Research

Publications:

Pager, Devah, Rebecca Goldstein, Helen Ho, and Bruce Western. Forthcoming. Criminalizing Poverty: The Consequences of Court Fees in a Randomized Experiment. American Sociological Review.

Court-related fines and fees are widely levied on criminal defendants who are frequently poor and have little capacity to pay. Such financial obligations may produce a criminalization of poverty where later court involvement results not from crime, but an inability to meet the financial burdens of the legal process. We test this hypothesis using a randomized controlled trial of court-related fee relief for misdemeanor defendants in Oklahoma County, Oklahoma. We find that relief from fees does not affect new criminal charges, convictions, or jail bookings after twelve months. However, the court subjected control respondents to debt collection efforts at significantly higher rates that involved new warrants, additional court debt, tax refund garnishment, and referral to a private debt collector. Despite significant efforts at debt collection, payments to the court totaled less than 5 percent of outstanding debt. Court debt charged to indigent defendants thus neither caused nor deterred new crime, and the government obtained little financial benefit. However, fines and fees contribute to a criminalization of low-income defendants, placing them at risk of ongoing court involvement through new warrants and debt collection.

Working Papers:

“Ask and You Might Disappoint: Reference-Dependent Preferences and Worker Voice”

Worker voice holds the promise of increasing labor productivity and job satisfaction, which is even more important in a tight labor market. Firms have looked to employee engagement programs to facilitate worker voice. However, asking workers for feedback without adopting their suggestions can be worse than not having a program at all. This paper presents a model where asking workers about their preferences changes their reference point for working conditions, creating the risk of disappointment-related “loss” and lowered productivity. In contrast to a model without reference-dependent preferences, my model predicts that firms may decline to seek worker voice, even when the direct costs of consultation, such as personnel time, are negligible. I show patterns of worker effort and firm voice-seeking in the US and UK that are consistent with expectations-based reference points. For example, in support of the “disappointment effect” prediction of the model, I find that employers that rarely take worker suggestions seriously see a negative relationship between voice-seeking and worker effort. Interventions to increase voice-seeking without addressing reference-dependent preferences may have lower-than-expected benefits to the firm and worker.

“Tripping through Hoops: The Effect of Violating Compulsory Government Procedures” with Natalia Emanuel. Conditional acceptance at AEJ: Economic Policy

Millions of Americans must navigate complex government procedures under the threat of punishment. Violating these requirements can lead to poverty traps or deepening legal system involvement. We use a field experiment to estimate the effect of failing to appear for court on subsequent legal contact. The treatments reduce failure to appear by 39 percent. Using treatment assignment to identify the causal impact of minor procedural violations, we find no effect on arrests. However, for lower-level cases, violations increase fines and fees paid by 60 percent or $80, equivalent to a high-interest loan, showing that minor procedural violations can be costly.

“Willingness-to-Pay for Workplace Safety Precautions: Evidence from COVID-19”

The COVID-19 pandemic increased workplace hazards, especially for frontline workers and those with health conditions. Adopting workplace safety measures can alleviate the trade-off between health protections and economic activity. However, heterogeneity in worker preferences may lead to some workplaces adopting fewer safety precautions. I use a discrete choice experiment to measure worker demand for and access to COVID-19 safety amenities. I find that workers have heterogeneous preferences, with some even willing to pay to avoid safety precautions. This heterogeneity is present in two survey waves, nine months apart. Worker demand is correlated with beliefs about COVID-19 risk and political affiliation. Persistent divides in beliefs and demand for safety precautions may lead to further political segregation in workplaces as employers adopt more mandates and workers are more able to change jobs.

“STEM Summer Programs for Underrepresented High Schoolers Increase STEM Degrees,” with Sarah Cohodes and Silvia Robles.

The federal government and many individual organizations have invested in programs to support diversity in the STEM pipeline, including STEM summer programs for high school students, but there is little rigorous evidence of their efficacy. We fielded a randomized controlled trial to study a suite of such programs targeted to underrepresented high school students at an elite, technical institution. The STEM summer programs differ in their length (one week, six weeks, or six months) and modality (on-site or online). Students offered seats in the STEM summer programs are more likely to enroll in, persist through, and graduate from college, with gains in institutional quality coming from both the host institution and other elite universities. The programs also increase the likelihood that students graduate with a degree in a STEM field, with the most intensive program increasing four-year graduation with a STEM degree attainment by 33 percent. The shift to STEM degrees increases potential earnings by 2 to 6 percent. Program-induced gains in college quality fully account for the gains in graduation, but gains in STEM degree attainment are larger than predicted based on institutional differences.