Category Archives: In the news

‘Start a family’ started to mean ‘have children’ more recently than you think

Or more recently than I thought, anyway.

It looks like the phrase “start a family” started to mean “have children” (after marriage) sometime in the 1930s, and didn’t catch on till the 1940s or 1950s, which happens to be the most pro-natal period in U.S. history. Here’s the Google ngrams trend for the phrase as percentage of all three-word phrases in American English:

startfamngram

Searching the New York Times, I found the earliest uses applied to fish (1931) and plants (1936).

Twitter reader Daniel Parmer relayed a use from the Boston Globe on 8/9/1937, in which actress Merle Oberon said, “I hope to be married within the next two years and start a family. If not, I shall adopt a baby.”

Next appearance in the NYT was 11/22/1942, in a book review in which a man marries a woman and “brings her home to start a family.” After that it was 1948, in this 5/6/1948 description of those who would become baby boom families, describing a speech by Ewan Clague, the Commissioner of Labor Statistics, who is remembered for introducing statistics on women and families into Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. From NYT:

claguenyt

That NYT reference is interesting because it came shortly after the first use of “start a family” in the JSTOR database that unambiguously refers to having children, in a report published by Clague’s BLS:

Trends of Employment and Labor Turn-Over: Monthly Labor Review, Vol. 63, No. 2 (AUGUST 1946): …Of the 584,000 decline in the number of full-time Federal employees between June 1, 1945 and June 1, 1946, almost 75 percent has been in the women’s group. On June 1, 1946, there were only 60 percent as many women employed full time as on June 1, 1945. Men now constitute 70 percent of the total number of full-time workers, as compared with 61 percent a year previously. Although voluntary quits among women for personal reasons, such as to join a veteran husband or to start a family, have been numerous, information on the relative importance of these reasons as compared with involuntary lay-offs is not available…

It’s interesting that, although this appears to be a pro-natal shift, insisting on children before the definition of family is met, it also may have had a work-and-family implication of leaving the labor force. Maybe it reinforced the naturalness of women dropping out of paid work when they had children, something that was soon to emerge as a key battle ground in the gender revolution.

Note: Rose Malinowski Weingartner, a student in my graduate seminar last year, wrote a paper about this concept, which helped me think about this.

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Prince Charles and Princess Diana height situation explained

(With media updates)

They were the same height. More or less.

The most incredibly popular tweet of my life was this:

Many people, assuming I was making some kind of argument about sexism, complained that the tweet was a mountain towering over a molehill, that rules of photographic composition, philatelia, ergonomics, or royal succession somehow required the stamp to be composed this way. In response, I composed the new most incredibly popular tweet of my life:

By then it hit the international press, which apparently has had the same decimation of the reportorial workforce that we’ve had here, so they write articles about tweets where the only background information provided is from other tweets in the thread. So we got:

The last one had this awesome graphic:

stampmistake

The Italian service of Huffington Post even produced the definitive video record of the tweet. Anyways.

Actual facts

The actual facts are that we don’t know exactly how tall they were. Like with popular athletes, the biometric data we have about royalty should be considered suspiciously. At the time of their wedding, in July 1981, everyone saw that they were of similar height, and saw the stamp depicting his head above hers. In response, Buckingham Palace put out a statement announcing that he was an inch taller than her. It was reported in the Stamps column of the New York Times on July 26 like this:

stamp2

To me that seems like a Trumpian lie. “You say I was caught lying, but because of this other untruth my original lie is in essence true.” Making a taller person look even taller seems less egregious than reversing the height advantage. But I don’t know for sure.

The funny thing about resurrecting a 36-year-old scandal is it seems that, among those interested, half nod knowingly and say, “That always annoyed me!” and the other half say, “mind blown.” It’s not just memories, of course the milieu has changed; anger at “masculinity so fragile” that it requires trick photographs has replaced the routine acceptance of trick photography in the service of propriety. And of course the legacy of Diana as unhappy wife to unfaithful creep — and virtual saint — has changed the tone.

