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Preventing Youth Violence and Dropout: A Randomized Field Experiment

Issue/Topic: At-Risk (incl. Dropout Prevention); School Safety
Author(s): Ludwig, Jens; Heller, Sara; Pollack, Harold; Ander, Roseanna
Organization(s): National Bureau of Economic Research
Publication: National Bureau of Economic Research
Published On: 2013

Background:
Improving the long-term life outcomes of disadvantaged youth remains a policy priority in the United States, although identifying successful interventions for adolescents - particularly males - has proven challenging.

Purpose:
To determine whether an intervention that includes regular exposure to pro-social adults, after-school programming and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) affects outcomes in disadvantaged youth, and which elements of the intervention matter most.

Findings/Results:

The intervention program consisted of regular exposure to pro-social adults, after-school programming and -- perhaps the most novel ingredient -- cognitive behaviorial therapy (CBT). CBT is a short-duration intervention from psychology that helps people recognize and reduce unhelpful automatic behaviors and biased beliefs. Program participation reduced violent-crime arrests during the program year and generated sustained gains in schooling outcomes.
  • Participation reduced violent crime arrests by 8 arrests per 100 youth (44 percent) while arrests in the non-violent, no-property, non-drug category decreased by 11.5 arrests per 100 participants (36 percent).

  • Though large impacts on arrests did not persist, impacts on schooling outcomes did, with gains that translated into higher graduation rates of 3 to 10 percentage points.

  • At a cost of $1,100 per participant (and depending on how the social costs of violent crime are monetized), the benefit-cost ratio ranges from 5.1 up to 30:1.

Policy Implications/Recommendations:
  • Impacts from this intervention seem to be much larger than those from other interventions that include shared ingredients like mentoring or after-school programming.

  • The novel ingredient in this intervention (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT) may be an important mechanism for others to consider. CBT is designed to reduce judgment and decision-making error.

  • What is perhaps most surprising about these findings is the size of the gains in schooling outcomes given the investments required. Gains in schooling outcomes (which could translate into increased graduation rates of 7-22 percent) and observed reductions in violent-crime arrests (44 percent) given the relatively limited number of one-or-two hour sessions participants attended (about 13) and the low cost of the intervention ($1,100 per participant), are impressive. Given how little attention is currently devoted to addressing non-academic factors that affect long-term outcomes of at-risk youth, there may be substantial returns to society from expanding investments in this area.

Research Design:
Randomized controlled trial

Population/Participants/Subjects:
Disadvantaged male youths in grades 7 - 10 from high-crime Chicago neighborhoods

Year data is from:
2009-10 academic year

Setting:
District

Data Collection and Analysis:
Randomly assigned 2,740 youth to programming or to a control group

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