Two parts of this interview with Obama economic adviser Betsey Stevensen stood out to me. I’m just surprised to hear such straightforward social science from someone in such a powerful position.
This, on marriage and poverty:
What’s your reaction when you hear conservatives talk about marriage as a poverty reduction tool?
My research found that actually, if you want to increase marriage, you need to increase the minimum wage and strengthen the middle class so that people can enjoy the fruits of marriage from those more comfortable positions. I do think that conservatives don’t understand that the dynamics of marriage have changed in such a way that income supports marriage, rather than the marriage supporting having a higher income or supporting getting people out of poverty. There’s also the fact that they seem to really believe that if you push young people to marriage you can alleviate poverty, but then you see enormously high divorce rates, which actually makes things even worse because divorce is very expensive. The big differences in divorce come from, if you’re a 20-year-old high school dropout, you have [approximately] a 60% chance of divorcing within 10 years of marriage, but if you’re a 35-year-old with a college degree, you have [approximately] a 5% chance of divorcing. If what you think is that marriage is important for having a strong middle class, what you do is actually encourage people to wait before settling down.
The conservative view is, we should smush you together, then you’ll have more money, then there’ll be less tension. But actually, when you get two people making $7.25, there’s a lot of tension because you’re both still struggling. That tension leads to family conflict.
And this, on the gender wage gap:
Every time the president comes out and says, women should have equal pay for equal work, you have folks, including economists, come out and say, that’s a misleading number, that’s not for the same job, that’s year-round full-time wages, and a big part of it is women’s choices. What’s your response to that, and what’s a good way to understand these numbers?
When people come out and say that’s not a fair number, well, what really is a fair number? You brought up “women’s choices.” Well, some women’s choices come about because they’re being discriminated against. Some of women’s choices come because they experience sexism. Some of women’s choices come because they are disproportionately balancing the needs of work and family. Which of these choices should we consider legitimate choices, and which of them should we consider things that we have a societal obligation to try to mitigate, to alleviate some of these constraints so that they can make different choices? A lot of people will say things like, let’s control for occupational choices. But the research is showing us that women are choosing occupations which penalize them the least for taking time out of work.
If there was less discrimination, if there was more flexibility in work, you wouldn’t see women necessarily choosing the same occupations. So why should I take the wage gap holding occupation constant? If we change society, we reduce discrimination, we’re not going to hold occupational choice constant – women are going to choose different occupations.
I agree that the 77 cents on the dollar is not all due to discrimination. No one is trying to say that it is. But you have to point to some number in order for people to understand the facts. And what it represents is the fact that women on average are put in situations every day that for a variety of reasons mean they earn less. Much of what we need to do to close that gap is to change the constraints that women face. And there are things we haven’t tried.
I wouldn’t expect Obama to say things like this, but I’m impressed that someone in his near proximity would.