Tag Archives: global

US teen birth rates remain high, and they’re not falling for the reasons you’ve heard

Everyone is excited by the decline in the teen birth rate in the US. But And here are a few things you should know about it.

This chart shows the birth rates for women ages 15 to 19 in 192 countries, plus the world and the UN-defined rich countries, for 1991 and 2011. Dots below the black line show countries where the teen birth rate fell. The red line shows the overall relationship between 1991 and 2011. Dots below the red line had greater than expected reduction in teen births.

teen births global

Source: My graph United Nations data.

The chart shows four things:

1. Teen birth rates are falling globally. From 1991 to 2011, the birth rate for women ages 15 to 19 fell from 65 to 46 births per 1,000 women worldwide.

2. US has higher teen birth rates than any other rich country. At 33 per 1,000, the US has more teen births than Pakistan (28), but fewer than India (36). For high income countries, by the UN definition, the rate is 19. The rate for the Euro area is 7.

3. The teen birth rate is falling faster in the US than in the world overall. The world rate fell 29% from 1991 to 2011, while the drop in the US was 44%.

In the US, there are a lot of factors related to falling teen births. But they’re mostly about how it’s happening, not why it’s happening. For example, Vox published a list of factors, as did Pew before them, that are reasonable: the recession, more birth control, more Medicaid money for family planning, cultural pressure, and less sex.

But to understand why this is happening, you have to stop thinking about teenagers as some sort of separate subspecies. They are just young women. Soon they will be in their 20s. The same women! So the short answer for why falling teen birth rates happening is this:

4. Teen birth rates in the US are falling because women are postponing their births generally.

You can see this if you line up teens next to women of other ages. Here are the changes in birth rates for women, by age, from 1989 to 2012.

birthratechangebyage

Source: My graph from National Center for Health Statistics data.

See how the trend for the last decade is parallel for 15-17, 18-19, and 20-24? As those rates fell, birth rates rose for the 30+ community. The younger women are, the fewer births they’re having; the older they are, the more births they’re having. Teenage women are women! They do it for all the reasons it’s happening around the world: some because they are delaying marriage, some to pursue education and careers, some to see the world, and so on.

Here is another way to look at this. Here are the 50 US states, from the 2000-2012 American Community Survey. This shows that states with lower teen birth rates (those are per 100, on the y-axis), have higher birth rates for 25-34 year-old women relative to 20-24 year-old women. I’ll explain:

teenbirthstates

Teen births rates and the ratio of teen birth rates ages 25-34 / 20-24. US states, 2010-2011

Where more women have children ages 25-34 relative to 20-24, there are fewer teen births. So, in Alabama, about 3% of women 15-19 had a baby per year, and in that state the birth rates are about the same for women 25-34 as 20-24. Alabama is an early-birth state. But in New Hampshire, only 1% of teens had a baby, and women 25-34 were almost 2.5-times more likely to have a baby than women 20-24. New Hampshire is a late-birth state. What’s happening with teens reflects what’s happening with older women.

To some significant degree, it’s not about teenagers, it’s about women delaying births.* I would love it if reporting on teen births would always compare them to older women.

*Notice I didn’t just exaggerate and say, “it’s not about teenagers.” I added “to some significant degree.” That’s the difference between a post that is selling you (your clicks) to someone versus a post that’s trying to explain things as clearly as possible.

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Global inequality, within and between countries

Most of the talk about income inequality is about inequality within countries – between rich and poor Americans, versus between rich and poor Swedes, for example. The new special issue of Science magazine about inequality focuses that way as well, for example with this nice figure showing inequality within countries around the world.

But what if there were no income inequality within countries? If everyone within each country had the same income, but we still had rich and poor countries, how unequal would our world be? It turns out that’s an easy question to answer.

Using data from the World Bank on income for 131 countries, comprising 91% of the world population, here is the Lorenz curve showing the distribution of gross national income (GNI) by population, with each person in each country assumed to have the same income (using the purchasing power parity currency conversion). I’ve marked the place of the three largest countries: China, India, and the USA:

lorenza1

The Gini index value for this distribution is .48, which means the area between the Lorenz curve and the blue line – representing equality, is 48% of the lower-right triangle. (Going all the way to 1.0 would mean one person had all the money.)

But there is inequality within countries. In that Science figure the within-country Ginis range from .24 in Belarus to .67 in South Africa. (And that’s using after-tax household income, which assumes each person within each household has the same income. So there’s that, too.)

