Archive for the ‘Poverty and Class’ Category

squeaking by…

Monday, August 17th, 2009

Can someone please tell me why the Washington Post thought that this story ("Squeaking by on $300,000") deserved to be on the front page of Sunday's paper?  It's not a terrible story, not like the Times' claim that pot bellies are hip, but I don't think it qualifies as serious news by any standard.

It's clear that almost everyone the reporter talked to was totally unwilling to be quoted for the record.  That probably showed good judgment — it's hard to imagine any possible upside to being featured in this story.  It made me wonder what Steins was hoping to get out of it, since she struck me from the article as being more or less sane and having some sense of perspective.  She has to have known that she's going to get trashed by a significant share of the people who read the article.

Moreover, it's not at all clear to me that Steins is really all that affected by the recession.   Ok, so her bonus is less.  But if she's pulling $50,000 a year out of savings to make her budget balance, it sounds like she'd still have a hole of $30,000 to $40,000 even with her usual bonus.  Her real problem is that she and her ex-husband bought a house that she just can't afford on her own, even with very generous alimony/child support.   And she bought him out in 2006, close to the peak of the market.  If the real estate market was better, maybe she'd downsize and get out of the hole. But it also sounds like she doesn't want to move her kids out of their school.

Fundamentally, I thought this article mostly illustrated the logic to the 60 percent solution.  If your fixed expense are such a high fraction of your income, you can squeeze the little things to death — not buying a fancy cell phone for your kid, going longer between hair colorings — and it doesn't fundamentally change the big picture.  Unless Steins has enough savings to keep pulling out $50k a year for the next decade, she needs to bite the bullet and go after the big things — the house, the nanny, the second car.

Harlem Miracle?

Monday, May 11th, 2009

Last Friday, David Brooks had an op-ed in the New York Times with the headline The Harlem Miracle, discussing an evaluation of the schools run by the Harlem Children's Zone. While lots of people have been excited by the concept of the HCZ — it's the basis for the "Promise Neighborhoods" idea that Obama talked about in the campaign and included in his budget — there hasn't been any hard data about effectiveness until now.  Here's the underlying study* which really is quite exciting.

The main findings of the study are:

  • For the middle school students, there were really enormous gains in math scores, although they took several years to kick in.  The gains in language arts scores were much more modest.  These findings are based on comparisons between those randomly selected for admission and those who applied but were randomly denied, so they're about as strong as you get.
  • The elementary school impacts were stronger on language arts, somewhat smaller on math, but still impressive.  Because few students who applied for the elementary schools were denied admission, these findings are based on a different statistical approach (instrumental variables), which is somewhat less reliable.
  • The authors did not find any significant effects on test scores for graduates of either Baby College or Harlem GEMS (the preschool program run by the HCZ).  They also note that the middle school impacts were as strong for kids who lived outside of the Zone as for those who were in it, suggesting that the full community package was not essential to the model.

So, what does this mean?  To start with, it refutes the claims of some that there's nothing you can do to help these kids do better in school and society. (The strong version of this claim is that IQ is genetic and can't be affected by anything you do, the weaker version is the claim that by the time the kids are in middle school it's too late.)

Brooks uses this finding to argue for "an emerging model for low-income students" where "schools create a disciplined,
orderly and demanding counterculture to inculcate middle-class values."  The thing to notice here is that Brooks is lumping HCZ and KIPP together.  Both models certainly share some features, including extended school days and years, and very high expectations.

However, if you read Whatever it Takes, one of the main themes is that Geoffrey Canada  (who runs HCZ) was constantly fighting his board, who thought they should just bring KIPP in to run these schools.  Canada felt that KIPP was too focused on rescuing a few students — and encouragin these students to define themselves in opposition to the neighborhood culture — whereas he wanted to change the neighborhood culture.  He also fought against explicitly teaching behaviors like making eye contact, arguing that no middle class school does that.  So, I don't know whether Canada gave in on these points, or if Brooks is distorting HCZ to fit his agenda.

