Category Archives: In the news

Why can’t the texting-panic establishment handle the truth?

Don’t drive distracted, okay? Now for some more updated facts. (Follow the whole series under the texting tag.)

The Diane Rehm show on NPR (Washington station WAMU) did another full episode on the perils of distracted driving. The extremely misleading title of the episode was, “Distracted Driving: What It Will Take To Lower Fatalities.”

The guests were researcher David Strayer; Jeff Larason, director of highway safety for Massachusetts; Joan Claybrook, former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; and Ben Leiberman, the co-founder of Distracted Operators Risk Casualties (DORCs), which is trying to develop the technology (and legislation) to allow police to scan phones at the scene of an accident to determine whether they were being used at the time of the crash.

I am pretty sure that every one of these guests knows that our roads are safer now than they have ever been, and that accident and fatality rates are at historic lows. And yet the entire conversation — without explicitly stating any trend facts — was conducted as if it is self-apparent that the problem is getting worse and worse. Several callers said they see more and more drivers on their phones; someone said one-in-four drivers is using a phone; someone said texting and driving is as dangerous as driving drunk. Maybe more and more people are using their phones while they drive, but that’s not making the roads less safe than they used to be.

Why can’t they handle the truth? Texting and other distractions are dangerous, and people shouldn’t do them — and the roads are getting safer over time. Here are the fatality trends for the last 20 years, from NHTSA:

mva-fatalities

In the last 20 years, fatalities per mile have fallen 38% and fatalities per person have fallen 34%. That doesn’t make texting and driving okay, okay? But it’s true.

Further, much was made in the conversation about the special risks posed by younger drivers, who are said to be less skilled and more distractable behind the wheel. This also highly misleading. A separate data series, maintained by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, has fatal accidents by the age of the driver going back to 1975. This shows that the steepest decline in fatal accidents has been among teenage drivers — a stunning 71% decline in fatal accidents per person in that age group since the peak in 1978. In fact, teen drivers are now involved in fewer fatal accidents per person than 20-34-year-olds:

fatbyage

I can understand that for advocates a story of continuously increasing peril is attractive. That doesn’t justify their refusal to speak facts, but it’s at least predictable. The guests all spoke of the need for more money to be devoted to the problem, more legislation, more awareness — all things that (no offense) pay their personal and professional bills.*

Less forgivable are the journalists who refuse to look seriously at the issue even as they devote inordinate amounts of time to it. This is a serious disservice, because the media-consuming public may want to seriously consider how to allocate resources to address different problems. Call me crazy, but knowing the facts seems important for this process. And in this case it’s not just that the facts are a little out of line with the narrative — they absolutely and dramatically contradict it.

Now for the fact you think I would be reluctant to mention: for the first time in two decades, the rate of property-damage-only accidents has increased for three years in a row. This may be a better measure of accident risk, because the fatality numbers could be partly driven by things like improved medical response time or auto safety devices. Still, property-only accidents per mile are down 21% since 1994 (while mobile phone subscriptions have risen more than 1200%).

proponly

That is an interesting turnaround, worth looking into. Unfortunately, I don’t have much confidence in the current crop of experts to offer a credible explanation for it.

* It’s no more surprising than academic professional association staff defending journal paywalls.

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Old people are getting older and younger

The Pew Research Center recently put out a report on the share of U.S. older women living alone. The main finding they reported was a reversal in the long trend toward old women living alone after 1990. After rising to a peak of 38% in 1990, the share of women age 65+ living alone fell to 32% by 2014. It’s a big turnaround. The report attributes it in part to the rising life expectancy of men, so fewer old women are widowed.

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The tricky thing about this is the changing age distribution of the old population (the Pew report breaks the group down into 65-84 versus 85+, but doesn’t dwell on the changing relative size of those two groups). Here’s an additional breakdown, from the same Census data Pew used (from IPUMS.org), showing percent living alone by age for women:

pewage1

Two things in this figure: the percent living alone is much lower for the 65-69s, and the decline in living alone is much sharper in the older women.

The age distribution in the 65+ population has changed in two ways: in the long run it’s getting older as life expectancy at old age increases. However, the Baby Boom (born 1946-1964) started hitting age 65 in 2010, resulting in a big wave of 65-69s pouring into the 65+ population. You can see both trends in the following figure, which shows the age distribution of the 65+ women (the lines sum to 100%). The representation of 80+ women has doubled since 1960, showing longer life expectancy, but look at that spike in the 65-69s!

pewage2

Given this change in the trends, you can see that the decrease in living alone in the 65+ population partly reflects greater representation of young-old women in the population. These women are less likely to live alone because they’re more likely to still be married.

