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New IPR Research: March 2020

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This month's new research from IPR faculty covers nutrition in pregnancy, women’s empowerment and child nutrition, effects of grade-retention policies, polarization and democratic norms, the origins of stereotype content, and whether juvenile incarceration is self-perpetuating.

Social Disparities and Health

Understanding and Improving Nutrition for Pregnancy

Growing evidence shows that the nutrition a baby receives while still in the womb affects its health as an adult in many ways. This has vital implications for public policy to improve pregnant women’s health and diet. Nutrition includes both micronutrients—vitamins and minerals—and macronutrients, or fat, carbohydrates, and protein. Adding vitamin supplements during pregnancy can increase birth weight, a measure of newborn health. But what about macronutrients? IPR anthropologist Christopher Kuzawa, Zaneta Thayer (PhD 2013) of Dartmouth College, and former IPR postdoctoral fellow Julienne Rutherford of the University of Illinois at Chicago propose a new model to understand how nutrition is delivered to the fetus during pregnancy. In Evolution, Medicine, & Public Health, they argue that their Maternal Nutritional Buffering Model explains why other changes to pregnant women’s diets have limited effects on fetal development and birth weight. Using an evolutionary perspective, the authors point out that the mother’s body protects the growing fetus from both nutritional ups and downs, tempering the benefits of short-term diet interventions. The researchers propose that the most effective way to improve babies’ health both at birth and as future adults is to improve their mothers’ nutrition far earlier before they become pregnant.

Education Policy

Uneven Implementation of Florida’s Grade-Retention Policy

girl reading bookAre tough school accountability policies being applied fairly across all socioeconomic classes? IPR education economist David Figlio and two AIR researchers, Christina LiCalsi (PhD 2014) and Umet Özek, look for evidence in Florida’s third-grade retention policy, which requires schools to hold children back a year if they are not reading at grade level. But as many as 40% of students are still promoted to the next grade under a policy that grants exemptions in special circumstances, such as limited English proficiency or a disability. The researchers examine students near the reading cutoff, who are similar in academic achievement but different in other characteristics such as socioeconomic status. In Education Finance and Policy, they find that students whose mothers have a bachelor’s degree or higher—an indicator of higher socioeconomic status—are 14% more likely to be granted an exemption than those whose mothers have less than a high-school degree. Poorer students, black students, and students whose mothers were born in another country were also more likely to be held back. The difference in enforcement, Figlio and his co-authors explain, is driven by increased advocacy from parents in higher-income families. Parents in lower-income families tend to have less knowledge of their students’ educational context. This suggests Florida’s promotion policy may be harming, and not helping, students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. 

Politics, Institutions, and Public Policy

Does Polarization Lead to Less Support for Democratic Norms?

Although affective polarization, or the extent to which members of one political party harbor negative feelings toward members of the other, has been on the rise in recent decades, we still do not know much about its political consequences. In a recent working paper, IPR political scientist James Druckman looks at one of its potentially dangerous effects—that of eroding Americans’ belief in democratic norms and values. Druckman and his co-authors surveyed nearly 4,000 Americans, selected randomly via the internet, to determine their levels of affective polarization. They also gauged their support for the separation of powers and the right to free speech, among others. They find that high support for democratic norms predicts liberal policy positions, suggesting that the Democratic Party, at least at this moment, is seen as the “pro-norm” party. This matches their finding that those Democrats who hold less negative views of Republicans tend also to have less liberal policy positions and to be less supportive of democratic norms. The researchers observe that voters seem to view democratic norms as “just another partisan issue,” suggesting a need for more widespread civic education about the importance of democratic norms. 


Child, Adolescent, and Family Studies 

The Critical Role of Women’s Empowerment in Child Nutrition Outcomes


Women's empowerment, the expansion of women's ability to make strategic life choices, has gained attention as a potential pathway to improving child nutrition globally. IPR anthropologist Sera Young co-authored a study in Advances in Nutrition that systematically reviews what is currently known about this relationship, and to document how women’s empowerment has been measured in the context of child nutrition. Young and her colleagues examined 62 studies and identified 200 unique indicators of women’s empowerment. Despite this large number, indicators for critical components of empowerment, such as reproductive decisions and men’s engagement with child nutrition, were missing. Interestingly, the majority of the studies were based on data from South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, suggesting a gap in how women’s empowerment may impact child nutrition in different contexts. Overall, Young and her colleagues found that the women’s empowerment indicators used in these studies were inconsistent and limited in scope. The strength of the relationship between women’s empowerment and child nutrition was also frequently overstated. They suggest that future research about women’s empowerment and child nutrition should be more targeted in study design, assess empowerment across a longer period of time, and explicitly declare which pathways between empowerment and child nutrition are being tested.

Poverty, Race, and Inequality

Where Does the Content of Stereotypes Come From?

Stereotypes have consequences in our daily lives, but to change them we need to understand their source, IPR psychologist emerita Alice Eagly and her co-author Anne Koenig (PhD 2007) of the University of San Diego point out in Social Psychology Quarterly. They examine two prominent theories about the origins of stereotypes, using four experiments to test the theories’ validity and whether they are compatible with each other. Both theories hold that stereotypes arise from people’s observations of behaviors. One emphasizes the importance of social roles—such as the stereotype of women as nurturing because of their role in the family as mothers. The other theory focuses on the interrelations between groups, such as seeing the middle class as more competent due to an attribution of higher status when compared to the working class. Over 500 participants across the first three experiments either read about a fictional tribe or were assigned to play roles in a fictional society. Although both social roles and intergroup relations, presented separately, affected stereotypes, the researchers learned that the two sources of information work together in creating stereotypes. Eagly and Koenig test this in a fourth experiment, surveying 500 people about views of common groups in the U.S. They conclude that the two theories focus on different levels of social structure—roles and groups—and both are sources of stereotypes. Changing stereotypes at their source is difficult but not impossible, they note. For example, a group’s role in relation to others could be shifted by public policy such as raising the minimum wage or expanding education opportunities.

Urban Policy & Community Development

Is Juvenile Incarceration Self-Perpetuating?

prison fenceResearchers are trying to better understand how incarceration affects young people, especially with regard to its impact on their health and long-term life outcomes.  Yet little is known about patterns of incarceration in this population, and how those patterns differ across sociodemographic subgroups. In a recent study published in Children and Youth Services Review, Anna Harrison, PhD, and behavioral scientist and IPR associate Linda Teplin with their co-authors examined such patterns over 14 years among a group of youth involved in the justice system.  They interviewed 1,829 youth who were detained in Cook County’s Juvenile Temporary Detention Center between 1995 and 1998. Nearly the entire sample—94% of males and 80% of females—were re-incarcerated at least once over the next 14 years. Moreover, more than 90% of males and more than half of females were incarcerated as adults. The researchers found that racial/ethnic disparities in juvenile incarceration mirror those of adult offenders.  Males and racial/ethnic minorities were far more likely to be incarcerated more frequently and for longer periods of time compared with women and non-Hispanic whites. Viewing this disproportionate level of incarceration as a public health issue, Teplin notes the higher rates of behavioral and mental health issues for youth entrenched in justice system. She and her colleagues urge policymakers to promote alternatives to incarceration to reduce health disparities.

Photo credit: Pexels and Pixabay

Published: March 18, 2020.