Wait for the Lower Cost Version of Policy

I’ve written previously about initial US state compulsory schooling laws in regard to literacy and in school attendance rates. I ended with a political economy hypothesis. Here’s the logic:

  1. Legislators like lower costs, all else constant (more funding is available for other priorities).
  2. Enforcing truancy and educating an illiterate populous is costly.
  3. Therefore, state legislatures that passed compulsory attendance legislation will already have had relatively high rates of school attendance and literacy.

That’s it. Standard political economy incentives. But is it true? Well, we can’t tell what’s going on in politician heads today, much less 150 years ago. Though, we can observe evidence that might corroborate the story. In plain terms, consistent evidence for the hypothesis would be that school attendance and literacy rates were rising prior to compulsory schooling legislation. The figures below show attendance and literacy rates for children ages 10 to 18.

The hypothesis looks confirmed to me! So, what does this mean for us today? It means that the cost of a policy matters for its feasibility and how soon it will be enacted. We all have our pet policies that we’d like to happen now. But the graphs above illustrate that the policy is unlikely to be enacted until it’s almost not even needed anymore – or at least not needed by most. (As an aside, note that school attendance rates were lower than literacy rates. It seems that people either learned to read outside of school or only attended school long enough to get the basics.)

Though inconvenient for policy advocates, the figures do not imply that policy is entirely endogenous to uncontrollable factors. Advocacy, lobbying, and private efforts at public good provision have their place. After all, prior to state compulsory schooling, many towns and counties had similar laws and many people attended private schools at high rates.

As a nice bonus, see the below two pairs of figures. What happened when states did finally compel schooling? 1) The improvement in attendance rates slowed & 2) the variance declined.  At risk of reading too much into the graphs, state compulsory schooling laws harmed the progress toward increasing attendance rates. The same is true for literacy. Just about everyone could read before politicians used literacy as a justification for compulsory schooling.

PS – Again, I use only IPUMS data for whites in order to avoid complication.

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