Multiple measures and small trends: American birthrates down, births per woman up

A new Pew report explains this statistical oddity: the annual birthrate in the US is down but women are having more children.

How can fertility be down even as the number of women who are having children is going up? There are complex statistical reasons for this, but the main cause of this confusing discrepancy is the age at which women are having children. Women are having children later in life — the median age for having a first baby is 26 now, up from 23 in 1994 — and this delay causes annual birth rates to go down, even as the cumulative number of babies per woman has risen…

 

Another factor, Livingston said, is the drop in teen birth rates, with black women seeing the biggest drop in that category.

See the Pew report here. An additional part of the explanation is that there are multiple measures at play here. A Pew report from earlier in 2018 explains:

But aside from this debate, the question remains: Is this really a record low? The short answer is: It’s complicated.

That’s because there are different ways to measure fertility. Three of the most commonly used indicators of fertility are the general fertility rate (GFR); completed fertility; and the total fertility rate (TFR). All three reflect fertility behavior in slightly different ways – respectively, in terms of the annual rate at which women are presently having kids; the number of kids they ultimately have; or the hypothetical number they would likely have based on present fertility patterns.

None of these indicators is “right” or “wrong,” but each tells a different story about when fertility bottomed out.

Measurement matters and the different measures can fit different social and political views.

I wonder if part of the issue is also that there is a clear drop in births from the earlier era – roughly 1950 to 1970 which we often associate with Baby Boomers – but the last 3+ decades have been relatively flat. This plateau of recent decades means researchers and commentators may be more prone to jump on small changes in the data. Many people would love to predict the next big significant rise or fall in numbers but a significant change may not be there, particularly when looking at multiple measures.

The architecture of stars versus what emerges in cities

Ron Grossman contrasts Chicago’s architectural gems and the more organic ways that neighborhood buildings developed:

The architecture of affluence breeds anonymity.

Nearby sidewalks don’t play on my heartstrings like those in a blue-collar neighborhood. Walking a block in Pilsen is like looking at Chicago history through a kaleidoscope.

Narrow three-story structures are topped with elaborate false fronts and a bit of Baroque ornamentation reminiscent of the Czech homeland of its original owners. A side wall may be painted in the vibrant palette of Orozco or another of the celebrated muralists of the current occupants’ Mexican homeland.

In Bronzeville, construction crews can be seen pulling jury-rigged partitions out of brownstone mansions. Built in the 19th century for the city’s wealthy, they were divided into sleeping rooms for poor blacks during the Great Migration of the 20th century. Now the neighborhood is gentrifying.

In many American cities, the past – written into stone and other materials in the form of buildings – will disappear unless specific preservation efforts are made. And, if the new structure can be a showpiece, something designed by a noted architect or firm and offering an unusual take, so much the better.

Two quick responses in my own mind:

  1. What will future city residents, say a few decades or centuries down the road, think about the construction booms taking place in many wealthier neighborhoods? If those future residents continue to prize progress, perhaps the loss of more original structures won’t matter.
  2. Like many culture industries, trends come and go in architecture. Is a rejection of cold, impersonal modern architecture more about that trend or more about letting individual properties and neighborhoods develop on their own without intervention from starchitects or government leaders? These are two different issues: whether you like the latest trends and whether you think architectural decisions should be made on a small scale and under the control of local residents.

“Tiny Houses Are Big” – with 10,000 total in the United States

Tiny houses get a lot of attention – including this recent Parade story – but rarely are numbers provided about how big (or small) this trend really is. The Parade story did provide some data (though without any indication of how this was measured) on the number of tiny houses in the US. Ready for the figure?

10,000.

Without much context, it is hard to know what to do with this figure or how accurate it might be. Assuming the figure’s veracity, is that a lot of tiny houses? Not that many? Some comparisons might help:

Between February 2016 and March 2017, there were over 1,000,000 housing starts in each month. (National Association of Home Builders) Within data going back to 1959, the lowest point for housing starts after the 2000s housing bubble burst experienced about 500,000 new housing starts a month. (Census Bureau data at TradingEconomics.com)

The RV industry shipped over 430,000 units in 2016. This follows a low point of shipments in recent years back in 2009 where only 165,000 units were shipped. (Recreation Vehicle Industry Association)

The number of manufactured homes that have shipped in recent years – 2014 to 2016 – has surpassed 60,000 each year. (Census Bureau)

The percent of new homes that are under 1,400 square feet has actually dropped since 1999 to 7% in 2016. (Census Bureau)

Based on these comparisons, 10,000 units is not much at all. They are barely a drop in the bucket within all housing.

