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How Social Policies Are Reinvented in Crises: Lessons from Cash Transfer Programs in Latin America During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 socioeconomic crisis is forcing societies to reconsider the role of cash transfer programs for the creation of inclusive social protection systems around the globe. As countries declared the health emergency and implemented lockdowns, cash transfers were created or expanded to compensate households for their lost income and enable citizens to adhere to stay-at-home orders. In Latin America, existing Conditional Cash Transfer programs (or CCTs) allowed governments to quickly provide emergency relief for vulnerable families. Existing CCTs also served as a policy paradigm for how to identify and reach the “new poor,” namely middle-class families that faced downward mobility because of the pandemic. As a result, 38% of households in Latin America benefitted from emergency cash transfers between 2020-2021, while only 18.5% households received income transfers before the pandemic. This project will compare the diverse ways in which previous experiences with CCTs determined how COVID-19 cash assistance were envisioned and operationalized in Brazil and Colombia, the two countries with the largest CCTs in South America. Further, this study will investigate how the move from conditional cash transfers to unconditional emergency transfers has impacted policymakers’ understandings of the merits of behavioral conditionalities and policy targeting to alleviate poverty. The research seeks to provide lessons from the Latin American experience with cash transfers during the pandemic in order to inform comparative debates on poverty solutions.

Luciana de Souza Leão, U-M Sociology

Plumbing Poverty as a Social Determinant of Health: Measuring the Effects of Public

Complete and adequate plumbing in people’s homes is a growing concern for Michigan communities and affects poor and minority households disproportionately. The State of Michigan recently committed $1.5 million to a pilot program to fund residential plumbing repairs through the Social Determinants of Health Housing Stability Health Home Pilot Plumbing Repair Assistance program. The Wayne Metro Community Action Agency (Wayne Metro), along with the Human Development Commission and the Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency, has been chosen by the state to participate in the pilot and spend funds to support households in Detroit that lack access to water services. In this project the researchers will work with Wayne Metro to collect information about program participants and measure and track the benefits accrued to participants following plumbing repairs in their homes. Their aims are to 1) Understand the demographic and economic profile of program participants; 2) Measure the multidimensional effects of program participation; and 3) Communicate their findings to participants and state policymakers. They will work collaboratively with Wayne Metro to develop and implement before and after surveys to participants in their residential plumbing repair program. The findings will be used to inform participants of program outcomes; to inform Wayne Metro of program performance; and to communicate program benefits to state policymakers who see these initial investments as a pilot. The researchers will use the findings to develop recommendations for future investments and program structures in the state.

Sara Hughes, School for Environment and Sustainability

Evaluating the Young Black Men, Masculinities, and Mental Health (YBMen) Project

The Young Black Men, Masculinities, and Mental Health (YBMen) Project is a global movement that centers the voices, experiences, and realities of Black men and boys. At the core of the YBMen Project is a social media-based program that delivers mental health education and social support to participants through timely, culturally sensitive, age-appropriate, and gender-specific content (e.g., YouTube, photos, memes, GIFs, song lyrics, and current headlines).

This project will evaluate data from the past seven years of the YBMen Project to explore how contextual factors shape the use and success of the YBMen program by Black men and boys. The project aims to inform inequities among educational systems for Black men and boys and the ways in which the YBMen Project fills this gap. 

Daphne Watkins, School of Social Work

The Effect of Letters of Recommendation in the Youth Labor Market

The project: Employment among young people is slower to recover after shocks like recessions, and unemployment and disconnection rates are 30-80% higher for Black and Hispanic youth than for their White peers. In a working paper, Sara Heller and Judd Kessler tested whether providing youth with personalized recommendation letters from supervisors in New York City’s Summer Youth Employment Program improves employment. The experiment automated the creation of letters by sending supervisors an online survey about youths’ strengths and turning their responses into full-text letters using a prototype software tool. Their research found that youth randomly assigned to receive a letter had higher employment and earnings in the two years after letter distribution, with effects concentrated among minorities. Given that providing a credible signal about a young person’s existing strengths increases earnings, especially for minorities, something like this program could be a scalable way to reduce poverty and racial employment gaps among young workers.

The process: Based on those preliminary findings, this project will work with a volunteer software development group, Code4Community at Northeastern University, to develop a freely-available, user-friendly version of the letter-generation tool that will be distributed to youth development and job training programs.

Sara Heller, U-M College of Literature, Science and the Arts