But presumably, other people do have a good idea of what exactly is going on the HCZ schools.  Is this model then broadly replicable?  That depends on a bunch of questions:

  • Are there enough good teachers out there who are willling to work in low-income neighborhoods, with the kind of hours required, and under intense pressure to achieve good test scores?  (HCZ had extremely high turnover of teachers.)  And are we, as a society, willing to pay enough to recruit teachers to do this?
  • Are the kids willing to work as hard they have to to succeed in this model?  To give up afternoons and summers and weekends, and to work harder in school than they ever have before?
  • How much of this success is dependent on Canada himself?  His personal charisma is clearly part of what made both teachers and students willing to work so hard.  And his personal story makes him a very convincing messenger for the idea that if you work hard you can succeed, even coming from poverty in Harlem.  No one is going to give up their weekends and summers unless they're convinced that it will make a difference.

* It drives me crazy that the Times never includes links to underlying sources.  But it cracked me up that Judith Warner's blog last week included a linked definition for "muffin top."

Others on this column:

WBR: Intelligence and How to Get It

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

As promised, here's a review of Richard Nisbett's Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count.  it's the book that Nicholas Kristof's column a couple of weeks ago was based on.  The book jacket describes this book as "the authoritative anti-Bell Curve" and indeed, much of the book is  a full-out attack on the claim that intelligence is primarily determined by genetics and that any attempts to improve outcomes for members of disadvantaged groups are doomed.

To be honest, the "how to get it" part was the least interesting part of the book for me, because it covered ground that I already know about — Perry Preschool, KIPP, Carol Dweck's work on the "mindset" that effort matters more than inherent ability.  That said, Nisbett does a good job of writing about these issues in a non-technical manner, and I'm hopeful that he will influence public opinion.

The "intelligence" part of the book was far more interesting, because Nisbett is implicitly arguing with both the strong hereditarians who believe that intelligence is overwhelmingly genetic and that environment (including parenting) doesn't matter much, and with the liberals who aren't sure exactly what is meant by "intelligence," and are pretty skeptical that intelligence tests are picking up underlying ability rather than leaning.  The first two chapters (and a more technical appendix) are aimed squarely at these issues, and should be mandatory reading for anyone who wants to talk about intelligence.

Nisbett argues that the high estimates for the genetic component of intelligence are overwhelmingly based on twin studies, and especially adoptive studies, and these don't haver nearly as much variation in environments as there exists between families overall.  He also notes that overall IQ levels have risen steadily over time, far too quickly to be accounted for by natural selection (if you look at the raw scores, rather than the normed ones which are forced to have a constant mean of 100).  Addressing the question of racial differences in IQ specifically, he points out that the black-white gap has also decreased significantly in the past decades, and that African-Americans with a higher percentage of European genes do not have higher IQs than African-Americans with fewer European genes.

I'm going to end this review where Nisbett begins the book, on the question of what is intelligence.  Even after reading the book, I find it hard to define.  Nisbett is clear that he believes that schooling does increase intelligence, and that scores on even the most abstract and supposedly culture-free components of the IQ test (such as the Raven progressive matrices*) improve markedly with practice.  So he doesn't agree with the opening quote from Cyril Burt that intelligence is "inborn, all-around intellectual ability.. inherited, not due to teaching or training… uninfluenced by industry or zeal."  But he also thinks it's a real characteristic, distinct from specific knowledge of a subject.  In some ways, he almost seems to define intelligence as that which is measured by IQ tests, which is a strong predictor of academic and career sucess although not the only factor in either (with effort, emotional skills, self-discipline, and motivation being the strongest non-intelligence factors in these).

* For what it's worth, I would have chosen a different answer than the "correct" one on the sample problem given in the book, and still think that my answer is equally plausible.

images of welfare

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

My organization is in the process of redoing our website, and one of the goals is for the site to wind up less overwhelmingly text, and with some images.  So I've spent the last hour and a half looking on istockphoto, flickr, and google images for ideas for how to show welfare offices that aren't totally stereotypical.

Ok, I'm obsessing now.  I've been trying to figure out what on earth we can use for TANF and income supports that isn't stereotypical.

Here's a NYTimes article on welfare rolls: they used images of a full waiting room, and of a cubicle with files overflowing everywhere:

This Oregon DHS brochure has a mixture of images/

I really like the picture of a welfare rights rally in the bottom right of this web page.