Anyway, I’m in the category of people who’ve been talking about this for years:

  • I first raised it in 2010, using the picture of the stamp and others as an example of the taller-man norm: “But the rigid adherence to this norm results in a daily, intimate interaction among almost all couples that reinforces the bigger-stronger/smaller-weaker gender dichotomy.”
  • In 2011, on Sociological Images, Lisa Wade said of the photos: “This effort to make Charles appear taller is a social commitment to the idea that men are taller and women shorter. When our own bodies, and our chosen mates, don’t follow this rule, sometimes we’ll go to great lengths to preserve the illusion.”
  • In 2013 I returned to the issue, this time with data showing that U.S. men and women sort themselves into couples that exacerbate the existing difference in average height between them.

height6

Finally, I included the stamp picture and the data analysis in my textbook, The Family, writing:

The taller husband conjures up images of the protective, dominant man (“Let me reach that for you”) with a nurturing, supportive wife (“Can I fix you a sandwich?”). To choose a high-profile example, such an image was apparent in many official photos of Britain’s Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Although Charles was actually 1 inch taller than Diana, he often looked shorter than her in candid pictures. But when they posed for portraits, he usually stood on a box or step, as in the picture for the stamp commemorating their royal wedding (Currie 1981). The idea of women as the weaker sex corresponds to the pattern of male domination in modern society, as symbolized by the muscular male athlete and the taller husband.

The reference there is to a news article that uncritically accepted the official heights reported by the authorities. People like to use Google and Wikipedia to find and debate the “official” heights, and to find photos that show them side by side. There may be no true answer.
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This who line of criticism eventually led me to the issue of actual fantasy, in the form of sexual dimorphism in animation. That’s a whole nother tag.

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More bad reporting on texting and driving, and new data

The New York Times‘ problem of misrepresenting the relationship between phones and traffic fatalities, which seems to have begun with Matt Richtel, has just gotten worse.

Richtel sells books on the fear of texting and driving (which, of course, is dangerous), and the website for his book still — despite my repeated entreaties, public and private — leads with the bad, false, unsourced Internet meme, that “the texting-while-driving epidemic continues to claim 11 teen lives per day.” (As a reporter, how could you sleep one night with that BS up under your name? Mind boggling.)

Anyway, the new entrant is David Leohnardt. At the heavy risk of jeopardizing future opportunities to publish on the Times op-ed page, I tweeted that his recent column included “one of the dumbest things I’ve ever read in the NYTimes.” Washington Post WonkBlog writer Jeff Guo pointed out Leonardt’s column, which claimed that, with regard to the recent spike in traffic deaths, “The only plausible cause is the texting, calling, watching, and posting that people now do while operating a large piece of machinery.” The column contained not a piece of evidence to support that claim (though there were some awful anecdotes), which is why I said it was dumb.

Which is too bad. But even though the spike in traffic deaths is concerning, reporting should not be wrong.

Early estimates from the National Safety Council (which uses a different method than the Federal NHTSA) show a 6% increase in traffic fatalities for 2016. Leonhardt, working really hard to make that absolutely as alarming as possible, produced this graph, showing percent change in fatalities over successive two year periods going back to 1980:

C6aFWA5U4AEzK8I

Because it’s hard to add up the pluses and minuses in your head, It would be really easy — really really easy — to look at Leonhardt’s chart and think fatalities are higher now than they were in 1980. But rather than pointing out that fatalities per person have fallen by half since 1980, he instead writes, “It’s the first significant rise in a half century,” which would be true except for the significant rise in every single decade of the last half century.

This is a lot like when Richtel described the 2015 rise as, “soaring at a rate not seen in 50 years.” Not that the rate was not seen in 50 years, of course, just that the soaring of the rate hadn’t been (or so the NYT Science Desk told me when I complained).

Adding 6% to the NHTSA numbers for 2015, I get the follow graph, showing the trends in deaths per person in the population, and deaths per mile traveled, as changes since 1970. (The deaths per mile haven’t been released for the whole year yet; click to enlarge.)

PercentWhite

That is a troubling spike, which takes us all the way back to 2009 fatality rates. We should make the roads safer, by using them less and using them more safely. But come on, NYTimes.

