Losing the home team advantage and parental support vs the welfare state

Top of the Charts 'Hidden gems' round-up: August 2020

The latest from Resolution Foundation Chief Executive Torsten Bell’s weekly Observer column, Hidden gems from the world of research and academia. Read more of the latest economics and policy research in our weekly reading email, Top of the Charts.


Britain might look to Germany to heal the north-south divide

Before the government was forced into locking down British regions, it wanted to level them up, closing productivity gaps between north and south. That’s a valuable objective, reinforced by new research on UK regional inequality from academics appropriately spread across Sheffield, Birmingham and London. The paper reminds us that the UK has some of the biggest productivity gaps between regions in the developed world, with global leaders in parts of London and the south-east very different to some cities in the north and Midlands.

There’s nothing new in politicians or academics pointing to the north-south divide, but more interestingly the work notes that the UK has not always led the way in this inequality between places. Most countries had higher regional gaps than the UK for most of the 20th century. Indeed, the UK’s productivity gaps fell postwar and their surge is only a post-90s phenomenon.

We also know countries can perform very differently. Since reunification of (rich) West and (poor) East Germany, a closing of huge regional gaps has been a national priority. Partly as a result, such gaps have come down since 1990, as Britain’s have increased.

So the lessons of history are that we can do better. But no one should pretend this will be easy – Germany has invested about €2tn in the east over the past three decades. When we’ve finished locking down we do need to level up, but doing so is the task of decades, not soundbites.

Originally published in The Observer.

A city’s fortunes are not set in stone. Look at modern Madrid

Cities rise, cities fall. In times past, quite literally. But even without regular warfare, we still see cities rise up and down the rankings. People now talk as if London has been on a permanent growth trajectory, but its population declined by 23% postwar.

The relative fates of Barcelona and Madrid neatly illustrate the point, with new research highlighting the reversal of economic fortunes between the two great cities since Spain’s transition to democracy. While both have prospered, Madrid has stormed ahead of Barcelona on almost every economic indicator. The Catalan economy, 25% larger than Madrid’s in 1975, is now smaller despite its cultural and tourist appeal. And Barcelona, the largest urban area in Spain until 1980, has been surpassed by Madrid, now the fifth largest city in Europe.

What caused this change? Some point to the pulling power of a capital, others to infrastructure investments. But the research authors argue that something else is holding back Catalonia: divides between social and political groups that have hampered economic development even before the recent high-profile independence conflict.

Whatever the cause, the fact that Madrid has beaten the city better positioned 40 years ago to emerge as Spain’s economic hub reminds us all that while the economic status of cities may feel permanent, it can in reality shift (relatively) swiftly. Cities, like people, need to work on their success.

Originally published in The Observer.

How the home team advantage is lost when no one’s watching

What difference does banning spectators from pandemic-era sports matches make? Quite a bit, concludes new research. First, fewer people catch Covid-19. A US study on basketball and ice hockey games finds one big indoor match before bans increased deaths by a staggering 9% in nearby areas. No shock, Sherlock – but, remember, we packed 251,000 people into Cheltenham race course during that same period of early March.

Less life-and-death research shows that playing spectator-less football matches has other impacts: it changes the course of matches themselves. Using data from 6,481 matches played before and after the mid-season shutdown in 17 countries, it finds that the removal of fans reduces home advantage by narrowing the gap in the number of yellow cards for away teams compared with home teams by a third. Why? Fan absence lessens pressure on referees to punish away teams more harshly.

This proves two things. First, there’s nothing about football we men (the study has five authors, all male) don’t delight in. Second, that figures of authority respond to short-term pressures. Ultimately, booking numbers are neither here nor there, but such biases can cost lives. Think of the national disgrace of Covid deaths in underprepared care homes into which we actively pushed patients to empty hospitals. Part of the reason? The NHS has the fans that our care homes too often, tragically, lack.

Originally published in The Observer.

Why the bank of Mum and Dad will never replace the welfare state

Choose your parents wisely. Access to “the bank of Mum and Dad” painfully often determines whether or not you’ll be a homeowner. But parents are also an important source of financial support when our incomes fall in tough times, such as a pandemic-induced recession. Such support is often ignored by researchers because, unlike government support, it’s hard to measure. But luckily the Danes have produced a fascinating study, linking bank accounts and government records to identify exactly how much family support people receive – and who receives it.

What do we learn? Well, obviously, richer parents provide more support, but crucially this kind of help in tough times is more important for poorer households, with parents perhaps giving more where they feel it will make more difference. This is exactly what we’ve seen in the UK with our own Resolution Foundation survey showing that 8% of poorer households received help from family and friends in the early stages of the Covid crisis, compared with 1% of the richest.

Does that mean family support can replace the welfare state? Nope, most obviously because not everyone has parents with cash to spare. But the research highlights two other reasons. First, it’s not enough (family support replaces only 7% of income losses). Second, it doesn’t last, with parental support tending to be temporary even if the income loss is permanent.

The lesson? Choose your politicians wisely too.

Originally published in The Observer.

Why coronavirus is worse for the mental health of mothers

The Covid-19 crisis has meant huge economic change, from how and where we work to who gets to work at all. Hence the row about if and when we return to the office. But this crisis has turned our personal lives upside down too, the sheer scale of change creating stress.

Research reveals the size of the challenge to our mental health. UK data shows that almost 20% of us are reporting symptoms of depression, double the pre-pandemic norm.

This matters. We know that poor mental health and unhappiness make us less productive at work and contribute to relationship breakdown.

Everyone is affected, but not everyone is affected equally. For those aged 16 to 39, the share reporting depression symptoms has almost tripled to 30%. German research gives us further insights into what’s causing this catastrophe, comparing the wellbeing of parents and non-parents. The two groups had similar trends pre-crisis, but parents saw bigger falls in wellbeing once schools and childcare providers closed.

Mothers’ wellbeing is most affected, matching wider research showing that, while women have not been more likely to lose their jobs than men, mothers are doing so more than fathers, in part because they face the biggest burden of lockdown – childcare.

The lesson? This week’s return to school is crucial to our children’s futures, but also to many parents’ wellbeing in the here and now.

Originally published in The Observer.