As the calendar year begins to wind down, we take a look back at our most-read articles from 2018. We encourage you to take a quiet moment for another look as you may have missed an article or may simply enjoy the re-read. Please take a moment to share what you would like to see more of in the new year. Interested in seeing your work here? Send us a note with your ideas or submit an application to serve as a blogger for the 2019 MPSA conference.
This MPSA roundtable session on “Using Experiments in Political Science”, chaired by Rick K. Wilson of Rice University features Alexa Bankert of the University of Georgia, Oliver James of the University of Exeter, Costas Panagopoulos of Northeastern University, and David Nickerson of Temple University.
The panel members discuss the use of experiments in political science and the implications of experimental research for both the study and practice of politics.
Highlights from the discussion include the benefits and potential drawbacks of building a cutting-edge lab on a university campus to conduct experimental research, as well as opportunities to do experiments with big data, doing research while working with political campaigns, field experiences of a political scientist working with public organizations on policy experiments, and strategies for publishing experimental research in major academic journals.
Each panelist describes risks and benefits related to their particular field of expertise related to experiments and provides tips and advice for conducting and publishing research experiments.
In this public engagement roundtable from the 2018 MPSA conference, Michelle Kukoleca Hammes of Saint Cloud State University, Derrick Carter of Valparaiso University Law School, and Jared Wesley of the University of Alberta examine “pracademics” or the intersection of practical politics with academic study and the field of political science.
Drawing from personal experiences, the panelists discuss the practice of political science in the legislative context and the separation of academics from legislation and policymaking, while examining ways the discipline could reach out to communities to integrate students and professors with real-world community needs.
Discussing strategies for bridging the gap between political science and politics, the panelists discuss the importance of linking academic subject matter with real-life issues for students and look at ways non-elected bureaucrats or practitioners can work collaboratively with academics and students to improve research, scholarship, and policy outcomes.
This MPSA roundtable session on “MPSA Roundtable: The Path to Full”, hosted by the Midwest Women’s Caucus and chaired by Tiffany Barnes of the University of Kentucky, features James Adams of University of California, Davis, Leslie Schwindt-Bayer of Rice University, and Miki Kittilson of Arizona State University, Tempe.
This panel examines the path to full professorship by facilitating a discussion of the participants’ journeys to become full professors.
Highlights from the discussion include important points in the transition between the associate and full professor levels, including the importance of career mentoring during this time, and advice on moving from the associate to full professor level. Questions discussed during the roundtable address what it means to be a full professor, what this looks like at different institutions, and what being a full professor means to each of the panelists.
Topics of discussion include:
New opportunities for longer term or higher risk projects.
Affective polarization – the mutual partisan antipathy expressed by both Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. – has increased dramatically over the last 30 years. Both real-life political processes and their reflections in social media offer anecdotal evidence for this conjecture, as demonstrated by declining civility in political debates. Systematic evidence for this disturbing trend also comes from the ANES time series, as documented by Iyengar, Sood, and Lelkes (2012).
What are the root causes of this process? One of the most influential approaches to affective polarization emphasizes the changing social compositions of the two parties (Mason 2018). Over the last decades, sorting rendered Democrats and Republicans relatively homogeneous and distinct on a number of non-ideological dimensions, from religious affiliation to place of residence. For example, whereas both conservatives, moderates, and even some liberals once identified with the Republican party, now the vast majority are conservative. While Democrats once included highly religious as well as secular adherents, most fundamentalists have now departed for the Republicans.
However, we think another dimension is most important. Race/ethnicity now cleaves the parties more neatly than ever, and not simply because Democrats and Republicans disagree in their attitudes about race itself. In fact, whites are sorting out of the Democratic party at a significant rate while minorities are standing pat. Figure 1 presents evidence in this regard using the American National Election Studies time-series data starting from 1952. The growing racial gap between the two parties is evident. As the share of Whites among self-identified Democrats is rapidly decreasing (outpacing demographic changes in the country as a whole), the Republican Party remains overwhelmingly White. Our conjecture is that it is these changes in race and ethnicity that drive most of the affective polarization we have witnessed over the last 30 years.
If we are correct we would expect that American voters have begun to develop much more highly racialized mental images of political parties. Furthermore, these racialized images should be much more politically consequential than partisan schemas linked to religion, class, or other dimensions.
