Examining the claim that “conservatives prefer suburban McMansions while liberals like urban enclaves”

The new report from Pew on political polarization reaffirms there is an urban/suburban divide in the electorate:

With disquieting predictability, 10,013 adults — respondents in the largest survey the Pew Research Center has ever conducted on political attitudes — answered according to their ideology. Seventy-seven percent of “consistently liberal” adults went with what sounded like the urban milieu: the dense neighborhood, the compact home, the “walkability.” Fully seventy-five percent of “consistently conservative” adults went with the polar opposite.

“It is an enduring stereotype – conservatives prefer suburban McMansions while liberals like urban enclaves – but one that is grounded in reality,” Pew concluded in the report released today.

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This is corroborated by other data: Democrats are centered in cities, Republicans in exurbs and more rural areas, and the parties fight over suburban votes.

Two interesting points from the tables above:

1. The first question describing more spread out areas versus cities is a double- or triple-barreled question that supposedly contrasts more suburban versus more urban areas. Maybe. Take the larger or smaller house part of the question. Plenty of wealthier urban residents own single-family homes or large condos or apartments – but these neighborhoods aren’t going to be as sprawling as many urban neighborhoods. But, even there, you would get some big differences between denser cities – the Northeast, Midwest, San Francisco – versus more sprawling city neighborhoods in places like Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta, and other Sunbelt locations.

2. In the second chart, the real difference between conservatives and liberals is not that they have different opinions about suburbs: that holds relatively steady at around 20%. The bigger differences are between preferring cities versus small towns or rural areas. I’ve seen enough other data about small towns on surveys to think that there is quite a bit of overlap between suburbs and small towns. In other words, they are not mutually exclusive categories. Even some rural areas might still be suburbs, depending on their location within a metropolitan region or their proximity from the big city.

All together then, the suggestion that it is suburban McMansions versus cities is a bit misleading. Adding the label McMansion gets the point across about larger houses but it also adds a pejorative element to the mix.

Pew reminds us that Twitter users are not representative of the US population

In looking at this story, I was led to a recent Pew study that compared the political leanings of Twitter to the political opinions of the general US population. One takeaway: the two populations are not the same.

The lack of consistent correspondence between Twitter reaction and public opinion is partly a reflection of the fact that those who get news on Twitter – and particularly those who tweet news – are very different demographically from the public.

The overall reach of Twitter is modest. In the Pew Research Center’s 2012 biennial news consumption survey, just 13% of adults said they ever use Twitter or read Twitter messages; only 3% said they regularly or sometimes tweet or retweet news or news headlines on Twitter.

Twitter users are not representative of the public. Most notably, Twitter users are considerably younger than the general public and more likely to be Democrats or lean toward the Democratic Party. In the 2012 news consumption survey, half (50%) of adults who said they posted news on Twitter were younger than 30, compared with 23% of all adults. And 57% of those who posted news on Twitter were either Democrats or leaned Democratic, compared with 46% of the general public. (Another recent Pew Research Center survey provides even more detail on who uses Twitter and other social media.)

In another respect, the Twitter audience also is broader than the sample of a traditional national survey. People under the age of 18 can participate in Twitter conversations, while national surveys are limited to adults 18 and older. Similarly, Twitter conversations also may include those living outside the United States.

Perhaps most important, the Twitter users who choose to share their views on events vary with the topics in the news. Those who tweeted about the California same-sex marriage ruling were likely not the same group as those who tweeted about Obama’s inaugural or Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan.

This leads to me to three thoughts:

1. What does this mean for the archiving of Twitter being undertaken by the Library of Congress? While it is still an interesting data source, Twitter provides a very small slice of U.S. opinion.

2. This is emblematic of larger issues with relying on new technologies to do research: who uses newer technologies is not the same as the U.S. population. This can be corrected for, as a recent article titled “A More Perfect Poll” suggests, and technologies can eventually filter throughout the whole U.S. population. In the meantime, researchers need to be careful about what they conclude.

