Which US Democratic presidential candidate has the most effective plan to reduce poverty?

Vox has an in-depth analysis, also discussed on the most recent episode of The Weeds podcast:

All of them cost a lot — but they all cost about the same or less than the recent round of Republican tax cuts. All five are more ambitious than any cash proposals during the 2016 primary, or any other Democratic primary I can remember. And in a head-to-head matchup of all five, two plans (surprisingly) stood out as doing the most to reduce poverty at the least cost: bills from Cory Booker and Kamala Harris subsidizing rent for low-income households.

(Emphasis mine.)

The journalist worked with researchers at Columbia to do a bunch of interesting analyses. The bills have somewhat different goals (e.g., some are targeted at fixing childhood poverty specifically) and cost different amounts. But the article looks at how many people in poverty and in deep poverty would be helped by each proposal, as well as the approximate return on investment (holding cost steady). In all analyses, subsidizing the rent of people paying over 30% of their income to rent is highly effective.

As a Bay Area resident, I think a lot about how hard it is to live here unless you’re fortunate enough to have a very high household income. And I know we’re not the only US housing market that’s tough for renters. Still, I didn’t realize that subsidizing rents nationwide would have such a high impact on US poverty.

Also, an important note: most of plans are not mutually exclusive! Several could be combined, and some of the same folks are sponsoring multiple bills.

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Effective health research, part 2

I previously looked into potentially effective ways to donate to health research, including leading causes of death/poor quality of life.  I’ve been looking into this again and have a few updates.  I haven’t thoroughly vetted every one of these organizations, and I welcome further feedback — but I’ve spent a few hours researching.  And for cancer research and Parkinson’s research in particular, I feel quite confident about these recommendations.

Cancer research

In A Practical Guide To The Best Medical Research Charities, the Glaucoma Research Foundation has some good tips about donating to health research in general, and about some good specific organizations (you’ll never guess who they recommend for eye research ;) ).  For cancer research, they make the following recommendation:

The Cancer Research Institute easily wins the award for the best cancer research charity. CRI net over $25 million in funding during 2016, and uses 87% of those funds to support immunotherapy research.

CRI is a great charity because—aside from supporting many scientists with funds—they also run a clinical accelerator program which gets the best ideas from the laboratory into the clinic as fast as possible. In total, CRI has funded over 120 clinical trials and invested over $344 million over the course of its existence.

Consumer Reports concurs with this recommendation, based on high ratings from BBB Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Navigator and Charity Watch.

Cardiovascular research

The Glaucoma Research Foundation also has a recommendation here, with examples of demonstrated impact:

The Cardiovascular Research Foundation wins the best cardiovascular disease award because of its thirty year history of making fundamental contributions to critical research. The CRF has played a role in a few major advancements in cardiovascular medicine, including:

With proven impact over time, the CRF is an excellent research charity to consider donating to.

Unlike the Cancer Research Institute, I didn’t immediately find other coverage/analysis of this foundation — in part because it’s a private foundation and thus not covered by tools like Charity Navigator.  But it’s encouraging to see evidence of efficacy over time.

Neurodegenerative disease research

» Continue reading “Effective health research, part 2”

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Closing the gender gap

The latest episode of The Impact podcast discussed parental leave policies in Denmark and Iceland. It appears that the more equality there is in the amount of parental leave given to men and women, the more the gender wage gap closes over time. Men who take more parental leave also tend to end up taking on more of the household and childcare duties long term.

However, the more optional leave is for men, the less likely they are to take it. In part because of the economic disadvantage, due to the current wage gap.

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How to do good with your career

There’s an interesting new episode of Future Perfect (a Vox podcast) discussing how to choose a career that has a big positive impact. Is it better to make a lot of money so you can donate a lot, or make less money more directly doing good? If you decide to devote your career to solving a problem, what problem should you choose?

The episode spends part of its time on an org called 80,000 Hours, which has done a lot of research on the latter question. I’m looking forward to digging into their site (and podcast, apparently) more!