To explore this possibility, we conducted two survey studies based on interviews with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk) workers. In the first study, we relied on implicit methods to measure respondents’ associations between the two major parties on the one hand and Blacks and Whites on the other hand. Specifically, we used a timed image sorting task similar in architecture to the well-known implicit association test (IAT). However, unlike the standard IAT our task did not include an affective component – instead, it simply measured the strength of associations between racial and partisan groups via objective reaction times (transformed into the IAT D-scores according to the respective guidelines).
Figure 2 presents the results. On average, respondents’ racialized schemas about partisan coalitions were consequential. White respondents who thought of the Democratic Party as Black reported clear affective preference for the Republican Party. Furthermore, this effect was moderated by racial resentment: racialized schemas about the two parties were consequential for those high in racial resentment but not for the racially liberal respondents.
In the second study, we asked explicit questions about supporters of the two parties. Specifically, we wanted our respondents to tell us their best guess about the race/ethnicity of “the typical Democrat/Republican.” We found that even in the MTurk sample, which is known to be more liberal than the U.S. general population, as much as 25% of respondents thought of the modal Democratic voter as Black or African American. This is clearly a misperception: even though the Democratic Party indeed draws a substantial share of its electoral support from minority groups, Whites still comprise the plurality of Democratic supporters.
As with implicit schemas, explicit ones were politically consequential. Even controlling for issue positions and demographics, respondents who perceived themselves to “match” with one of the two parties in terms of race exhibited significantly more polarized partisan feelings than those who did not feel they matched one or both of the parties in terms of race. Moreover, partisan identity matching with other groups, namely religious denomination and social class, had almost no effect on affective polarization. Results are presented in Figure 3.
Our findings have important implications for the study of affective polarization and for the subfield of American political behavior more generally. We suspect that Americans now see the partisan coalitions in racial terms and that these racialized images are highly consequential for how people feel toward the parties. In comparative politics, the “ethnicization” of political parties is associated with a host of negative system-level outcomes, such as bad governance and political instability. If the process that we highlight continues, the American political system may experience problems much worse than Twitter brawls between fans of Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity.
About the Authors: Nicholas A. Valentino is a Research Professor at the Center for Political Studies and a Professor in the Departments of Political Science and Communication Studies at the University of Michigan. Kirill Zhirkov is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Michigan. Valentino and Zhirkov received the Best Paper in Political Behavior award for their study “The Images in Our Heads: Race, Partisanship and Affective Polarization” presented at the 2017 MPSA conference.
References Iyengar, Shanto, Gaurav Sood, and Yphtach Lelkes. 2012. “Affect, not Ideology: A Social Identity Perspective on Polarization.” Public Opinion Quarterly 76 (3): 405–31.
Mason, Lilliana. 2018. Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
The following is part of a series of posts written by MPSA award recipients highlighting outstanding research presented at previous MPSA annual conferences and in the American Journal of Political Science. The following AJPS Author Summary was first published on the AJPS website and is shared here with permission.
In developing countries, ethnic groups – also known as tribes – play an important role in political life. Prior research shows that people living in areas that are more ethnically homogeneous are more likely to act collectively. For example, in more homogeneous communities, people are more likely to donate to a local public school or support a local armed rebellion. Several existing theories assume that such collective action is easier among people from a single ethnic group in part because group members are better able to share information than people from different groups. This is the case, several scholars believe, because the social networks among people of an ethnic group are denser.
To study the “real world” accuracy of these assumptions, we conducted an experiment in rural Uganda. We seeded identical information in the same way at the same time in two villages that are similar in most ways – except that one village is ethnically homogeneous, and the other is more diverse. The seeded information was that in three days an event would be held at which all adults in attendance would receive a valuable block of soap in exchange for taking a survey. By then surveying villagers who did and did not attend, we learned that, as expected, the information spread much less widely in the diverse village; more than eight-times more individuals from the homogeneous village heard about the event. However, contrary to expectations, we find that the social network in the more diverse village is significantly denser; many more social ties interconnect people there. In other words, news spread much more widely in the homogeneous village despite having a less dense social network.