3. So…what do we do about a comparison of a non-representative sample to a population? Pew seems to admit this:

While this provides an interesting look into how communities of interest respond to different circumstances, it does not reliably correlate with the overall reaction of adults nationwide.

This is an odd way to conclude a statistical report.

Pew Research: the response rate for a typical phone survey is now 9% and response rates are down across the board

Earlier this year, Pew Research described a growing problem for pollsters: over 90% of the  public that doesn’t want to participate in telephone surveys.

It has become increasingly difficult to contact potential respondents and to persuade them to participate. The percentage of households in a sample that are successfully interviewed – the response rate – has fallen dramatically. At Pew Research, the response rate of a typical telephone survey was 36% in 1997 and is just 9% today.

The general decline in response rates is evident across nearly all types of surveys, in the United States and abroad. At the same time, greater effort and expense are required to achieve even the diminished response rates of today. These challenges have led many to question whether surveys are still providing accurate and unbiased information. Although response rates have decreased in landline surveys, the inclusion of cell phones – necessitated by the rapid rise of households with cell phones but no landline – has further contributed to the overall decline in response rates for telephone surveys.

A new study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press finds that, despite declining response rates, telephone surveys that include landlines and cell phones and are weighted to match the demographic composition of the population continue to provide accurate data on most political, social and economic measures. This comports with the consistent record of accuracy achieved by major polls when it comes to estimating election outcomes, among other things.

This is not to say that declining response rates are without consequence. One significant area of potential non-response bias identified in the study is that survey participants tend to be significantly more engaged in civic activity than those who do not participate, confirming what previous research has shown. People who volunteer are more likely to agree to take part in surveys than those who do not do these things. This has serious implications for a survey’s ability to accurately gauge behaviors related to volunteerism and civic activity. For example, telephone surveys may overestimate such behaviors as church attendance, contacting elected officials, or attending campaign events.

Read on for more comparisons between those who do tend to participate in telephone surveys and those who do not.

This has been a growing problem for years now: more people don’t want to be contacted and it is more difficult to contact cell phone users. One way this might be combated is to offer participants small incentives. This is already done with some online panels and it is more commonly used in mail surveys. These incentives wouldn’t be large enough to sway opinion or perhaps just get a sample of people who want the incentive but would be enough to raise response rates. It could be thought of as just enough to acknowledge and thank people for their time. I don’t know what the profit margins of firms like Gallup or Pew are but I imagine they could offer these small incentives quite easily.

This does suggest that the science of weighting is increasingly important. Having government benchmarks is really important, hence, the need for updated Census figures. However, it is not inconceivable that the Census could be scaled back: this is often a conservative proposal either based on the money spent on the Census Bureau or the “invasive” questions asked. And, it also may make the Census even more political as years of polling might be dependent on getting the figures “right,” depending on what side of the political aisle one is one.

Rising income segregation in the United States

Sociologist Stephen Klineberg discusses income segregation and a new Pew Report that suggests it is growing in the United States:

So what’s happening – as the gap between rich and poor increases, people increasingly live in very separate worlds and we’ve always sort of been more comfortable in communities made up of what the Wall Street Journal once called PLUs, people like us. Right? We never liked it too much. There were a lot of people much poorer than us or much richer than us. We’d like to be in those communities where we felt at home and with people like ourselves and you see it in Houston, I think, more than most other cities because Houston is still, today, the most spread out, least dense major city in the country…

The great danger for the future of America is not an ethnic divide. It’s a class divide…

Oh, tremendous consequences of the isolation of the poor in places where there are only other poor people with very few connections to the job opportunities that are out there, to the knowledge. We know that there are several forms of capital. Right? There’s human capital, which is education. There’s financial capital and there’s, above all, social capital. Who do you know? Who are you connected with? Who can you go to for advice? Who will know about jobs that are opening and help connect you to those jobs?

And so the isolation of the poor creates two things. Number one is it isolates the poor in ways that make it much more difficult for them to work their way out of poverty and it isolates the rich so that they live in worlds where they have no clue as to the kind of challenges that people are facing.

