More Americans living on $2 a day

A sociologist finds more Americans suffering extreme poverty:

The number of U.S. residents who are struggling to survive on just $2 a day has more than doubled since 1996, placing 1.5 million households and 3 million children in this desperate economic situation. That’s according to “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America,” a book from publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt that will be released on Sept. 1…

“Most of us would say we would have trouble understanding how families in the county as rich as ours could live on so little,” said author Kathryn Edin, who spoke on a conference call to discuss the book, which she wrote with Luke Shaefer. Edin is the Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University. “These families, contrary to what many would expect, are workers, and their slide into poverty is a failure of the labor market and our safety net, as well as their own personal circumstances.”…

“Time and time again, we would constantly see people’s hours cut from week to week,” said Shaefer, associate professor of social work at University of Michigan. “Someone might have 30 hours one week, down to 15 the next and down to 5 after that. We saw people who would remain employed but were down to zero hours. This was incredibly common in this population.”…

Many of the families Edin and Shaefer interviewed saw themselves as workers, the researchers noted. Rather than the negative stereotype of the “welfare queen” created by President Ronald Reagan, the families that are suffering with less than $2 a day want to work and are using self-reliance to get by. That hasn’t stopped the stereotype from proliferating, even though Edin and Shaefer note that extreme poverty in America is an equal-opportunity affliction: It hurts single parents, married couples, white, blacks and Hispanics, as well as rural and urban families.

While this is a small percent of the American population (less than 2% based on the figures cited in this story), Edin is likely right: few Americans could imagine this level of poverty that they would tend to associate with developing countries. And these are often people willing to work but job opportunities are limited.

It will be interesting to see reactions to this. Because of the relatively small numbers as well as the relative powerlessness of poor groups, this could be easy to sweep under the rug. Yet, I would guess many Americans would want something to be done for the poorest members of society even if they vehemently disagree on the means by which to do this. (This article suggests not much is being done in any sector, from government to charities.) I hope I’m not overestimating the compassion of the American people…

Money’s Best Places to Live are pretty well-off

The top communities on Money‘s Best Places to Live 2015 are not the wealthiest suburbs but they are fairly wealthy compared to national incomes. Only 7 have median household incomes less than $70,000 (the lowest is $57k) and 17 have median household incomes over $100,000. The median household income for the entire United States? $53,046 (data from 2009-2013).

Money’s methodology contributed to having communities with these income levels. Among other factors that went into creating these rankings:

-“[excluded] places with a median family income less than 80% of the state average”

-“Eliminate places with a median family income of more than 210% of the state average or a median home price over $1 million. Rank the rest on factors including job growth, diversity, and ease of living, giving the most weight to economic opportunity, housing affordability, education, and safety.”

In other words, the methods ensured that these communities couldn’t be too poor or too wealthy. Yet, the above-average incomes in these communities are connected to all sorts of other factors: not just jobs but higher-paying jobs (likely white collar), the money available in the tax base, the education level of residents, the kinds of available housing, and so on.

Could the average American live in these communities? Perhaps there would be some cheaper housing (that is a factor in these rankings though it is primarily about cost and not about having apartments and smaller and/or older houses) and the median household income suggests half of residents in these communities are below the figures posted here. However, these rankings are geared toward people of higher social classes.

Patterns in college major by parent’s income

College students with parents with higher incomes study different subjects:

Once financial concerns have been covered by their parents, children have more latitude to study less pragmatic things in school. Kim Weeden, a sociologist at Cornell, looked at National Center for Education Statistics data for me after I asked her about this phenomenon, and her analysis revealed that, yes, the amount of money a college student’s parents make does correlate with what that person studies. Kids from lower-income families tend toward “useful” majors, such as computer science, math, and physics. Those whose parents make more money flock to history, English, and performing arts.

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/07/college-major-rich-families-liberal-arts/397439/
The explanation is fairly intuitive. “It’s … consistent with the claim that kids from higher-earning families can afford to choose less vocational or instrumental majors, because they have more of a buffer against the risk of un- or under-employment,” Weeden says. With average earnings for different types of degrees as well-publicized as they are—the difference in lifetime earnings among majors can be more than $3 million, one widely covered study found—it’s not hard to imagine a student deciding his or her academic path based on its expected payout. And it’s especially not hard to imagine poorer kids making this calculation out of necessity, while richer kids forgo that means-to-an-end thinking.