The World Bank data I’m using includes within-country income distributions broken into 7 quantiles: 5 quintiles (20% of the population each), with the top and bottom further broken in half. If I assume that the income is shared equally within each of these quantiles, I can take those 131 countries and turn them into 917 quantiles (just assigning each group its share of the country’s GNI). These groups range in average income from $0 (due to rounding) in the bottom 10th of Bolivia and Guyana, or $43 per person in the bottom 10th of the Democratic Rep. of Congo, up to $305,800 per person in the top 10th of Macao.

To illustrate this, here are India, China, and the USA, showing average incomes for the quantiles and the countries as a whole:

lorenza2

This shows that the average income of China’s top 10th is between the second and third quntiles of the US income distribution, and the top 10th of India has an average income comparable to the US 10-19th percentile range. Obviously, this breakdown shows a lot more inequality.

So here I add the new Lorenz curve to the first figure, counting each of those 917 quantiles as a separate group with its own income:

lorenza3

Now the Gini index has risen a neat 25%, to an even .60. Is that a big difference? Clearly, between country inequality — the red line — is vast. If every country were a household, the world would be almost as unequal as Nigeria. In this comparison, you could say you get 80% of the income inequality to show up just looking at whole countries. But of course even that obscures much more, especially at the high end, where there is no limit.

Years ago I followed the academic debate over how to measure inequality within and between countries. If I were to catch up with it again, I would start with this article, by my friends Tim Moran and Patricio Korzeniewicz. That provoked a debate over methods and theory, and they eventually published this book, which argues: “within-country analyses alone have not adequately illuminated our understanding of global stratification.” There is a lot more to read, but their work, and the critiques they’re received, is a good place to start.

Note: I have put my Excel worksheet for this post here. It has the original data and my calculations, but not the figures.

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Marriage is declining globally: Can you say that?

Three issues on the decline of marriage: how universal is it, is delay the same thing as decline, and how can you predict it?

1. The worldwide decline in marriage

I basically argued that marriage decline in the U.S. is universal and inevitable. The headline for the post at the Atlantic was “How to Live in a World Where Marriage Is in Decline,” and at Sociological Images it was, “Marriage Is Over: Live with It.”

For context, I hinted at the globalness of this trend, but here I’ll give a little more detail. I consulted three sources: This Eurostat database on demographics from Europe, this United Nations compilation of marriage rates and marital status from 2008, the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) conducted by USAID, and this amazing IPUMS compilation of microdata from censuses around the world.

From Eurostat I got the crude marriage rate, which is marriages per year for every thousand people in the population. They have data for every year for most countries, so I took decade averages for each decade since the 1970s. Here it is:

eurostat-marriage-rates

The big countries on the left account for 78% of the population, and they all show a decline in marriage rates for every decade. Most of the little countries show the same pattern. Overall, 89% of the population lives in a country with that pattern.

Because it is affected by changes in the age distribution, the crude marriage rate is not ideal. So with the UN data, like I did with the US data in original post, I use the percentage of women married. Here it is for those ages 30-34 for almost the whole world, 174 countries, using two data points each, the first around 1985 and the second around 2002 (I’ve scaled the dots to represent population size). Countries below the diagonal line have falling proportions of women married:

un-currently-married

In this selection of countries 87% of the population is living in a country with falling marriage prevalence, but that includes the biggest – China and India – which still have virtually universal marriage (98+%). Still, almost all the other big ones show declines (I’ve labeled Pakistan, Russia, Mexico, Brazil, the US, Japan, Italy, Germany and France). The only countries with more than 50 million people that show increases are the Philippines, Vietnam, Egypt, and the Dem. Rep. of Congo.

That is an impressive array of countries with declining marriage prevalence. However, the big countries with big drops in marriage are mostly rich: France, Italy, Germany, Japan and the US. Is this a rich-country phenomenon? One thing that sets apart some of those countries — as Gøsta Esping-Andersen pointed out in a comment here — is their high rates of non-marital cohabitation, either replacing marriage or as part of a pattern of delayed marriage. Delayed or reduced marriage is often part of package of demographic changes, including high income and low fertility. (The exception is Japan, where cohabitation rates, although rising, are still low, with just 21% of Japanese women born in the 1970s having ever cohabited, compared with two-thirds of US women.)

One of the sources for that UN compilation is the DHS, which has been collecting fertility-related data in poor countries since the 1980s. To look more closely at some poor countries, I used the DHS data compiler to get the proportion of women ever married in the ages 25-49, for the 17 countries that had a data for the 1980s, 1990s (except missing a few), and 2000s (most from late in the decade):

dhs-ever-married

This shows the decline of marriage is common in poor countries as well, albeit smaller declines from high levels in recent decades (note I’ve scaled it from 70% to 100%).

