Inheritance law and suicide in India

I started to send this out as a series of tweets, but decided it was worth something a bit longer. I haven’t had much time to blog over the last 9 months, but perhaps this summer will get me writing again…

A new Anderson & Genicot paper finds that codifying inheritance rights to property for women in India lead to increased suicide rates for both men and women. The paper is based on an intrahousehold bargaining framework and rests on the mechanism whereby if women are seemingly arbitrarily given more power in relationships via more access to capital, that might cause stress and thus lead to suicide by men. It also might be that as men inherit smaller shares of their parents’ assets, it is essentially an unexpected shock and could cause financial stress that could lead to suicide. There is precedent for this interpretation in the literature, particularly in sociology.

For women, the argument to me is less clear. The inherited property, though perhaps causing additional marital discord or stress, is also 1) an increase in potential income–which should theoretically decrease overall stress levels, and 2) a better outside option, leaving women more free to leave a relationship. If either of these hold, they should actually lead to a decrease in the suicide rate.

Also, suicide rates are not just going up for married men and women. The WHO recently announced that suicide is the biggest killer of adolescent girls worldwide. Even though adolescent girls can inherit property in India (from what I can tell, there is no bar based on age of majority), they’re probably not the largest group of inheritors. So, do we believe that suicide rates for adolescent girls are totally unrelated to suicide rates for older women and men? I doubt it, especially given a large body of work that posits that suicide rates may be influenced by media coverage of suicide (for example). That suicide is driven by the inheritance law requires us to believe they are mostly unrelated. Or that girls are so stressed about the idea of one day owning and running a farm that they check out early.

While the empirical work appears to be very strong in the Anderson and Genicot paper, I’m not sold on the theoretical mechanism. Moving towards gender equality in places with strong traditional gender roles and norms is likely to put stress on many individuals. Reallocation of profits and assets will also understandably cause unexpected wealth shocks for both men and women and could lead to marital discord, but it could also lead to stronger, more independent women. Further, higher rates of suicide among groups that are likely unaffected by the law change suggest something unobserved is affecting suicide rates.

Random financial inclusion thoughts

The buildup around Prime Minister Modi’s Independence Day speech was palpable in the EPoD/BCURE office last week. My research group does quite a bit of work on financial inclusion in India and so rumors that Modi would announce a financial inclusion plan had not a few people talking.

In fact, the PM did announce a financial inclusion plan to open bank accounts for 75 million Indians by August 2018. It’s an ambitious plan, to be sure, but it struck me as rather odd. The way the papers presented the plan, Modi introduced the plan by talking about how many people have mobile phones in India, but nobody has a bank account. My head went immediately to the thought of “well, maybe he wants to expand mobile money use in India.” Despite the presence of quite a few mobile money providers in India, mobile money is used in very few transactions. This is very different than a place like Kenya, where mobile money is extremely widely used.

I’m not sure that mobile money is the best answer, but I think it’s at least an interesting use of existing infrastructure, as opposed to brick and mortar banks with minimum transactions and high withdrawal fees, for instance.

Fertility decline and missing women

Seema Jayachandran has a new NBER paper on fertility decline and the sex ratio in India. She shows that as total fertility declines, the male-to-female sex ratio increases. Key line from the abstract: “fertility decline can explain roughly half of the increase in the sex ratio that has occurred in India over the past thirty years.” This only works in combination with son preference, of course; she’s not positing that sex ratios would increase in the absence of son preference and methods to elicit desired within-family sex ratios. I don’t think the finding is particularly surprising, but it does suggest a quantity-quality tradeoff calculation is being made. To take the conclusions a little farther afield, maybe they also suggest that a reversal is possible if girls’ value is sufficiently increased. 

The full abstract is below and a link (gated) here:

India’s male-biased sex ratio has worsened over the past several decades. In combination with the increased availability of prenatal sex-diagnostic technology, the declining fertility rate is a hypothesized factor. Suppose a couple strongly wants to have at least one son. At the natural sex ratio, they are less likely to have a son the fewer children they have, so a smaller desired family size will increase the likelihood they manipulate the sex composition of their children. This paper empirically measures the relationship between desired fertility and the sex ratio. Standard survey questions on fertility preferences ask the respondent her desired number of children of each sex, but people who want larger families have systematically stronger son preference, which generates bias. This paper instead elicits desired sex composition at specified, randomly determined, levels of total fertility. These data allow one to isolate the causal effect of family size on the desired sex ratio. I find that the desired sex ratio increases sharply as the fertility rate falls; fertility decline can explain roughly half of the increase in the sex ratio that has occurred in India over the past thirty years. In addition, factors such as female education that lead to more progressive attitudes could counterintuitively cause a more male-skewed sex ratio because while they reduce the desired sex ratio at any given family size, they also reduce desired family size.