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The impact of gun control policies

I’ve been meaning to share a bunch of stats and articles about gun control for a while, but it’s still a bit of a mess.  In the meanwhile, here’s a link/podcast roundup:

  • Vox’s Today, Explained podcast had an excellent recent episode in the wake of the latest California mass shooting entitled The simplest way to fix our gun laws. on what California is doing wrong (and right), and what Massachusetts is doing better.  Both states have among the strictest gun control in the US and among the lowest per capita rate of gun deaths, but California doesn’t enforce some of its laws as much as it should.  Massachusetts makes you do a test/interview in order to get a license to own a gun, which seems to help a lot.
  • Gimlet’s Science Vs. podcast had a recent two parter on guns, the second of which addressed gun control — among other things, looking into the effects of massive changes to gun policy in Australia and the UK.  They concluded that better background checks would have some impact, but not a lot — many gun buyers don’t have a criminal record and/or don’t buy from an official dealer.  Expanding mental health checks also wouldn’t catch too many more shooters, and it’s nigh impossible to predict who will be violent.  Gun buybacks on a small scale are insufficient to combat deaths; comprehensive national laws are more effective.  Forcing owners to register with the government seems to help as well.
  • The NY Times looked at What Explains Mass Shootings [and more], and concludes it’s the sheer number of guns that explains the rate of gun violence in the US (as opposed to factors like mental health, immigration, racial diversity, or violent video game consumption).  The fact that Americans have 42% of the world’s guns but only 4% of the population leads to a high rate of lethal crimes per capita:

…the United States is not actually more prone to crime than other developed countries, according to a landmark 1999 study by Franklin E. Zimring and Gordon Hawkins of the University of California, Berkeley.

Rather, they found, in data that has since been repeatedly confirmed, that American crime is simply more lethal. A New Yorker is just as likely to be robbed as a Londoner, for instance, but the New Yorker is 54 times more likely to be killed in the process.

  • A couple years back (following another California mass shooting), FiveThirtyEight found that mass shootings are indeed on the increase in the US; it’s not just an increase in media coverage.

A few points worth noting: mass shootings, while the primary focus of some of the above links and a lot of media attention, are a tiny fraction of gun deaths.  The much bigger category of homicide rates overall, as well as most types of crime, have dropped substantially in the US over the past couple decades.  However, as noted above, crimes like robberies are more likely to turn lethal when firearms are involved.

Far more frequent even than homicides – suicides make up 63% of gun deaths.  Waiting periods for guns reduce suicide rates.

Mass shootings are not limited to the US.  Which country has the worst rate of shootings/fatalities depends on what exactly you count (but the US has the largest number of mass shootings by a lot, and the rate is on the rise).

Police shootings deserve a separate post, but in 2015 they made up 3% of US firearm deaths, and 10% of the victims were unarmed.

And, if you really want to, you can dig through my hodgepodge of notes & stats on gun deaths that I keep meaning to turn into a bigger post (last substantially updated in 2015).


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A happy, hopeful end to 2017: donation recommendations & matching

2017 has been a particularly stressful and disaster-filled year for many people.  So this year, I wanted to do something extra in addition to my normal charity recommendations.  I’m still providing recommendations, but this year, I’m also providing some matching funds.

I’ve selected three causes, and top charities for each cause.  If you’re interested in donating to these charities, some friends and I pooled our money, and we are going to match your donation, doubling your impact (links go to fundraising pages):

The above links go to fundraising pages at Crowdrise, a site endorsed by these three charities for raising funds.  At each of the above links, I’ve explained my choices of charities in detail, including the risks, benefits, and alternatives to donating.

So far I’ve found donors willing to match up to $2000 for each charity — and if we meet that goal, perhaps I can get more.  If we prove that this works, there are other potential matching donors may be willing to jump in and increase that amount.

I’ve also updated my recommendations spreadsheet that I started earlier this year. It contains my rankings for 26 charities I’ve researched (for a wider set of causes), and it contains notes about why I ranked the charities the way I did. So if you have different priorities than I do, you should hopefully be able to create your own ranking accordingly.

You can also read my thinking and recommendations from past years, much of which still holds.

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Doing something small but meaningful

Post-US election, I’ve seen some advice on how to have impact (mostly focused on political impact) through small but meaningful actions, and do so sustainably. I wanted to start collecting such resources here.

A friend wrote on how to be more politically involved without burnout:

1. I know donating money doesn’t feel like doing a lot, but it’s often the most effective and efficient way you can help people or push for change. Setting up automatic monthly donations to your organizations of choice is extremely helpful because it allows them to plan effectively over the longer term rather than trying to figure out what to do with a sudden windfall or figure out how to make up an unexpected shortage. Check whether your employer has a matching program for extra leverage!

2. I looked at my weekly schedule and found a few places I reliably have time to make phone calls and do research (to figure out what I need to be making phone calls about and be sure I have enough background information)….