Finally, after registering as an IPUMS International user, I downloaded data on 40 million women ages 25-49 from 26 countries, using the oldest census from the 1980s, one from the 1990s, and the most recent one from the 2000s for each (so two to four censuses per country).* This source is great because it’s got age and education variables, which I’ll use below. Here is the before-and-after graph using these data, again showing the percentage of 25-49 year-old women married:

ipums-international-marriage

Here, only Vietnam and Indonesia show increases in marriage prevalence. The big countries with declines are France, the US, and Brazil; medium-size countries include Argentina, Spain, Colombia, Venezuela, Chile and Turkey. And all the little countries show declines: Morocco, Ecuador, Greece, Malawi, Canada, Austria, Senegal, Thailand, Portugal, Hungary, Ireland, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Panama, Jamaica (I don’t know what’s up in Jamaica).

In almost all of these countries, women with more education are less likely to be married (the U.S. and Jamaica are exceptions to this; in Hungary, Argentina, Canada, and Ireland only those with university completed are less likely to be married). And in all countries older women are more likely to be married. So if world populations are aging (which should increase marriage prevalence) and women are gaining access to education (which should decrease it), we might get misleading results from simple rates. With the IPUMS data there is an indicator of whether people have finished secondary schooling and university education in all these countries. So I can adjust for those (and run a linear probability regression with 40 million cases across 26 countries in the time in takes to walk the dog). Here is the result:

ipums-international-marriage-ols

With the adjustments, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam have increased marriage prevalence. In most cases the adjustments reduce the time effect, reflecting the spread of education.

Conclusion: The decline of marriage is worldwide although not universal, and it’s probably not accounted for by age and education changes.**

2. Is delay the same as decline?

But what if some or even all of this worldwide trend – or the trend in some countries, like the US – is really from people delaying marriage rather than forgoing it? Some people argue, reasonably, that delaying marriage can be a sign of its increased social significance. This is the “capstone” concept popularized by Andrew Cherlin, and it’s been raised in blog comments many times.

There is good evidence for this. In the US at least, despite the delay in marriage, and the drop in the marriage rate, the great majority of Americans have been married at least once by the time they reach their fifties. Here are the percentages ever married (that is, including separated, divorced and widowed) by age for cohorts born from 1930 to 1990 (using IPUMS data).

US-cohorts-ever-born

The steps downward from back to front show that, at each age, successive cohorts are less likely to have been married. But the high levels on the far right show that much of this is just delay. By 2010, 87% of about-50-year-olds – those born around 1960 – were ever married. That said, the decline is still pronounced – that 87% is down from 95%. Thus, marriage is being both delayed and foregone, albeit to different extents.

The measure used is very important. Consider these scenarios:

  • If everyone suddenly put off their marriage till next year, the marriage rate this year would be zero.
  • If everyone got married at age 50, the percentage of people married in the ages 25-49 would be zero.
  • Even if no one got married ever again, we would still have a majority of adults married for a while. (Idea for demography exam question: how long?)
  • If everyone decided marriage was just so important as a capstone that they would only get married on their death beds, the marriage rate would be low, the percent of the population married would be low, but the percentage who ever got married would be 100%.

So what’s the right way to look at this? Questions of meaning in demography are amorphous. I can’t say from these numbers how people think about marriage, especially across all these countries. That doesn’t mean the question isn’t important, but in one sense these numbers mean it’s undeniable that marriage is less important – fewer people are doing it, and doing it for a smaller portion of their lives. (More on this here.) That goes especially for the question of family structure for children, who are increasingly likely to be born to parents who aren’t married.

3. Says who?

So marriage decline is both worldwide and real. Can we predict what will happen, that the decline will continue? The scenarios above all are possible. But I think they’re unlikely. In the post I started with, I included an illustration of the marriage rate from 1940 to the present, and argued we should plan for a future in 2040 where the rate would be somewhere between 0 (complete collapse) and the 2000 level (strong rebound but still low by historical standards). Some tweeter gave that the award for “today’s most hilariously amateur data analysis.”

I’ve made short-term predictions by extrapolation (such as the name Mary), which is fine unless the trend changes. And I’ve made some based on evidence from leading indicators, such as Google searches for divorce- or fertility-related terms. But what about the long-term trend on marriage? Here’s a cautionary tale.

In 1955, Talcott Parsons wrote the introduction to his co-authored book, Family, Socialization and Interaction Process. The book advanced a theory about how families worked that relied on a static concept of complementarity between male and female roles. The idea was that this structure was pretty ideal, the breadwinner-homemaker model was highly evolved, and change was unlikely. So Parsons’ introduction sought to tamp down speculation that a sea change was underway. Unfortunately, he did that using data through about 1950, focusing his attention on whether changes observed in the 1930s were continuing, especially increasing divorce and falling fertility. Not to worry, he wrote, mistakenly seeing the beginning of the baby boom as a new plateau. With regard to women’s employment, he went on:

…there can be no question of symmetry between the sexes in this respect, and we argue, there is no serious tendency in this direction. … The number [of women] in the labor force who have small children is still quite small and has not shown a marked tendency to increase.

