methods/use of data

A new publication from the CDC, sent along by sociology professor Sangyoub Park, reports that only 13% of households in the U.S. are still cell phone-free; meanwhile, 27% of households have now abandoned their landline telephone altogether.  The data, however, varies pretty tremendously by state.  Rhode Island and New Jersey have the lowest proportion of wireless-only households at 13%, while Arkansas leads with 35%:

For more detail, here are the states in order:

Dr. Park wondered if part of what was driving the state-by-state difference was levels of poverty.  Perhaps poorer families can’t afford both a landline and a cell phone and so they drop the former.  A rough comparison of the data with rates of poverty in various states is suggestive (source):

So that’s interesting.  But why does the CDC care?  One way to collect survey data is to get a random selection of Americans (or some subset) through random digit dialings. These, however, tend to exclude cell phones.  So the technological change is creating a methodological challenge.  Now scholars using random digit dialing have to consider how the exclusion of 27% of households with cell phones only skews their data, perhaps by disproportionately excluding the poor.  It’s a much more difficult case to make than when such methods excluded only the 2% of households with no phone service at all.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Dolores R. sent along an illustration of the nature of spurious relationships. A spurious relationship is one in which two variables appear to be related, but are in fact both caused by a third, “confounding” variable. Drawing on Andrew Sullivan’s map of passport ownership and data on Type 2 diabetes posted at the US News and World Report, Mark Frauenfelder at BoingBoing suggested, with tongue-in-cheek, that owning a passport prevents Type 2 diabetes.  In fact, both are probably related to a third variable, class: having the money to travel also usually means having access to healthy foods and sufficient health insurance.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Via Colorlines I discovered an Applied Research Center report titled The Color of Food.  The report found that Blacks, Latinos, and Asians were overrepresented in food service work:

The report also discovered a wage gap between White workers and non-White workers at every level of food production:

Race intersected with gender, such that women earned less than men of their same race for each group studied:

The authors go on to break down the data further by each part of the commodity food chain — production, processing, distribution and service — and by racial group.  For example, they show that the average wage of Latinos and Asians differs by ethnic background (always a good reminder that racial categories obscure variability):

Lots more at The Color of Food.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Cross-posted at Ms. and Jezebel.

Bug lovers will recall that the female praying mantis cannibalizes the head of her sexual partner upon mating. Wrote Leland Ossian Howard in Science (1886):

Placing them in the same jar, the male, in alarm, endeavoured to escape. In a few minutes the female succeeded in grasping him. She first bit off his front tarsus, and consumed the tibia and femur.  Next she gnawed out his left eye… it seems to be only by accident that a male ever escapes alive from the embraces of his partner.

The idea that the female mantis is a femme fatale has resonated in U.S. culture, a culture that loves to recount how human women kill the spirits of their male mates; a culture that, as Twisty Faster puts it, “…will unfairly characterize females as villains whenever possible.”

Well, it turns out that our perfect icon of the man-killer was partly an artifact of bad research design.  Faster, who blogs at I Blame the Patriarchy, reports that the study that established that female mantises decapitate their mates used starving females.  A new study has documented an entirely different mating ritual:

Out of thirty matings, we didn’t record one instance of cannibalism, and instead we saw an elaborate courtship display, with both sexes performing a ritual dance, stroking each other with their antennae before finally mating. It really was a lovely display.

Well, except:

There is one species…. the Mantis religiosa, in which it is necessary that the head be removed for the mating to take effect properly.  [In general, though, s]exual cannibalism occurs most often if the female is hungry. But eating the head does causes the body to ejaculate faster.

One species, okay, but there are over 2,000 species of praying mantis.  (You learn something every day.)  In any case, everyone loves a good bad-woman story and I suppose that one was just too good to pass up.

I have to admit, though, they are still bad motherf—ers.  This mantis boxed my cat into a corner:

Also in projecting human relations onto animals: winners and losers of flatworm sex.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Two friends of mine recently had a baby and the hospital sent home all kinds of instructional packets, all of which included product sample, advertising materials, etc. One item they found was this advertisement for the U.S. Career Institute’s program to become a medical claims processor who works from home. The ad plays on the guilt mothers often still have about working outside the home:

I don’t have a problem, in and of itself, with suggesting that a job provides options for parents who want to be home full-time but also work. Given the fact that women still bear the primary responsibility for childcare even though most want or need to provide financial support to the family, I’m sure many women (and for that matter, a lot of men) would find them appealing (in theory, anyway; I have my doubts about a lot of the “work at home and make a gazillion dollars a week!” pitches, but I have no knowledge of this one in particular).

