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.

“Does Personalized Assistance Enhance Nudges? A Field Experiment” with Natalia Emanuel

Informational nudges help individuals act in their best interests at the margin, but do not adequately encourage behavior that requires effort from individuals. In the high-stakes environment of court appearances, failing to appear despite informational nudging is common, leading to fees and warrants. Personalized assistance may help individuals comply. Our randomized controlled trial finds adding personalized assistance to a nudge does not further increase compliance, but increases take-up of accommodations. We find that failures to appear lead to significant increases in fees paid and voluntary trips to jail. Our results suggest more intensive interventions are needed to increase compliance.

In Progress:

“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.

“A Randomized Evaluation of STEM-Focused Summer Programs for Underrepresented Youth,” with Sarah Cohodes and Silvia Robles.