To understand why network density can in fact impede information spread, we argue that if people hesitate to share information more with out-group members than with in-group members – even if the difference is small – then greater network density can actually impede the spread of information. The intuition is as follows: given a limited number of opportunities to share news with a social contact on a given day, greater density – especially if it is driven in part by more cross-group ties — increases the likelihood that some of those opportunities are with less trusted social contacts. Additional ties to those one trusts less crowd out the chance to interact with more trusted people, to whom information flows more freely. Because of the exponential nature of information spread, when this dynamic recurs throughout a network, it can greatly impede the spread of information overall. In the paper, we show how this process can work by simulating information spread through the village networks about which we collected data.
While this is a small study of two villages, it provides a rare, direct look at the process of information transmission in rural societies, and provides clues about why information – and perhaps even disinformation or propaganda – may spread more easily in less diverse areas.
About the Authors: Jennifer M. Larson of Vanderbilt University and Janet I. Lewis of the U.S. Naval Academy have authored the article, “Ethnic Networks”, published in the April 2017 issue of the American Journal of Political Science, which was awarded the AJPS Best Article Award at the 2018 MPSA Conference. (MPSA members: Log in at http://www.MPSAnet.org/AJPS to access.)
By Melody Crowder-Meyer, Shana Kushner Gadarian, and Jessica Trounstine
When Los Angeles County voters entered their polling booths in November 2016, they were faced with a multitude of decisions. The choice of which presidential candidate to support was likely fairly straightforward. But how about voters’ choice for the U.S. Senate? Both candidates available were Democrats – how did voters determine which candidate would better represent their preferences? Further down the ballot, voters were then presented with local races. The candidates running for Board of Supervisors, Judge of the Superior Court, City Council, and Rent Control Board were all listed as nonpartisan. Making all these decisions – filling out this ballot – asked a lot of citizens. So, how do citizens generally make decisions about casting their votes when they have little information to use?
In this paper, we examine how voters make decisions under varying levels of information. Existing research clearly demonstrates that voters draw on shortcuts – heuristics such as ideology and partisanship – to substitute for full information when making voting decisions. But in non-partisan elections or in elections (like party primaries) in which both candidates share the same party identification, these heuristics can’t help. What then do voters do? We investigate the extent to which voters use candidates’ race, ethnicity, and gender – characteristics that can often be identified even in the lowest information elections – as shortcuts to help them make decisions. Importantly, our exploration is conducted in settings where partisan cues are absent, which is the case in the vast majority of local elections in the United States.
We use 3 experiments to test the way that varying the amount of candidate information affects how voters choose candidates. In particular, we are interested in whether information helps or hurts the chance that candidates of color and female candidates win. In the experiments, we asked subjects to act like voters and choose candidates in 3 elections: city council, county board of supervisors, and a parks and recreation board. We randomly assigned candidates of varying races and gender, and randomly assigned levels of information available to voters.
Our lowest information setting included only candidate’s names –like this ballot from Duluth, Minnesota.
Our medium level of information setting provided candidates’ occupations as well – just like this ballot from Alameda, California.
In our highest information setting, we told voters candidates’ name, occupation, age, educational background, and incumbency status.
We find that voters do indeed rely on candidate characteristics when casting their ballots. While racial and ethnic minorities lose in low information settings, women win. However, as shown in the figure below, increasing the amount of information available to voters moderates both of these effects.
More information reduces the effect of candidate race and gender on vote choice
The figure shows the difference in the probability of voting for candidates with specific racial and gender characteristics – compared to white candidates and male candidates – under conditions of low, moderate, and high information. African-Americans suffer the greatest penalty in our low information experiments, followed by Asians and Latinos. Women are given a slight benefit when voters have the least information. Adding information about the candidates reduces these penalties and benefits.
But who is most likely to rely on candidate race and gender as cues….and why? In a separate experiment, we found that voters assume that black and Latino candidates are more liberal than white candidates, and that female candidates are viewed as more liberal than male candidates. How did this affect vote choice? We find that liberals and Democrats are substantially more likely than conservatives and Republicans to support female candidates and candidates of color in our lowest information settings. In fact, the preference for women in the lowest information setting is wholly driven by liberal and Democratic respondents. Voters seem to be drawing on racial and gender stereotypes to cast their ballots in our experimental elections.