What bothers me is the way the ad is written to not just say, “Hey, if you are staying home with the kids but would like to work for pay as well, this is a great opportunity.” Instead, the blaring headline “I’m glad you work at home Mommy” ties into the idea that children desperately want their moms (but apparently not dads) to stay home with them, and moms who do so are being the best moms. Even among women who value their careers and always planned to return to the paid workforce, many are surprised by how much guilt they feel when they do so. They may feel guilty for leaving their child with another childcare provider, but if they actually look forward to going back to work and are excited or relieved to be there, they often feel guilty for that, too. This is a burden of guilt that new fathers do not generally share; while they may wish they could be home more with their children, they usually don’t express guilt for not doing so, largely because by working outside the home, they are actually fulfilling the normative role of what a good father does, whereas working outside the home, particularly when children are young, it incompatible with ideals of good mothering.

On the very bottom of pg. 2 it does say, “USCI is nationally accredited and approved for veterans’ education benefits!” That’s an interesting line, since the majority of people would would qualify for veterans’ educational benefits would be men (for instance, women currently make up only 15.5% of the U.S. Army). There are other elements on the brochure that seem gender-neutral — being your own boss, setting your own hours, increasing job opportunities in the field — but that line seems to be the one part that is more tailored to a male audience.

On an unrelated topic, I love the totally meaningless graph at the top right of the 2nd page: look! This one column is way bigger than the others! It is entirely lacking in any useful information — how are they defining “growth”? What is 0% referring to? What level of growth are we talking about here? For all we know, the health/medical services bar could indicated 0.000001% growth.

And just out of interest, do any of you have any experience with these types of jobs? Did it live up to the claims (particularly flexibility and the amount of money you can make)?

Teresa L.-M. sent us a link to an article at Color Lines about a survey of 3,413 people conducted by several groups, including Time magazine and the Center for American Progress, about attitudes toward a variety of issues including changes in women’s work and family roles. Overall, we see that every group said that women’s increased participation in the paid workforce has been good for the U.S., but not surprisingly, some groups were more enthusiastic than others:

This includes those who said it has been “somewhat” or “very” positive.  The % for Latinas was highlighted in the original because the memo focused on the fact that Latinos and Latinas, despite stereotypes that they hold more “traditional” gender attitudes, reported more positive feelings about increased workforce participation than did men and women as a whole. Hispanics were somewhat oversampled — that is, more were included than you would expect relative to their proportion in the U.S. population — because the organizations conducting the survey wanted to get more detailed information about Latino/a attitudes. The results indicated that “Latino attitudes were basically in line with those of other groups on nearly every indicator in the survey. Some minor differences did emerge in terms of the intensity of these beliefs and the degree of consensus about an issue.”

Also, obviously the categories above are not mutually exclusive, they just illustrate some interesting differences when you sort on various characteristics.

One area where Latinos/as differed was that they were more likely to report having an “interesting career” as the most important thing for their daughters to have, and less likely to say marriage and family is the most important, compared to all men and women, which is the opposite of what stereotypes of Latinos and Latinas would predict:

But I can’t help but note the wording there: “Everyone naturally wants the best of all things for their children…” That’s sloppy survey writing there, because it’s leading — it implies that a certain attitude or desire is universal and normative, and implies that everyone would agree that the three items they include in the question are examples of “the best.” It’s not that I’m saying most parents want their daughters to have miserable marriages or shitty jobs they hate. But you always want to be careful about wording questions in ways that take beliefs or values for granted, and thus set up a situation where contradicting them puts the respondent in the position of feeling deviant or fearing disapproval from the interviewer. I don’t know that in this particular example, that wording would have a huge impact on responses, since participants had to rank 3 specific items relative to one another. But I’d be very concerned if they had then been asked how important each item was (rather than asked to rank them), since the wording might lead people to rate items more highly than they would otherwise, because that’s what parents “naturally” want for their kids.

Anyway, moving on. Latinos/as were less concerned about children growing up without a full-time stay-at-home parent than were men  and women overall, with Latinas expressing significantly less negative attitudes than women overall and Latino men (this includes those who answered “very” or “somewhat” negative):

Back to methodological quibbling, this next graph is a great example of slippage between what the graph shows and what the heading claims it shows. As we see, the title says it indicates that Latinos are “more likely to turn to one another for decision making and financial support”:

But that’s not what the data are about at all. The question wording makes it clear this is both hypothetical (including people who don’t have a romantic partner and thus may be answering based on what they suppose would be true if they did) and is about how they value these things (“how important you feel it is for you personally…”), which is very different than if they regularly do them. The fact that you feel that it’s very important to have a romantic partner who provides financial support does not mean you are, in fact, turning to another person for financial support.

