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Haskins / Sawhill Moynihan Prize: The Family Inequality file

haskinssawhillmoynihanjpeg_16x9

Sawhill and Haskins (photo collage from Brookings)

The American Academy of Political and Social Science gives the Moynihan Prize each year to:

recognize social scientists and other leaders in the public arena who champion the use of informed judgment to advance the public good. The Moynihan Prize is intended to honor those who, like the late Senator, have promoted the use of sound analysis and social science research in policy-making, while contributing to the civility of public discourse and pursuing a bipartisan approach to society’s most pressing problems.

This year’s winners are Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill, longtime fellows at the Brookings Institution, specializing in poverty policy. Now that classes are over I’m going to head downtown to hear their speeches.

Both have appeared frequently on the pages of Family Inequality. Looking back at that record, I see that I’ve been pretty negative. Here are the highlights, in chronological order:

Four-out-of-five myths about America: During the economic crisis, Haskins and Sawhill say giving poor families more money is a mistake.

How many Black scholars does it take to have any Black scholars?: Haskins dismissal of Kathryn Edin’s research based on anecdotes from his personal experience annoys me. (Also, no Black scholars at a conference with a family inequality theme.)

Blame the poor, “We tried generosity and it just doesn’t work” edition: I accuse Haskins of spreading the “stupid and evil” meme that all the money we’ve spent on poor people didn’t “work” because we still have poverty.

A few ways Isabel Sawhill is wrong on single mothers: I argue that Sawhill misrepresents the research record as she reflects on the 50th anniversary of the Moynihan Report.

No, poverty is not a mysterious, unknowable, negative-spiral loop: I criticize Haskins (and the “consensus plan” to address poverty) for ignoring the obvious implications of the history of Social Security: when you give people money, they’re not poor anymore.

How about we stop moralizing and end child poverty tomorrow?: I object to Sawhill’s idea that poverty results from people having children before they are “financially or emotionally ready.”

US policy fails at reducing child poverty because it aims to fix the poor: I fault Haskins for his rosy view of welfare reform, and his view that “mothers on welfare, even those with young children, should be encouraged, cajoled, and, when necessary, forced to work.”

Delayed parenting and anti-poverty policy: While supporting greater access to reproductive healthcare, I raise doubts about the policy of deterring early births as an anti-poverty strategy.

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When the map says race but all you can talk about is fatherhood

Raj Chetty and colleagues have a new paper showing that “childhood environments play an important role in shaping gender gaps in adulthood.” Essentially, boys from poor or or single parents are doing worse. Also, this gender difference is greater in Black and poor places.

The tricky thing with this data, and I don’t blame Chetty et al. for this, although I would like them to say more about it, is that they don’t know the race of the children. The data are from tax records, which allow you to know the income and marital status of the parents, but not the race. But they know where they grew up. So if they have a strong effect of the racial composition of the county kids grow up in, but they don’t know the race of the kids, you have to figure a big part of that is race of the kids — and by “you” I mean someone who knows anything about America.

So here’s their map of the gender difference in employment rates associated with having poor parents:

chetmap

To help make the point, here is their list of local areas at the top and bottom of the map:

chettab

I hope that is enough to make the point for the demographically literate reader.

I credit them in this paper for at least using percent Black as a variable, which they oddly omitted from a previous analysis. This allows the careful reader to see that this is the most important local-area variable — which makes perfect sense because it is doing the work of the individual data, which doesn’t include race.

racechettyeffects

Wow!

It’s important that these examples are all about employment rates. We know that the penalty for being a Black man is especially large for employment, partly because of the direct effects of mass incarceration, but also because of discrimination, some of which is directly related to incarceration and the rest of which may be affected by its aura. This is not something we measure well. Our employment reporting system does not include prison records. Prisoners are excluded from the Current Population Survey, but then included when they are released. So they show up as jobless (mostly) men.

Whenever you see something about how race affects poor men, you have to think hard about what incarceration is doing there — we can’t just rely on the data in front of us and assume it’s telling the whole story, when we know there is a massive influence not captured in the data.

