The Long Term Impacts of Child Sponsorship

 Figure 1a: Hopefulness, 93rd percentile
A few weeks ago the economics blogs and popular press picked up a forthcoming JPE paper on child sponsorship by Bruce Wydick (also in the economics department here at USF), Paul Glewwe, and Laine Rutledge. The paper uses a clever identification strategy involving age-eligibility rules and sibling order to isolate the effect of charity child sponsorship on adult outcomes, and finds extraordinarily large positive effects on everything ranging from educational attainment to income to civil engagement. You can find an ungated version of the paper here.

An unanswered question in the original work is the channel through which these improvements in life quality are transmitted. The full intervention by Compassion International, the group that runs the program, includes not only traditional educational interventions like paying for new uniforms and textbooks, but also a large amount of social programming, specifically in the form of years of regular after-school programs, much of which is devoted to improving student's self-esteem and training them in religious and civil values. What's interesting is the test the researchers devised to explore whether this training might have something to do with the (unusually large) positive impact on later outcomes they document in their first paper:

Empirical psychologists describe a kind of data-quality pyramid in behavioral research: Subject behavioral responses to hypothetical scenarios lie at the bottom of the pyramid. Ranked barely higher are answers to direct questions (e.g. do you consider yourself a hopeful person?). These approaches are dominated by reported (actual) behaviors, and even more so by behaviors that are observed by the researcher in non-experimental and experimental settings, which lie at the apex of the pyramid with fancier techniques such as directly analyzing brain-scan activity.  
Children’s self-portraits are an approach that resides close to the top of the pyramid as an observed behavior, one that may reveal more about the secrets in a child’s mind than any battery of survey questions. In our Indonesia work, we studied 540 children living in the slums of Jakarta.  About half of these were sponsored children; the others were siblings, children on the sponsorship waitlist, and the siblings of waitlist children. After a short survey, we sat each child at a small desk with 24 colored pencils and a blank sheet of paper and asked each to “Draw a picture of yourself in the rain.”  
In a lengthy empirical literature, child psychologists have found that certain facets of children’s self-portraits to be empirically correlated with aspects of psychological disorder and health.   For example, monster figures or self-portraits with big, sharp teeth have been (not too surprisingly) correlated with aggression. Tiny-figure self-portraits and missing facial features are correlated with low self-esteem. Choosing dark colors over light ones is correlated with hopelessness and depression. On the positive side, light colors are empirically correlated with optimism, standing under an umbrella with self-efficacy.
You can read more about the follow up paper, including more details about the methodology involved, in Bruce's post at the World Bank's Development Impact blog.

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