On the other hand, why is there such a steep drop in living alone among 80+ women? Some of this is the decline in widowhood as men live longer. But it’s an uphill climb, because among this group there is no Baby Boom spike of young-olds (yet) — the 80+ population is still just getting older and older. Here’s the age distribution among 80+ women (these sum to 100 again):

pewage3

You can see the falling share of 80-84s as the population ages. If this is the group that is less likely to live alone the most because their husbands are living longer, that’s pretty impressive, because the group is aging fast. One boost the not-alones get is that they are increasingly likely to live in extended households — since 1990 there’s been a 5% increase in them living in households of at least 3 people, from 13% to 18%. Finally, at this age you also have to look at the share living in nursing homes (some of whom seem to be counted as living alone and some not).

In addition to the interesting gerentological questions this all raises, it’s a good reminder that the Baby Boom can have sudden effects on within-group age distributions (as I discussed previously in this post on changing White mortality patterns). Everyone should check their within-group distributions when assessing trends over time.

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I don’t give activists unsolicited advice, except: don’t talk to the police

I have previously criticized universities and news outlets for their handling of racism on and around campus (and sexual assault, too). But I’m not in the business of giving activists advice. So I’m speaking out of turn on one side point here, to recommend: don’t talk to the police. (Nothing personal.)

The campus police at UW have released body camera video of them escorting a student from class and arresting him for allegedly spray-painting anti-racist graffiti. (For critical commentary on this situation, here’s a statement from faculty at staff, including a bunch of sociologists; and a letter of support for students from the faculty and staff in Afro-American studies.) Several things are disturbing about this; I’d like to call attention to the conversation. Here’s the video, with my comment below:

(Other videos from the police department, showing other parts of their interactions, are here.)

I have no idea whether this man has broken any laws, and know nothing about his motivations. I’m also not against spray-painting statements in public spaces in all cases; it may be effective and justified, for example in this case at the University of North Carolina:

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Sometimes good people do illegal things, for good reasons, and we shouldn’t be surprised when activists get arrested for it. But that’s not relevant to this point, which is just that there is no good reason to talk to the police in a situation like this — at least no good legal reason (there may be good political or other reasons).

From the moment the cop says this (at 1:00), he’s lying continuously:

Alright, man, here’s what’s going on today. We have some information… Is it you, or is it somebody else, because I have information, I just want to get your side of the story…

This is such a generic statement that there’s no need to consider the facts of this situation. He does not want to get your side of the story, he wants to arrest you and make it easy for a prosecutor to get a conviction in his case. This is the clearest real-life example I can remember of this crucial lesson: don’t talk to the police. This is not unique to activists, everyone should know this.

If you aren’t one of the 6 million people who’s watched it already, I highly recommend the first 27 minutes of this video (especially if you, like many activists, are at heightened risk of arrest and prosecution).

Of course, standing up to a trained, armed, police officer who has done this many times is difficult, and I assume I would blow it (again), but I think the more you prepare yourself for the possibility the more likely you are to pull it off.

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US policy fails at reducing child poverty because it aims to fix the poor

If we want to help kids, it’s time to focus on money, not marriage.

[This piece was originally published by the Washington Post at Post Everything.]

From the first federal social welfare program for Civil War widows to Social Security and the 1960s War on Poverty, government support for poor families in the United States has attempted to enforce a moral hierarchy based on marriage: Widows got pensions they were considered to have earned, for example, while single mothers got shame and stigma for their moral misdeeds.

Since the 1960s, as marriage rates have fallen and women’s employment opportunities have improved, fewer and fewer women rely on husbands for their material needs. Now, the majority of children no longer depend primarily on the income of a married father. And yet, our policies to alleviate poverty still remain focused on correcting the behavior of poor people – especially their marital behavior – rather than addressing poverty itself.