And the rest is history:

parsons-prediction

Parsons and I are only two generations apart (I took theory from a guy who co-authored a book with him). And all this change was pretty fast. So, why should I be confident in predicting the future of marriage – continued decline, with chance of rebound not exceeding 2000 rates by 2040? Were Parsons and I both blinded by our assumptions?

Sure. But one difference between us is our access to demographic data. It’s surprising to me that the great thinkers of social science mostly wrote in the olden days, when they had so little information. In just a few hours I summoned these global statistics covering decades and assembled them into a worldwide trend. Doesn’t it increase our confidence in the power of the trend to know that it’s so universal? And of course that’s just a drop in the bucket. Shouldn’t all this information yield more, better knowledge and better predictions?

Even if I’m not as smart a theorist as Parsons, I can eyeball the US and global trends and conclude that a major reversal in marriage is not likely: there is no recent precedent for that, and, with the exception of some countries that still have universal marriage, no major exceptions in the direction of change. That’s how I get from “marriage has declined globally” to “marriage is declining globally.”

(This post was a lot of work so gimme a couple days off now, okay?)

*This IPUMS data includes people who are in “consensual unions” that aren’t legally married, which is less than 5% of the total. IPUMS does have some other censuses, but I excluded ones that weren’t from the right period or had something unusual about the coding, sample or measures. In the regression version I excluded individuals with missing education levels, a very small percentage. The IPUMS data are weighted to reflect population totals.

**In addition to IPUMS International, which compiled the data, these statistical offices made it available for use.

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Data visualizations: Is U.S. society becoming more diverse?

Trying to summarize a few historical trends for the last half century (because what else is there to do?), I thought of framing them in terms of diversity.

Diversity is often an unsatisfying concept, used to describe hierarchical inequality as mere difference. But inequality is a form of diversity — a kind of difference. And further, not all social diversity is inequality. When people belong to categories and the categories are not ranked hierarchically (or you’re not interested in the ranking for whatever reason), the concept of diversity is useful.

There are various ways of constructing a diversity index, but I use the one sometimes called the Blau index, which is easy to calculate and has a nice interpretation: the probability that two randomly selected individuals are from different groups.

Example: Religion

Take religion. According to the 2001 census of India, this was the religious breakdown of the population:

RELIGION Number Proportion
Hindus 827,578,868 .805
Muslims 138,188,240 .134
Christians 24,080,016 .023
Sikhs 19,215,730 .019
Buddhists 7,955,207 .008
Jains 4,225,053 .004
Others 6,639,626 .006
Religion not stated 727,588 .001
Sum of squared proportions .667
Diversity .333

Diversity is calculated by summing the squares of the proportions in each category, and subtracting the sum from 1. So in India in 2001, if you picked two people at random, you had a 1/3 chance of getting people with different religions (as measured by the census).

Is .33 a lot of religious diversity? Not really, it turns out. I was surprised to read on the cover of this book by a Harvard professor that the United States is “the world’s most religiously diverse nation.” When I flipped through the book, though, I was disappointed to see it doesn’t actually talk much about other countries, and does not seem to offer the systematic comparison necessary to make such a claim.

With our diversity index, it’s not hard to compare religious diversity across 52 countries using data from World Values Survey, with this result:

wvs-religious-diversityThe U.S. is quite diverse — .66 — but a number of countries rank higher.

Of course, the categories are important in this endeavor. For example, Turkey and Morocco are both 99% “Muslim.” So is Iraq, but in Iraq that population is divided between people who identify as Muslim, Shia and Sunni, so Iraq is much more diverse. You get the same effect by dividing up the Christians in the U.S., for example.

Increasing U.S. diversity

Anyway, back to describing the last half century in the U.S. On four important measures I’ve got easy-to-identify increasing diversity. What do you think of these (with apologies for the default Microsoft color schemes):

religious-diversityrace-ethnic-diversity

household-diversity

age-at-marriage-men-60-11a

The last one is a little tricky. It’s common to report that the median age at marriage has increased since the 1950s (having fallen before the 1950s). But I realized it’s not just the average increasing, but the dispersion: More people marrying at different ages. So the experience of marriage is not just shifting rightward on the age distribution, but spreading out. Here’s another view of the same data:

age-at-marriage-men-60-11b

These are corrected (5/11/2013) from the first version of this post. I have now calculated these using the this report from the National Center for Health Statistics for 1960, and comparing it with the 2011 American Community Survey for those married in the previous year.