But, does any of this hold outside of the lab? To determine the extent to which our findings apply outside the experimental context, we also evaluated a set of voting choices in a real, but very low information, election – the election for presidential convention delegates. In New York State, voters in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary voted in their Congressional Districts both for the presidential candidate that they preferred, and also directly for the delegates who would support those candidates at the Democratic National Convention. Democratic party rules dictate that half of all delegates to the convention be male and half female, so delegate candidates were equally divided by gender, mimicking our experimental design. In addition, voters had very little information about these delegates except for their names and their gender.
Each delegate on the ballot was pledged to one of the presidential candidates, but some of the ballot designs made that easier to understand than other ballots. We take advantage of this difference in ballots across counties to predict that any advantage given to female delegates should disappear when delegates are clearly linked to candidates (essentially, when we move from a very low information condition to a more moderate information condition). This is exactly what we find. As the figure below highlights, even in real world elections, more information decreases gender of candidate effects on vote choice.
Ballot clarity helps male delegates in NY State presidential primary
In sum, using three experiments and one real-world election, we show that when voters are forced to make decisions without any information about the candidates other than their names, they use the names to figure out who to pick. Adding information to voters’ ballots largely eliminates these penalties. Small amounts of virtually costless information decrease voters’ use of demographic traits to make decisions. In our real-world example simply clarifying the delegate’s pledged candidate largely eliminates the effect of gender and adding occupation to our experimental ballots significantly reduces the effects of race. Should a broader set of states adopt ballots with additional contextual information about candidates (as shown in the Alameda, California ballot above), or if media trends changed such that (especially local) political information was more widely accessible and consumed by voters, this could substantially affect the ways that voters make decisions about who governs them – at the local level and beyond.
About the Authors: Melody Crowder-Meyer is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Davidson College, Shana Kushner Gadarian is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Syracuse University, and Jessica Trounstine is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Merced. Their research “Voting Can Be Hard, Information Helps” presented at the 2017 MPSA conference, received the association’s inaugural Best Paper in American Politics.
By Zachary A. McGee of the University of Texas at Austin
At the start of the 115th Congress the Republican Party finally achieved unified government for the first time in more than a decade. Unfortunately for Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, his conference was not unified, and in fact, they were prepared to organize against him. My project seeks to highlight the power of an understudied set of actors who are important for understanding dynamics in the lower chamber of Congress.
Intraparty organizations, such as the House Freedom Caucus (HFC) or the Republican Study Committee (RSC), play a critical role in rank-and-file members extracting benefits from powerful party leaders. Ruth Bloch Rubin shows the power these members can have when they organize in her recent book Building the Bloc. More specifically, she shows that these groups are able to obtain better committee assignments, legislative concessions, and privileged access to party leaders. My project builds on her work by asking whether the extraction of these benefits might lead to retribution by the party in subsequent electoral cycles and how these groups might insulate themselves from that retribution.
In the modern Congress members, not their parties, generate most of their own financial support. That is, members build their own war chests and most members give some of their money to their fellow members. This practice is especially prominent among party leaders or ambitious members seeking more power but has also gradually grown to be used by almost all rank-and-file members as well. At the 2017 MPSA conference, I presented a paper entitled “Keeping Your Friends Close: A Study of Punishment and Intraparty Insurgency.” In that paper, I argue that, in the same way that party leaders can raise and distribute funds to members in return for loyalty, intraparty organization members can raise and distribute funds to fellow group members for their loyalty and protection after squabbles with party leaders.
To test my claims about intraparty organizations’ electoral cooperation and political party retribution, I examine the House Republican Party in the 2014 and 2016 election cycles. My analysis focuses on the well-established Republican Study Committee and the newly established, and already infamous, House Freedom Caucus. I use social network analysis to map the member-to-member contribution networks for all House Republicans. That is, I create a network wherein each member of the House Republican Party is linked to every other member they transferred money to in each given election cycle. The contribution data are from itemized Leadership Political Action Committee (LPAC) disbursement data from the Federal Election Commission.
