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The University of Southampton
Economic, Social and Political Sciences

An ill wind in the Caribbean?

Published: 23 March 2008 Origin:  Economics

The effects of hurricanes on education is Dr John Bluedorn’s intriguing research subject.

His work with Assistant Professor Elizabeth Cascio of Dartmouth College in the USA involves examining the effect of one particular hurricane on parents’ educational levels in Puerto Rico. This is a fascinating area to examine as changes in educational attainment associated with a storm are definitely unrelated to an individual’s abilities and/or socioeconomic status.

Puerto Rico is unique among developing countries because it has an extensive history of high-quality, detailed census data, collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. After controlling for various observables, John and Elizabeth found educational attainment is lower by approximately one year in the counties which were hardest hit by the storm.

They are also aiming to understand the effect of parents’ education on their offspring – if a mother or father has extra year in school or college, will their children tend, on average, to be more educated? The central challenge is to be able to convincingly disentangle the effects of parents’ educational attainment from other confounding variables, such as parents’ innate abilities or socioeconomic status such as wealth.

Understanding intergenerational mobility (the linkages across generations) is of particular importance for developing countries, which generally have lower average educational attainment. At the macroeconomic level, lower average educational attainment is associated with lower per capita incomes and lower economic growth.

Using the 1980 Census, the team discovered that an extra year of parental education increases the likelihood that a child is proficient in English (Spanish is the primary language in Puerto Rico), with few effects on other areas of children’s education. This evidence supports the suggestion that children inherit their parents' educational status independent of any innate abilities or parental wealth.

Policy choices today may, therefore, have a direct effect on future generations' educational attainment and thus future economic growth prospects. The project represents the first time that a natural disaster has been employed to investigate intergenerational mobility. It also suggests that a similar research design could be employed in other regions.

For more information about this pioneering use of the hurricane as a natural experiment, contact John at bluedorn@soton.ac.uk

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