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Scholar Feature: Sylvia Brandt (FRS '15-16) Examines the Cost of Pollution to Families

Sylvia Brandt headshot

Measuring the human and economic cost of environmental degradation is becoming increasingly important as policy makers and researchers attempt to account for the numerous, disparate, and pervasive impacts of industrialized economies. A prevalent byproduct of the American industrial system is concentrated levels of vehicular air pollution in metropolitan areas. Since excessive exposure to pollutants can lead to elevated levels of asthma and other respiratory diseases in young children as well as cardiovascular disease and death in the adult population, measuring the economic and human impact of this air pollution is a crucial topic for family researchers. The estimation of these costs are also important to federal agencies that are mandated to take costs into consideration when creating regulations or approving industrial development. In order to account for the full cost of the pollution, researchers must look at the direct health impacts on children, as well as costs imposed on the family as a whole.

Dr. Sylvia Brandt, an Associate Professor with a joint appointment in the Center for Public Policy & Administration and the Department of Resource Economics, will be researching the effects of these pollutants, specifically the employment cost to mothers of children who develop diseases due to localized pollution. Young children with chronic diseases like asthma require special attention which obligates a parent, often the mother, to take time off from work. This additional time off from work not only reduces income immediately, but also indirectly reduces the mother’s cumulative earning potential by limiting her ability to maintain jobs and advance her career. Sylvia’s central research focus is estimating the value a mother’s cumulative loss of income and wellbeing due to her child’s illness.

This reduction in earning potential and employability is like a “double motherhood penalty,” says Brandt. Mothers, especially single mothers, already face employment discrimination and limitations based on their gender and disproportionate family responsibilities. Mothers of children with health problems face more barriers to employment and career advancement because of the additional burdens. These costs are even larger for low-income families because the mother lacks the economic security and power to negotiate time off from work, and so risks losing her job when she elects to stay at home with her child.

“The research also raises environmental justice concerns because not only do low income families tend to live in polluted areas, they also don’t have the economic resources to off-set these burdens” says Brandt. The traffic pollution, which occurs disproportionately in low-income and racial/ethnic minority areas, places a devastating burden on low-income mothers whose children have developed a chronic illness attributable to the pollution. The employment impact attributable to pollution represents an injustice at the intersection of family, the environment, and poverty.

According to Prof. Brandt, quantifying the impact of pollution on mothers’ employment is crucial because “currently the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies don’t value this additional cost.” In cost-benefit-analysis guidelines “the EPA literally says ‘the value of a mother’s childcare labor is zero.’” Because the EPA is specifically undervaluing mother’s labor in the household, and thereby underestimating the costs of pollution, Sylvia says its “one of my career goals to change the EPA’s valuation of this cost.” If the EPA acknowledged a monetized valuation of this cost it could lead to stricter environmental regulations and protections for urban families.

To monetize and measure these individual, familial, and societal impacts Sylvia will be collaborating with a number of national experts to develop and administer a non-market valuation technique. Since pollution, and its costs, is not bought and sold in a marketplace, creative methods must be developed to estimate the “price” or “cost.” Typically, since mothers are taking time off from work to care for their children, an economist would simply treat their wage rate as the amount they value caring for their children since they are forgoing that wage payment; however, Sylvia argues that the wage-transfer method underestimates the true cost, and instead the wage rate should be treated as the lower bound of the cost associated with caring for the ill child. To estimate a higher, more central estimate, Sylvia will likely employ an economic survey technique called contingent valuation.

Ultimately Sylvia’s research sheds light on a serious environmental and economic cost to the family that has previously been neglected by the EPA, federal agencies, and many researchers. Sylvia’s research has the potential to redefine the EPA’s treatment of household labor in their cost-benefit analyses, which would lead to real, tangible policy decisions that affect low-income families and mothers around the nation.

Since 2003, CRF has offered the Family Research Scholars Program, which provides selected UMass and Five Colleges faculty with the time, technical expertise, peer mentorship and national expert consultation to prepare a large grant proposal to support their research.