This is not a new issue. However, several decades ago, the focus was more on the extremely poor/the hypersegregated living in inner cities, and now the problem is perceived to be affecting more people.

The Pew report can be found here and here are some of the findings:

The analysis finds that 28% of lower-income households in 2010 were located in a majority lower-income census tract, up from 23% in 1980, and that 18% of upper- income households were located in a majority upper-income census tract, up from 9% in 1980.

These increases are related to the long-term rise in income inequality, which has led to a shrinkage in the share of neighborhoods across the United States that are predominantly middle class or mixed income—to 76% in 2010, down from 85% in 1980—and a rise in the shares that are majority lower income (18% in 2010, up from 12% in 1980) and majority upper income (6% in 2010, up from 3% in 1980)…

By adding together the share of lower-income households living in a majority lower-income tract and the share of upper-income households living in a majority upper-income tract, this Pew Research analysis has developed a single Residential Income Segregation Index (RISI) score for each of the nation’s top 30 metropolitan areas…

Among the nation’s 10 largest metro areas, Houston (61) and Dallas (60) have the highest RISI scores, followed closely by New York (57). At the other end of the scale, Boston (36), Chicago (41) and Atlanta (41) have the lowest RISI scores among the nation’s 10 largest metro areas.

Worth paying attention in the years ahead. Even in the era of Facebook, Twitter, and more weak ties, neighbors and neighborhoods still matter for a number of important life outcomes.

Only 4% of Americans make it from the bottom to the top in income

A recent report from Pew suggests the rags-to-riches story is uncommon in American life:

While the U.S. is known as the land of opportunity — where everyone has an equal chance to succeed — one’s family’s socioeconomic status can impede success. A report from Pew’s Economic Mobility Project, a study assessing the health and status of the American dream, found that people raised in low-­income families often stay in the same economic bracket as their parents. Those raised in higher-income families stay up.

While 84 percent of Americans have higher family incomes than their parents, only 4 percent of those in lower-income families leaped to the top. The rags-to-riches story, the report said, happens in movies, but rarely in reality.

This isn’t the first source to argue this.

However, I wonder if this 4% really differs from what is displayed in American culture. How many books, movies, magazines, songs, and more suggest a rags-to-riches story? Many people have heard the name of Horatio Alger and his writings but how many American stories really follow this theme? How much does it differ from other cultures? If 84% of Americans do indeed have higher incomes than their parents, couldn’t there be some truth in cultural stories that depict “moving up” but not becoming fabulously wealthy? There would be ways to do a comprehensive study of American stories and media output to see how prevalent the “rags to riches” story really is but it would take a lot of work and simply counting numbers doesn’t easily translate into the impact a small amount of stories could have.

Battening down the Facebook privacy hatches

The Pew Internet & American Life Project released a new study yesterday that suggests Facebook users are paying more attention to their privacy settings, meaning they are editing comments and photos more and being more selective about their friendships:

The report released Friday by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that people are managing their privacy settings and their online reputation more often than they did two years earlier. For example, 44 percent of respondents said in 2011 that they deleted comments from their profile on a social networking site. Only 36 percent said the same thing in 2009…

Along those lines is “profile pruning,” which Pew reports is on the rise. Nearly two-thirds of people on social networks said last year that they had deleted friends, up from 56 percent in 2009. And more people are removing their names from photos than two years ago. This practice is especially common on Facebook, where users can add names of their friends to photos they upload…

Women are much more likely than men to restrict their profiles. Pew found that 67 percent of women set their profiles so that only their “friends” can see it. Only 48 percent of men did the same…

Possibly proving that with age comes wisdom, young adults were more likely to post something regrettable than their older counterparts. Fifteen percent of social network users aged 18 to 29 said they have posted something regrettable. Only 5 percent of people over 50 said the same thing.

Several thoughts about this:

1. This isn’t a huge trend: for both deleting comments and friends, a little less than 10% more users did this than two years ago. If this is a long-term trend that keeps going up 10% every few years, this would be especially noteworthy.