Any suggestions?

universality and targeting

Monday, April 20th, 2009

I ran across this LA Times article today, about (formerly) middle-class workers who have lost their jobs and are shocked to discover that their families don't qualify for most public benefit programs.  In many cases it's because with unemployment benefits, their incomes are still too high to qualify for food stamps or cash assistance; in other cases, they would qualify based on income, but have too much assets — especially cars — to qualify.

I don't know whether this makes those rejected for benefits more or less supportive of these programs.  I can imagine some people thinking "gee, if I can't live on this, how can people live on far less?" and supporting expansion and other people thinking "well, if these programs won't help me when I really need it, what good are they?" and supporting cuts.

Since the Recovery Act passed, I've been spending a lot of my time at work writing about the temporary assistance (TANF) provisions and trying to convince states to use that money to expand benefits for the neediest families.  It's been a tough sell.  Even though any increases would be 80 percent federally funded, state budgets are so tight that in many cases, they're saying they can't find the 20 percent.  And states are nervous about expanding programs with money that is designed to be temporary, because it's always hard politically to cut services back later.  I'm frustrated, but I get it — I know how hard it is to sell any expansion of "welfare."

That said, I'm really shocked by how hard it is in some states, including Virginia, to get the unemployment insurance expansions passed.  For those who believe that welfare is bad, but contributory social insurance, like social security, is good, UI should fall on the "good" side of that divide — it's based on wages and subject to a history of employment. The fact that it's still under fire makes me somewhat more skeptical about the claims that making programs universal will protect them from being attacked as "welfare."

safety nets

Thursday, March 26th, 2009

I just saw this article about whether the stronger European safety net means that they don't need separate stimulus packages.  I don't really know how much spending is needed to turn their economies around, but would note that less than half of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act could even vaguely be described as safety net spending (and only that much if you include all of the individual tax credits in that category).

But, I think the broader point, that the European programs are far more countercyclical the US programs (meaning that they automatically grow during hard times) is really important.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  The obvious explanation is that their social programs are far more generous than ours in general.  But I think it's equally important — although not as obvious — that several of our major programs — especially Unemployment Insurance, TANF, and Medicaid — are administered at the state level.   By constitution, most states aren't allowed to run budget deficits, so they're forced to cut services or raise taxes just when people need help the most.

The Federal government often chips in to help states when times are bad, but that requires specific legislative action, which often creates political complications.  There's a program — the Extended Benefits program — that is supposed to provide extra unemployment insurance to workers in high unemployment states, but the mechanics of it are so messed up that in practice, Congress always comes in and passes a separate program.  And that often happens well after we're in a recession — the one good thing about this one is that it got people to pay attention relatively early.  Obama's budget includes language about fixing the Extended Benefit triggers, which made this policy wonk happy.

The Times article that I linked to above mostly focuses on a German program called “Kurzarbeit,” or short-work, which allows firms to cut workers hours instead of laying people off, and the government makes up a portion of the reduced wages.  There's actually a U.S. version of that in some states, called work sharing, although almost no one has heard of it.  It's a good idea.

Summertime and the learning is easy?

Wednesday, March 18th, 2009

I added some clarifications to yesterday's post since I don't think I quite captured Gladwell's point about extreme IQ and achievement.  And I'll take the discussion about why the upper class kids showed more learning gains in the summer over here.

Let's start with the data first.  The data cited is from a study by Karl Alexander, who looked at the reading scores of a cohort of 650 first graders from the Baltimore public school system.  He took advantage of the fact that Baltimore administered the California Achievement Test to the same kids both in June, at the end of the school year, and in September, at the start of the next year.  This let them see what happened over the course of the school year, and what happened in the summer.  Here's a nice summary of the research, from the National Center for Summer Learning.

So, what's going on?  First, as Alexander notes in the summary, we're talking about Baltimore City Public Schools.  So the "upper class" kids are only relatively advantaged — they tended to have college graduate parents, but to be basically middle class. 

Second, even given that, there's a real difference in what the kids did over the summer.  As Alexander writes:

"I don’t want to break it down into a checklist, but some differences seemed relevant. For example, better-off children were more likely to go to the library over the summertime and take books home. They were more likely to engage in a variety of enrichment experiences such as attending museums, concerts, and field trips. They were more likely to take out-of-town vacations, be involved in organized sports activities, or take lessons, such as swimming or gymnastics lessons. Overall, they had a more expansive realm of experiences."

