Why a good monsoon leads to bad test scores
Higher incomes are generally associated with more human capital investment in children (Agricultural Volatility and Investments in Children by Robert Jensen, 2000, and Risk, Financial Markets, and Human Capital in a Developing Country by Hanan G. Jacoby and Emmanuel Skoufias, 1997), and we tend to think of high productivity and high wages as being good for development outcomes. In rural India, there is no greater predictor of agricultural productivity than the monsoon—good rains bring jobs, food, and a bumper harvest. Failure of the rains can mean disaster for both landowners and labourers. However, a good monsoon means not just extra income but extra work, even for children: there is planting, weeding and harvesting to be done on family plots, and wages are higher in spot markets for day labour. We wondered—is this extra work in good monsoon years taking place at the expense of schooling for poor children?
Impact of rainfall shocks on education outcomes
In recent research, we investigated the impact of rainfall shocks on educational outcomes for children aged in-utero to 16, in rural India (Drought of Opportunities: Contemporaneous and Long-Term Impacts of Rainfall Shocks on Human Capital, 2017). We obtained data on simple literacy and numeracy test scores for over two million children tested between 2005 and 2009 for the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) by non-governmental organization Pratham. This data set has test scores on children who have never enrolled, who are currently enrolled, and who have dropped out of school.
We matched the ASER data to rainfall measures from weather stations all over India. We used rainfall as a proxy for agricultural productivity, which allowed us to separate the effects of productivity from other differences across places. Because we had observations of rainfall and test scores for each district over many years, we could measure within-district differences between good, bad and normal rainfall years. By accounting for both district-specific effects (some places just have higher test scores than others), and year-specific effects (test scores might be getting better or worse over time), we could be sure of isolating the effect of rainfall, and its underlying effects on productivity, on human capital investment.
We found that children who experienced droughts early in life score lower on tests and are less likely to be enrolled in school. This is consistent with previous literature (Under the Weather: Health, Schooling, and Economic Consequences of Early-Life Rainfall by Sharon L. Maccini and Dean Yang, 2009, and Killing Me Softly: The Fetal Origins Hypothesis by Douglas Almond and Janet Currie, 2011). What we found next surprised us. For older children, when rainfall (and therefore, the prevailing wage) is higher, test scores, attendance, and enrolment decrease. A positive rainfall shock increases wages by 2% and decreases math test scores by 1-6%, decreases school attendance by 2 percentage points, and decreases the probability that a child is enrolled in school by 1 percentage point. This implies that a positive rainfall shock increases the urban-rural enrolment gap by 15% for 5-16-year-olds.
To look into what children are doing with their time, we turned to another large household survey in India, the National Sample Survey (NSS). Matching this survey to the rainfall data helped confirm our hypothesis—we observed that children are less likely to report school as their primary activity when rains are good, and more likely to do so during droughts. They are more likely to report wage labour, work at home (on farms or in other businesses) and domestic work as their primary activity when rainfall is abundant. It appears households are responding to higher wages by either having children work in agriculture themselves, or fill in for adults at home while they work. The increased opportunity cost of schooling affects the families’ decision to invest in education.
Taken together, the results for early life and older children make sense. The extra income and food supply generated during a good harvest is especially important during the in-utero period and for infants and young children whose brains are still developing. Babies and toddlers are also too young to be of help on the farm or at home, so the substitution effect is not relevant for them. Hence, the income effect dominates. As a child gets older, the relative benefits of nutrition for cognitive ability decrease, while schooling and other time-intensive activities like studying become important in overall test scores. Moreover, they can now be productive in agriculture and at home. Hence, wages increase and labour is in high demand, schooling may take a back seat to farm and/or domestic work for poor families.
Implications for policy
So what can we do with this information? Policymakers cannot control the monsoon. Besides, it is not clear that the potential educational benefits of decreased wages would outweigh the costs. They can, however, choose how to redistribute income to the poor. It has been shown that some programmes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) in India increase wages for the poor. This has the desired effect of increasing household income, but it may also change the opportunity cost of time-intensive investments like schooling.
In a new paper, we show that adolescents aged 13-16 are more likely to drop out of school and score lower on tests when MNREGA arrives in their district (Workfare and Human Capital Investment: Evidence from India, 2015), though the programme does have positive impacts on human capital outcomes of children exposed to the programme at very young ages. These adolescents are not necessarily working under MNREGA; it is more likely that they are substituting for adults at home or in farm work, as the adults are now more likely to be working under MNREGA. Governments might be better off trying to increase income through simple cash grants or conditional cash transfers if the goal is to keep poor adolescents in school.
Manisha Shah and Bryce Millett Steinberg are, respectively, associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and postdoctoral fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University.
Published with permission from Ideas for India, an economics and policy portal.
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