Tag Archives: economics

Hidden Beneficiaries of Federal Programs

In light of Romney’s comments regarding those who depend on the government, we thought we’d re-post this great data showing that many people who are using government social programs don’t know they are doing so.  


Dolores R. sent in a fascinating image posted at boingboing. It comes from a paper by Suzanne Mettler, a professor in the Department of Government at Cornell. Mettler first asked survey participants whether they had ever used a federal U.S. government program. Then later in the survey she specifically asked respondents whether they had ever benefited from or participated in specific federal programs. As it turns out, large number of people who have benefited from various federal programs or policies do not recognize themselves as having done so. This table shows what percent of people who said they had participated in or used these 19 federal programs had earlier in the surveys said they had never used any social program:

Mettler argues that recipients are less likely to recognize themselves as benefiting from programs that are part of what she calls the “submerged state” — programs and policies that provide incentives and motivations for particular behaviors in the private sector, rather than overtly directing behavior. If you receive food stamps, you interact directly with a government agency, are required to periodically meet with a government worker and reapply to re-establish eligibility, and can point to a specific thing that links you to the program (these days usually a debit-type card rather than the old style coupons/stamps).

On the other hand, if you participate in the government’s mortgage interest deduction program, which encourages home ownership by allowing people to deduct the cost of mortgage interest from their taxable income (which you can’t do with rent costs, for instance), it’s less noticeable that you are benefiting from a federal policy. You get a form from your mortgage company that provides the relevant number, and you transfer it over to the correct line when you’re filling out taxes.

Notably, the programs recipients seem least likely to recognize as a government program are among those the middle (and higher) classes are most likely to use, while those more common among the poor are more clearly recognizable to those using them as government programs. Yet allowing you to write off mortgage interest (but not rent), or charitable donations, or the money you put aside for a child’s education, are all forms of government programs, ones that benefit some more than others. But the “submerged” nature of these policies hides the degree to which the middle and upper classes use and benefit from federal programs.

The Continuing Relevance of Class

Cross-posted at Reports from the Economic Front.

Politicians always seem to be talking about the middle class.  They need some new focus groups.  According to the Pew Research Center, over the past four years the percentage of adult Americans that say they are in the lower class has risen significantly, from a quarter to almost one-third (see chart below).

Pew also found that the demographic profile of the self-defined lower class has also changed.  Young people, according to Pew, “are disproportionately swelling the ranks of the self-defined lower classes.”   More specifically some 40% of those between 18 to 29 years of age now identify as being in the lower classs compared to only 25% in 2008.

Strikingly, the percentage of whites and blacks that see themselves in the lower class is now basically equal.  The percentage of whites who consider themselves in the lower class rose from less than a quarter in 2008 to 31% in 2012.  This brought them in line with blacks, whose percentage remained at a third.  The percentage of Latinos describing themselves as lower class rose to 40%, a ten percentage point increase from 2008.

And not surprisingly, as the chart below shows, many who self-identify as being in the lower class are experiencing great hardships.   In fact, 1 in 3 faced four or all five of the problems addressed in the survey.

In short, there is a lot of hurting in our economy.

Recession Recovery? Most New Jobs are Bad Jobs

Cross-posted at Reports from the Economic Front.

The media has focused on the lack of jobs as a major election issue.  But the concern needs to go beyond jobs to the quality of those jobs.

As a report by the National Employment Law Project makes clear, we are experiencing a low wage employment recovery.  This trend, the result of an ongoing restructuring of economic activity, has profound consequences for issues of poverty, inequality, and community stability.

The authors of the report examined 366 occupations and divided them into three equally sized groups by wage.  The lower-wage group included occupations which paid median hourly wages ranging from $7.69 to $13.83.  The mid-wage group range was from $13.84 to $21.13.   The higher-wage group range was from $21.14 to $54.55.

The figure below shows net employment changes in each of these groups during the recession period (2008Q1 to 2010Q1) and the current recovery (2010Q1 to 2012Q1).   Specifically:

  • Lower-wage occupations were 21 percent of recession losses, but 58 percent of recovery growth.
  • Mid-wage occupations were 60 percent of recession losses, but only 22 percent of recovery growth.
  • Higher-wage occupations were 19 percent of recession job losses, and 20 percent of recovery growth.

The next figure shows the lower-wage occupations with the fastest growth and their median hourly wages.  According to the report, three low-wage industries (food services, retail, and employment services) added 1.7 million jobs over the past two years, 43 percent of net employment growth.  According to Bureau of Labor Statistics projections these are precisely the occupations that can be expected to provide the greatest number of new jobs over the next 5-10 years.