2. This is still a low number of people who say they “posted something regrettable.” These figures seem to suggest that many users are ahead of the game here: they are making sure they are being presented in a good light before it could turn into something regrettable. These figures go against a common media image that social media users regularly do crazy things, are always at risk, or don’t know what they are doing.

3. Is privacy the best word to describe all of this? I wonder if we could call this behavior “selective interaction” as it is more about limiting the display of information to certain people rather than hiding information from everyone. If people truly wanted online privacy, they wouldn’t have a Facebook profile in the first place.

4. The removal of friends is interesting. I wonder if this is more of a function of how long one has had Facebook (tied to realizing that one doesn’t really interact with that many people and all of those friends don’t show up in your news feed even if they are updating their information) or changes in life stages (once one leaves high school or college, does one need to remain friends with all of those people you once ran into or thought you might interact with?).

h/t Instapundit

94% of American parents expect their kid to go to college

Looking at the article “Is a college education worth the price?“, I was pointed to Pew survey data released in May 2011 about what Americans think about college. Among the findings:

Nearly every parent surveyed (94%) says they expect their child to attend college, but even as college enrollments have reached record levels, most young adults in this country still do not attend a four-year college. The main barrier is financial. Among adults ages 18 to 34 who are not in school and do not have a bachelor’s degree, two-thirds say a major reason for not continuing their education is the need to support a family. Also, 57% say they would prefer to work and make money; and 48% say they can’t afford to go to college.

These are pretty high aspirations that cut across income levels and backgrounds. Pew suggests the primary barrier to reaching these expectations is money: the need to support oneself and a family gets in the way.

But I wonder if there is another barrier that is partly due to finances and partly due to other factors: it can be difficult to translate aspirations into outcomes. In today’s world and particularly in America where parents have always desired great things for their children (I remember this coming out distinctly in the original Middletown study), what parent wouldn’t say that their kid will attend college? If one comes from a privileged background, a child can see how this path will logically play out: you go through the stages of school and naturally you will move from high school to college (with finances somehow being taken care of and parents socking away money for over a decade in a college fund). But, in lesser circumstances, where is this easy path? It may be doable but there are a lot of obstacles standing in the way.

This reminds me of Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods. While I can’t remember whether she specifically talks about college aspirations, the class-based styles of parenting she outlines could lead to different outcomes in achieving these parental aspirations.

Pew again asks for one-word survey responses regarding budget negotiations

I highlighted this survey technique in April but here it is again: Pew asked Americans to provide a one-word response to Congress’ debt negotiations.

Asked for single-word characterizations of the budget negotiations, the top words in the poll — conducted in the days before an apparent deal was struck — were “ridiculous,” “disgusting” and “stupid.” Overall, nearly three-quarters of Americans offered a negative word; just 2 percent had anything nice to say.

“Ridiculous” was the most frequently mentioned word among Democrats, Republicans and independents alike. It was also No. 1 in an April poll about the just-averted government shutdown. In the new poll, the top 27 words are negative ones, with “frustrating,” “poor,” “terrible,” “disappointing,“ “childish,” “messy” and “joke” rounding out the top 10.

And then we are presented a word cloud.

On the whole, I think this technique can suggest that Americans have generally unfavorable responses. But the reliance on particular terms is better for headlines than it is for collecting data. What would happen if public responses were split more evenly: what words/responses would then be used to summarize the data? The Washington Post headline (and Pew Research as well) can now use forceful and emotional words like “ridiculous” and “disgusting” rather than the more accurate numerical figures than about “three-quarters of Americans offered a negative word.” Why not also include an ordinal question (strongly disapprove to strongly approve) about American’s general opinion of debt negotiations in order to corroborate this open ended question?

This is a possibly interesting technique in order to take advantage of open ended questions without allowing respondents to give possibly lengthy responses. Open ended questions can produce a lot of data: there were over 330 responses in this survey alone. I’ll be interested to see if other organizations adopt this approach.

