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On decentralized affirmative action policies and their duration

What is this research about and why did you do it?

The original rationale for affirmative action was to help underrepresented groups close achievement gaps and it was meant to be temporary. Decades after their inception, affirmative action policies however often remain in place. In this research, we attempt to provide an explanation for this apparent permanence of affirmative action policies by studying the incentives of successive governments to implement them.

How did you answer this question?

In line with popular role model theories, our model postulates that an affirmative action policy improves the talent distribution of the targeted group in future periods. But, importantly it also assumes that the labour market does not observe perfectly whether an affirmative action was implemented and to what extent and who benefitted from affirmative action, which fits better situations in which affirmative action policies are implemented in a decentralized fashion. Accordingly, wages in the labour market can only be conditioned on the observable cv, which may, in case of affirmative action, be artificially boosted. The resulting wages induce a feeling of injustice among non-beneficiaries of affirmative action, which we assume negatively affect their welfare.

What did you find?

At the optimum, affirmative action should not last permanently given that the long run gain of affirmative action gets smaller and smaller, but the induced feeling of injustice remains significant as long as affirmative action is in place. Contrary to this result, we find that the unique equilibrium is one in which successive governments always choose to implement affirmative action because implementing affirmative action is viewed as improving the talent distribution of the targeted group but not as affecting wages negatively, given the non-observability assumption on the side of employers.

What implications does this have for the research on wealth concentration or economic inequality?

Such a study while highly stylized may provide some attempt at explaining some risks of having a decentralized approach to affirmative actions and how it may lead to some frustration in the population not benefitting from it.

What are the next steps in your agenda?

Putting this work in the broader perspective of the pros and cons of affirmative action would be desirable as well as studying empirically the significance of the feeling of injustice and how it compares to the improvement of the talent distribution in the targeted group as induced by affirmative action.

Citation and related resources

This paper can be cited as follows: Jehiel, P., and Leduc, M. V. 2022. 'On decentralized affirmative action policies and their duration.' Working paper.

About the authors

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