Women’s security and work in India

Pretty much all I think about these days is women’s labor force participation, primarily in India. One of the big things on my mind is how increased reports of sexual assault, rape, and other crimes against women, particularly on public transportation, affect labor market entry and exit, hours worked etc. I’m clearly not the only one thinking about this as the Indian government has released a budget detailing pretty significant investment in women’s safety and to address crime.

From an article on the new budget:

“Women’s safety is a concern shared by all the honourable members of this House. We need to test out different approaches that can be validated and scaled up quickly,” he said.

The government plans to spend $9 million on a pilot scheme to improve women’s safety on public transport, and an additional $28 million in large cities.

“Crisis Management Centres” will also be set up in all government and private hospitals in the capital, to provide support to victims of crimes such as rape and domestic violence.

The number of crimes against women in India reported to the police such as rape, dowry deaths, abduction and molestation increased by 26.7 percent in 2013 from a year earlier, rising to 309,546 from 244,270, the National Crime Records Bureau says.

One of the primary questions is whether these increases in rape, dowry death , abduction and molestation are a result of some changes in female autonomy, or labor force participation, or something else that could lead to backlash, or whether it’s just an increase in reporting due to reduced stigma associated with reporting. It could also be something else all together, of course, but at least someone’s paying attention.

Thinking about defining domestic violence

A colleague from Bates College (with whom I happened to share an advisor in grad school) visited last week to give a seminar at Lafayette and we started talking about writing a paper together. Working off each of our comparative advantages, it’s going to be about domestic violence in India.

As a result, this morning I was thinking about how to code up domestic violence to put into regression analysis and how defining gender-based or domestic violence is part and parcel to the type of question you’re trying to answer.

For example, many surveys include violence by a partner, a husband, a boyfriend, a father, an in-law, and any number of other actors. My quick response to SD this morning was to divide the categories (not mutually exclusive, perhaps) like this.

1. By a romantic partner
2. By a husband (romantic partner with legal implications)
3. By a member of her husband’s family
4. By a member of her own family.
5. By anyone when it’s gender-motivated.

2 and 3 (and possibly 1 depending on societal structures) have implications for bargaining power-type questions and investments in children. 1, 4, and 5 have greater implications for society at large.


Code ’em all up, I say.

I’m back

I’m back! I’m fighting the worse jet lag I’ve ever experienced in my life. Yesterday I was up at 1:30am and today at 2:30. I figure, this is what @price_laborecon must feel like. Nonetheless, I’m stateside for a few days and going to crank out some original research and blog posts.

Here’s one picture for you, in my new saree. More on Kolkata and India and Bengali weddings later, I’m sure.

Off to the land of sights and smells and senses, or a break

As you’re reading this, I’m likely on a plane, or sitting in one of many airports or train stations that is in my future over the next month and a half or so. Today, I’m headed to India to see my dear friend and colleague get married. It’s going to be a five-day, multicity affair, with an overnight train ride in the middle. En route, I’m stopping in Mumbai and Darjeeling to do some shopping (new saree!) and hiking and to see a bit more of this huge, incredible country. I was in India a few years ago and fell in love with it. It’s overwhelming, to be sure. The smells and the colors and the throngs of people are total madness, but I love it; it’s exhilarating to be somewhere out of my comfort zone. I’m not doing research this trip, though you can guarantee my eyes will be peeled for interesting things. I’m also not taking a computer, which means unless I can get wi-fi for my phone, I’m doing this trip old school. I’m going to read some books and journals, including Casualties of Credit by Wennerland and the CESifo journal issue on malnutrition, and some stuff for fun, like Just Kids and back issues of the New Yorker, but won’t be here or on twitter much. My 30th birthday present to myself is a real break from work, this means not thinking about the papers I have under review, or the one that’s due at the end of August, or the one I have to finish for the CNEH conference in Banff in October (so excited for Banff!). A break. I’m going to sit in a big, comfy chair on a tea plantation and stare at the Himalayas (or the clouds, given that it is monsoon season, but, details). If you want to read more about down time (or the lack thereof), take a few minutes for this piece in the NYT from last week on “busyness”, a phenomenon that I’ve been complaining about since my years at Duke, and suddenly everyone is talking about, or Bryce Covert’s piece in The Nation on work-family balance. If you know something I shouldn’t miss in Darjeeling, Kolkata or Ranchi, please do share. I’ll try to check email sporadically. I’ve also been designated honorary photographer and family blocker for this wedding by my advisors, fellow grad students, and professors in the Economics department at the University of Colorado, so I hope to have some crazy wedding pictures and experiences to share when I get back. Have fun! Talk to you all soon. Enjoy your July and thanks for reading. I forgot to acknowledge my blogiversary (sp?), but I’ve loved getting to know you all over the past year. Thanks for your comments and ideas and conversation and emails and shares and links. This has been an amazing learning experience for me and I’m so excited to keep it up over the next year (I promise not to torture you all too much with job market woes in the coming months. Feel free to chastise me if it gets out of hand.)