 As the final figure shows, the decline in mid-wage occupations predates the recession.  Since the first quarter of 2001, employment has grown by 8.7 percent in lower-wage occupations and by 6.6 percent in higher-wage occupations.  By contrast, employment in mid-wage occupations has fallen by 7.3.

Significantly, as the report also notes, “the wages paid by these occupations has changed. Between the first quarters of 2001 and 2012, median real wages for lower-wage and mid-wage occupations declined (by 2.1 and 0.2 percent, respectively), but increased for higher-wage occupations (by 4.1 percent).”

A New York Times article commenting on this report included the following:

This “polarization” of skills and wages has been documented meticulously… A recent study found that this polarization accelerated in the last three recessions, particularly the last one, as financial pressures forced companies to reorganize more quickly.

“This is not just a nice, smooth process,” said Henry E. Siu, an economics professor at the University of British Columbia… “A lot of these jobs were suddenly wiped out during recession and are not coming back.”

Steady as she goes is just not going to do it and changes in taxes and spending programs, regardless of how significant, cannot compensate for the increasingly negative trends generated by private sector decisions about the organization and location of, as well as compensation for production.

The Power Elite: Connections Between Business and Politics in the U.S.

In 1956 sociologist C. Wright Mills published a book titled The Power Elite.  In it, he argued that our democracy was corrupt because the same people exercised power in business, the military, and politics.  This small group, with so many important roles and connections, had an influence on our society that was far out-of-proportion with their numbers.  This, he concluded, was a dire situation.

Fast forward to 2012 and Lambert Strether posted a series of Venn diagrams at Naked Capitalism.  Strether writes:

[This] nifty visualization… shows how many, many people, through the operations of Washington’s revolving door, have held high-level positions both in the Federal government and in major corporations. To take but one example, the set of all Treasury Secretaries includes Hank Paulson and Bob Rubin, which overlaps with the set of all Goldman Sachs COOs. The overlapping is pervasive. Political scientists and the rest of us have names for such cozy arrangements — oligarchy, corporatism, fascism, “crony capitalism” — but one name that doesn’t apply is democracy.

UPDATE: I’ve included a criticism of the methodology after the diagrams; the overlap portrayed here is almost exclusively among Democratic politicians and the diagrams were explicitly intended to point out connections among progressives.

See for yourself:

On the methods for putting together these diagrams, Strether writes about the person who’s behind the diagrams:

Herman’s honest: Her goal is to “expose progressive corporatism,” and — assuming for the sake of the argument that D[emocrat]s are progressive, and that “progressives” are progressive — her chart does exactly that, and very effectively, too.

But what her data does not do is expose corporatism as such; there are very, very few Rs listed; it strains credulity that Hank Paulson was the only high-level GS operative in the Bush administration, for example, and if GS isn’t the R[epublican]s’ favorite bank, there’s surely another.

Hence, Herman’s chart, if divorced from context[2], might lead somebody — say, a child of six — to conclude that the only corporatists in Washington DC are D[emocrat]s.

Thanks to Carolyn Taylor for pointing out the methods bias.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Words: The Democratic and Republican Conventions

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

The New York Times ran these graphics showing the word frequencies of the Republican and Democratic conventions.  I’ve added underlining on the keywords that seem to differentiate the two conventions. (The data on the Democrats runs only through Sept. 4, but it looks like the themes announced early on will be the ones that are repeated.)

Both parties talked about leadership, the economy, jobs, and families.  More interesting are the differences.  Democrats talked a lot about Women, a word which seems to be absent from the Republican vocabulary.  The Democrats also talked about Health and Education.  I find it curious that Education does not appear in the Republican word cloud.

The Republican dictionary falls open to the page with Business – ten times as many mentions as in the Democrats’ concordance.  If you go to the interactive Times graphic, you can click on Business and see examples of the contexts for the word.  Many of these excerpts also contain the word Success.

You can put the large-bubble words in each graphic in a sentence that condenses the party’s message about government, though that word – Government – does not appear in either graphic.   For the Republicans, government should lower Taxes so that Business can Succeed, creating Jobs.

For the Democrats, government should protect the rights of Women and ensure that everyone has access to Health and Education.

Perhaps the most telling most interesting word in the Democratic cloud is Together.  The Republican story is one of individual success in business, summed up in their repeated phrase, “I built that.”  The Democrats apparently are emphasizing what people can accomplish together.  These different visions are not new.  They go back at least to the nineteenth century.  (Six years ago, I blogged here about these visions as NFL brands — Cowboys and Steelers — and their parallels in US politics.)

(HT: Neal Caren who has posted his own data about the different balance of emotional expression at the two conventions.)

What Kind of Jobs Are We Gaining?

The recession is over in the U.S.. We’re now in the recovery period.

