Category Archives: Politics

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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Trump supporters don’t like Muslims

Sean McElwee and I have a piece on Salon about the relationship between hating Muslims and supporting Donald Trump. The empirical facts are that people who support Trump hold nasty stereotypes about Muslims, and dislike them, more even than the average Republican.

Sean did most of the writing, and I produced two of the figures. I hope you’ll read it (and check out Sean on Twitter if you like funny leftism). The data, the ANES 2016 Pilot Study, which was collected in January, is available free (with registration) here.  I put my code for these figures here; feel free to use it if you’re interested in the data (lots of good potential there).

Here are the two figures. The first shows the responses to the question of how well the word “violent” describes “most Muslims.” The Trump supporters are in gray, all Republicans are red, and Democrats are Blue.* Trump supporters have by far the nastiest views:

muslim and hispanic figures.xlsx

The second is from models predicting whether respondents support Trump, identifies as Republican, or identifies as Democrat, as a function of their feelings toward Muslims. In the models, hating Muslims increases the odds of being a Trump supporter or Republican, and lowers the odds of being a Democrat. The slopes for Trump and Republican are significantly different, meaning the nasty relationship is strongest for Trump support.

muslim and hispanic figures.xlsx

Here is the conclusion:

The explanation of Trump’s success is simple: The latent racism, xenophobia and other powerful social forces fostered by the right for decades have simply been extended by Trump to their next logical extreme. As racial scholar Ian Haney-Lopezwrites,

“[George W.] Bush was careful to cabin his remarks in terms of extremists and ‘a perverted visions of Islam,’ but the global terms in which he framed his analysis belied such fine distinctions.”

That is, Bush’s language “was operating more in the register of a dog whistle, a way to advance a basically racial message while still maintaining plausible deniability.” Even today, Bush is seen as more moderate on issues related to Islamophobia. But the aggressive domestic surveillance policies he pursued, and the rhetoric of the last few years indicate Islamophobia was ripe on the right. Trump is just the most successful politician to date at picking the fruit.

* We restricted Trump supporters to those who identified as Republican or independent, since everyone was asked to pick their favorite Republican and we didn’t think Democrats were likely to really support Trump.

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The one big thing that might doom Trump in November

Race, obviously.

The other day I wondered what issues offered potential for the left-side party to raid the right-side for some voters. But that’s abstract compared to this actual election. This is my thought on what happens if it comes down to Trump and Clinton.

John Cassidy at the New Yorker runs through some speculation about how Trump could win a general election. It seems to boil down to bringing in enough White working-class voters to win Rustbelt states that Obama won like Michigan (Obama +9.5%), Pennsylvania (Obama +5.2%), and Ohio (Obama +1.9%). Setting aside his prospects among Whites, I’m very skeptical he can win those states (or some others) with basically no Black and very few Latino votes.

To show the depth of ill will between Trump and African Americans, here are the feeling thermometer distributions from the 2016 ANES Pilot Study, taken in late January. People were asked to rate candidates from 0 (very cold, unfavorable) to 100 (very warm, favorable).

Lots of people hate Trump, but no group hates him like African Americans (other variables, like age and education, perform as expected, but nothing is as strong). Obama got something more than 90% of Black vote in 2012. It’s hard to see even 10% of Black voters going for Trump. Especially given Hillary Clinton as an opponent. She might not inspire the same turnout as Obama, but she’s very popular among Black voters. Here are her thermometers:

That Black Clinton thermometer is a basically a mirror-image of the one for Trump. The poor feeling toward Clinton among Whites is obviously a problem, but I still think Blacks and Hispanics can sink Trump.

For what it’s worth, the racial feeling seems mutual. ANES also asked the feeling thermometer about Blacks. Here are the White feelings toward Blacks, adjusted for age, gender, and education level — according to their feelings toward Trump:

The linear trend, which is highly significant, is about one-eighth of a point down on Blacks for every point up on Trump. That’s America for you – even though Trump is mostly going after immigrants and Muslims in this election, racism is always also about the Black-White thing.

(Follow the elections tag for the series.)