Perhaps the trend is sharply on the rise? There is a little evidence of this. I wrote my first post here on tiny houses back in 2010 and it involved how to measure the tiny house trend. The cited article in that post included measures like the number of visitors to a tiny house blog and sales figures from tiny house builders. Would the number of tiny house shows on HGTV and similar networks provide some data? All trends have to start somewhere – with a small number of occurrences – but it doesn’t seem like the tiny house movement is taking off in exponential form.

Ultimately, I would ask for more and better data on tiny houses. Clearly, there is some interest. Yet, calling this a major trend would be misleading.

 

Debating whether Detroit is on an upward trend

There is some disagreement about whether Detroit is on the rebound:

Michigan State political scientist Laura Reese and Wayne State urban affairs expert Gary Sands have written an essay “Detroit’s recovery: The glass is half-full at best,” for Conversation, which was reprinted at CityLab as “Is Detroit Really Making a Comeback?” The article is based on a longer academic treatment of this subject by Reese, Sanders and co-authors, entitled “It’s safe to come, we’ve got lattes,” in the journal Cities.  (This is one of those rare cases where the mass media version of an article is more measured and less snarky than the title of the companion academic piece, but I digress.)

Reese and Sands set about the apparently obligatory task of offering a contrarian view to stories in the popular press suggesting that Detroit has somehow turned the corner on its economic troubles and is starting to come back. We, too, are wary of glib claims that everything is fine in Detroit. It isn’t. The city still bears the deep scars of decades of industrial decline coupled with dramatic failure of urban governance. The nascent rebound is evident only in a few places.

And the opposite position:

It’s going to be a long, hard road ahead for Detroit. And that road will lead to a different and smaller Detroit than existed in, say, the 1950s. That road is made even harder by critics who damn the first few candles for shedding too little light.

While the debate is about Detroit’s fate, it hits on important larger questions: at what point can experts know whether a city is on the decline or on the way up? Who gets to make such pronouncements and with what data? While we are in the moment, when is a trend clearly a trend? Even a consensus of experts may not be good enough; they can all be wrong.

The more complicated answer is that it takes time and lots of data to know for sure what is happening. This is not comforting if things are going bad; there is often a lot of post-hoc analysis of what could have been done in the moment but such moments are difficult to handle. (Think about the public discussions regarding the economic crisis of the late 2000s and what lessons should be drawn from the Great Depression and similar events.) And if the situation has been bad for a long time, people do want to find hope and build on good happenings.

For those of us looking on from a distance, perhaps the best we can do is wait and hope for positive change in Detroit which likely includes both new activities as well as difficult decisions about moving on from past arrangements.

Claim: US undergoing secularization, just at a slower pace

Two sociologists argue that the United States is not that unusual regarding secularization trends in the industrialized world:

Most research that compares American religion with religion elsewhere emphasizes the high levels of participation in the United States, and treats those high levels as strong evidence that America is exceptional.

If we look at the trends, though, it appears that the US isn’t a counter-example to the idea that modernization causes problems for religion. On the contrary, religious change in the United States is very similar to what we see elsewhere: long-term decline produced mainly by generational replacement.

This process operates slowly, and it can be counteracted in the short term by short-lived revivals, but it is very difficult to reverse…

Figure 2 – Attendance monthly or more often by decade of birth, United States, 1973-2014

Voas Fig 2

Chaves has been making this argument for a few years now.

Two quick thoughts:

  1. As they note at the end, the interesting question then to ask is why the United States has been slower to follow the secularization trend than other nations. This is not a small question and at least several suggestions have already been made by researchers including World Wars in Europe and the rise of the welfare state.
  2. Researchers are in a unique position if they argue any trend is inevitable. Voas and Chaves may be shown correct if religiosity continues to decline in new generations but it could be decades before the conclusive evidence arises. Additionally, societal patterns can change – even if such changes seem improbable at one time. If a researcher is correct in calling out a trend, they can appear prophetic but if they are wrong, their status may be diminished.

“We’re at peak multigenerational” housing?

Pew recently reported on the increase of Americans living in multigenerational households:

In 2014, more young people were living with their parents than with a romantic partner. And a lot of these millennials’ parents were cohabiting with their own parents.

