Statistics and the Elections

As the primary season gets underway, statistics are flying all over the place. It can be very hard to analyze how value and reliable they are.

FiveThirtyEight is a great site that does a meta-analysis of the polling data so you can get a better look at what is really most likely to happen (remember that statistics are predictive rather than certain).

It also does a good job of analyzing flawed science, discussing statistical data, and laying out the issues in research debates that you may see in the news. It also covers sports.

Bad Data

Recently, a report sparked a media feed (not quite large enough to qualify as a frenzy). We heard that the murder rate in many cities had soared. As is often the case this was a gross misreading of the data. Two of the largest mistakes were ignoring the notion of statistical fluctuations and that the survey was not designed to show what the media said it showed. You can see all of the details at FiveThirtyEight which does the best statistical analysis in the news business (okay, maybe the only statistical analysis in the news business – but it is still fantastic).

Subsidies and Behavior

There have been a lot of arguments about government subsidies to individuals (food stamps, TANF, fuel assistance) lately and their impact on behavior. The general assumption is that giving people cash means they won’t work. The reality is much more complicated than this and it turns out that most people do not make significant changes to their behavior based on these subsidies. Yes, someone who gets food stamps may choose to work slightly less overtime, but we don’t see the wholesale destruction of work ethic that many fear. This op-ed in the New York Times takes that traditional argument in a new direction by applying it to the habits and the government subsidies that go to the rich.

Social Mobility: Part II

A study was recently released by Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline, and Emmanuel Saez from Harvard and U.C. Berkeley. This has been widely reported in the press as the Harvard Mobility Study. The results are not entirely radical, but they are important. The short story is that mobility (a change in class status from parent to child) varies greatly by region. They look at several aspects of social structure and family structure that influences mobility. They list them in the executive summary in this order (generally authors list them in what they see as the order of importance):

  1. Mobility varies by local tax rates (mobility increases as local tax rates and hence expenditures increase)
  2. Average income levels in an area were not related to mobility
  3. Upward mobility is lower for both whites and blacks in areas that have larger black populations
  4. They also found correlations between “income inequality, economic and racial residential
    segregation, measures of K12 school quality (such as test scores and high school dropout rates), social capital indices, and measures of family structure (such as the fraction of single parents in an area)”
  5. Then then mention that family structure (one vs. two parent families), in this group was particularly significant.

The most  interesting issue for me, is not what they found (although I do find it very interesting), but what was reported. I did a quick Google news search using the terms Harvard mobility study. Of the first ten news items, three have the single parent family issue in their headline and two more focus on this within their text. This means that half of the top ten hits emphasize this one result.

This certainly is an interesting outgrowth of the study, although not the most interesting one. However, since our society prefers to look to individualistic answers to difficult problems rather than focusing on the way the organization of the social system contributes, this is not surprising. It is much easier to argue that people ought to get married then it is to wade through the complexities of government programs, unequal school quality, segregation, and wealth differentials. The articles (and I have not read every article on this subject), also do not examine the structural reasons that single parent families have increased. It turns out that this is impacted by the social structure as well.

Food Stamps

Since there has been a lot in the news about the budget deal and food stamps, I thought it might be worthwhile to have some data to inform the discussion. This is the Federal Government’s page on eligibility for food stamps (SNAP) before any changes were made.

The maximum income after deductions (for child care expenses, medical expenses, and some other expenses) for receiving food stamps is the poverty line. The maximum income before deductions is 130% of the poverty line.

The maximum benefit for one person is $189 per month (you must be below the poverty line by quite a bit to get the maximum). This represents $6.30 per day for food. The maximum benefit for a family of four is $632 or $5.27 per person per day.

Class and Ideology

Here is an interesting op-ed in the New York Times about unemployment insurance. It examines some of the economic assumptions behind the value of unemployment insurance and issues it may create in the labor market. It clearly examines the outcomes that we are worried about – that people on unemployment insurance will not want to work, but it doesn’t examine why we think this way.

This type of underlying social assumption about incentives and work behavior is directly related to much of what we have been doing in class in introduction to sociology. We make assumptions about how policies work, not based on the evidence, but based on our assumptions about what should be. We want hard work to be the solution for all things.


My introduction to sociology classes have been looking at class mobility the past couple of weeks. As I result, I have been looking more intensely at class mobility the past couple of weeks. I ran into a very thoughtful series of reports about the realities of mobility in the U.S. from the Pew Charitable Trust’s Economic Mobility Project.

What is common knowledge to most sociologists, but is not always well known elsewhere is that the myth of mobility and the reality of mobility in the U.S. are very different. We like to present ourselves as the place where anyone can make it to the top. It is true that it is possible to make it from the bottom of the class system to the top, but it is not true that anyone given enough effort can do this. It is largely dependent on outside factors like the quality of the school system and catching the right opportunities. So, two equally talented and equally hard working people may have very different outcomes despite their own efforts.

What really struck me when looking at some of these reports was that, in addition to not offering the possibility for mobility as easily as we say we do, we also don’t do that well compared to other Western Industrialized nations.

Here is a graph from the Pew’s Economic Mobility in America: Is the American Dream Alive and Well?

One Way to Reduce Teen Pregnancies…

A sociologist from my old department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Amy Schalet, has completed a comparative study of Dutch and American attitudes towards teen sexuality. I haven’t read the book yet, but there was an interesting interview in Salon, an online magazine.

The basic upshot of her research is that families in the Netherlands are much more accepting of teen sexuality than we are here. Teenagers in the Netherlands have higher contraceptive use and lower teen pregnancy rates while having sex about as frequently as American teens. There are many more details in the article.

The interesting thing about this research is that it violates our societal beliefs about how to lower teen pregnancies. Ask most people what they think about how to reduce teen pregnancies and they will not say allow them to have sex at home and talk about sex more. Most people believe that these actions would lead to more teen sex and more teen pregnancies.

Is this the solutions for the U.S.? Cultures are remarkably hard to change and ideas from one culture don’t always translate to another culture, but it is an interesting bit of sociological data that should be considered when we make policy.

And just to keep people informed about the issue…

Graph on teen pregnancy rates