This is exactly what marriage promoters delight in doing. I give just one example, a blog post by the Brookings Institution’s Richard Reeves, which — amazingly, astoundingly, remarkably, disappointingly, not surprisingly — discusses the effect of growing up poor and “less-educated” in Baltimore (Baltimore!) without once mentioning race or incarceration. Instead, he goes right to this:

Wanted: Fathers

Of course, there is much more to being a man than money: in fact, to define masculinity in breadwinning terms alone is a fatal move. As Barack Obama said on Fathers’ Day seven years ago, fathers are “teachers and coaches. They are mentors and role models.” But as he also said, “too many fathers are missing—missing from too many lives and too many homes.” In its poorest neighborhoods, America faces a fathering deficit, one that will make it even harder for the boys of today to make it as men in the new world.

Fatherhood is important. You could investigate a fathering deficit, but if you really cared about it you want to look at in the context of well-known, massive causes of harm to Black boys in America, chief among them racism and mass incarceration.

 

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No, poverty is not a mysterious, unknowable, negative-spiral loop

I don’t have much to add on the “consensus plan” on poverty and mobility produced by the Brookings and American Enterprise institutes, referred to in their launch event as being on “different ends of the ideological spectrum” (can you imagine?). In addition to the report, you might consider the comments by Jeff Spross, Brad DeLong, or the three-part series by Matt Bruenig.

My comment is about the increasingly (to me) frustrating description of poverty as something beyond simple comprehension and unreachable by mortal policy. It’s just not. The whole child poverty problem, for example, amounts to $62 billion dollars per year. There are certainly important details to be worked out in how to eliminate it, but the basic idea is pretty clear — you give poor people money. We have plenty of it.

This was obvious yet amazingly not remarked upon in the first 40 minutes of the launch event (which is all I watched). In the opening presentation, by Ron Haskins — for whom I have a well-documented distaste — started with this simple chart of official poverty rates:

offpov-brookingsaei

He started with the blue line, poverty for elderly people, and said:

The blue line is probably the nation’s greatest success against poverty. It’s the elderly. And it basically has declined pretty much all the time. It has no relationship to the economy, and there is good research that shows that its cause at least 90% by Social Security. So, government did it, and so Social Security is the reason we’re able to be successful to reduce poverty among the elderly.

And then everyone proceeded to ignore the obvious implication of that: when you give people money, they aren’t poor anymore. The most unintentionally hilarious illustration of this was in the keynote (why?) address from David Brooks (who has definitely been working on relaxing lately, especially when it comes to preparing keynote puff-pieces). He said this, according to my unofficial transcript:

Poverty is a cloud problem and not a clock problem. This is a Karl Popper distinction. He said some problems are clock problems – you can take them apart into individual pieces and fix them. Some problems are cloud problems. You can’t take a cloud apart. It’s a dynamic system that is always interspersed. And Popper said we have a tendency to try to take cloud problems and turn them into clock problems, because it’s just easier for us to think about. But poverty is a cloud problem. … A problem like poverty is too complicated to be contained by any one political philosophy. … So we have to be humble, because it’s so gloomy and so complicated and so cloud-like.

The good news is that for all the complexity of poverty, and all the way it’s a cloud, it offers a political opportunity, especially in a polarized era, because it’s not an either/or issue. … Poverty is an and/and issue, because it takes a zillion things to address it, and some of those things are going to come from the left, and some are going to come from the right. … And if poverty is this mysterious, unknowable, negative spiral-loop that some people find themselves in, then surely the solution is to throw everything we think works at the problem simultaneously, and try in ways we will never understand, to have a positive virtuous cycle. And so there’s not a lot of tradeoffs, there’s just a lot of throwing stuff in. And social science, which is so prevalent in this report, is so valuable in proving what works, but ultimately it has to bow down to human realities – to psychology, to emotion, to reality, and to just the way an emergent system works.

Poverty is only a “mysterious, unknowable, negative spiral-loop” if you specifically ignore the lack of money that is its proximate cause. Sure, spend your whole life wondering about the mysteries of human variation — but could we agree to do that after taking care of people’s basic needs?