This would be more comforting if the pace of the recovery weren’t glacial. If you pay attention to weekly unemployment numbers or monthly economic reports, you’ve gotten used to the word “disappointing.” Yes, the economy is gaining jobs, but slowly. At this rate, it would take years to climb out of the hole the recession left us in.

But the slow pace of growth isn’t the only concern. The New York Times discusses the types of new jobs being created. While the majority of the jobs lost were midwage jobs, so far most of the new jobs are low-wage:

We’re not gaining new jobs very quickly. And when we do, it’s hard to find a job that provides a solidly middle-class income among those that are being added, continuing the trend of job polarization that economists have shown is reinforced during economic downturns.

The Election and the Economy

Cross-posted at Reports from the Economic Front.

It’s election season and Republicans and Democrats are working hard to demonstrate that they support dramatically different policies for rejuvenating the economy.

While the Democratic Party’s call for more government spending makes far more sense than the Republican Party’s call for cuts in government spending (see below), the resulting back and forth hides the far more serious reality that our existing economic system no longer appears capable of supporting meaningful social progress for the great majority of Americans.

The chart below helps to highlight our economy’s worsening stagnation tendencies.  Each point shows the 10 year annual average rate of growth and the chart reveals a decade long growth trend that is moving sharply downward.

As David Leonhardt explains:

The economy’s recent struggles arguably began in late 2001, when a relatively mild recession ended and a new expansion began. The problem with this new recovery was that it wasn’t especially strong. From the fourth quarter of 2001 through the fourth quarter of 2007 (when the financial crisis began), the economy grew at an average annual rate of only 2.7 percent. By comparison, the average annual growth rate of both the 1990s and 1980s expansions exceeded 3.5 percent.

This mediocre expansion was followed by the severe recession and weak recovery brought on by the financial crisis. The combined result is that, in recent years, the economy has posted its slowest 10-year average growth rates since the Commerce Department began keeping statistics in 1947.

In fact, the economic growth figures for the period 1995 to 2007 were artificially propped up by a series of bubbles, first stock and then housing.  Once those bubbles popped, average growth rates began steadily falling.

The weakness (and unbalanced nature) of our current weak recovery is well captured in the following chart from Catherine Rampell, which compares the percent change in various indicators in the current recovery (which began in June 2009) with previous post-war recoveries.  The first point to stress is that the current recovery lags the average in all indicators but one: corporate profits.  The second is that government spending has actually been falling during the current recovery, no doubt one reason that the percent increase in so many indictors remains below the average in previous recoveries; the public sector is actually smaller today than it was three years ago.

The relative strength in the performance of corporate profits helps to explain why the two established political parties feel no real pressure to focus on our long term economic problems; corporations just don’t find the current situation problematic despite the economy’s weak overall economic performance.

Even more telling of the growing class divide is the explosion in income inequality over the last thirty years, which is illustrated in the following chart.

In other words, while corporations have succeeded in raising profits at the expense of wages, those in the top income brackets have been even more successful in raising their income at the expense of almost everyone else.  Notice, for example, that median household income in 2010 is roughly where it was in the late 1980s while the median income of the top households racked up impressive gains. Thus, the very wealthy have every reason to do what they are currently doing, which is using their wealth to ensure that candidates restrict their economic proposals to reforms that will do little to change the existing system.

The takeaway: without a mass movement demanding change, election debates are unlikely to seriously address our steady national economic decline.

Household Spending by Class (UPDATE)

NPR’s Planet Money blog posted an interesting image of differences in how we allocate income based on how much we make. The image looks at three income groups and shows what percent of their  household income budget they spend various categories, using Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey data:

As we see, the largest expense for every group is housing; for the low-income group, 40% of their income goes just to paying for a place to live. They also use more of their income to cover basic necessities — utilities, food eaten at home, transportation.The high-income group, on the other hand,  spends quite a bit more on education.

Look at that last row: saving for retirement (which includes Social Security contributions). This is a particularly striking difference. The affluent are able to put away a significant portion of their income for retirement; for those living just above the poverty line, it’s much, much less than the amount financial planners would recommend (even the middle-income group is saving about the minimum amount generally recommended to prepare for retirement). When so much of your income goes to simply meeting day-to-day needs, saving for the future is a luxury many just cannot afford.

UPDATE: NPR has updated their post, saying the image they had up initially incorrectly. They posted a new image, with notably lower spending on housing:

Eagle-eyed reader David C. pointed this out to me. The revised numbers seem surprisingly low to both of us.Looking at the NPR post again, I think I misunderstood what they were representing; I think this isn’t the percent of total income, but rather % of the household budget, which may not be identical. That said, I looked at some Consumer Expenditure Survey data (here and here) and can’t get the numbers to work out to what they’re showing in the updated image. If someone can, please send us a note at socimages(at)thesocietypages.org and we’ll do another update. Thanks!