Giving a kid a computer is not the same as cash transfers

Yglesias blogged about a study that found giving a poor kid a computer has no impact one way or another on their educational outcomes. Yglesias concludes from this null finding:

I think this is an important finding because it helps shed some light on the socioeconomic disparities in educational outcomes. We know that kids from higher-income households do much better in school than poor kids. But that of course raises the question of why that is exactly or what one might do about it. For example, would cash transfers to low-income parents make their kids do better in school? If access to home computers was associated with improved school performance, that would be strong evidence that simply fighting poverty with money could be highly effective education policy. The null finding tends to suggest otherwise, that the ways in which high-income families help their kids in school don’t relate to durable goods purchases and may be things like social capital or direct parental involvement in the instructional process that—unlike computers—can’t be purchased on the open market.

This is a bizarre conclusion on Yglesias’ part. A computer is not the same thing as income. Yglesias of all people should know this. Providing poor families with higher incomes means, among other things, more economic security for the families. More economic security should translate into lower levels of stress for the family and children. Stress has a very negative and measurable impact on children:

The stress of poverty is not simply worries about money — poverty creates a “context of stress”, in which conflict, family violence, food insecurity and residential mobility (to name a few) are also commonplace (McLoyd10). We refer to this type of stress as poverty-related stress (PRS11). In addition to the increased volume of stressors created by poverty’s context of stress, poverty amplifies the negative effects of all types of stress, such that PRS impairs an individual’s ability to mount a response to new threats and challenges.

Buying a kid a computer will do nothing to mitigate poverty-related stress, especially when the family in question was not otherwise going to buy the computer.

More money could mean less overall work (if the parents choose to go that route), which would allow parents to be more involved. It could also mean more money for enrichment activities. But the big channel through which low parental incomes translate into developmental and educational difficulties for children is stress. And we can physically measure the substantial differences in stress hormone levels of poor and rich kids.

There is just no basis for Yglesias’ conclusion that this study provides a blow to the idea that increasing the incomes of poor families will translate into higher educational achievement for their kids. I’d guess that the only reason he even went there — despite otherwise being an advocate of cash transfers — is because he is a partisan of the theory that school-side reform is the best way to go about dealing with the educational achievement gap. Finding ways to undermine the theory that home-side reform (i.e. poverty eradication) is the best/only way to deal with the gap helps along his position. But this attempted undermining of it was really weak.