My analysis reveals that members who chose to join the House Freedom Caucus altered their electoral disbursements to disproportionately support fellow group members. In fact, I find not only an increase in HFC members’ activity but also that they cluster together in the 2016 network. This cluster, defined by HFC-centric disbursements, reveals three potential HFC members that do not formally affiliate with the group: Pete Sessions (TX-32), Daniel Webster (FL-11), and Thomas Massie (KY-4). This finding is particularly interesting since the formal HFC roster is not public knowledge.
The pattern of support identified within the House Freedom Caucus does not exist among members of the larger and older Republican Study Committee. In other words, there is no clear financial relationship between members of this well-established intraparty organization. This finding illustrates that electoral coordination is not uniform across all intraparty organizations, which is interesting because we know almost nothing about what attributes of these groups leads to more or less cohesive electoral strategies. Clearly, more work to parse out across-group variation is necessary.
Finally, I find that non-HFC House Republicans opted to support HFC members less after the group formally organized (i.e. in the 2016 electoral cycle). While I provide evidence that co-partisans treat intraparty organization members differently before and after their formation, one can only speculate about the extent to which this coordination was ordered by party leaders. Whether or not party leaders are able to execute micro-level management of their members’ contributions to one another is an interesting question. Unfortunately, evidence to answer this question remains elusive. Nevertheless, the management of intraparty organizations by party leaders remains an area ripe for scholarly inquiry.
The analysis presented in my paper provides an important first step in understanding how intraparty organizations persist to consistently extract benefits from party leaders (e.g. the House Freedom Caucus) or become bloated and ineffective (e.g. the Republican Study Committee). Moreover, the collective partisan responses to intraparty organization coordination suggest that these groups are likely perceived to have some impact on the legislative process causing members to withhold support from their colleagues who opt-in to these groups. It remains unclear how successful these groups actually are in impacting the policy process though.
For scholars, this project also demonstrates that member-to-member contribution networks are a useful tool for studying intraparty organizations. I presented an empirical evaluation of the electoral coordination of these groups, but I also showed that networks can be used to identify potential group members for groups with secret membership rolls (like the HFC). This method can certainly be applied to other groups like the Tuesday Group or the Blue Dog Democrats.
Outside of its academic contributions, my paper suggests that pundits and the public alike should not underestimate the power and longevity of well-organized groups of rank-and-file members. These groups can successfully and consistently challenge powerful party leaders and coordinate for their own survival. The successes of the HFC since the start of the 115th Congress alone should cement this point. But, the HFC is not the first, nor will it be the last, group to form and extract benefits from party leaders. The takeaway for any given citizen then is this, if your member of Congress is a member of any intraparty organization then you should research that organization’s mission and take it into consideration when casting your next ballot.
About the Author: Zachary A. McGee is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on multiple aspects of intraparty organizations and their role in the U.S. Congress. More information can be found on his website www.zacharymcgee.net and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For the last couple decades, international relations scholars have fervently debated the credibility of signals during crises. Thomas Schelling’s work, followed by James Fearon’s audience cost theory and its offshoots, has popularized the belief that public signals are more credible because they implicate higher costs to take back. More specifically, costs from hand-tying through public words are greater than those from cost-sinking through public deeds. Private words are cheap. Some recent research has countered these claims by arguing that private signals can be just as costly in reputation as their public counterparts.
Two forms of path dependency have shaped and limited the contours of this discussion. First, likely due to Schelling’s enormous influence, most studies have focused on costs as the main and potentially only source of credibility. Second, without systematic data on diplomatic signals or how elites interpret them, scholars have used formal models and historical case studies to bolster their points. These methods have been valuable but also allow for different forms of cherry-picking.
At the 2017 MPSA conference, my co-author Azusa Katagiri and I presented a paper entitled “The Credibility of Public and Private Signals: A Document-Based Approach,” which offers two corresponding innovations to this debate. First, we present a novel rationale for why words exchanged behind closed doors may be more informative, and thus credible, than words exchanged in public. Second, we use text analysis and machine learning methods to create a comprehensive set of data on private statements, public statements, public actions, and White House evaluations of the Soviet Union during the Berlin Crisis of 1958 to 1963. These data permit the first quantitative study of diplomatic signaling and its effects.