Disclaimer: I’m not a political polling expert, this isn’t real research and it hasn’t been reviewed, and I could be completely wrong.f

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How the left can win the general election

Of course, I have no idea how anyone can win any election, but that’s what this post is about anyway, and no one ever got clicks by admitting they aren’t sure. This is just a little election nervous energy, dedicated to David Brooks, who says “data driven” campaigns have been a fiasco. (Follow this series at the elections tag.)

With all this talk of political realignment, and the impending fracturing of the Republican Party, I was wondering how the parties might shake out if something serious really did happen. I struck me that the GOP establishment is really upset right now because the beast they have been cultivating (the racist, xenophobic, sexist, anti-gay, anti-science beast) is suddenly turning on them in way that threatens the things that really matter: keeping taxes and regulation from impeding their accumulation of wealth. As if what they really want is their mass of gullible voters back from Trump.

Anyway, I looked at the American National Election Studies 2016 pilot data, which asked 1,200 people a lot of attitude questions, as well as how they feel about the candidates. My question was, how are left and right divided now, and what might happen if things broke differently.

Breaking away

The results are all in the figures below. To make these I used Stata’s cluster kmeans command, which breaks a sample into the number of clusters you specify according to the distribution of means on the variables you list. Using math. This is nice for politics because it forces each person to choose a cluster, just like voting for a party. I used the feelings and issues you see in the top part of the figure to create the clusters, and then checked to see how the members of each cluster feel about the candidates. I ignored voter demographics, just taking into account their opinions. I used Excel’s conditional formatting to color-code from green to red (but check the coding because left and right don’t run the same way for each question — note if the item is “oppose” on a scale of 1-7, then 3 or less is “favor”).

The first figure is a two-cluster scheme. Every potential voter has to pick a party. In the two-party scheme a few major differences stand out. The left feels much better about scientists, gays and lesbians, and feminists. They are more interested in action on climate change, paid leave, equal pay for women, and big government generally. They favor affirmative action at universities and raising the minimum wage. They think legal immigration is good. Issues that don’t divide left and right so much are feelings about the police, free trade, and crime. The death penalty is not huge. The left’s favorite person is Sanders, but they like Clinton, too. They hate Trump. Here’s the first figure (click to enlarge):

The left here is only 45% of potential voters, so come November they need to raid the right somewhere – but where? To answer that I specified four clusters instead of two. This gives the left and right two center categories to fight over. Now the two left parties together sum to 45%, so for the left to win, I figure they need to find issues they can use to pull people away from the right, so I’m especially looking for big differences between the right and center-right. The good news for the left here is that the right is only 22%, so there is a lot of potential for poaching the center-right. In this figure, I highlighted a few key left-right divisions arbitrarily. Here’s the figure, with my comment below (click to enlarge):

Fortunately for the left, the right is blinded by their hatred of gays and lesbians and feminists. The center-right is much more tolerant, especially of gays and lesbians. So that seems like a good wedge. I say “tolerant” because the center-left isn’t really crazy about gays and lesbians or feminists, so going all the way to awesome in that area might be a turnoff to them.

The other good ones for the left are equal pay for women and legal immigration. The right hates them but everyone else is positive. Science is also good for the left, as the right doesn’t like scientists much, and the center-right is very into vaccination.

On the other hand, the center-right is very pro-police, so that may not be a winner for the left. The anti-police right isn’t coming all the way over, so it doesn’t help that they’re not pro-police. Also, affirmative action and the minimum wage aren’t good for pulling out the center-right. In general, the Chamber of Commerce type issues — climate change action, free trade, and big government, don’t help the left split the right much.

One caution is that the center left doesn’t like Clinton much — no better than they like Rubio, in fact. They are more positive about Sanders.

Obviously, how to work this into a campaign — with all the other issues that entails — is way beyond me. That’s why this is free.

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Looks like racist Southern Whites like Trump

We’ve been given lots of reasons people support Trump, like authoritarian attitudes and “the legitimate anger that many Americans feel about the course that the country has taken.” But it’s also racism, I’m pretty sure. Or at least racists.

It’s hard to measure racism – or even define exactly what we mean by racism. One way to approach it is racial salience, which is closely related to racism, and we can measure that with the proportion of the local population that is Black. (I reviewed a bunch of this research here.)

