A lovely day in the neighborhood.

Social scientists contend that the location in which a child grows up correlates with their adult fate.[1]  On the one hand, there is adult income.[2]  One experiment that ran from 1994 to 1998 offered people living in public housing the opportunity to enter a lottery.[3]  Winners in the lottery received vouchers to help pay the rent if they moved to other areas.  The children of lottery winners (if they moved early enough) far outpaced the children of losers in subsequent earnings.[4]

The sequential demolition of the vast Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago between 1995 and 1998 displaced both those who did want to move and those who did not want to move.  All had to go and all received housing vouchers.  Comparing those who moved—willingly or unwillingly—with those who remained behind, economists have found that a) those who moved were 9 percent more likely to be employed than those who remained behind; and b) they earned 16 percent more than those who remained behind.

Then there is life-span.[5]  Rich people have lived longer than poor people for quite a while.  At the start of this century the average billionaire lived 12 years longer than the average street-person.  Today the gap has widened to 15 years.  Social scientists (and, for all I know, anti-social scientists or just the John Frink, Jr.s of this world) have documented that there is a very uneven distribution of extra years among poor people.  The poor in some places live almost as long as the rich, but they die young in other places.  On average, poor men in New York City live for 79.5 years; poor men in Gary, Indiana live for only 74. 2 years.

The studies suggest that altering the habits and attitudes of poor people in the blighted areas could extend lives.  First of all, in the housing-voucher lottery, only one-fourth of the people who were offered the chance to join the lottery did so.  Those who did apply have been characterized as “particularly motivated to protect their children from the negative effects of a bad neighborhood.”  This means that three-quarters of the people offered the chance to join the lottery were not “particularly motivated to protect their children.”

Then, moving to a better neighborhood increased likelihood of being employed by only 9 percent.  That’s better than nothing, but it isn’t much of a bump.  Moving to a better neighborhood increased lifetime earnings by 16 percent.  How much is that in dollar figures?  It’s $45,000.  Spread over a possible 40 year working life, that’s $1,125 a year and about $0.55 per hour.  Is it worthwhile for a family to leave behind everyone they know, a “system” that they know how to navigate, for this kind of money?

Second, the rich live in healthier ways than do some poor people.  They eat better, they exercise more, they are less likely to be obese, they usually don’t smoke, and they are unlikely to use opiods.  Even demanding, stressful jobs don’t make them feel more stressed than do poor people.  Poor people often eat a poor diet, smoke, and don’t exercise (it’s hard running 5 miles if you’re a smoker). Diet propaganda, parenting education, anti-smoking campaigns, and adult exercise programs could make a big difference.

To an uncertain extent then, poverty is volitional, a choice.  See: Juan Williams.

[1] That raises a question: does the neighborhood itself cause this effect or do people with other characteristics and experiences just end up in certain kinds of neighborhoods?

[2] Given social class segregation, it isn’t readily apparent why this isn’t the same as saying that the social class in which a child grows up has a large effect on their adult income.  Maybe it’s just NewSpeak.

[3] Justin Wolfers, “Bad Neighborhoods Do More Harm Than We Thought,” NYT, 27 March 2016.

[4] However, another experiment found virtually no difference in outcomes between winners and losers.

[5] Neil Irwin and Quoctrung Bui, “Where the Poor Live in America May Help Determine Life Span,” NYT, 11 April 2016.


The Marriage Encouragement Act of 2017.

Back in the 1960s, the rough-around-the-edges, but “Harvard-trained” Daniel Moynihan argued that single-parenthood condemned an increasingly large share of the African-American community to poverty.[1]  Subsequently, Moynihan was tarred with the brush of working for Richard Nixon.  Still, the Clinton, Bush II, and Obama administrations all encouraged marriage.

Decades of social science research has shown that Moynihan was right to have worried.  Single-parent households are worse for children than are two-parent households.  Children raised in single-parent households are poorer than children in two-parent households; they more likely to engage in “risky” behavior; they are more likely to have “contact” with the police and the criminal justice system; and they are more likely to drop out of school before getting even a worthless diploma.  That in itself is an employment  death sentence.