No loo, No I do

A few weeks ago, a coauthor sent me a job market paper from an environmental economics student at Yale. Though in a very different department than me, we have similar interests and she thought I would find the paper interesting. Not only did I find it interesting, I found myself wishing it had been my job market paper. Apparently, so did a lot of people. The paper has been blowing up my twitter feed and was featured on the World Bank’s Development Impact Blog.

The paper evaluates the effects of a media campaign in Haryana, India designed to encourage women to make latrine presence a requirement for marriage. The project is particularly interesting because it allows for reasonable evaluation of a campaign targeting social norms without the the randomized control component so in vogue in economics right now. In addition, it provides real evidence as to the causal effect of skewed sex ratios. While we have speculated and reported on the effects of sex ratios, many of which I’ve discussed here, there is little statistical evidence. Now, we have some. It’s pretty great.

In summary, the paper shows that men of marrying age are more likely to build latrines when they live in areas with a more skewed sex ratio. Thus, a woman’s bargaining power in demanding a good that has an outsized benefit for her (privacy, sanitation, health) increases when she becomes relatively ‘scarce’ on the marriage market. While this doesn’t discount the other, more undesirable possible effects of a skewed sex ratio (bridenapping, increased violence against women, etc), it is certainly evidence that women are leveraging their bargaining power to improve their outcomes.

In addition, the means to test a social norms marketing campaign are huge. My own work on such campaigns directed at reducing gender-based violence showed the near impossibility of successfully and credibly evaluating their impact. The use of a sex ratio as a (somewhat?) exogenous measure of potential impact is novel, exciting, and I’m sure will be in use by many papers to come. There’s the obvious question of whether it’s plausibly exogenous, but perhaps we’ll save that conversation for another day.

The paper has two parts, one presents a theoretical model to explain the mechanism and the other presents empirical evidence from the program itself to show how a skewed sex ratio has increased women’s bargaining power, at least on this one dimension in Haryana, India. I have some nitpicky comments, like the theory section needs to be more thoroughly explained, or there are square brackets where there should be curly ones, but overall, I think it’s a great paper. It’s kind of wonkish, but you can download the paper here, if you’re interested. Good luck in Chicago, Yaniv!

Turning around the war on girls

A new book about the infamous “missing women” by Mara Hvistendahl is gathering quite a storm, at least if you look at it from the perspective the Wall St. Journal (subscription required, my apologies if you can’t read the article), twitter, and my inbox. Unfortunately, I cannot comment on the book itself yet, as I haven’t read it (don’t worry, I will!), but there is a lot of fodder provided by the book review’s author, Jonathan V. Last, and the literature in economics.

The question of missing girls as a result of sex-selection is not a new topic, by any means. Amartya Sen, a revered development economist and Nobel Prize winner, sounded the alarm more than 20 years ago now with an essay in the New York Times claiming that 100 million women were missing in the world, mostly in India and China, countries known to show strong son preference. He showed this by pointing out that while in the US and Europe, we see women outnumbering men, this does not hold true in much of the world. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, and the ratios are becoming worse. He doesn’t get much into the evolutionary science that guides the numbers, but he reminds us that boys outnumber girls at birth, but girls babies are more likely to survive, leaving countries like the US (where son preference is present, but perhaps not enough to encourage sex-selective abortion or infanticide) with a few extra women per one hundred men. Despite the fact that girls seem to be a bit hardier than boys, many developing countries–particularly in Asia and particularly those with a history of government-backed population reduction initiatives–are experiencing an outsize number of male births and an increasingly imbalanced sex ratio in older cohorts. Instead of a few extra men for every one hundred women, we start to see 110, 115 or more men for every one hundred women.