I have complained before that using the 1950s or thereabouts as a benchmark is misleading because it was an unusual period, marked by high conformity, especially with regard to family matters. But it is still the case that since then diversity on a number of important measures has increased. Over the period of several generations, in important ways the people we randomly encounter are more likely to be different from ourselves (and each other).

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Crying out for more babies

I don’t want to alarm any readers unnecessarily, but sometimes you have to just take the message straight. So here it is:

A turning point has occurred in the life of the human race. The sustainability of humankind’s oldest institution, the family—the fount of fertility, nurturance, and human capital—is now an open question. On current trends, we face a world of rapidly aging and declining populations, of few children—many of them without the benefit of siblings and a stable, two-parent home—of lonely seniors living on meager public support, of cultural and economic stagnation.

That’s the opening to an essay titled, “The Empty Cradle,” by Phillip Longman and others, which led to an interview with NPR’s Lynne Neary last week. She apparently didn’t realize she was dealing with an end-of-days type (even though he wrote a book with the same name as this article in 2004), and naively thought the subject was just the fiscal challenges of aging populations.

So after he described the rising challenge, she naively instigated this exchange:

NEARY: So, what is the solution? Certainly it’s not just go back to have large families, is it?

LONGMAN: Right. Well, we find in much of the developing world people who say they wish they could have children but they can’t find a way because it’s seen as too expensive. So in some ways this is almost a human rights problem…

His answer became incoherent, as for some reason he didn’t seem to want to tell her the solutions he proposed in the essay. These do mostly boil down to just going back to having large families. (That and promoting marriage.) So we get recommendations like this:

RESPECT THE ROLE OF RELIGION AS A PRONATAL FORCE. Childlessness and small families are increasingly common among secularists. Meanwhile, in Europe and the Americas, as well as in Israel, the rest of the Middle East, and beyond, there is a strong correlation between adherence to orthodox Christian, Islamic, or Judaic religious values and larger, stable families.

This point is illustrated with this graph:

I don’t think it’s breaking news that religious people usually have more children than “secularists.” But I haven’t heard the suggestion that governments promote religion as a way to boost populations. But then again, I didn’t know this either:

Even in the remotest corners of the globe, when television is introduced, birth rates soon fall. This is particularly easy to see in Brazil. … Today, the number of hours a Brazilian woman spends watching domestically produced telenovelas strongly predicts how many children she will have.

Hence, recommendation #9: “Clean up the culture.”

Longman’s essay is in a collection published by a group right-wing institutes, including W. Bradford Wilcox’s National Marriage Project, and apparently funded in this case by the Bradley Foundation, known for supporting outfits like the Heritage Foundation, FreedomWorks, and the neoconservative militarist movement.*

Fertility dividends

Anyway, I have written before about what came to be known among demographers as “lowest-low fertility,” and the economic pressures that are both its cause and consequence. It is a tricky issue. As a non-expert, my reaction is that governments trying to get people to have more children is a fool’s errand — the way I view trying to promote marriage. It seems much more practical to look for ways to arrange resources to support populations with fewer children and more old people.

And environmentally, I thought it was good news that population growth is slowing globally. Admittedly, though, this somewhat perplexing argument by Longman et al. for population growth as a solution to the environmental crisis had somehow never occurred to me:

The more brains are available to work on natural-resource challenges, the sooner someone will come up with the idea that provides a solution.

Anyway, so what are the economic implications of population decline? This figure shows how lower fertility rates are generally associated with higher national incomes, from World Bank data.

Low fertility is usually an issue in relatively high-income countries. The average income in the countries with fertility below the replacement level of 2.1 is about $22,000 per person, while above that fertility level the average income is about $4,000 per person. But the figure also shows a lot of variation — all the rich countries have low fertility, but some relatively poor countries do, too.

As Longman et al. correctly point out, falling birth rates create a “demographic dividend,” as a smaller population of children provides opportunities for a generation of adults to invest in other things (such as higher education), and to spend time on other things (such as careers for women). But a few decades later those productive middle-aged adults grow into a big bubble of retirees, and that small group of children becomes an undersized group of prime-age workers, threatening to drag down the society’s total income. This potentially creates a fiscal crunch, as pension and medical costs rise relative to earnings.