Read the whole, completely aggravating series, under the texting tag.

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Fertility trends and the myth of Millennials

The other day I showed trends in employment and marriage rates, and made the argument that the generational term “Millennial” and others are not useful: they are imposed before analyzing data and then trends are shoe-horned into the categories. When you look closely you see that the delineation of “generations” is arbitrary and usually wrong.

Here’s another example: fertility patterns. By the definition of “Millennial” used by Pew and others, the generation is supposed to have begun with those born after 1980. When you look at birth rates, however,  you see a dramatic disruption within that group, possibly triggered by the timing of the 2009 recession in their formative years.

I do this by using the American Community Survey, conducted annually from 2001 to 2015, which asks women if they have had a birth in the previous year. The samples are very large, with all the data points shown including at least 8,000 women and most including more than 60,000.

The figure below shows the birth rates by age for women across six five-year birth cohorts. The dots on each line mark the age at which the midpoint of each cohort reached 2009. The oldest three groups are supposed to be “Generation X.” The three youngest groups shown in yellow, blue, and green — those born 1980-84, 1985-89, and 1990-94 — are all Millennials according to the common myth. But look how their experience differs!

cohort birth rates ACS.xlsx

Most of the fertility effect on the recession was felt at young ages, as women postponed births. The oldest Millennial group was in their late twenties when the recession hit, and it appears their fertility was not dramatically affected. The 1985-89 group clearly took a big hit before rebounding. And the youngest group started their childbearing years under the burden of the economic crisis, and if that curve at 25 holds they will not recover. Within this arbitrarily-constructed “generation” is a great divergence of experience driven by the timing of the great recession within their early childbearing years.

You could collapse these these six arbitrary birth cohorts into two arbitrary “generations,” and you would see some of the difference I describe. I did that for you in the next figure, which is made from the same data. And you could make up some story about the character and personality of Millennials versus previous generations to fit that data, but you would be losing a lot of information to do that.

cohort birth rates ACS.xlsx

Of course, any categories reduce information — even single years of age — so that’s OK. The problem is when you treat the boundaries between categories as meaningful before you look at the data — in the absence of evidence that they are real with regard to the question at hand.

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8 years later: Children of the Deported Wonder, “Who Gets A Family?”

Huh. I published this essay, Children of the Deported Wonder, “Who Gets A Family?”, eight years ago today on Huffington Post. I invite you to draw your own conclusions.


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A picture I took of some kids.

Children of the Deported Wonder, “Who Gets A Family?”

Over the 10 years up to 2007, the U.S. deported 108,434 adults whose children were U.S. citizens, according to a Department of Homeland Security report [link updated]. The exact number of citizen children left behind in these deportations is unknown, because no one in the government cared to count them. The homeland security of these citizen children does not seem to have been the paramount concern of the U.S. government. Well, maybe excepting 13 of the removed adults, who were deported for “national security and related grounds.” (Altogether, about half were undocumented immigrants and half were deported for criminal violations.)

Either keeping your parents from being dumped over the border isn’t a right Americans enjoy, or someone in power doesn’t really think these kids are American. Or both.

The New York Times quoted an anti-immigration spokesman as saying, “Should those parents get off the hook just because their kids are put in a difficult position? . . . Children often suffer because of the mistakes of their parents.” As if this is unavoidable.

It is true that children suffer for the mistakes of their parents. They also suffer for the policies of their neighbors’ parents, and for the poverty and discrimination their parents experience. Most children lose out to those whose parents have one advantage or another, but the extent of this intergenerational transfer is something we can affect.

One measure of a society’s meritocracy is the level of advantage – and disadvantage – passed from parents to children. Whatever your own ability and effort, equal opportunity only exists to the extent that your parents’ problems are not your own.

If children get burned by their origins, adults also face unequal opportunities to originate the families they want. Just as deported immigrant workers are denied the right to parent their children, poor parents can’t get Medicaid to cover their infertility treatments – though it might pay for some Viagra. (Even without fertility coverage, economists worry that just providing prenatal care and other services to poor women might increase their tendency to have children. Now that would be a shame.)