Emily Oster made waves and a career when she (erroneously, it seems) claimed that Hepatitis B, not sex-selective abortion, infanticide, femicide, or the systematic discrimination against girl children, was the root cause for much of the case of the missing women. (Note to budding PhD economists, write your job market paper on a really controversial topic). Women who had contracted Hepatitis B, the story went, were more likely to give birth to boys, thus skewing the ratio of boys to girls. Her arguments have been shown to be rife with problems in a number of papers and the question of missing girls remains a hot topic in economics. Last year, a colleague attended a conference in which her session was only for papers on “Sex-selective abortion in India.” For reference, most sessions at large conferences bring together diverse papers for sessions on “Topics in Education” or “Monetary Policy”. Rarely do we see four papers on the same subject.

Without reading Mara’s book, what’s interesting right now is that there should be natural economic consequences, right? A skewed sex imbalance means that women are suddenly a scarce resource and we should see that scarcity leads to higher prices in the market. Unfortunately, this does not always translate into desirable outcomes when we look at the big picture, and it does not necessarily mean that women are suddenly more valued (culturally), just more valuable (financially, opportunity-cost wise). In the marriage market, we might expect to see dowry payments dropping, or even reversed, where men are paying a bride price instead. We should see increased wage rates for work that women tend to do. The lack of women available to do “women’s work”, should push other individuals–either children, men or older women–into that work. Older women working is probably not sustainable. While putting more children to work is certainly not a desirable development goal, it might end up being the eventual outcome for communities with strong social norms against men doing women’s work. To some extent, I’ve heard anecdotal evidence of all these scenarios playing out in various communities.

An extreme sex imbalance also creates a serious problem with regard to who can get married and may even lead to increased violence. In the case that women now have more bargaining power in a relationship because they can earn more money, they are perhaps more likely to delay marriage. In the case where women don’t have more bargaining power and cultural norms dictate marrying them off anyway, we might see younger women getting married to older men (perhaps men who have gained enough standing to ‘earn’ one of the scarce wives), which reduces the pool of marriageable women for men of their age. Regardless of which scenario (or an alternate one) plays out, the lack of women entering the marriage market has the ability to create, in all these different ways, a group of young, directionless men who are more apt to engage in criminal, or merely unsavory, activities or take out their aggression on women.

One email I received concerning the book suggested that we should try to change cultural attitudes about the value of women in these societies. Perhaps, she suggested, we could provide cash payments to women who give birth to children or other incentives. It’s an interesting idea, but one that could easily backfire.

Before we can talk about incentivizing the birth of female children, we have to figure out whether the sex imbalance is hurting or helping women, whether it is hurting or helping societies and what exactly would happen to those girl babies if they were born. As for hurting or helping, I think the general consensus is that it’s hurting, but I don’t know that we know that much about the outcomes associated with sex imbalances, yet, and it may be different in different places. Sex imbalances are still, I believe, much more skewed in younger populations than older ones, so we’re still not seeing the full effect on the marriage and labor markets of the lack of brides and female workers. Even if they are in place, there’s certainly not a consensus on what they are.

If we’re going to pay people to have girls, that raises all sorts of policy issues. On the one hand, though perhaps unlikely, it does run the risk of tipping the imbalance in the other direction. It may be that we have to wait for cultural norms to play themselves out to see a natural increase in the value of girl babies as dowry payments decline. Alternatively , there is evidence that social norms marketing sorts of programs have indeed altered some social norms and could have an effect on the value of girls, which may be more useful than paying parents.

The saddest part of just paying parents to have the girl children is that we might see more infanticide and general neglect of girls. Much of sex-selective abortion has been shown to be a substitute for infanticide and neglect of girl babies. Though certainly not relevant in every case, this also not a situation in which we can restrict abortion in order to repopulate the world with women. Cultural norms and attitudes are what economists would call ‘sticky’ and how best to change them, if we even should change them (there’s another benevolent dictator argument to be had here), or let them run their course, is a complicated question. It’s certainly one for which we don’t have all the answers.