Anecdotal Evidence – One More Time

June 14, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Anecdotal evidence seems more convincing, I tell my students in Week One, but if you want to find out general truths, you need systematic evidence.  The New York Times today provides my example for next semester.

The Times had run an op-ed  last week about only children. The author, Lauren Sandler, referred to results from “hundreds of studies” showing that only children are generally no different from those with siblings on variables like “leadership, maturity, extroversion, social participation, popularity, generosity, cooperativeness, flexibility, emotional stability, contentment.” Nor were they more self-involved or lonelier.  And they score higher on measures of intelligence and achievement.   

Today, the Times printed a letter challenging these conclusions.  
 Another problem with these studies is that they put families in boxes: the only-child box, the divorced-parent box, the single-mother box — all of which I am in. They oversimplify family situations. I have seen the offspring of single divorced mothers grow up happy and successful, and I have seen children of two-parent families turn out disastrously.

Regarding the precocity of only children, my granddaughter at 2, like Ms. Sandler's daughter, could tell the difference between the crayon colors magenta and pink, and she is not an only child. So much for boxes.
Or as a student will usually ask, “But doesn’t it depend on the individual?”

Yes, I say.  But scientific generalizations do not apply 100% to everyone in that box.  Are men taller than women?  Are smokers less healthy than non-smokers?   Of course. Yes, there’s Maria Sharapova and the WNBA, and there are no doubt thousand of pack-a-day octogenarians.  Does that mean we should throw categories (i.e., boxes)  like Sex and Smoking in the trash?

As the letter writer says, categories simplify. They overlook differences. But categories are inevitable. Pineapple is a category. We know that not all pineapples are alike, and yet we talk about pineapples.  And men.  And smokers. And divorced mothers and only children.

I’m not surprised that my students – 18-year old freshmen or transfers from the community colleges – need this brief reminder. But the New York Times?

In any case, the concern over the problems of only children seems to be fading, though I'm not sure how to interpret that.  The Google n-grams graph of the phrase in books looks like this: 

The first decline in the phrase only children runs parallel to the baby boom (though it starts a few years earlier) and the burgeoning of multi-child families.  But the second decline comes in a period when multi-child families are decreasing.  Perhaps there is less concern because single-child families have become frequent rather than freakish. 

Pittsburgh - My Hometahn

June 10, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston
from Amtrak’s Pennsylvanian eastbound, somewhere near Horseshoe Curve.

The cab driver, a Black man in his forties, had a perfect Pittsburgh accent.  On the short drive from the train station to our hotel near Pitt, he talked about the transformation of the “Sahth Side” – the once industrial area just south of the Monongehela. I cannot describe in writing the other linguistic tipoffs – I’m not a linguist, and even if I were, most readers could not decipher those phonetic cryptograms – but I knew I was home.

The man who hooked up the refrigerator in our room and who was as surprised as I was that we couldn’t get the Penguins game (the TV in the bar downstairs had it) – he too was African American and spoke Pittsburghese. 

I take it as a hopeful sign of more general integration – geographic, social, economic. It bothers me when I hear a stereotypically “Black” accent rather than the regional one, not because I don’t like the sound of it, but because it tells me that even after many generations, kids are still growing up in a segregated world.

I know that a handful of brief conversations, and even the several interracial couples we saw at the arts festival in Point Park (or the interracial couple here in the train’s café car) are hardly conclusive evidence.  Still, I was surprised to find that Pittsburgh is among the twenty most segregated metro areas in the country.  On a black-white “dissimilarity” index, the Pittsburgh area scores 63.6.  (A score above 60 is considered “high.”  Chicago, New York, Newark, Milwaukee, and Detroit all have scores above 75.)

Eric Fisher has mapped the 2010 census data.  Here, for example, is the New York area.  (Red dots are Whites, blue Black, orange Hispanic, green Asian.  Maps of many other cities are on Fisher’s Flikr page.) 

(Click on a map for a larger view.)

The shadings – more dots indicating more people – show density as well.  The white rectangle of Central Park is bordered by the high-density White areas of the Upper East and Upper West Sides and the high-density Black area, Harlem, to the north.

