The Surrogate Index: Combining Short-Term Proxies to Estimate Long-Term Treatment Effects More Rapidly and Precisely
Raj Chetty, Susan Athey, Guido Imbens, Hyunseung Kang
NBER Working Paper No. 26463
November 2019

The impacts of many policies, such as efforts to increase upward income mobility or improve health outcomes, are only observed with long delays. For example, it can take decades to see the effects of early childhood interventions on lifetime earnings. This problem has greatly limited researchers’ and policymakers’ ability to test and improve policies and arises frequently in our own work at Opportunity Insights on the determinants of economic opportunity.

In this study, we develop a new method of estimating the long-term impacts of policies more rapidly and precisely using short-term proxies. We predict long-term outcomes (e.g., lifetime earnings) using short-term outcomes (e.g., earnings in early adulthood or test scores). We then show that the causal effects of policies on this predictive index (which we term a “surrogate index”, following terminology in the statistics literature) can help us learn about their long-term impacts more quickly under certain assumptions that are described in the full paper.

We apply our method to analyze the long-term impacts of a job training experiment in California. Using short-term employment rates as surrogates, we show that one could have estimated the program’s impact on mean employment rates over a 9 year horizon within 1.5 years, with a 35% reduction in standard errors.

The success of the surrogate index in this job training application suggests that our method could be applied to predict the long-term impacts of other programs as well. Going forward, we hope to build a public library of early indicators (surrogate indices) for social science by harnessing historical experiments along with the large-scale datasets we have built. If you would like to contribute to this effort by reporting a surrogate index that predicts long-term impacts estimated in an experiment, as in the GAIN program, please contact us.



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