The core of our theoretical argument is based on information processing/perception and relies on a more realistic understanding of the diplomatic environment, where policymakers are overloaded with tasks to perform and information to process. It is also intuitive. (Our argument’s framing has changed since we presented in 2017, so please check the revised paper.) So many statements are made in public that governmental actors—whether low-ranking desk officers or Cabinet members—cannot reliably keep up with or process them. Moreover, even though public statements are designed for and directed toward specific audiences, nobody can prevent other actors from noticing and (mis)interpreting those words. Public diplomatic statements are very noisy. In contrast, private diplomatic statements are infrequent, precise, and directed at one audience, all of which decreases their likelihood of being ignored or misperceived. This gives them important informational value and credibility.
We test these claims using over 18,000 de-classified documents from the Berlin Crisis of 1958 to 1963, which we photographed at the National Archives and the Eisenhower and Kennedy Presidential Libraries. This is a full collection of cables and memos during one of the most serious crises in American history. The documents come from three sources, which align with our concepts of interest: the Department of State (private statements from the Soviet Union), the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (public statements from the Soviet Union), and the White House (American elites’ assessments of Soviet intentions).
To convert these documents into quantitative data, we use a series of text analysis and supervised learning methods to make weekly-level measures of private statements of Soviet resolve (ostensibly costless), public statements of Soviet resolve (hand-tying), and White House perceptions of Soviet resolve. We also use TheNew York Times to manually create a measure of costly public actions by the Soviet Union (cost-sinking).
Statistical analysis points to three results:
First, costly actions have far greater impacts on perceptions of resolve than either public or private statements.
Second, private statements are indeed less frequent and more focused compared to public statements.
Third, and consequently, private statements of resolve are more credible and affect White House perceptions of Soviet resolve than public statements.
These findings completely rearrange the hierarchy of signal credibility. Most research on costly signals would put them in this order of credibility:
Public statements > Public actions > Private statements
However, according to the information processing perspective, as well as our data, we get this:
Public actions > Private statements > Public statements
Our research has implications that are relevant to the current diplomatic situation with North Korea. President Trump’s bellicose tweets throughout 2017 and early 2018 were indeed unprecedented and increased the risk of grave unintended consequences, but fears about being committed to conflict were overblown. Not only have President Trump’s erratic and inconsistent statements already undermined his credibility, but his tweets were only one of multiple streams of public statements from his administration that were more measured or sought to engage in diplomacy. (For example, consider positions taken by Secretary Mattis or former Secretary of State Tillerson.) Conversely, claims that President Trump’s tweets recently intimidated North Korea into coming back to the table are also debatable. U.S. troop deployments and joint military exercises with South Korea have arguably been more important to American credibility.
Private diplomacy is a vital conduit through which to make clear and direct statements to one’s adversary, stripped away of incentives to perform for an outside audience. Unlike what President Trump has said about diplomacy with North Korea in the past, it is not “a waste of time.” Mike Pompeo’s secret trip to North Korea, while clearly unorthodox since he was then director of the CIA, underscores this point. But it is also for this reason that direct talks between Trump and Kim may be unwise. The higher up the ladder talks start (before lower-level officials already work out issues behind closed doors), the less likely they are to be truly private, and the more likely it becomes for both individuals to engage in public posturing instead of substantive discussions.
Our paper injects a new theoretical and empirical perspective to the study of signaling. Not only do we highlight the importance of private diplomatic activity, but we demonstrate how contemporary computational methods can be harnessed to explore the dynamics of crisis diplomacy. We look forward to extending this line of research in the future.
About the Authors: Azusa Katagiri is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Global Affairs at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. His other research focuses on the micro-foundations of state behavior, and bureaucratic decision-making in conflict, and US-Japan relations. He can be reached email@example.com.
Eric Min is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University and will be an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Los Angeles starting in the fall of 2018. His broader research applies new data and methods to analyze the strategic interaction of fighting and negotiating during war. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and is also on Twitter.
Their research “The Effectiveness of Public and Private Signals: A Document-Based Approach“, presented at the 2017 MPSA conference, received the Robert H. Durr Award which recognizes the best paper applying quantitative methods to a substantive problem.
Foster care in the United States is dramatically influenced by federal and state legislation. Since the late 1990s policies establishing privatized foster care have become increasingly popular throughout the country. The privatization of foster care, much like the privatization of other government services, has been favored because of perceived increases in efficiency and economic effectiveness by private providers. However, opponents of foster care privatization suggest that by prioritizing efficiency and cost-effectiveness over the quality of placements children in the system receive there is an increased potential for abuse and neglect in the system.