The stated goal of the 1996 welfare reform law, for instance, was not to alleviate poverty but to encourage marriage and reduce single parenthood. The problem was seen as poor character rather than poor income, and the solution was imagined as a matter of replacing the dependency of so-called “deadbeat” parents on the state with dependency on a spouse. Those who insisted on remaining unmarried were singled out for special censure: In the words of one architect of the reform effort, Ron Haskins, “mothers on welfare, even those with young children, should be encouraged, cajoled, and, when necessary, forced to work.”   Today, many policymakers still want to impose conditions on families receiving food stamps and housing support, and as of 2015, marriage-promotion programs aimed at reducing poverty through matrimony had cost the federal government nearly a billion dollars.

One wonders if the money could have been better spent. There are about 6 million poor families with children in the United States — which means nearly 1 in 5 families with children in the wealthiest nation on the planet are living in poverty. My analysis of the latest federal data shows that, on average, these families’ income — including tax credits and all sources of welfare — is about $9,000 below the poverty line. That means ensuring no children grow up in poor households would cost $57 billion a year. (To put that in perspective, that’s how much money we’d get if Apple brought back the $200 billion it has stashed overseas, and paid just 29 percent tax on it – it’s a big problem, but it’s small compared to the wealth of our society.)

We know growing up poor is bad for kids. But instead of focusing on the money, U.S. anti-poverty policy often focuses on the perceived moral shortcomings of the poor themselves. We don’t try to address poverty directly, or alleviate it; we simply try to change the way poor people behave, especially poor parents. Specifically, we offer two choices to poor parents if they want to escape poverty: get a job, or get married. Not only does this approach not work, but it’s also a cruel punishment for children who cannot be held responsible for their parents’ decisions.

Policy that addresses poverty by punishing the poor for their perceived misdeeds plays on some popular misunderstandings, especially about marriage and parenting. Many non-poor people mistakenly believe that our lax attitude toward marriage is behind the child poverty problem. That’s why a Heritage Foundation claim that marriage reduces the chance of living in poverty by 82 percent has been a staple on the Republican campaign trail this season, and welfare money has been diverted from alleviating poverty to promoting marriage among the poor.

Yes, the children of single parents face steeper odds of success than their fellow citizens whose parents are happily married. Many single parents – the vast majority of whom are women – experience chronic shortages of money, time and social support. Their children are less likely to be closely supervised, to be well prepared for kindergarten, to graduate high school, and to make it through young adulthood free from entanglements with the criminal justice system. The intuitive case for more marriage is easy to see.

How then, as the share of children born to unmarried mothers has risen from just 1-in-20 in 1960 to 8-in-20 today, is it possible that child poverty has fallen, educational attainment has risen, and (at least since the 1990s) crime rates have fallen dramatically There are two answers.

First, single parenthood doesn’t just cause these social ailments, it also reflects them. Some of these problems are merely the consequence of whatever caused their parents to be single in the first place: poverty, illness, incarceration, weak relationship skills, and so on. In other words, successful people are more likely to raise successful children and to have successful marriages. Research on marriage among poor Americans clearly shows that the majority want to be married, but they aren’t for a variety of reasons related to their poverty. Faced with poor prospects in a marriage partner, some women reason, “I can do bad by myself,” as reported in the book “Promises I Can Keep,” by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas. Some couples place marriage on a pedestal, and plan to postpone it until they are financially stable. As one young man with a pregnant girlfriend put it, “I’d rather get engaged for two years, save money, get a house, make sure … the baby’s got a bedroom.” For too many, however, that moment never arrives.

Poverty clearly lowers the chance of a successful marriage, even as being single may make it harder to escape poverty. This pattern is the subject of a long-running debate among social scientists. Although we can’t agree on the exact breakdown of cause and effect, any reasonable researcher will concede it runs both ways.

But the second answer is perhaps more important for today’s poverty debates. It is that the number of single-parent families doesn’t drive the poverty rate – rather, it mostly helps determine which families and children will be poor, not how many will be. How many people live in poverty is largely the outcome of our policy choices, about jobs and wages, and support for poor families. Akey study compared poverty rates and family structure in 18 countries, finding that the United States had the highest rate of poverty among single-mother families – more than 40 percent, compared with 5 or 10 percent in the Nordic countries. No country had as large a difference in poverty rates between single mothers and the rest of the population as the United States  – that’s our unique penalty for single parenthood.

So how could we actually do it? A new report from the Century Foundation – by the respected poverty scholars Irwin Garfinkel, David Harris, Jane Waldfogel and Christopher Wimer – lays out some of the options. They take two approaches, expanding the current child tax credit (CTC), or joining much of the rich world in using a child allowance that gives families with children cash without conditions.