So, should the government encourage poor people to get married?  My God, NO!  You’ll just get lots of kids born into poverty!  Oh, wait, we already have lots of kids born into poverty by “unwed”[2] mothers.  Currently, about 40 percent of mothers are unmarried and 20 percent of white children, 25 percent of Hispanic children, and 50 percent of African-American children live in a household headed by a single woman.

Eduardo Porter argues that efforts to promote marriage are a “waste of resources and time.”  In comparison with married couples, parents who have children outside of “holy deadlock” tend to have less education, worse-paying jobs, and more mental health problems.  Very often they guys are losers by any standard.  So, says Porter, these people “would have a tough time raising children in a healthy environment even if they stayed together.”

Beyond this, Porter has two points to make.  First, women get pregnant because they don’t understand that sex leads to pregnancy,[3] and because they don’t have access to contraceptives.  Second, trying to turn back the clock to some golden age makes less sense than trying to off-set the ill-effects of single-parenthood as it exists.

In a refreshing confession of the failures of typical liberal reforms, Porter frankly admits that “government has no clue how to” encourage couples to get married.  Still, he doesn’t shrink social engineering.  If women had easy access to “long term” contraception[4]; if unmarried co-habitation was socially acceptable; if the State paid more generous benefits to mothers, then s ingle-parenthood would be less catastrophic for the kids.

Some of this is puzzling.  First, Porter argues that fathers are often losers, but then argues that globalization and technological change have wiped out many blue-collar jobs that enabled these men to support families.  So, once upon a time these same men or men like then were functional fathers?  Second, he implies that being an unwed mother carries a social stigma in America.  Really?  Then why has the rate risen?  Third, Porter argues that women may not marry the fathers of their children because the men cannot provide for their families.  Or do they not marry because the State can provide better than can the men?

[1] Eduardo Porter, “Push Marriage?  Not for the Sake Of the Children,” NYT, 23 March 2016.

[2] “Unwed” mothers and “undocumented” immigrants.  Soon we’ll be referring to Donald Trump as “untactful.”

[3] Implicit in this argument is that 20-25 percent of white and Hispanic women don’t understand that sex can lead to pregnancy and that 50 percent of black women don’t understand that sex can lead to pregnancy.  Normally, this would result in a charge of racism.  However, Porter writes for the NYT, so—by definition—he isn’t saying anything racist.

[4] The rate of unmarried mothers has been rising, so at some point in the past unmarried birth rates were much lower.  Does this mean that one generation of mothers and fathers forgot to tell their own children that sex can lead to pregnancy?  Or did condoms just fall out of fashion?  Probably should look at STD rates.

Inequality 6.

Does economic inequality matter? Citing Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Neil Irwin argues that there is a “deepening consensus…that rising inequality of income and wealth is an important trend over the last two or three decades.”[1] Eduardo Porter regards these social ills as “an existential threat to the nation’s future.”[2] NB: Is he correct? However, a “trend” isn’t either a problem or a solution. It is just an observed movement. People assign meaning to trends. The meaning assigned reflects the ambitions, fears, and beliefs of the people doing the assignment.

What has caused the stagnation in most incomes? Since 1973 productivity growth in the American economy has slowed dramatically.[3] That is the principal cause of the stagnation in most incomes. According to the most-recent Economic Report of the President, the failure to maintain the productivity-growth of the pre-1973 period means that the average American family now earns $30,000 a year less than it would have earned. In contrast, the increase in income inequality over the same period accounts for $9,000 a year for the same family.[4]

Regardless of the causes of rising inequality, liberals see a correlation between rising inequality and social problems. The teen-age birth-rate in the United States is about seven times as high as in France. More than one in four children lives with a single parent. More than twenty percent of Americans live in poverty. Seven out of every thousand adults is in prison.[5] A child born to a white, college-educated, married woman has the same chance of survival as does a child born to a similarly-circumstanced woman in Europe. However, children born to non-white, poor, single women have a much greater chance of dying young. Mental illness is more common among poor people than among wealthy people. Between 2009 and 2013, 9 percent of people with incomes below the poverty level reported “serious psychological distress,” while only 1.2 percent of people earning more than $80,000 so reported.[6] NB: Hard to get ahead if you’re mentally ill. On the other hand, 91 percent of people below the poverty level did not report “serious psychological distress.” Why not? Shouldn’t you be all wrought-up over your miserable situation? “People in low-income households don’t live as long [as people in high income households].”[7] By one measure, where there is a great disparity in income, upper income people live almost two days longer for every one-point increase in income disparity. In places with high inequality, you can live eleven days less than in places with low economic inequality. “But what causes the drop in life expectancy is debatable.”

