Tag Archives: iq

Policy, politics, and promoting education versus marriage

Here are three ideas I disagree with:

1. Most people aren’t smart enough to make going to college worth it.

Maybe the best-known purveyor of this idea is Charles Murray, who argued in his 2008 book Real Education (offshore bootlegged copy here) that the “consensus intellectual benchmark” for understanding real college-level material is an IQ of 115, which by definition is only 16% of the population — but probably only 10% are really, truly smart enough (and efforts to improve education at lower levels to prepare more people for college are futile, so don’t even think about spending more on education, because so many people are “born lazy“).

2. We’ve done so much for poor people, it’s time for them to do something for themselves.

This is clearly related to idea #1, insofar as the government spends billions of dollars educating people for college — and subsidizing the colleges they attend — who could instead just work hard and enjoy life in a job requiring less education. But it extends to all kinds of social welfare and anti-poverty programs, as illustrated by the exasperated people in the policy establishment from Brookings to Heritage.

3. Poor women should get married before they have children.

This idea is pervasive, as I’ve discussed many times under the single mothers tag, in response to people blaming single mothers for rising inequality, poverty, low upward mobility, and crime.

One response

Here I offer one response to these three ideas combined. It is possible to increase access to college education, which would increase stability and opportunity for poor people and their children.

In demography, there is a long-running debate over whether there is a biological limit to human longevity, and whether and how fast we may be approaching it. Regardless of the ultimate answer, so far it’s clear that projections based on an inevitable tapering off of increases in life expectancy have repeatedly proved wrong (here’s a review and a recent paper). The same might be said of college education. Here is the trend in 25-34 year-old U.S. civilians with at least a BA degree, from Census numbers:

college completion trends.xlsx

There was more talk about hitting the limits of college access 10 years ago, but even then it was increasing rapidly among women. Yes, we can and should improve college education. But I see nothing here to suggest a ceiling approaching. Still, people keep assuming that expanding education isn’t feasible.

For example, while Murray holds forth on the intelligence limitations among the poor, his colleague Brad Wilcox argues for a cultural press on those with less than a college degree:

They can go down the road of not having marriage as the keystone to their family formation, family life, or we can hold the line, if you will, and try to figure out creative strategies for strengthening marriage in this particular middle demographic in the United States.

In addition to upscaling their deficient values, however, couldn’t we also move them out of the less-than-college category altogether? Not so fast, says Wilcox in a recent interview:

On the education front, the U.S. spends a ton of money and devotes unparalleled attention to college. But the reality is that only one-third of adults, even today, will get a college degree, a B.A. or B.S. We can do a lot better in both funding and focusing on vocational education and apprenticeship training.

Really, America, be reasonable: Our “ton of money” is “unparalleled.” Don’t set your sights too high. Who do you think you are, anyway, Poland (college graduation rate: 53%), Ireland (46%), or Portugal (41%)? From OECD numbers:

college graduation rates OECD.xls

I know expanding college access (the real kind, not the for-profit kind) suggests expanding a broken financial aid system, and the economic returns aren’t guaranteed, but for my purposes it’s not just about getting a better job. People who go to college — and those who know they are going to go to college before they do — usually delay having children, not because some moralizing think tank tells them it’s wrong, but because they’re trying to rationally sequence their lives. Of course, married couples have relatively low poverty rates, but even for parents who aren’t married, higher education sure helps. From the American Community Survey via IPUMS.org:


Trying to get more poor people to get married is both offensive and useless. But increasing access to higher education is both uplifting and useful. The choice between early birth with low education and later birth with higher education is not hard to make, but unless it’s feasible — with a readily apparent, practical, path toward completion — there is no choice to make.

The increase in college education has already helped keep child poverty levels from rising as marriage rates have fallen. Among women old enough to have finished college (ages 22-44) the percentage of babies born to mothers with college degrees (married or not) has increased from 23% in 1990 to 35% in 2010. From the Current Population Survey via IPUMS.org:


Promoting marriage among the poor is a moralizing salve for the self-esteem — and anti-tax self-interest — of pious elites, with zero proven success in helping anybody poor. Promoting access to higher education is good policy and good politics.


Filed under In the news

If we could teach kids one thing

Is “self control” that thing?

The parenting advice pile in my blog reader is brimming over again. It’s a frustrating pile, which includes everything from marketing hucksters to well-intentioned ignorance and naive extension of reasonable ideas to unsupported generalizations. One recent article, however — which didn’t come through the parenting channels — offers a model of scientific method. It also reinforces some basic facts about inequality, and shows the limits of what we know.

Researchers Terrie Moffitt and colleagues, writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, traced a sample of children born in New Zealand in the early 1970s through age 32. Their study used a measure of “self control” from the first 10 years of life to see whether it was associated with health, wealth, and criminality by age 32.

By “self control” — the key concept in the study — they mean:

nine measures of childhood self-control [including] observational ratings of children’s lack of control, parent and teacher reports of impulsive aggression, and parent, teacher, and self reports of hyperactivity, lack of persistence, inattention, and impulsivity.

The study is observational, rather than experimental, in that they didn’t assign children to a self-control condition, but rather just observed how they turned out in relation to the self control they displayed. That means we can’t conclude the relationship is causal. There are lots of things about these kids and their lives that we don’t know, which could be hiding behind that self-control “effect.” (If we could get this idea alone to catch on with the parenting-advice-reading public, the social world would be a more relaxed place.)

Anyway, to me, three things stand out in their results:

  1. Self control does successfully predict health, wealth and criminality in the ways they expect. Kids with higher levels of self control do better on these measures later in life. And that holds with simple statistical controls for family socioeconomic status (low versus not low), and childhood IQ score (low versus not low).
  2. Family socioeconomic status (SES) is even more important. We already knew that, but it’s nice to be able to see that, even controlling for IQ and self control, SES is a key determinant of well being later in life.
  3. IQ scores in childhood are the least important, compared with SES and self control.

The authors are focused on self control, and their correlational evidence is quite strong, as seen in this key figure:

One more empirical point to reinforce: even though the science news was headlined “Don’t Take that Cookie!“, this article does not show that efforts to change children’s self control have beneficial effects. Although they do find that children whose self control improves over time are headed in a good direction, that improvement is not from the result of a measured intervention. So we really can’t say that working to improve self control makes a difference. Not that there’s anything wrong with it.

Finally, let me add one point on the philosophy of social science regarding studies like this. Neither this nor any other study of what makes children “turn out” a certain way speaks to absolute principles of well being — they are all socially situated in space and time. That is, there may be social contexts in which self control matters more, or less, than it did among New Zealanders born in 1972-73; the same holds for IQ scores and socioeconomic status.

As we should expect, today’s parents are concerned with what they can do to help their kids in the social here and now sweepstakes. But from a social point of view, we might just as concerned with how to reduce the well-being gaps between those with more versus less self control, IQ points and socioeconomic status as we are with how to get some kids more of these assets in order to help them get ahead. That’s our choice.


Filed under Research reports