Another trend expressed in the data, Weeden notes, is that lower-income families and higher-income families tend to send their children to schools with different options for majors: Most of the priciest, top-tier schools don’t offer Law Enforcement as a major, for instance. There is also the possibility that children from higher-income families were more exposed to the sorts of art, music, and literature that colleges deem worthy of study, an exposure that might inspire them to pursue those subjects when they get to college…

From this angle, college majors and occupations start to look more and more like easily-interpreted, if slightly crude, badges doled out to people based on the wealth and educational levels of the parents they were born to. There’s a reason that the first question asked at parties is often “So, what do you do?” “If we tend to avoid asking acquaintances about their income,” four prominent sociologists wrote in the 2011 anthology The Inequality Reader, “it’s not just because doing so is viewed as too intrusive and personal but also because we suspect that querying about occupation will yield more in the way of useful information.”

Four quick thoughts:

1. Of course, what majors actually lead to what jobs is not as clear as people might make it out to be. Just because someone has a particular major doesn’t mean that is where they will be working in 10 or 20 years. At the same time, some majors might lend themselves to particular jobs right after college.

2. Outside of an associate’s degree, the majors with the lowest parent incomes (top of the chart) are helping professions. This might indicate a bigger interest in wanting to work with people or directly give back to the community. Reading uncharitably, do the majors with higher parent incomes lend themselves to a certain distance from people?

3. It is interesting that sociology, political science, and anthropology are higher up on the list of parent’s incomes. Students sometimes seem to suggest that these are luxury subjects – interesting perhaps (if they don’t think it is just common sense) but too difficult for finding a career.

4. This would all make sense in Bourdieu’s ideas about social class. Those with less economic capital tend to favor more functional items while those with more capital lean toward the abstract. Why should college major be exempt from the powerful organizing forces of social class?

Big differences in life expectancy across American counties due to income differences

Here is an update on the “longevity gap,” the differences in life expectancy, by county in the United States:

Fairfax County, Va., and McDowell County, W.Va., are separated by 350 miles, about a half-day’s drive. Traveling west from Fairfax County, the gated communities and bland architecture of military contractors give way to exurbs, then to farmland and eventually to McDowell’s coal mines and the forested slopes of the Appalachians. Perhaps the greatest distance between the two counties is this: Fairfax is a place of the haves, and McDowell of the have-nots. Just outside of Washington, fat government contracts and a growing technology sector buoy the median household income in Fairfax County up to $107,000, one of the highest in the nation. McDowell, with the decline of coal, has little in the way of industry. Unemployment is high. Drug abuse is rampant. Median household income is about one-fifth that of Fairfax.

One of the starkest consequences of that divide is seen in the life expectancies of the people there. Residents of Fairfax County are among the longest-lived in the country: Men have an average life expectancy of 82 years and women, 85, about the same as in Sweden. In McDowell, the averages are 64 and 73, about the same as in Iraq…

Since the 1980s, “socioeconomic status has become an even more important indicator of life expectancy.” That was the finding of a 2008 report by the Congressional Budget Office. But dollars in a bank account have never added a day to anyone’s life, researchers stress. Instead, those dollars are at work in a thousand daily-life decisions — about jobs, medical care, housing, food and exercise — with a cumulative effect on longevity.

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/03/15/business/higher-income-longer-lives.html

This is part of a growing body of research that links demographics and social forces, including social spaces, to different health outcomes. Wealthier counties can offer a wide range of health and social services as well as have more higher class residents while poorer counties have different social structures.

While the county level data is interesting, I would assume there would also be some wide differences in life expectancy within counties. Fairfax County, Virginia is one of the wealthiest U.S. counties but income levels there are not uniform. Cook County, Illinois could include some of the poorest neighborhoods in Chicago as well as Kenilworth, Illinois, one of the wealthiest suburbs with a median household income of over $247,000. Check out these maps from VCU’s Center on Society and Health on life expectancy in metro areas. Here is what they found in Chicago:

So the contrast between a county in Virginia versus one in West Virginia might be notable but one doesn’t have to travel that far to find big differences in life expectancy.

“Who had richer parents, doctors or artists?”

NPR looks at how the jobs and incomes of parents influence the same outcomes among their children:

After some poking around, we figured out how to settle the argument. It allowed us to look at the same group of people in 1979 and 2010 — from a time when most were teenagers to the time when they were middle-aged and, for the most part, gainfully employed…

Who's doing better than their parents?