I wonder if poverty among the elderly once seemed like a weird, amorphous, confusing problem. I doubt it. But it probably would if we had assumed that the only way to solve elderly poverty was to get children to give their parents more money. Then we would have to worry about the market position of their children, the timing of their births, the complexity of their motivations and relationships, the vagaries of the market, and the folly of youth. Instead, we gave old people money. And now elderly poverty “has declined pretty much all the time” and “it has no relationship to the economy.”

Imagine that.

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Why it’s rotten to tell someone they’re poor because of when they had their kids

The “success sequence” is an idea from Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill at the Brookings Institution. They want to balance government investment and “personal responsibility” to reduce poverty. By personal responsibility, they mean adherence to what they call “the three norms”: complete high school, work full time, wait until you’re 21 and married to have children. If you do that — and smile while doing it — they’re willing to spot you a little welfare and some education.

I’ll describe it, and some criticism of the idea, then show a little data analysis.

Haskins and Sawhill claim to have analyzed data to show that when you follow all three of these norms, you have a 98% chance of not being poor. This is how they illustrate it (from this slideshow):

success-sequence-slideMatt Bruenig at Demos has an important post explaining how misleading — and wrong — this is. There are three main problems, briefly:

  1. The high school degree and full-time job is doing almost all of the work. With those two hurdles complete, you’re already down under 4% poverty. So the marriage stuff is mostly moralizing for political purposes.
  2. The data they used does not include the information necessary to see whether people were married when they had their children — it doesn’t have marital history. So they didn’t even do the analysis they said they did.
  3. Family complications mess this up badly. In particular, if a person (say, a man), has children with a partner and never lives with them, he shows up as having met the “norms” because the data don’t show him having any children — it’s a household survey, so absent parents aren’t parents in the data.

So if someone gives you the “success sequence” thing, just remember, the analysis is baloney, and the bottom line is decent full-time jobs are what keep people out of poverty (by the official poverty measure, of course).

Analysis

Anyway, I can go a little further using the American Community Survey, which includes data on the year of each person’s most recent marriage, and the number of times they’ve been married. So, limiting the data to first-time married parents, I can check the age of their oldest child and see whether it was born before they were married, and before the parent was age 21. Some of the above problems still apply, but this is something. And it enables me to underscore Bruenig’s point that step three of the success sequence is not pulling its weight.

(Note this analysis is just about the timing of births for people who are currently married. Single parents of course have higher poverty rates that you can’t attribute to the timing of their births without more information than the ACS has.)

Using the 2013 ACS provided by IPUMS, I took all married parents, living in their own households, age 18 or older, married for the first time, with a child under 18 in the household. Then I used the job norm (self or spouse full-time employed), the education norm (high school complete), and the parent norm in two parts (child born after marriage, child born after age 21), as well as other variables, to see their relative contribution to not being poor. The other variables were additional education (BA degree), race/ethnicity, age, sex, disability, and nativity

This figure shows the marginal effects. That is, how much does the chance of being in poverty change with each of these conditions, holding all the others constant at their means? Click to enlarge:

success sequence acs 2013.xlsx

If the oldest child in the family was born before the year of the parents’ marriage, the chance of being in poverty is increased by 0.4%. If the child was born before the parent was 21, the chance goes up by 0.6%. This seems reasonable to me, given the potential hardships associated with single and early parenthood. But compare: Not having a high school diploma increases the chance of poverty by 2.2%, and neither spouse having a full-time job increases the chance by 6.4%.

Remember, these are all effects holding constant everything else in the model. If you just look at the difference between those who fulfill the parenting “norm” and those who don’t, it’s much bigger. Among people with a full-time job in the family and a high school degree, the poverty rate is 2.8% for people whose oldest present child was born after they were married and 21, versus 9.1% for the people who let us all down on the childbearing norm. But that big difference is mostly because of education and race/ethnicity and disability, etc.

In short, this exposes how rotten it is to tell someone they are poor because of when they had their kids. A decent job and some education would mean a lot more than your sermon.

Code

Here is the IPUMS codebook for my download, and the Stata .do file for the analysis.

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