It’s also usually hard to get measures of just White behavior, which makes a Southern Republican primary perfect — they’re basically all White. This is also good because we’re trying to figure out what’s driving the Trump thing. In South Carolina, it looks like it was driven by the presence of Blacks and people born in South Carolina, and less urban populations.

In counties with less than 40% of the population born out of South Carolina — 33 of the 46 countries — there is a strong positive relationship between Trump vote share and population proportion Black. Here is the plot, with the high local-born counties in red:

Those red dots are the classic percent-Black racism pattern. Whites are more racist where there are more Blacks. Interesting in the case of Trump, because most of his overt racism is directed at immigrants and Muslims. But the regular anti-Black racists have been very apparent in his crowds, and in his endorsements.

I looked at the out-of-state share because of the outliers. That’s Horry County in the top left (site of Myrtle Beach) and Richland County at the bottom right (site of Columbia), two places with less of an old-school (i.e., rural slave plantation) feel. The rural thing is important, too, as larger counties voted less for Trump.

I’d love to see someone do this for the Super Tuesday states. The other variables you could use would be slave populations in 1850, or post-bellum lynchings.

Here it is in regression terms, with the 46 counties (ask me for the data and code):

trump-sc-black-gop-reg

Objection addendum:

This is just a descriptive analysis. And I probably only presented it because it fits so well with my prior assumptions – so that’s good or bad on my part, I guess. That said, I did it and posted it so I own it.

Someone on Facebook objected that I am obscuring the positive slope in the high out-of-state counties. In fact, if you exclude Horry County, you see a positive slope in those counties as well. As you would if you included all the counties together. That black line is not good because it’s so skewed by the outlier. However, the regression didn’t use the categorical breakdown of out-of-state population. There you can see the positive effect of proportion Black in all counties, but at high levels of out-of-state the model says proportion Black would turn negative – which is because of the Horry County outlier.

In fact, if you just drop Horry County, the interaction and out-of-state effects are no longer significant, it’s just proportion Black and population size! So, you could rephrase the conclusion as: more Trump votes where there is more Black population, and in smaller-population counties, and ignore the out-of-state thing. But I don’t know enough about South Carolina to know whether it’s justifiable to exclude Horry County that way. It’s one of the most populous counties (6% of the total).

Here is the chart with all the counties, dropping the out-of-state distinction. Still a nice positive relationship and a good racism story, but weaker:

trump-sc-black-gop2

And just to show how extreme the effect of the outlier is, here are just the high out-of-state counties, with and without Horry:

horry

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The vast majority of small campaign donors

In a February debate, Hillary Clinton said,  “I’m very proud of the fact that we have more than 750,000 donors, and the vast majority of them are giving small contributions.” This bugged me, because it’s misleading, like saying we don’t have a lot of inequality because only a tiny percentage of our people are filthy rich. But the opposite of that. You know what I mean.

I illustrate this with some data.

Please take this just as an illustration, not a definitive contribution analysis. I got the campaign contributor data for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders from the Federal Election Commission. I’m sure it’s all much more complicated than I understand, but this is a simple description. The files include individual donations, along with some details about each donor. From what I understand, the maximum personal contribution is $2700, and the minimum reporting requirement is $200. These files have people who gave less than $200 and more than $2700, but I deleted them since they’re not comprehensive. (First I combined the multiple contributions from single individuals.) This means I’m missing a huge amount of contributions, especially to Bernie, who is reported to have raised 72% of his money from people giving $200 or less (compared with 16% for Hillary), as of January. And of course this ignores the whole PAC issue, which is also huge. Even with those two factors hugely biased against what I’m showing, the distribution point here is obvious.

Here is the distribution of donors according to how much they gave. From this, Hillary can say most of her donors are small (though not nearly as much as Bernie’s). Click to enlarge:

Here is the distribution of contributions, according to how much the people who make them gave. From this Hillary must admit that the vast majority of her contributions come from people who gave the maximum allowed. Here Bernie’s small donors still manage to give 31%, even though they’re up against people giving 10-times as much.

Here’s the rundown of mean, median mode, for donations within this range:

Hillary: mean: $1355; median: $1000, mode: $2700

Bernie: mean: $535, median: $350, mode: $250

I prefer actual honesty, not literal honesty.