But there's still the question of why the upper class kids would learn MORE (per month) over the summer than during the school year.  My guess is that they're reading more over the summer when they get to pick what they read than they do during the school year when it's assigned.

Updated:  Sorry, I'm clearly not providing enough detail.  The years when there was the disproportionate amount of learning over the summer were after 3rd and fourth grade:

Learning gains for upper class students in Baltimore







Increase during school year






Increase during summer following












TBR: Outliers

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

This week's book is Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell.  It's his attempt to look at the environmental and cultural factors that affect why some people succeed and others fail, and to blow apart the idea that individual genius is responsible for success.

It's a quick read (probably took me less than 3 hours front to back) and each section is reasonably entertaining, but it doesn't quite hold together as an overall book or argument.

In particular, the middle section, where he argues that Korean airlines have a terrible safety record because of the cultural pressures for subordinates to defer to their supervisors, seems to have little connection to the rest of the book.  And while it's possible that Gladwell is correct in his claim that the reason that Asian cultures respect hard work is that rice is more work to grow than wheat or corn, he sure doesn't present enough evidence to convince me.

Gladwell is correct that Bill Joy (one of the founders of Sun) and Bill Gates were extraordinarily lucky in having the opportunity to program a lot when very few people had access to computers at all.  And there's no doubt that practice is necessary (if not sufficient) for being good at programming.  On the other hand, the reason that Gates is one of the richest men in the world has very little to do with his coding skills. (He didn't write the code for DOS, after all.)

I thought the discussion of the relationship (or lack thereof) between extreme intelligence* and success** was the best part of the book.  In particular, Gladwell tells the story of an early 20th century researcher who identified 1470 highly gifted California elementary school students, and was shocked to learn that only a small fraction of them were particularly successful later in life.  Moreover, there was a huge correlation between economic class and success (not exactly shocking to me, but still sad).  Gladwell cites Lareau and argues that the upper class kids know how to manipulate systems to their advantage, but I'm not convinced –I'm pretty sure that "concerted cultivation" wasn't around in the 1920s.

In the last part of the book, Gladwell returns to the question of education and class, and argues that the intensive school setting of KIPP lets poor kids spend enough time learning to catch up with their middle class peers.   Among other things, he cites the data that shows that much of the growth in the gap between poor and upper class kids during elementary school is not about what happens during the school year, but that the wealthier kids continue to gain over the summer, while the poor kids stagnate, or even slip backwards. I've heard that before, but had never seen the underlying data before — what struck me the most is that for the upper class kids, they gained about half as much over the 3 month summer vacation as they did over the 9 month school year.  In other words, per month, the upper class kids learned more during vacation than during school. 

*When I initially wrote this post, I omitted the word "extreme" which significantly fails to represent Gladwell's argument.  He cites Arthur Jenson (whom he calls an "IQ fundamentalist") as saying that the four cutoffs that matter for IQ are 50, 75, 105, and 115 — and that for real world applications, the difference between having an IQ of 115 and 150 or between 150 and 180 is less important.

**Jennifer asked what constituted success.  Here's what Gladwell writes "But few of his [Terman's] geniuses were nationally known figures.  They tended to earn good incomes — but not that good.  The majority had careers that could only be considered ordinary, and a suprising number ended up with careers that even Terman considered failures.  Nor were there any Nobel Prize winners in his exhaustively selected group of geniuses.  His fieldworkers actually tested two elementary school students who went on to be Nobel laureates — William Shockley and Luis Alvarez — and rejected them both.  Their IQs weren't high enough… if Terman had simply put together a randomly selected group of children from the same family backgrounds as the Termites — and dispensed with IQ altogether — we would have ended up with a group doing almost as many impressive things as his painstakingly selected group of geniuses."

What does the PTA pay for?

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

I can't find the link now, but last week I heard a story on NPR about a PTA that was buying paper for the teachers to use in the classroom, with money they had been saving for new playground equipment.  The reporter was shocked that this was necessary, but I went to public schools in New York City in the 1970s, and I definitely remember the school running out of paper (for the mimeos!) by late in the term.