Of course, the heading for the table was written after the data were gathered and analyzed, and it doesn’t necessarily indicate that the data themselves are problematic. And yet, along with the wording issue above — and these are just two things I noticed in the memo that summarizes a few of the findings — it makes me a bit hesitant. The topic is interesting, and the results, which seem to undermine stereotypes about Latinos/as, would be great to use…except the methodological issues are overshadowing what might be perfectly valid, useful, and insightful findings. So ultimately, I present the images here less as information on attitudes about women’s roles and more as a cautionary tale.

And, you know, feel free to let me know if you think I’m over-reacting.

Nathan Yau, at Flowing Data, calls BP out on a piece of data representation trickery.  In a video on the BP website explaining the progress they were making cleaning up the oil, Kent Wells offered the following graph:

The bars represent oil collected over time.  But, as Yau points out, the data offered by Wells is cumulative.  It’s not the case that each consecutive day (May 16 to May 23) they are collecting more oil.  Instead, each collective day they have collected more oil overall.  If they keep collecting oil, we should expect nothing less.

Instead of showing the data cumulatively, they could have presented how much oil they collected each individual day.  But the data, in that case, doesn’t look as good.  Yau put this together:

This graph suggests that BP’s collection of oil is diminishing and makes viewers want to know why.  The graph they offered, however, hides their decreasing efficacy.


Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Keeping a trend in perspective.

The sociologist down the hall pointed out that yesterday’s chart gave the impression of a whopping increase in TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) support for poor families. But I have been complaining since December 2008 that the welfare system is not responding adequately to the recession’s effects on poor single mothers and their children. I wrote then:

We now appear headed back toward a national increase in TANF cases. But the restrictive rules on work requirements and time limits are keeping many families that need assistance out of the program…. If the government can extend unemployment benefits during the crisis, why not impose a moratorium on booting people from TANF?

So it does seem contradictory that I would post a chart yesterday showing a huge increase in TANF family recipients, and continue the same complaint. So let me put it in better perspective. It’s a good lesson for me on the principles of graphing data, which I have made a point of picking on others for.

Height and width

There were two problems with yesterday’s chart. First, the vertical scale only ran from 1.6 million to 1.9 million families. Second, the horizontal scale only ran for 26 months. I’ll correct each aspect in turn to show their effects. Here’s yesterday’s chart:

It sure looks like a dramatic turnaround. And any turnaround is a big deal. I wrote last year:

What should be striking in this is that the rolls are increasing even as the punitive program rules continue to pull aid from families according to the draconian term limits dreamed up by Gingrich, ratified by Clinton and endorsed by Obama — 2 years continuous, 5 years lifetime in the program. The current stimulus package includes more money for TANF, to help cover an expected growth in families applying — but no rule change to permit families to keep their support in the absence of available jobs.

But, run the vertical axis down to zero, and the same trend is not so dramatic:

Now the big bounce since July 2008 is put in perspective. We’ve seen a 16% increase since that bottom point, but the response seems much more modest in light of the size and impact of the Great Recession we’ve come to know.

In fact, though, the longer-term view underscores how paltry that response has really been. Back the chart up to 1996, and you can see how small the increase has been compared with the pre-draconian reform period:

All three images are correct, but their emphasis is different. To me, the important take-home message from this trend is, “That’s it? The greatest economic recession since the Great Depression, and our welfare response was that measly uptick? Our system really is a shambles.”

One important issue remains, however, and that is some measure of the need for welfare. So consider the number of single-parent families below the poverty line, compared with the number of families receiving TANF (formerly AFDC):

Now the story is much more clear.

After welfare reform in 1996, the number of families receiving welfare was cut by half in just a few years. At the same time, however, the number in poverty dropped. Since then, as the number in poverty has increased, the number on welfare has not. The two trends appeared to be uncoupled through most of the 2000s. In the last year we’ve seen the first increase in TANF numbers since 1996, but nowhere near enough to meet the increase in poor single-parent families.*

It is still the case that, although the stimulus bill allocated more money to TANF, the punitive rules and term limits have not been changed. So the system does not address longer-term poverty — something we should expect to see much more of in the next few years.

*We don’t have the official 2009 poverty rates yet, since they are compiled from a survey done in March 2010, to be released this fall.

Philip Cohen, PhD, is a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he teaches classes in demography, social stratification, and the family.  You can visit him at his blog, Family Inequality, and see his previous posts on SocImages here, here, and here.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.