Anyway, while I’m in there, I may as well tabulate the most common occupations listed for donors to each candidate (again, in the $200-$2700 range only). These are the 25 most common for each, with the frequency. I combined a few obvious ones (like programmer and computer programmer), but otherwise didn’t do much to clean this up. I set the titles in italics when an occupation appears on one list but not the other. Click to enlarge:

Others do lots more with this stuff, obviously.

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Why I snarked on a 538 blog post (and I’m sorry)

Gaza. What does inequality have to do with it? (Photo by gloucester2gaza)

Gaza. What does inequality have to do with it? (Photo by gloucester2gaza)

The first thing that bugged me about this blog post by Jay Ulfelder at Five Thirty Eight was not the most important thing. The first thing I reacted to was that Ulfelder opened by asking whether “economic inequality causes political turmoil,” and then chastising, “Just because a belief is widely held, however, does not make it true,” before offering only evidence from economics studies. So I tweeted this obnoxious thing:

It was obnoxious, and I apologize. That response was part of my routine, defensive, complaining about how complex sociological work is neglected in favor of glib economics (e.g., here, here, here). But I do substantively object to the piece. If I had taken the time to figure out what really bugged me about it I could have sent a more constructive Tweet. Oh well, you never get a second chance to make a first snarky response.

What really bugged me is that the piece reduced this question of world-historic importance to a matter of microdata quality and measurement:

In fact, it’s still hard to establish with confidence whether and how economic inequality shapes political turmoil around the world. That’s largely because of the difficulty in measuring inequality…

Despite the slipperiness of “whether and how,”* Ulfelder’s point is definitely that we are “not there yet” on the question of “the belief that inequality causes political crises.” Still, maybe this is a case of trying to sell a narrow empirical piece as something bigger than it is — in which case it’s also a lesson in how people overreact when you do that.

I have to examine my own motives here, because this is one of those times when someone’s empirical claims threaten something that I don’t routinely subject to empirical testing. If there is an actual article of faith in my sociological worldview — and I would not really use the word faith to describe it, it’s more like a foundational understanding — it’s that inequality causes conflict, which causes social change. Ulfelder notes this is attributed partly to Marx, which is one reason why I and so many other sociologists hold it dear, but it’s also because it’s actually true. But that depends on what you mean by true, and here I think I disagree with Ulfelder, who writes:

With such incomplete and blurry information about the crucial quantities, why are so many of us so sure that economic inequality is a principal cause of political turmoil? Careful observation is one answer. Aristotle and Marx drew inferences about the destabilizing effects of inequality from their deep knowledge of the societies around them.

He never explains why this isn’t good enough, instead wandering into a critique of contemporary activist claims, based in part on an argument that “the seminal economic study” on the question is methodologically flawed (I’m sure it is).

This reducing of the question is too reductionist. I would be very interested to know whether within-country economic inequality, measured at the national level, if accurately measured, could help predict which countries would experience political turmoil, if that could be measured with a single indicator. But that’s not answering the question of whether inequality causes political turmoil — it’s one very narrow slice of that giant historical question, for which we have many sources of data and many affirmative answers.

Use a little of Marx’s “deep knowledge of societies” to consider, for example, the anti-colonial revolutions in many countries after 1945. Do you need to test a within-country economic inequality measure to know that such “turmoil” was one consequence of inequality? Of course, the timing and nature of those revolts is an interesting question to be addressed through research, but is such research asking whether inequality causes conflict?

What about slave revolts? What if someone found that harsher slavery regimes were not more likely to explode in revolt than those in which the slaves had enough food and water — would that tell you that inequality does not “cause” conflict? (Inequality causes conflict; that’s why they’re called slave revolts.)

Even, what about the civil rights movement, women’s movement, gay rights movement, or Black Lives Matter?

Does inequality cause conflict? Yes. Of course the relationship is not necessarily linear or simplistically univariate, which is the subject of lots of great sociology (and probably some minor work in other disciplines). But this is the kind of complex issue that data journalism nowadays loves to turn into yes-or-no, show-me-the-scatterplot short blog posts. I’ve done some of that myself, of course — and if I do it with something that’s a vital part of your analytical worldview, feel free to send me a snarky tweet about it.

* Nothing against this expression in general, it’s just slippery in this case because it might or might not be moving the goalposts from the opening question. 

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