A new Pew Research Center analysis finds that a record-high number of Americans—60.6 million, to be exact—were living with with grandma and grandpa that year. In terms of share of the U.S. population, these people made up 19 percent in 2014. That’s almost as high as back in 1950, when 21 percent of the population, or 32 million people, lived in such an arrangement.

Money—or lack thereof—helps explain why this housing arrangement is back in style. The economic woes of the late-2000s brought millions of young adults boomeranging back to their childhood homes. But the trend also has to do with immigration and diversification of the U.S. population.

Two quick thoughts:

  1. If indeed money is a motivating factor, we might expect these numbers to drop when the economy improves or when younger adults do better in the job market and move out of such arrangements. Or, does this uptick herald a long-term interest in living in multigenerational settings regardless of financial imperatives?
  2. As noted later in the article, whites are the least likely (15%) to live in such settings. Will such differences persist in the future or will such arrangements decline in non-white groups as (1) their financial prospects increase and (2) more recent immigrants spend more time in the United States?

In other words, how exactly do we know that this is a peak? There is certainly a trend upward of more households with multiple generations and a higher percentage of such households overall. If the discussed causal factors remain fairly static – sluggish economy, high levels of immigration – then the rise may continue. However, circumstances could change and the trend line in the next few years could rise, plateau, or fall. And, these factors don’t account for changing cultural values where multigenerational or communal living may just become more popular regardless of those two factors. (In other words, perhaps we could see a reaction to the long-term trend from the 1950s to the early 2000s of wanting to get away and own one’s own single-family home.)

Stay tuned for another peak that may not be one.

Debate over data on the mental fragility of college students

A recent study suggests there is a need for more data to claim that today’s college students are more fragile:

The point, overall, is that given the dizzying array of possible factors at work here, it’s much too pat a story to say that kids are getting more “fragile” as a result of some cultural bugaboo. “I think it’s not only an oversimplification, I think it’s unfair to the kids, many of whom are very hardworking and tremendously diligent, and working in systems that are often very competitive,” said Schwartz. “Many of the kids are doing extraordinarily well, and I think it’s unfair to portray this whole group of people as being somehow weakhearted or weak-minded in some sense, when there’s no evidence to really support it.”

It hasn’t gone unnoticed among those who study college mental health that there’s an interesting divide at work here: College counselors are so convinced kids’ mental health is getting worse that it’s become dogma in some quarters, and yet it’s been tricky to find any solid, rigorous evidence of this. Some researchers have tried to dig into counseling-center data in an attempt to explain this discrepancy. One recent effort, published in the October issue of the Journal of College Student Psychopathology, comes from Allan J. Schwartz, a psychiatry professor at the University of Rochester who has devoted a chunk of his career to studying college suicide. Schwartz examined data from “4,755 clients spanning a 15-year period from 1992-2007” at one university, poring over the records to determine whether students who came in contact with that school’s counseling services had, over that period, exhibited increasing levels of distress in the form of suicidality, anxiety and phobic disorders, overall signs of serious mental illness, and other measures. (The same caveat I mentioned above applies here — such a study can only tell us about rates of pathology among kids who go to counseling centers. But it can at least help determine whether counselors are right that among the kids they see every day, things are getting worse.)

Schwartz found no evidence to support the pessimistic view. With the exception of suicidality, where he noted a “significant decline” over the years, every other measure he looked at held stable over the study’s 15-year span. In his paper, Schwartz rightly notes that there are limitations to what we can extrapolate from a study of a single campus. But he goes on to explain that four other, similar studies, published between 1996 and 2007, also sought to track changes in pathology over time in single-university settings, and they too found no empirical evidence that things have been getting worse. This doesn’t definitively prove that kids who seek counseling aren’t getting sicker, of course. But statistically, Schwartz argues, it’s unlikely that five studies looking at different schools would all come up with null findings if, in fact, there was a widespread increase in student pathology overall.

I don’t know this area of research but it sounds like there is room for disagreement and/or need for more definitive data about what is going on among college students.

A broader observation: claims about cultural zeitgeists are not always backed with data. On one hand, perhaps the change is coming so quickly or underneath the radar (it takes time for scientists and others to measure things) that data simply can’t be found. On the other hand, claims about trends are often based on anecdotes and particular points of view that break down pretty quickly when compared to data that is available.