Having a family – your family – is not a right of American citizenship, for parents or children. And in a society where intergenerational privilege and disadvantage are deeply entrenched, the denial of that right is a cornerstone of our system of inequality.

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How low is too low for divorce?

I have no idea, but I raised the possibility that there is a too low in this essay for Timeline.

I wrote:

We should ask whether falling divorce rates are always a good thing. Most people getting married would like to think they’ll stay together for the long haul, but what is the right amount of divorce for a society to have?

It seems like an odd question, but divorce really isn’t like crime. Less crime is inarguably good, but we do want some divorces. Otherwise it means people are stuck in bad marriages. If you have no divorce that means even abusive marriages can’t break up. If you have a moderate amount, it means pretty bad marriages can break up but people don’t treat it lightly.

When you put it that way, moderate sounds best. Even as we shouldn’t assume families are always falling apart more than they used to, we should consider the pros and cons of divorce, rather than insisting less is always better.

You can read the whole thing here. In addition to a picture of Donald and Ivana Trump, the piece features my figure:

divtrend

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Breaking: Trump has terrible judgment

Say what you want about his decrepit values, noxious personality, and authoritarian political views, but we should all be able to agree Trump has terrible judgment. Also that he doesn’t care about little people. And a lot of people who like him are deplorable.

This time, the story behind the story.

On Monday night Trump pulled himself away from MLK reverie long enough to notice that CNN was doing a show about his daughter, Ivanka. He saw someone praising her on Twitter and copied his message. He wrote:

djtgoodspine

The Daily News captured the original tweet, by Lawrence Goodstein (drgoodspine) revealing that Trump had lowercased “Great” and added a comma after it, but failed to notice that the good Dr. Goodstein got Ivanka’s Twitter handle wrong.

drgoodspine

Hilarity ensued, and the story focused on how the real @Ivanka responded by telling him to pay attention to climate change.

I haven’t seen any media focus on Goodstein, apparently because he deleted his account right away. But I happened to notice it in time, and screen-grabbed a few tweets. The point of my showing them is: Trump has no idea what he’s doing or how it affects real (little) people, and doesn’t care anyway. Secondarily, the guy is awful and any reasonable public figure would want nothing to do with him – at least as he represented himself on Twitter – and certainly wouldn’t give him a platform of millions on Twitter. (I didn’t notice how many followers Goodstein had, but I remember thinking it wasn’t many.)

I didn’t save all of his tweets, but I got a few that I considered representative, because it was immediately apparent that a lot of what he did on Twitter was call people assholes, including President Obama, “Norm” Chomsky, and a lot of journalists, often by juxtaposing their face with a picture of an asshole. Take a look (click to view individual images):

 

Who cares? I don’t care about Goodstein. He claims to have spent a year treating 9/11 victims in New York, and for all I know he’s a good chiropractor. So he loves Trump – not surprising given what an unpleasant person he seems to be. The point is about Trump’s bad behavior. Some Trump fans live for a retweet from the great Tiny Hands. Maybe Goodstein did, too. But he apparently wasn’t really prepared for that big of a spotlight to shine on his nasty asshole-screaming habit (or maybe he was fine with it and it was a Trump goon squad that made him shut it down to prevent embarrassment – to Trump.)

And who shouts to millions of people without the slightest consideration of the context and content of what they’re shouting? Trump has had worse tweets, and done many much worse things, but his platform is actually still growing, and the power he has is increasing. He should not treat individuals like this. Before he turns someone’s life inside out, someone should check it out. Can the person handle it? Do they want to? Obama has had some wonderful moments with random citizens, but I don’t think they started with him landing Marine 1 on their lawn with the press pool and no advance people.

Finally, there are potential security implications, obviously, when a president acts so impulsively. One thing to notice is that Goodstein’s handle, @drgoodspine, was snapped up by someone, and they now have a potentially damaging platform as well, as Trump’s tweet is still out there.

Anyway, I just wrote this to help keep the record of bad judgment complete, seeing that no one was reporting it.

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