3. I am trying out a few local volunteer opportunities, and I’ll see what sticks in the long term.  If [the first thing I try] doesn’t seem sustainable for me I’ll look for a different opportunity. When you are considering volunteer opportunities, look for things you will enjoy. Do you like talking to people? Do you enjoy manual labor? Would you like your volunteering better if you brought some friends with you, if you worked alone, or if you got to meet lots of new people?

4. Connecting with an organized group is a fantastic way to avoid reduplicating a lot of effort. I’m using the spreadsheet at https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/174f0WBSVNSdcQ5_S6rWPGB3pNCsruyyM_ZRQ6QUhGmo/htmlview?usp=sharing&sle=true# to guide my calling efforts and short-circuit my dithering about how to rank the many important issues I could be working on….

6. Don’t think too hard about where to put your efforts. There are lots of different things you could be advocating for, donating to, or helping with. You don’t have to find the very best one! It’s really easy for me to get caught up in trying to figure out what the very most important issue is, and how I specifically can be the very most effective helper I can, but every minute devoted to trying to figure out what to do is a minute you aren’t actually doing the thing. Pick a set time to research — “I am going to find and compare organizations working to help people register to vote for the special elections in North Carolina for 30 minutes” — and then go from there. ( http://nc-democracy.org/give/ — they’re currently organizing, so they know money will help and they’ll be contacting me later in the month or in February to let me know what else I can do from out of state)…

More good advice at the link.  And I like that a lot of the advice also applies well to any cause (burnout is always an issue), which also giving concrete examples and resources for people who share the author’s causes.  Also, I miiiight be the kind of person frequently subject to analysis paralysis. ;)  So the last point is well taken.

Do Something, courtesy of Crooked Media, also has a bunch of resources with specific suggestions for actions.  Most very specifically are related to electing more Democrats and/or fighting Trump.  If those are your causes, check their links out.  (To be clear about my own biases: I am mostly aligned with those causes, but try to keep this blog less partisan and more focused on effective solutions to specific issues.)  I’ve bookmarked the Indivisible Guide to dive into more later.  The subtitle is “Former congressional staffers reveal best practices for making Congress listen” — it looks like it’s got a lot of broadly applicable advice for getting things done within the US political system.

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Some actual good news from 2016

If you’ve read my past charity evaluations, you’ve seen that Innovations for Poverty Action has rated at or near the top of my rec lists for effective charities.  They perform scientific research on how to effectively help large numbers of people out of poverty, and into healthier, happier, lives.  They focus on identifying high impact, scalable solutions.  Their results impact policies and actions worldwide.

IPA just shared in the Washington Post some of the brighter spots from their last year of research, as well as some takeaways for future giving, in an article entitled, Why 2016 was actually one of the best years on record.  I’m quoting it very extensively here so I can add my own bolding, but it’s worth clicking through and reading the whole thing, particularly if you’re interested in more relevant studies and details:

Between 1990 and 2013 (the last year for which there is good data), the number of people living in extreme poverty dropped by more than half, from 1.85 billion to 770 million. As the University of Oxford’s Max Roser recently put it, the top headline every day for the past two decades should have been: “Number of people in extreme poverty fell by 130,000 since yesterday.” At the same time, child mortality has dropped by nearly half, while literacy, vaccinations and the number of people living in democracy have all increased.

….Here are four things we’ve learned in 2016:

First, give the poor cash. Studies in Kenya and elsewhere show that the simplest way to help is also quite effective…. More and more research shows that when the poor come into a windfall, they spend it on productive things — sending their children to school, fixing the roof that’s letting in the harsh weather or investing in a business….

Second, innovative health-care delivery can dramatically improve outcomes…. [In Uganda, NGOs have tried training women who do Avon-style door-to-door sales to also] perform basic health checks for children to look for symptoms that warrant getting the child to a clinic. One randomized evaluation released this year concluded that taking this health care to people’s homes reduced child mortality (for those younger than 5) by an astounding 27 percent and infant mortality (less than a year old) by 33 percent.

Third, access to mobile money may lift people out of poverty in large numbers.…. Research from this year shows that as [Kenya mobile money system] M-Pesa became more available in a local area, households became less poor — particularly households run by women. The study estimates that 185,000 women changed professions from subsistence agriculture to business and retail and that 194,000 households were lifted out of extreme poverty.

Finally, mobile phone technologies are leapfrogging the reach of traditional telecom infrastructure, and text message reminders are proving to be effective at helping people follow through on things they want to do. One study found that they helped the poor save money. [Others found they can help patients finish taking antimalarial drugs, help educate girls about reproductive health, and reduce student dropout rate.]

