Saturday, November 17, 2007


OK, this one is mostly an inside joke.

My wife is an education consultant. Her ability to influence events consists of her vast brain and her ability to analyze and re-analyze mind-numbing datasets about education. And write clear statements of what's what. This often disconcerts other outside agitators who are not as good at analyzing what is going on. They think she has an inside track because she is quoted often.

Recently, one of the way-outside education bloggers called her a "bureaucrat." Given that her bureau consists of an iBook and our dining room table, this struck us as funny.

Years ago we got a buffet for the dining room. Our young son couldn't remember "buffet," so he jokingly called it the "burrito." This name stuck.

Mrs. G. is not a bureaucrat. She is a burritocrat.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Married Men and Women Save More Together

The Fawcett Society, a British women's advocacy organization, has just released a study about how men and women differ in how, and how much, they save money.

The main finding is that women save for others, but find it harder to save for themselves. They save for short-term goals more than long-term objectives. Women are more averse to taking on debt. Men, by contrast, are a little more likely than women to save in general, to save for the long term, and to take on debt. The biggest savers are married men. Unmarried men and all women save at about the same average rate: about $200 per month. Married men, by contrast, save about $300 per month.

Putting these facts together, it seems to me that the crucial variable in the savings rate is whether the men and women in question are married, and especially married parents, or not. We would expect that married moms would save the most for others, married fathers would save the most for the long term. Mothers probably have less income to save from than they did before they had kids, but married mothers can rely on their husbands to save more for the whole family.

The Fawcett Society, though, does not want to treat married parents as a unit for savings. Instead, they argue that it is a great advance to treat men and women as separate, regardless of their family situation. They do not want to factor marriage in to household savings decisions because "households change." They argue, correctly I think, that savings needs to be analyzed over the life course, but then assert that "a lifecourse by definition must focus on the individual." Yet in a deep sense this is wrong. Marriage makes two people one flesh, and they make their savings decisions, short-term and long-term, together and on the assumption that they will be working together. Sometimes, as we all know, this assumption turns out not to be true, but this does not mean that most married people do not make it, nor that they should not make it. The Fawcett Society, in an effort to treat "women" equally, distort the life experience of most women, and most men, who marry and save together.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Want to See More Economic Mobility? Put More Rungs in Your Ladder

Julia Isaacs of the Brookings Institution has released a study of family economic mobility. This is a companion to the study on racial disparities in economic mobility that I wrote about a couple of days ago. Isaacs' main finding in the new study is that two thirds of families have higher income than their parents did, but only half of them have moved up a rung on the income ladder. A rising tide has lifted nearly all boats; some have then risen even higher than average beyond the rising tide.

Isaacs makes an important point -- most people are better off than their parents were, but that is not entirely due to their own efforts. The entire society is richer, so many people are absolutely better off even if they have stayed relatively the same. For example, if you compare a hypothetical family in the exact middle of the income spectrum a generation ago and now, our middle family today will be absolutely richer and have a higher standard of living than the middle family a generation ago, but will still be in the middle of the income spectrum.

Still, there is a bit of statistical mystification here. Isaacs compares quintiles (equal fifths) of the income distribution. 2/3rds of families moved up in income, but only half of them - 1/3rd of all families - moved up enough to change quintiles compared to their parents. This one third is what Isaacs calls true upward mobility. But suppose she had been comparing not quintiles, but deciles? That is, suppose her income ladder had twice as many rungs in it? We can't tell for sure without real data, but it is likely that with twice as many rungs, we would see twice as much mobility (down as well as up). Likewise, I have seen studies by mobility pessimists who use quartiles. Not surprisingly, such studies show less mobility than Isaacs' quintile study does.

The main conclusion that I draw from this is not that "you can make statistics say anything," but that the income distribution is not a very helpful quantity to describe social reality. Only sociologists think of people in quintiles. The real rungs of the social ladder don't match the income distribution very well. It is helpful to know if people have more of less money than they grew up with. But knowing that they have changed quintiles (or quartiles, or deciles, or percentiles) doesn't really tell you if they have changed classes.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Class Beats Race - Hurrah!

The Pew Research Center has released a wonderful study showing a strong convergence among the white, black, and hispanic middle class. For the first time, a majority of African-Americans agree with the rest of the country that the main thing keeping poor blacks down is their own behavior, rather than racism.

Likewise, most black Americans think that the gap between middle class and poor blacks is widening, a view long held by most other Americans. The belief that the class gap is widening within the African-American community is shared by both ends of the black education and income spectrum. The Pew study made headlines with a peculiar version of this point: they asked

Blacks today can no longer be thought of as a single race because the black community is so diverse OR Blacks can still be thought of as a single race because they have so much in common.

Most African-American agreed with the peculiar contention that blacks are not one race today.

All races agree that people in the same class are more similar than are people in the same race.

In the long run, this is hopeful in the fight against racism.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

"Black Downward Mobility" is Really a Marriage Decline

The Associated Press has a story across the country today by Stephen Ohlemacher with headlines like "Income Gap Between Families Grows." They are reporting on a series of studies by Julia Isaacs of the Brookings Institution on economic mobility. The news hook is that the black/white gap in family income is growing. The scariest finding is that nearly half of black children who grew up in middle class homes have moved down economically compared to the family they grew up in.

The main explanation extracted from the Isaacs studies is that black men's real earnings, on average, declined since the late 1960s, whereas white men's average earnings went up.

When we look inside the report, though, I think the more striking and more explanatory fact is what happened to black married families. In 1969, most black families (58%) were married-with-kids families. By 1998 that had fallen to a mere third. Single-with-kids families, meanwhile, had risen from a fifth of all black families to nearly a third (29%). It is reasonable to assume that most black children in the top two quintiles in 1969 were in married-parent homes. By 1998, as Isaacs notes, most American families needed two incomes to be middle class. Black marriages, and the income advantages that come with them, were declining at exactly the time when they were most needed for the kids to match the middle class lives of their parents.

I think the decline in black men's income is also an effect of the marriage decline. Men work the hardest and the most when they are married fathers. In 1969, two thirds of black men were married; today not even half of black men are married.

To be sure, the white married-with-kids rate has fallen, too. But most white families are still married-with-kids families, and two thirds of white men are still married.

I think the main cause of the black/white gap in income and mobility is the marriage gap.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Presbyterian Terrorists Stand Down

As a Presbyterian I celebrate the proclamation by the (Protestant) Ulster Defense Association that is will stand down its assassination arm, the Ulster Freedom Fighters. While they have not quite disarmed (and neither, in fairness, has their Catholic counterparts, the Irish Republican Army), the UDA said they have put their arms "beyond use."

The largely Presbyterian loyalist paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland have been an enduring embarrassment and reproach to Calvinists everywhere. The Presbyterian Church in this country has promoted an exchange between Ulster and American Presbyterian colleges and universities that send pairs of Catholic and Protestant Irish students to the U.S., and Americans back to Northern Ireland. Centre College has happily participated in this exchange. We have long tried to help end the intra-Christian Troubles there.

With the Ulster Defense Association declaring that "the war is over," we may finally be ending the worst case of sectarian violence involving Protestants.