My project, Foster Care Privatization: How an Increasingly Popular Public Policy Leads to Increased Levels of Abuse and Neglect, evaluates how differentiation in foster care privatization policies may influence the quality of care received by children in the system – specifically focusing on the incidence of abuse and neglect – by measuring potential effects of privatization through three analyses:
Whether changes in foster care policies have an immediate effect on the privatization level or incidence of abuse or neglect in a state.
Whether there are differences in placement goals by privatized and non-privatized agencies that reflect the hypothesized cost-effectiveness of privatization.
Whether children in privatized placements are more likely to experience abuse or neglect than children in non-privatized placements.
To measure each of these effects I used a dataset of each foster care placement and removal in the United States from 2000 to 2014 (from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis Reporting System or AFCARS). This dataset is the most comprehensive set of information about children in foster care in the United States and includes demographic and placement/removal information for each child.
The first analysis, a set of 86 time-series models, showed that changes in foster care legislation have the potential to cause an immediate effect on the privatization level and quality of placements received by children in the foster care system. While privatization legislation did not indicate an immediate change in the privatization level or incidence of abuse in every state, the immediate changes seen in half the states with major privatization policies passed indicates that privatization policies may have a direct and immediate influence on the lives of children in the foster care system.
The second analysis, a substantive comparison of placement goals for foster children based on placement privatization, showed that privatized placement agencies favor case goals that make placements efficient and less expensive. Most notably, a significant decrease is seen in the probability of a child being adopted from a privatized foster care placement when compared to placements by non-privatized agencies.
The third analysis, a set of proportional hazard models, showed that increased levels of privatization lead to an increase of unfit placements in the form of an increased risk of abuse and neglect of children. Figure 1 below shows the variation in the risk of physical abuse over time based on system privatization level (similar results were seen in models determining the risk of sexual abuse, neglect, and abandonment). Significant differences are seen between the risks of abuse and neglect the longer children have been in the foster care system, with the greatest differences seen when children remain in the system for eighteen years.
Each of these outcomes indicates that as privatization in foster care increases, the quality of placements for foster care children has the potential to decrease. These results show that foster care privatization, an increasingly popular public policy, increases the risk of abuse and neglect for children in foster care. The political debates surrounding the privatization of foster care have relied heavily on anecdotal evidence that makes it nearly impossible to identify actual policy outcomes.
This project uses data that has been widely underused to address this highly politicized debate. I think that as social scientists it’s incredibly important to consider what data may be available in other disciplines (in the case of this project using a dataset predominantly used by social workers and child abuse experts) to address questions that we have. Looking for political data from the outset as a means of addressing political issues limits our ability to address important political issues. The AFCARS dataset isn’t framed as political, but it can be used to address important questions about privatization policies.
While this project focuses primarily on the anti-privatization arguments, I’m continuing work on this project to identify whether there are differences in cost-effectiveness and efficiency between privatized and non-privatized foster care placements. My hope is that this project encourages further research on the effect of public policies on those who they impact most, particularly the impact of the privatization of social services on the lives of those who rely on them. Policies that change the way individuals access or are provided services from the government are particularly important to evaluate because of the potential for immediate and detrimental outcomes for those who rely on the service.
This project has critical implications for the policy debate about the privatization of foster care both in terms of the outcome of implemented policies and the way privatization should be evaluated going forward. The identification of increased levels of abuse and neglect in privatized foster care placements suggests that if privatization is to remain the goal of American foster care, it must be improved upon. Foster care is a system that is meant to keep children from being in unsafe and unhealthy environments, it is up to the policies implemented by legislators about how the system is run to ensure that children are not being moved from one abusive situation to another.
About the Author: Mandi Eatough recently graduated from Brigham Young University with a B.A. in Political Science and will soon begin working toward earning a Ph.D. in Political Science at the University of Michigan. Eatough received the Best Undergraduate Paper Presented in a Poster Format for her research, “Foster Care Privatization: How an Increasingly Popular Public Policy Leads to Increased Levels of Abuse and Neglect “, presented at the 2017 MPSA conference.