But that’s not inevitable. If you take advantage of that period when there are fewer children — but not yet too many retirees — it is possible to reap a “second demographic dividend.” This is described in several papers by Andrew Mason and Ronald Lee, including this one, in which they write:

Given appropriate policy formulation, population aging will yield a second dividend. The same demographic changes that lead to low support ratios (high dependency ratios) in the future, namely few children and longer life, also both raise capital per worker other things equal, and additionally create a powerful incentive for individuals to accumulate assets to provide for old age. The result can be a period of rapid growth in per capita income. The rapid pace of asset accumulation is also transitory. However, per capita assets and income stabilize at a level that is permanently higher. In this respect, the second dividend persists whereas the first dividend is transitory.

They use simulations to work this out, which are quite interesting. It seems to boil down to two factors: increased investment in skills, education and experience; and increased savings (either individual or through taxation) motivated by the need to care for more retirees. I like this solution more than trying to get people to have more children.

* Aside: History is interesting this way. I used to associate right-wing foundations in America with funding for anti-population-growth intellectuals, as when the racist Pioneer Fund supported not only eugenics-type sociobiology but also Garrett Hardin’s “tough love” ecology – paraphrasing: “too many people in poor countries, aid and immigration will only drag out the problem, better just let them die.” I don’t know which of these tendencies is more active today.

I also don’t know much about Longman, but I did notice that in 2006 he predicted a renaissance for patriarchy, because conservatives have more children than progressives. He wrote in USA Today:

[progressives having fewer children] is a pattern found throughout the world, and it augers a far more conservative future — one in which patriarchy and other traditional values make a comeback, if only by default. Childlessness and small families are increasingly the norm today among progressive secularists. As a consequence, an increasing share of all children born into the world are descended from a share of the population whose conservative values have led them to raise large families.

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How much wealth for women? More than 1%

Stop me when you’re convinced women own more than 1% of all the world’s wealth.

There is a real problem with this women-own-just-1%-of-all-wealth thing. It’s not just that it represents a failure of education in the areas of ballpark-demography and statistical critical-thinking. It’s that people who fall for it aren’t realizing how rich the rich countries are — including the women in them — in the global scheme of things. Like I said at the beginning of this, if global feminist unity is to be had, it won’t be built on a shared poverty experience.

Since people keep asking, I decided to give up on the argument that this needs no refuting, and spend an hour proving it can’t possibly be true, that it must be off by large orders of magnitude. (Well, it was an hour to find the data, but working it all out took a little longer.)

If you need to catch up first, these are the posts in this series so far:

March 1: Stop that viral statistic meme.

April 29: What is the 1% meme solution?

September 20: Follow the bouncing 1% meme…

OK, here goes.

Exhibit A: from U.N. Development Programme’s website

Claim: Women own 1% of all property in the world

This is the original claim from the editor’s introduction to the journal World at Work in 1978. And according to the rationale later written by that editor, Krishna Ahooja-Patel, the number was derived from a (dubious) estimate that women earned 11% of income, and therefore “they do not normally have any surplus to invest in reproducible or non-reproducible assets.”

Various people have since changed “property” to “land” or even “titled land” — never with any research that I have seen — I guess to make it seem more reasonable, but it’s clear from this context that the original claim was about total assets, or what is normally called wealth or net worth.

Debunking strategy: Find a small group of women who own more than 1% of world wealth.

This is much simpler than trying to estimate the actual share of world wealth owned by women. If any small group of women owns more than 1%, that should put the matter to rest. (Dream on.) If someone else can figure out the details for all the other women in the world, that would be great.

I decided to figure out the wealth owned by single women in the U.S. That’s because U.S. data are pretty good and available, the women are pretty rich (in the scheme of things) so they’re likely to satisfy the goal, and single women are simpler because you don’t have to worry about shared wealth. (If married men and women share their wealth equally, the whole women-own-1% thing is obviously impossible, and anything else requires a rule for arbitrarily separating husbands’ and wives’ wealth. And for simplicity I set aside the question of government-owned assets, which are arguably part of “the world’s wealth,” too.)

Looking for a few rich women.

Evidence:

1. World wealth held by households is $181 trillion.

I got that from a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by James Davies and colleagues. They estimated mean global household per capita wealth in 2000 was $29,738. With a global population of 6.09 billion, that means global wealth was $181 trillion.

2. U.S. household wealth is $40 trillion.

Davies et al. have a figure of $144,000 household wealth per person for the U.S. in 2000, which yields an estimate of $40.4 trillion. I believe the basis for that U.S. estimate is the Federal Reserve Board’s Survey of Consumer Finances. The tables there for 2001 show average household net worth was $397,000. With a Census estimate of 108 million households in 2001, that would be $43 trillion, so it’s pretty close. I use those tables for the calculations below because they break it down by household type.

(Before you say these seems too high, remember these are means, not medians, so the very rich are in there too — and the top 100 individuals in the U.S. alone today have about $953 billion, which is more than $3,000 per person right off the top.)