Why this social disaster in the midst of so much other success? The conservative argument offered by Charles Murray and others is that the welfare state itself undermined the character of its beneficiaries. The liberal argument offered by Eduardo Porter is that Americans have been guided by a shared disdain for collective solutions and the privileging of individual responsibility. Therefore, America had relied on continuing prosperity instead of a welfare state. When long-term economic troubles hit, many Americans plunged through the cob-web of a “safety net.”

[1] Neil Irwin, “Things Bernanke Should Blog About,” NYT, 31 March 2015.

[2] Eduardo Porter, “Income Inequality Is Costing The Nation on Social Issues,” NYT, 29 April 2015.

[3] Tyler Cowen, “It’s Not the Inequality; It’s the Immobility,” NYT, 5 April 2015.

[4] This suggests that the policy prescriptions of Bernie Sanders target the smaller source of Americans’ discontent.

[5] That is three times the rate of 1975.

[6] “Noted,” The Week, 12 June 2015, p. 16.

[7] Margot Sanger-Katz, “How Income Inequality Can Be Bad for Your Health,” NYT, 31 March 2015.

Inequality 5.

The community in which a person grows up exerts a big influence on his/her life-course. D’uh. Only now we have a big social science study to validate this common belief.[1] Growing up in a low-income black area reduces one’s chances of rising into the middle class, even if the person is white.

Some areas are dead-ends for low-income people. The old cotton South, Southern California, and much of the Rust Belt are bad places to be stuck.

Where are the places with the biggest positive impact on the earnings of low-income people? Places with lots of Scandinavians or Mormons: southern Minnesota, northern Iowa, Utah, adjacent parts of Wyoming, and southeastern Idaho. What distinguishes areas favorable to social mobility from places unfavorable to social mobility? The quality of the public schools, the share of two-parent families, the degree of social engagement by the community (functioning civic and religious groups), and the integration of different income groups in a single community.

Of course, the study may actually reveal the character of the people who go, as much as the character of the places to which those people go. Again, d’uh.         Children who moved from a low-income area to a higher-income area were later in life, less likely to become single parents, more likely to go to college, and earned more money. Moreover, the places where poor people cluster are full of poor people. The schools are poor, there is a lot of pathological behavior, and it isn’t very safe. Parents who move from a lower-income place to a better-income place do their children an immense service. Still, they have to pay a cost.

However, the study revealed several disparities. One is between older and younger siblings in the same families. The sooner a kid gets out, the better for their life prospects; the later a kid gets out, the worse for their life prospects. Getting a kid out before age 9 or 10 offers the best hope. Chances decline rapidly after that age. A second disparity is between the sexes. Low-income women who grow up in higher income areas earn about 25 percent more than low-income women who grow up in low-income areas. Low-income men who grow up in a higher-income area earn about 30 percent more than men who grow up in a low-income area. What was not reported was the comparative chances of being employed or unemployed.

The same study found that “commuting time has emerged as the single strongest factor in the odds of escaping poverty.”[2] The longer is the commute, the lower is the chance of improving one’s life. Basically, there aren’t any jobs in the places where poor people live. To get a job, someone has to travel. One of the big problems is that public transportation is not equally distributed across communities. In a lot of middle-class places, everyone has a car so no one cares about public transportation. If someone who is poor wants to live in one of these communities, they need to get a car. Aye, there’s the rub.

Still, what causes higher-income areas to be better than low-income areas? Sure, “they have more money.” Why do they have more money? Because they’ve always had more money, so they have better schools, two-parent families, and kids who go to college? Or because there is a culture that values marriage, family, education, and civic engagement? Which of these factors can be addressed by public policy? Which are matters of “personal responsibility”?

[1] David Leonhardt, Amanda Cox, and Claire Cain Miler, “Change of Address Offers A Pathway Out of Poverty,” NYT, 4 May 2015.

[2] Mikayla Bouchard, “Transportation Emerges As Key to Escaping Poverty,” NYT, 7 May 2015.