Based on this chart, it looks like the jobs of parents that are linked to better outcomes for their children require more education and are higher-skilled. This would seem to line up with findings from the Pew Economic Mobility Project about what traits are linked to upward social mobility:

This research reveals:

  • College graduates were over 5 times more likely to leave the bottom rung than non-college graduates.
  • Dual-earner families were over 3 times more likely to leave the bottom rung than single-earner families.
  • Whites were 2 times more likely to leave the bottom rung than blacks.

Additionally, Pew’s analysis examined the intersection between income and wealth, and found that the health of family balance sheets—including accumulated savings and wealth—are related to income mobility prospects. Households with financial capital, such as liquid savings or other readily available assets such as stocks, were more likely to leave the bottom of the economic ladder. In other words, movement up the income and wealth ladders was connected, and economically secure families were also the most likely to be upwardly mobile.

So in addition to parental education and the type of job one’s parent has, going to college, having two-income families, race, and wealth matter quite a bit. Overcoming these factors is not necessarily easy: “In fact, 43 percent of Americans raised at the bottom of the income ladder remain stuck there as adults, and 70 percent never even make it to the middle.”

Education, income still linked to American digital divide

The gap between those with Internet access at home in the United States is marked by education and income differences:

The quarter of American households still without Internet, not surprisingly, are disproportionately made up of families with less income and education. Of these 25 percent, half say they simply don’t want Internet, and about a quarter say it’s too expensive. As computers are increasingly replaced by other devices, from phones to tablets, any gap in penetration will seem less significant. Differences in internet access, though, will only become more so…

The Census Bureau’s latest data tracking internet and computer use in American homes suggest that both have become ubiquitous with impressive speed. About three-fourths of American households now boast both technologies, according to the Current Population Survey’s data, collected through late 2012. That’s up from 8.2 percent for computers back in 1984, and 18 percent for the Internet in 1997, when most of us who were online were dialing up to get there.

This is a persistent issue: those with fewer resources are not able to take advantage of what is available online. This becomes more and more problematic as all sorts of information and government services are accessed primarily through the Internet. Additionally, kids in lower income and education households don’t get as much exposure to the Internet.

It will be interesting to see if that number of Americans who say they don’t want the Internet changes in the near future. It may drop as more people see it as necessary. But, it might also rise if people see the Internet as a nuisance or is still better accessed elsewhere (like at a library).

Americans like homeownership – but some really dislike the process of obtaining a mortgage

Recent data suggests numerous Americans don’t like the process of getting a mortgage:

To be fair, a little more than half the 1,000 people polled this fall found the buying-lending experience rather simple and easy to navigate. But nearly 1 in 4 said they would rather gain 10 pounds, and almost 1 in 8 would rather spend 24 hours with the person they dislike the most.If you think that’s bad, 7% would rather have a root canal, and almost that many would choose a night in prison over going through the mortgage process again.

Asked another way — “Which of the following makes you extremely uneasy or anxious” — obtaining financing again scored very low in the Guaranteed Rate study. In fact, more people were more comfortable with public speaking, being in high places, flying in an airplane, being around snakes and being in a confined space than they were going through the mortgage process.

This flies in the face of the latest J.D. Power mortgage origination satisfaction study, which found that more borrowers were pleased with their lenders now than at any time in the last seven years.

Overall customer satisfaction improved for the third consecutive year. But as you might expect, first-time buyers who have never had to navigate the system weren’t as tickled as repeat buyers and refinancers.

I remember a whole mess of paperwork though the actual numbers and costs didn’t seem too complicated. Several pieces of this process might lower people’s satisfaction:

1. The idea that someone knows all of your financial information. Americans are pretty guarded about their incomes (try bringing it up even vaguely in social settings) so even though the bank needs all of this information, it makes people nervous.

2. The purchase of a home will be the biggest single investment many people make so it induces nervousness about being tied down and having to make monthly payments for the next (usually) 30 years. Perhaps this kind of investment should make people nervous…

3. First-time homeowners are not well educated about what it takes to purchase a home, even if they have a strong idea that they should purchase a home. For example, HGTV shows the mortgage process isn’t much of anything at all: you go from liking a home, making an offer, to living happily ever after in the home. Granted, getting the mortgage and working out the details is not exciting television but there is little information about mortgages conveyed by these shows.

It is too bad the article doesn’t discuss the characteristics of those who disliked the mortgage process more. Could it be disproportionately lower-income residents who don’t have that much money to spare? Could it be younger adults who are used to processes going quicker?