3. Unmarried women own 7% to 13% of U.S. household wealth.

A 2006 paper by Alexis Yamokoski and Lisa Keister, published in Feminist Economics, used the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (now grown up) to estimate net worth. They found an average of $160,000 per adult, and single women had mean net worth of $63,000 in 2000 dollars. Single women were 17% of that sample, so their share adds up to 7.2% of the total. Their figure is lower per person, but the breakdown allows a reasonable guess of the share held by single women.

Using the Federal Reserve Board numbers is tricky because they didn’t differentiate between single men and single women. Also, they only report on households, not individuals. But using their categories, I can make a good guess. They reported mean net worth of:

  • $95,800 for single parents with children (of which there were 11.1 million who were women, according to Census data)
  • $151,400 for single householders under age 55 without children (8.5 million women)
  • $290,400 for single householders age 55+ without children. (10.6 million women)

If single women had the same net worth as single men, these figures would give them a total of $5.4 trillion. Is that reasonable? In Tamokoski and Keister’s paper the mean net worth of single fathers ($48,000) is about the same as single mothers ($47,000), and among those without children single women actually have higher net worth ($111,000 versus $95,000) — which is not crazy when you consider all those older women widows, and that richer men are more likely to marry (and remarry). So I’ll say women’s net worth is equal to the average for each category.

If that $5.4 trillion is correct, then, relative to the total in the Federal Reserve Board wealth estimate of $43 trillion, single women own 12.7% of all household wealth.

4. Single women in the U.S. own 1.6% to 3.0% of world household wealth.

To review:

  • World wealth:  $181 trillion
  • U.S. wealth: $40 trillion
  • Share of U.S. wealth held by single women: 7.2% to 12.7%.

Thus, my range of estimates for share of world wealth held by U.S. single women is between 1.6% (7.2% of $40 trillion as percentage of $181 trillion) and 2.8% (12.7% of $40 trillion as percentage of $181 trillion).

Conclusion

So, by my lowest estimate, no matter how much the billions of other women in the world own — all married women in the U.S., all single and married women in every other country on earth — women own more than 1%.

Richy Rich addendum

OK, wealth is very, very concentrated. So a sample survey such as the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth won’t catch the very richest people — even if they answered the survey, their numbers would be so extreme as to be considered suspect by the analysts. How big a difference could this make?

There are 42 women in the latest Forbes list of the richest 400 Americans, from Christy Walton (net worth $24.5 billion), down through Oprah ($2.7 billion) to the poorest, Campbell Soup’s Charlotte Weber ($1.3 billion). Together, these women alone are worth $172 billion, which is 0.1% of world wealth — that’s one-tenth of the meme’s total for all women in the world!

Just a little further away, in Europe, L’Oreal empress Lillian Bettencourt is worth $13.4 billion, and BMW heiress Susan Klatten is worth $10 billion. Etc. Yes, women are very underrepresented among the super rich, but the few that there are do a lot to push “all women” past the lowly threshold of 1%.

Lillian Bettencourt: $13B large.

Can I stop now?

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Little income distribution graph

From the department of unhelpful statistics today I read this:

“Recent estimates indicate that at the current rate it will take more than 800 years for the bottom billion of the world population to achieve 10% of global income.”

Seems like a shockingly slow rate of progress, since anything that takes 800 years is basically not happening. But the problem is with the juxtaposition of a big number (billion) with a small fraction (10%). A billion people isn’t that big a fraction of the population anymore. Actually, if we could ever get to that level of world inequality it would be great.

Since the bottom billion of the world is about 14% of the 7 billion people in the world, getting them 10% of the global income would be a very low level of inequality — they’d only be 4% away from a perfectly egalitarian world. In the United States now, for example, the bottom 14% of families only get about 3% of the income.

Incidentally, here’s that family distribution:

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Global women’s progress report

I have criticized sloppy statistical work by some international feminist organizations, so I’m glad to have a chance to point out a useful new report and website.

The Progress of the World’s Women is from the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. The full-blown site has an executive summary, a long report, and a statistics index page with a download of the complete spreadsheet. I selected a few of the interesting graphics.

Skewed sex ratios (which I’ve written about here and here) are in the news, with the publication of Unnatural Selection, by Mara Hvistendahl. The report shows some of the countries with the most skewed sex ratios, reflecting the practice of parents aborting female fetuses (Vietnam and Taiwan should  be in there, too). With the exception of Korea, they’ve all gotten more skewed since the 1990s, when ultrasounds became more widely available, allowing parents to find out the sex of the fetus early in the pregnancy.