This is what Pittsburgh looks like.  (For those not familiar with the local geography, the lazy-Y shape in white represents the three rivers.)

African Americans are now 8% of the population, largely clustered in two areas.  Some have moved to the towns just to the east, like Monroeville, where the cab driver hails from.  But the suburbs of the South Hills (where I grew up) and North Hills, are still predominantly white.

The overall density is much lower than that of New York. Like many US cities, Pittsburgh was transformed by the suburbanization that began in the 1950s – transformed from a city into a “metro area.” After 6 p.m., downtown (“dahntahn”) is a ghost town. The outward migration began not as  “White flight” – Whites being driven from the city by fear of Blacks – but as a response to the pull of the suburbs, with government programs for housing and highway sweetening the deal.

But for decades, African Americans were excluded from that process.  In the 1950s and 60s, in the suburb where I grew up, there were no known Negroes (it was said that there were a handful of families that were “passing”).  Nobody would sell or rent to Blacks.  Even after the civil rights laws, change was slow.  Stateways can nudge folkways along, but it takes persistent work. 

Graphing Grade Inflation

June 5, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

I have little talent in the visual arts.  But since I started doing this blog, and especially when Sociological Images started using some of my posts, I’ve become more sensitive to graphs. and the visual presentation of quantitative data.  In the old days, when I had trouble deciphering a graph, I blamed my own visual limitations.  Now, I think about how the graph might be improved. 

A couple of days on a campus listserv, someone posted this graph to illustrate grade inflation.

The first comment on this began, “If I understand the chart correctly . . .”  Exactly.  The chart is hard to understand. When you are trying to show changes over time, lines flowing from left to right imply that time sequence, so this graphs makes it seem as though F’s were changing to D’s and then to C’s, and so on.  When I wanted to know how the percentage of B’s had changed over the three time-points, I had to keep looking at the legend to see which color dot represented each year.

Was there a better way to graph the 30 data points?  This is what I came up with.

I thought it was better.  But the first comment on it said, “I like the earlier one and actually find it easier to make comparisons across institutions.” 

Tax Expenditures

June 3, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston
We got another reminder last week that despite complaints about federal government programs that give money to the poor, when it comes to taxes, the government is much more generous to the wealthy.

The news came in a report  from the Congressional Budget Office:

The Distribution of Major Tax Expenditures
in the Individual Income Tax System

Tax expenditures are ways that the government uses the tax system to give money to people. Some expenditures are tax credits, which can take the form of cash payments.  Others are tax breaks – giving people a discount on their income tax.  For example, if I am in the 35% tax bracket, but the government charges me only 15% on the $100,000 I made playing the stock market, the government is giving me $20,000 it could otherwise have had me pay in taxes. That’s an expense. The special rate I get on the money I made in the market costs the government $20,000.

This government largesse benefits some people more than others. 

(Click on a chart for a larger view.)

About half of all tax expenditures go to the top quintile.  The bottom 80% of earners divide the other half.  And within that richest quintile, the top 1% receive 15% of all tax expenditures (this distribution of tax breaks roughly parallels the distribution of income). Were you really expecting Sherwood Forest? 

Here is a breakdown of the costs of these different tax expenditures.

The Earned Income Tax Credit, which benefits mostly the poor, costs less than $40B.  The tab for the low tax on investment income (capital gains and dividends) is more than twice that, and nearly all of that goes to the top quintile.  More than two-thirds goes to the richest 1%.

Dylan Matthews at the WaPo WonkBlog (here) regraphed these numbers to show the total amounts overall plus the amounts in each category for each income group.

The justification for these expenditures is that they are a way the government can encourage people to do something that it wants them to do.  With tax breaks, the government is basically paying people by not charging them full tax fare – encouraging them to buy a house or give to charity or  get health insurance at their work.  Similarly with the tax credits that go mostly to the poor. We want people to hold a job and to care for their kids.  The child tax credit gives people more money to care for their children.  The Earned Income Tax Credit pays them for working, even at jobs that pay very little.  By the same logic, the government is paying me to invest my money in companies – or put another way, to play the stock market.