Pew using word frequencies to describe public’s opinion of budget negotiations

In the wake of the standoff over a federal government shutdown last week, Pew conducted a poll of Americans regarding their opinions on this event. One of the key pieces of data that Pew is reporting is a one-word opinion of the proceedings:

The public has an overwhelmingly negative reaction to the budget negotiations that narrowly avoided a government shutdown. A weekend survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Washington Post finds that “ridiculous” is the word used most frequently to describe the budget negotiations [29 respondents], followed by “disgusting,” [22 respondents] “frustrating,” [14 respondents] “messy,” [14 respondents] “disappointing” [13 respondents] and “stupid.” [13 respondents]

Overall, 69% of respondents use negative terms to describe the budget talks, while just 3% use positive words; 16% use neutral words to characterize their impressions of the negotiations. Large majorities of independents (74%), Democrats (69%) and Republicans (65%) offer negative terms to describe the negotiations.

The full survey was conducted April 7-10 among 1,004 adults; people were asked their impressions of the budget talks in interviews conducted April 9-10, following the April 8 agreement that averted a government shutdown.

I would be hesitant about leading off an article or headline (“Budget Negotiations in a Word – “Ridiculous”) with these word frequencies since they generally were used by few respondents: the most common response, “ridiculous,” was only given by 2.9% of the survey respondents (based on the figures here of 1,004 total respondents). I think the better figures to use would be the broader ones about negative responses where 69% used negative terms and a majority of all political stripes used a negative descriptor.

You also have to dig into the complete report for some more information. Here is the exact wording of the question:

PEW.2A If you had to use one single word to describe your impression of the budget negotiations in Washington, what would that one word be? [IF “DON’T KNOW” PROBE ONCE: It can be anything, just the first word that comes to mind…] [OPEN END: ENTER VERBATIM RESPONSE]

Additionally, the full report says that this descriptor question was only asked of 427 respondents on April 9-10 (so my above percentage should be altered: it should be 29/427 = 6.8%). So this is a smaller sample answering this particular question; how generalizable are the results? And the most common response to this question is the other category with 202 respondents. Presumably, the “others” are mostly negative since we are told 69% use negative terms. (As a side note, why not separate out the “don’t knows” and “refused”? There are 45 people in this category but these seem like different answers.)

One additional thought I have: at least this wasn’t put into a word cloud in order to display the data.

What can 90% of Americans agree on?

The answer: not much. Pew Research has an article about the small number of issues in which 90% of Americans agree:

Yet there are some opinions that 90% of the public, or close to it, shares — including a belief that citizens have a duty to vote, an admiration for those who get rich through hard work, a strong sense of patriotism and a belief that society should give everyone an equal opportunity to succeed. Pew Research’s political values surveys have shown that these attitudes have remained remarkably consistent over time.

The proportion saying they are very patriotic has varied by just four percentage points (between 87% to 91%) across 13 surveys conducted over 22 years. Similarly, in May 1987, 90% agreed with the statement: “Our society should do what is necessary to make sure everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.” This percentage has remained at about 90% ever since (87% in the most recent political values survey).

Interestingly, these cited figures are about foundational values in American culture. Exactly what some of these things mean could be up for debate: how should one express their “very patriotic” feelings? What exactly should it look like so that “everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed”? But as values, voting, patriotism, and meritocracy are quite powerful. (And it would also be interesting to see who doesn’t agree with these values.)

We could also ask why exactly 90% is a cutoff we should care about. Here is an explanation:

[R]eaching the 90% threshold is a rare occurrence in public opinion surveys. In part, this reflects the tendency of polling organizations to focus on current issues about which there are often considerable differences of opinion. Nonetheless, even on issues where one would expect to find near-total agreement, the public’s views are far from unanimous.

This is why Pew highlights a recent finding: “fully 90% of the public said that they were hearing mostly bad news about gas prices.”

It would be interesting to see more data on this to know just how rare 90% agreement is. How often might we expect to see this out of all survey responses? How different is the 90% occurrence compared to 80% or even 70%? Is this lack of 90% agreement unusual only for the United States or does this apply to other nations as well?