might lead an officer to undergo such training, but might also change his attitude toward policing in a way that independently affects his behavior going forward. That means even looking at changes in the same officer’s behavior over time might not demonstrate whether the training itself had any effect. To measure the causal effect of a training program, we need those programs to be implemented in a way that avoids these sources of bias. A previous study randomly assigned officers to receive a procedural justice intervention in Seattle. It found beneficial effects, but the sample was small and might not have been representative; a larger-scale evaluation was needed.

Research strategy: In Chicago, not all police officers could undergo the new training at once, because of capacity constraints (there were over 8,000 officers in the city). Instead, officers were randomly assigned to participate in the program on different days, in groups of about 25 officers per class. Trainings began in January 2012 and continued for several years. In other words, Chicago implemented a staggered rollout of the program, which allowed researchers to measure the causal effect of the training on subsequent behavior. By comparing trends in outcomes for those who received training in a particular month, with trends for those who had not yet undergone the training, researchers were able to quantify the effect of the training itself. Because the timing of when individual officers took the training was not related to anything about their personal characteristics, interest in the program, or recent events, we can be more confident that differences in subsequent behavior are the effect of the training program, and not pre-existing differences across officers.

Results: The training program was highly successful in improving measures of police behavior. Participation reduced complaints against police officers by 10.0%, reduced the frequency of sustained or settled complaints against officers by 15.5%, and reduced the use of force against civilians by 6.4%, in the 24 months following the training. Effects appeared to grow over time, and were largest for those who were assigned to take the training early, which may indicate important spillover effects within the department. (That is, those who took the training later may have already been somewhat “treated” by their previously trained peers.)

What drove the effect?: The effects found here were for the 8-hour training program as a package, and represent the average effects across all officers. It is not yet clear if this program had bigger effects for some officers than others, or whether it would have the same benefits if the program were targeted at such officers.

Cost-benefit: The study did not include a formal cost-benefit analysis. The costs of the program include the instructors’ time (ten police officers who conducted the training in rotating groups of three, across 327 training days), and the time of the police officers (one day each). The benefits include a reduction in payouts for settled complaints (by my calculation, approximately $4.2 million over the 24-month follow-up period). It is not yet clear if the trainings had any effect on crime rates, on injuries to police officers, or on public perceptions of police fairness; such effects should also be considered.

Policy implications: This study demonstrates that a training program based on procedural justice principles can have large benefits in terms of a reduction in complaints against officers and use of force by police. It provides a roadmap for other police departments to follow to implement similar training programs, though the trainings may need to be adjusted for other contexts. Police departments that implement this and other trainings should use a similar staggered rollout design so they can evaluate whether the program has the benefits they seek for their cities.