Our current tax policy (principally the CTC and the Earned Income Tax Credit) reduces child poverty to the shameful 17 percent it is from the catastrophic 24 percent it would be otherwise. The problem with these credits is that they only help people with jobs, leaving those who can’t work – which is most of the poorest families – without assistance. They mostly aren’t working because they don’t have valuable skills, have health problems, or can’t manage a job (or jobs) while caring for their families. Yet you need a job to claim the CTC, on the cruel logic that the government doesn’t want to “disincentivize” work. The current CTC costs about $50 billion per year but does almost nothing to help the very poor, because coercing or cajoling them into getting a job is useless. So we have 3.4 million children living in “deep poverty,” in families with incomes less than half of what the government says they need (again, after accounting for all government benefits).

On the other hand, a universal child allowance could help everyone, and it might be more popular since middle-class voters would get a check, too. Although you end up giving non-poor people money they don’t really need (some of which you could tax back), this is better than the tax credits because it more efficiently reaches the poorest families. Using a child allowance, the report says we could cut child poverty in half, and reduce deep poverty by two-thirds – for about $200 billion per year. That seems like a lot – it is, after all, about one-eighth of what the Pentagon has spent on Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq* – but wouldn’t you sleep better at night knowing your poorer neighbors were sleeping better at night?
What about those pro-marriage policies? In short, they have failed; despite more than a billion dollars, marriage promotion programs have produced no increase in marriage. Furthermore, just as our tax policy doesn’t help people who can’t work, marriage doesn’t help people who can’t marry workers capable of supporting them and their children. A child allowance would provide an income floor for those who aren’t married (they’ve been widowed or divorced, had abusive partners, have no one to marry – or, more rarely, don’t want to get married). And it would do so without coercing them into marriage or shaming them for being single, because all parents would get it, married or not.

Our social policy – especially in the post-1996 welfare reform era – says a spouse’s income is a good way to pay for children, and a job is a good way to pay for children, but government support is not. And the people behind our policy feel this so strongly that, rather than shape welfare policy to provide for the needs of children, they have crafted programs instead to pressure parents into either getting a job or getting married. And when neither of those is possible – or they are practically so undesirable that they may as well be impossible – then the suffering of the parent and her children is the cost of teaching that lesson to everyone else.

We know enough now to see that this approach doesn’t work: It doesn’t increase compliance with social norms on marriage and employment, and it doesn’t stop the scourge of child poverty. We can do better.

* Note: In the original I mistakenly described this as the annual Pentagon spending in that region. I have notified the Post of the error, which I regret.

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More on racist Trump supporters, and My 3Qs

It’s been hard for me to stay out of electoral politics debates lately (follow the elections tag if you’re having the same problem).

The latest is another piece with Sean McElwee in Salon. It again features my analysis of the ANES 2016 pilot survey, with Sean’s write-up, this time focusing on attitudes of White Trump supporters toward Blacks. The short answer is White Trump supporters stereotype Blacks more than other Republican or Democrat Whites, and people with self-described “cold” feelings toward Blacks are most likely to support Trump. The biggest difference was on answers to the question, “How well does the word ‘lazy’ describe most blacks?”

race figures.xlsx

This ANES data has lots of potential for addressing the pressing questions on a breaking-news basis. Whether it holds up (it’s an opt-in online survey) is yet to be seen, but I haven’t seen a reason to think it would be biased toward producing racist Trump supporters. So I think it’s worth doing. (I’ve also discovered that when you criticize Trump on a popular website like Salon, and have a Jewish name, you attract anti-Semitic Twitter.)

My 3 Qs

In other news, I did a short interview with Molly McNulty, the Council on Contemporary Families pubic affairs intern at Framingham State University.  It’s reprinted here from the CCF site on The Society Pages:

TSP readers likely appreciate Philip Cohen for his provocative blog, Family Inequality, which—based on a look at who retweets him—regularly has material valued by undergraduates, senior scholars, data nerds, policy wonks, and journalists alike. Cohen is a Council on Contemporary Families senior scholar and a professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland. His research focuses on the sociology of families, social demography, and social inequality. His family textbook, The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change, was published in 2014. Cohen gave me these useful answers to my “3q”:

Q: First, a challenge: What’s one single thing you “know” with certainty, after years of research into modern families?

