In 2001 the European Union has made explicit the goal of reducing poverty and social exclusion as part of the Lisbon Strategy. The Europe 2020 framework emphasizes this goal as one of the main objectives of the European growth strategy for the coming decade. Poverty and social inclusion clearly seem to be questions of vital concern for policy makers throughout Europe, and the EU has devoted a considerable budget to this goal. Among the activities promoted as part of the strategy are scientific research projects. On December 6th, the final conference of such a project, INCLUD-ED, was held at the European Parliament.
The main message of the conference was that the people who are targeted with anti-poverty and anti-exclusion policies, for instance individuals with migration background, women, the disabled, ethnic minorities, and the homeless, should be involved in the scientific research projects that investigate and define what successful policies should look like.
The tenor of the conference echoed very much what was already established in the World Development Report 2004, and in a World Bank Working Paper by Xavier Godinot and Quentin Boton: In order for policies to be effective in reaching the poor they should be designed taking into account what the poor themselves want and strive for, dropping the assumption that the poor and excluded do not care about their own and their children’s education, economic and intellectual progress.
The researchers, mostly composed of sociologists from universities throughout Europe, provided some hands-on recommendations for actions that have proven to be successful at improving educational outcomes of children that typically fall behind. These recommendations were drawn from “social innovation projects” that were carried out in different schools throughout Europe. A school in Spain, for instance, introduced after school homework clubs that encouraged interaction among heterogeneous ability groups. A school in Finland introduced so-called mother-tongue clubs that allowed migrant children to study in their mother language, which increased their self-esteem by making them feel that their diversity was valued rather than “integrated-away”. According to the speakers, all these projects had a strongly positive impact on students’ achievements in all relevant areas, including a reduction in early drop-out rates. The projects were implemented drawing on resources that were “already available in the schools and the communities”, as many of the speakers emphasized.
The absence of economists at this conference was both surprising and telling. While economists seem to be predominant in the areas of poverty and inequality measurement, and in the study of poverty in developing countries, other disciplines of the social sciences seem to be ahead in defining concrete actions that can be taken to help the poor to help themselves, especially in Western societies. One reason for this may be that economists are still reluctant to use other types of evidences apart from traditional survey data. Besides the fact that this data is often simply not representative of the population of interest, it says little about the needs and ideas the poor themselves articulate.
Nonetheless, economists dispose of some powerful tools that can be used convincingly in the study of poverty. Experimental and behavioral economics are two examples. In a recent paper, Francesco Avvisati, Marc Gurgand, Nina Guyon and Eric Maurin from Paris School of Economics, for instance, test experimentally how parental involvement can improve educational outcomes of children living in deprived sub-urban areas of Paris.
During the experiment they worked closely with teachers and parents, which allowed them to gain interesting, and unexpected, insights into what prevented parents from getting involved in the first place. According to one of the collaborators in the project, many mothers felt alienated by the fact that teachers used red pens to write notes to the parents. The red color was perceived as aggressive, which resulted in them rejecting to interact with the teachers. Another discovery was that parents were simply not able to participate because they could not communicate in French. Indeed, interactions and symbols of communication mattered, something that is hard to capture in survey data.