Laura at 11d linked to this article about a Long Island school district where parents raised over half a million dollars to preserve school sports and other extracurriculars after the school system's budget was turned down.  Laura wonders if this undermines school equity.  I'm less worried about that situation, where the largess seems to have been spread across the whole district, than the situation you sometimes see where parents raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for specific schools, sometimes hiring extra teachers.  They're willing to do it, because it's still cheaper than private school.

Our school PTA's total annual budget is about $25,000, with the largest fundraisers being sale of Sally Foster giftwrap, a silent auction, and a craft fair.  When the economy gets better, I want to look into putting the big items for the auction online and marketing them outside the school community — we get some really nice donations, but there's just not enough people in the school who can afford them for them to go for more than the minimum bid.  But we sweat the small stuff too.  We had an election day bakesale, and we collect General Mills box tops.

What do we pay for?  The two biggest expenses are teacher workshops and training, and buses to let each class go on two field trips a year.  We buy some computer equipment for the school (smart boards) and books for the school library.  We bring in visiting authors, and give all the teachers small stipends to cover some of the things they buy for the classroom, which otherwise come out of their pockets.  It's not a ton of money, but it makes life measurably better for the school.

Oh yeah, and we also pay for cheese sandwiches for kids who don't have lunch money.  Unlike in some places, this hasn't been a big deal.  My guess is that it's because slightly more than half of the school qualifies for free or reduced price lunch, so the kids who wind up getting cheese sandwiches aren't particularly poor.  They're either kids whose families are having sudden hard times and haven't gotten the paperwork in, or they're kids who just forgot to bring in lunch money.  We do send a note to the parents, asking them to reimburse the PTA and giving them info on how to apply for school lunches. 

(By contrast, with hindsight, I'm horrified at the memory of the oh-so-progressive elementary school I attended, where only the kids who ate "hot lunch" sat in the cafeteria, and everyone else ate in the auditorium.  The hot lunch was notoriously awful, and I'm sure that everyone who ate it was getting the free lunch.  Sigh.)

What does your PTA pay for?  And do you think it's appropriate?

welfare and the recession

Monday, February 2nd, 2009

The New York Times ran a front-page story today about the failure of the welfare rolls to increase even as the economy tanks.  It's by Jason DeParle, who covered welfare reform for the Times in the 1990s, and wrote the best book there is on the subject: American Dream, and I think he got it just about right. There are some states with significant percentage increases in their caseloads, to be sure, but the base is so low at this point that the absolute numbers of new cases is pretty small.  And the two states with the highest unemployment rates — Michigan and Rhode Island — have experienced large decreases in the number of families receiving welfare.  Frankly, it scares me.

The article is currently #9 on the Times list of most emailed articles, and it received 171 comments on their website before the Times cut it off.  (I didn't know that the Times cut off comments on their articles… I wonder if this is based on a time limit, a number of comments, or a subjective judgment of the quality of the discussion.  Actually, the comments are far more balanced and reasonable than I would have guessed.)

As the article notes, there are some provisions in the recovery bill that provide incentives to states to let more people receive assistance.  So far, they haven't received much attention, and that's probably a good thing politically.  They're pretty small dollars in the scheme of the bill (although I'd have said the same thing about the family planning provisions, and that didn't protect them).  I think it's really key that Ron Haskins, who was the lead Republican staffer for the Ways and Means Committee during welfare reform, was willing to be quoted in the article that he thinks caseloads ought to be rising:

Even some of the program’s staunchest defenders are alarmed.

is ample reason to be concerned here,” said Ron Haskins, a former
Republican Congressional aide who helped write the 1996 law overhauling
the welfare system. “The overall structure is not working the way it
was designed to work. We would expect, just on the face it, that when a
deep recession happens, people could go back on welfare.”

we started this, Democratic and Republican governors alike said, ‘We
know what’s best for our state; we’re not going to let people
starve,’ ” said Mr. Haskins, who is now a researcher at the Brookings Institution
in Washington. “And now that the chips are down, and unemployment is
going up, most states are not doing enough to help families get back on
the rolls.”

That provides a LOT of political cover to Republicans who don't want to do anything that can be seen as undoing welfare reform.

That said, I don't think it helps things when progressives refer to the bailout as "corporate welfare."  I think the term inherently suggests that welfare is a bad thing.