The size of the impacts in the cited studies are very impressive, as are the overall numbers for the past ~2 decades.  (It’s a bit silly for the headline to imply that 2016 is one of the best years on record in terms of poverty reduction, though, given that we won’t be able to get good data for a bit — but these are definitely some great research results that will presumably steepen the decline of poverty going forward.)  I’m also encouraged, as someone who hears a lot of well-intentioned suggestions from the tech sector about how tech can take on problems like poverty, to hear that some mobile solutions are actually substantially effective in this problem space.

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Donation recommendations… for 2017?!

Wow, I’m way on top of my game this year!  … Sort of. :)

I did a lot of research on where I should donate this year that I didn’t end up using – that is, I decided in the end to donate to the same orgs I’ve donated to in the past.  Why?  Because getting on even more organizations’ mailing lists is a pain, and I’ve decided that I’m going to donate anonymously via a donor-advised fund in the future so that I can avoid the mailing lists.  But that means I have to set it up first. :P

The good news, though, is that my donation research mega-spreadsheet should still be applicable in ~10-11 months when I am next donating.  And for everything subjective, I tried to document everything I was thinking along the way so that others (and future me) can adjust the conclusions according to taste or according to anything that’s changed.  I’ll reshare it on various social networks when it’s “giving season” again.


Notes and caveats:

  1. You may not agree with the list of charities I’ve evaluated so far (in which case I’d love to hear what you think I left out — though please see my To Evaluate and Didn’t Make the Cut tabs).
  2. You may also not agree with my criteria or weighting (heck, I’m not sure I agree with those :) ), and I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback on that as well!  I’ve tried to clearly document my thoughts, in any case, so that if your priorities are different, you can change your rankings accordingly.
  3. I scored and ranked the organizations (to be taken with a large grain of salt! mostly it’s not the rankings but the other info that’s useful), but I’m not quite sure how I’m going to use this info to allocate funds.  Some charities that score really well in terms of excellence might not actually get the most money… I’m still pondering how score and amount should relate. And still considering what other factors should perhaps be going into my rankings.

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Tote bags vs. plastic bags, and the overall impact of consumer plastic use

In response to my post on the effects of plastic bag bans (Edit: which addresses various different types of environmental impact, like pollution), reader Veronica Skowronski pointed me at this Atlantic article on whether tote bags are good for the environment (Edit: which is focused on energy consumption in particular).  The article cites various evidence that reusable grocery tote bags often don’t get reused enough to save more resources than they consume — especially the fancier ones that have gotten popular recently.  In fact, tote bags have gotten more ubiquitous, to the point that people are accumulating and even throwing them away, but polls show they’re very rarely used.  And plastic bags do actually have the smallest footprint to produce and distribute — compared to paper or various tote materials — even though they’re slowest to biodegrade.  The article’s conclusion?

So long as their owners don’t throw them away, [tote bags’] negative impact remains minimized, at least—they might yet be used 327 times. Ecologically speaking, the best practice for tote bags might be one of two extremes: use them all the time, or not at all.

I personally don’t ever invest in buying new totes… I carry around a bunch of tote bags in my trunk that I got at conferences, conventions, or other events where they were giving them away free — they were generally not intended for groceries (and say a funny assortment of things like Grace Hopper, NSF, or Sherlock Seattle :) ), but they serve that purpose fine. I realize this is not an option all shoppers will have access to, but it’s a thought for those of you with spare totes sitting around from similar events.

The Atlantic article also points out that this is far from the only case where the desired goal of helping the environment leads people to do things that are actually less effective — or where people analyze only the small picture and not the whole ecosystem:

This low-grade, unfocused mania for averting impending ecological disaster seems to be more harmful than helpful, which is a problem throughout popular environmentalism. Meat eaters decry the water usage demands of almond groves. Conscientiously piled garbage overflows from public trashcans to rot in the street. Studies show that Kenya-grown roses flown to England have a lower carbon footprint than those grown and shipped from Holland, that it’s less ecologically damaging for Americans east of the Mississippi to import wine from France than from California. Biodegradable plastics proliferate as single-use containers and utensils, greenly filling the demand for disposable goods rather than questioning it. Fuel economy and emissions standards for cars and trucks are considered, barely, but not those of oil tankers, container ships, military escapades, which can produce tens of millions of times the amount of carbon.

With that in mind, I wondered whether or not consumer plastic use (including plastic bags) actually constitutes a very large portion of plastic use overall.  Maybe corporate plastic (re)use renders individual actions relatively small impact?

» Continue reading “Tote bags vs. plastic bags, and the overall impact of consumer plastic use”

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