The most egregious inequality between women of the world is probably in maternal mortality. This chart shows, for example, that the chance of a woman dying during pregnancy or birth is about 39-times higher in Africa than Europe. The chart also shows how many of those deaths are from unsafe abortions.

Finally, I made this one myself, showing women as a percentage of parliament in most of the world’s rich countries (the spreadsheet has the whole list). The USA, with 90 women out of 535 members of Congress, comes in at 17%.

The report focuses on law and justice issues, including rape and violence against women, as well as reparations, property rights, and judicial reform. They boil down their conclusions to: “Ten proven approaches to make justice systems work for women“:

Below are ten proven approaches to making justice systems work for women. They are achievable and, if implemented, they hold enormous potential to advance women’s rights.

1. Support women’s legal organizations

2. Support one-stop shops and specialized services to reduce attrition in the justice chain [that refers to rape cases, for example, not making their way from charge to conviction -pnc]

3. Implement gender-sensitive law reform

4. Use quotas to boost the number of women legislators

5. Put women on the front line of law enforcement

6. Train judges and monitor decisions

7. Increase women’s access to courts and truth commissions in conflict and post-conflict contexts.

8. Implement gender-responsive reparations programmes

9. Invest in women’s access to justice

10. Put gender equality at the heart of the Millennium Development Goals

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Risks women share, more and less

What is the basis for women’s global unity?

The other day I discounted the idea — expressed in the myth of women owning less than one percent of all property in the world — that women share a universal propertylessness. “If global feminist unity is to be had,” I said. “It won’t be built on a shared poverty experience.” One person commenting on the Huffington Post retorted: “The shared experience of women is patriarchy.” And she challenged me to produce a “gift-wrapped statistic that might make people think twice about gender inequality.”

I don’t have it. But for discussion, consider maternal mortality. I have previously shared the worldwide trend (except in the U.S.) toward reducing maternal mortality — the deaths of women related to pregnancy and childbirth. For every 10,000 live births in the world, 260 mothers still die.

This isn’t a risk all women face, since many have no pregnancies or births, but it’s something that is unique to women (more so even than rape). It is at least a potential risk women have in common.

In reality, however, the risk is so unevenly distributed as to virtually undermine its universality. In Sub-Saharan Africa, among all women, one out of every 31 women is estimated to die from maternal causes; in Western Europe that number is one-in-8,800. That is partly because African women have more children, and partly because they are more likely to die during each pregnancy or birth.

Those numbers are from a new data sheet published by the Population Reference Bureau. They estimated the lifetime chance that a given woman would die from maternal causes (factoring in both birth rates and risks of death). I’ve converted those to deaths per 10,000 women, by world region:

As is the case with wealth, statistically anyway, the women of the richest countries have more in common with their male peers than they do with the women at the bottom of the scale. So this isn’t the gift-wrapped statistic for global feminist unity based on shared personal risks. But do people need to experience the same hardships in order to unite against them?

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Hunger in the human family

Give or take, a billion people are undernourished (on Earth, which is as far as the data extend). It’s been a very rough couple of years for world hunger, but the UN estimates that 2010 is looking a little better than last year.

In the U.S., the situation is much better. There are 42 million people receiving food stamps — or 14% of the population — but at least they’re getting food stamps. Poverty and malnutrition here take a toll on a smaller scale — easy to say, of course, from a big-numbers point of view. If the UN says only 19 million people in the rich countries are seriously undernourished on account of poverty, here the issue is less total nutrition and more food security and proper, safe nutrition.

According to the American Dietetic Association, 15% of households, or 49 million people, experienced food insecurity at some time during 2008 — which represents a dramatic 32% spike from 2007, after eight years of relative stability, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. The problem is concentrated most among the poor, single parents, and Black and Latino families, who all had higher-than-average insecurity rates:

Source: My graph from American Dietetic Association. Food insecurity is defined as: “Limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.”

In the U.S., children whose families suffer from food insecurity have more health problems, but also lower academic achievement as well as psychological and behavioral problems. Food insecurity has pernicious effects on health for adults as well. Even controlling for age, gender, race, educational attainment, and income — and limiting the analysis to adults below the poverty line — those experiencing food insecurity are more likely to have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. According to the NEJM article, this is how it might work:

Finally, we need to remember that families are not individual actors, but groups of people tied together in complex an unequal ways. Like money, power, and violence, food itself is unequally distributed within families. This has mostly been the subject of studies in poor countries, where economic pressure comes down harder on some family members more than others — sometimes to the benefit of men, sometimes male children. But even in the U.S., where hunger is much less prevalent, recent evidence suggests children are less likely to suffer food insecurity when mothers, rather than fathers, control the family budget.

Inequality, global and local.

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