PC: Family inequality is remarkably resilient, but when it changes it does so under the influence of external forces. When women’s opportunities increase (or men’s decrease), when public investment in education increases, when the legal environment changes when technology permits reductions in household labor, when policies lighten (or compensate) the load of caring labor — that’s when inequality within families shifts. There is a dialectic here, and micro-level interactions within families matter, but these external forces are in the historical driver’s seat.

Q: Give us the “Twitter” version of your current research—in 140 characters (give or take), what are you working on now?

PC: This is what I’m working on today, in 140 characters: The culture wars over family politics always return to gender difference itself; it’s what’s at stake when left & right fight over families.

Q: How would you encourage a scholar of family life to work to get their research into public life, affecting policy and challenging assumptions about “average families”?

PC: The public loves to argue about families. There are lots of opportunities to get your work out there and make it relevant. Unlike some areas of sociological research, if you’re working on families, almost everything has a potential angle — in fact, one of the challenges is to not oversell the implications of our research. There is also a lot of translational work to do — interpreting and explaining new data and research as it comes out, helping people figure out what to make of the latest findings in the context of what we already know rather than participating in the whipsaw advice machine that thrives on contradicting conventional wisdom. I recommend that junior scholars get involved with the Council on Contemporary Families, which helps organize and transmit new research responsibly and effectively, and to look for opportunities to publish popular pieces in online venues that encourage well-reasoned and empirically-grounding discussion and debate.

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Tell me why it’s not racist to oppose Black Oscar categories

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Good comedy is like sociology only better. Today’s edition: Race and gender.

In Chris Rock’s monologue at the Oscars, he said this:

Hey, if you want Black nominees every year, you need to just have Black categories. That’s what you need. You need to have Black categories.

You already do it with men and women. Think about it: There’s no real reason for there to be a man and a woman category in acting.

C’mon. There’s no reason. It’s not track and field.

You don’t have to separate ’em. You know, Robert De Niro’s never said, “I better slow this acting down, so Meryl Streep can catch up.”

No, not at all, man. If you want Black people every year at the Oscars, just have Black categories. Like Best Black Friend.

If you say, “Where does it end?”, then tell me why you don’t oppose the gender categories. Tell me why it’s not racist to leave the acting gender categories unquestioned but oppose race categories. Not making that argument, of course, just asking the question.

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When is the target a community?

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“LGBT Community Meeting” / Flickr Creative Commons: https://flic.kr/p/iUDb4t

I credit Hillary Clinton for sticking up for the LGBT community. But I always get stuck on the way she puts it. The other day she said:

“If we broke up the big banks tomorrow,” Mrs. Clinton asked the audience of black, white and Hispanic union members, “would that end racism? Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community?”

(It’s funny that the audience in that sentence has race, ethnicity, and union status, but not gender or sexuality. But anyway.) At the debate last week she said:

I think that a lot of what we have to overcome to break down the barriers that are holding people back, whether it’s poison in the water of the children of Flint, or whether it’s the poor miners who are being left out and left behind in coal country, or whether it is any other American today who feels somehow put down and oppressed by racism, by sexism, by discrimination against the LGBT community, against the kind of efforts that need to be made to root out all of these barriers, that is what I want to take on.

Two issues. First, she’s got no ism-word to use for this, because I guess she doesn’t want to use heterosexism, which I understand. But I don’t really like using “community” this way. Because I think discrimination against people for their sexual identity, gender identity, or sexual orientation is a problem even if they’re not part of that community, or any community, actually. Second, racism and sexism are more than discrimination on the basis of race or sex. So the problem is also that discrimination is too narrow. (The ACLU also has “a long history of defending the LGBT community,” but the discrimination is often against individuals.)

Of course, a marginalized group has a different sense of community than a dominant group. For example, in Google page hits, “LGBT people” outnumbers “LGBT community” about 5-to-1, and it’s the same for “Black people” versus “Black community.” But the ratio of “White people” to “White community” is almost 50-to-1. Maybe dominant-group members are safe enough on their own. Anyway, community is good.

If you’re being very narrow or legal, you could (not to make this a campaign issue) do like the FeelTheBern page on LGBTQ rights, which refers to “the abolishment of all discriminatory laws pertaining to sexuality.” Bernie also likes to say “people have a right to love who they want, regardless of their gender,” but that’s just narrow in a different way.

It’s not simple, and the statement is important anyway, but I’m not voting for Hillary’s usage here.

Note: If this kind of thing interests you, I’m still happy to talk about homogamy.

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