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Disparities in Well-Being and the Prospects for Policy

Reaction to our latest report “A Century Apart” has been lively, with pieces in the Wall Street Journal online, the Star Ledger, and the Philadelphia Inquirer, as well as on ABC World News Tonight. Many readers have responded with thought-provoking comments. By far the greatest volume of feedback was generated by David Brooks’ May 4th column, “The Limits of Policy,” which discussed some of the report’s findings in detail and offered his views as to what fuels the gaps between different groups of Americans.

In this post, we’ll offer a perspective that differs from that of Mr. Brooks on why some groups of Americans are living longer, getting more education, and earning more than others. In addition, at the end of the piece, we’ll address some of the questions people have raised online or by writing to us for clarification.

Mr. Brooks argues that the persistence of such striking gaps is evidence of the limitations of policy intervention. His view is that social policy that breaks social bonds or is simply egregious on its face (slavery, Jim Crow, forced resettlement of Native Americans) clearly makes things worse, but good policy is a chimera that can only hope for modest achievements at best. Our work leads us to more optimistic conclusions.

Overall, the project’s research continues to impress upon us that wide variation exists in well-being between geographic regions and within geographic regions, between racial and ethnic groups and within racial and ethnic groups, and that these variations stem from a number of factors.

In terms of geography, some of the greatest disparities in well-being are found within metropolitan areas, often in neighborhoods that abut one another. Looking at New York’s Fourteenth Congressional District, on Manhattan’s East Side, and New York’s Sixteenth Congressional District, just a few stops uptown on the #6 train in the South Bronx, makes this clear. The average resident of New York’s Fourteenth earns two and a half times as much, lives four years longer, is seven times as likely to have a college degree, and is four times less likely to be in poverty than a resident of New York’s Sixteenth. Similar chasms separate neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Chicago, Baton Rouge, and other big cities.

Well-being within racial and ethnic groups also varies tremendously. Latinos in New Jersey live nearly eight years longer and earn almost $7,000 a year more than Latinos in Alabama. Native Americans in California earn more than twice as much as Native Americans in South Dakota and live about eleven years longer. Asian Americans live, on average, to almost 91 in New Jersey, but to 81 in Hawaii. Whites in Washington, D.C., live about seven years longer, earn more than twice the annual wages, and are five times more likely to have completed college than their West Virginia counterparts. These observations suggest that neither geography nor demography alone determines destiny.

Identifying how and to what extent economic, political, social, cultural, and even environmental factors interact to create the landscape of opportunity for different population groups in different places at different times is social science’s quest for the holy grail. While we have not analyzed the unique economic, social, and political conditions facing each geographic region and each population group, case studies of particular regions and conditions suggest that public policy does matter when it comes to fostering or restraining the development of human capabilities.

Like many other observers, we cannot help but recall the G.I. Bill, which is widely regarded as the most effective piece of social legislation in American history. Enacted after World War II, the G.I. Bill sent thousands of returning soldiers to college, lifting educational attainment across the country, and helping to usher in one of the most remarkable periods of economic growth in American history. Social Security and Medicare are widely credited with cutting the poverty rate among the elderly by two-thirds between the late 1960s and the late 1990s. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a federal policy that rewards families with tax breaks for economic productivity and enjoys strong bipartisan support, has also been linked to reductions in poverty. In fact, our research has noted strong correlations between the existence and extent of state supplements to the EITC and the standard of living for state residents. In the realm of public health, tobacco control efforts begun in the early 1990s have cut smoking rates in half, thus reducing the illnesses, deaths, and costs that tobacco addiction so frequently causes.

In the past decade in particular, a movement towards evidence-based policy has emerged. Sometimes the high—and highly visible—costs of inaction necessitate taking risks and implementing policies before all the evidence is in. At the same time, a growing body of empirical evidence is helping researchers and policy-makers alike better gauge which policies work and how much they cost. Many challenges certainly remain, but these developments make us everything but pessimistic about the prospects for understanding—and ultimately addressing—disparities in well-being in the United States.

Clarifying some common points of confusion

Many of the questions raised in the discussion around “A Century Apart” center on two points: what we are measuring in our index and why we use the five racial and ethnic categories of African American, Asian American, Latino, Native American/Alaska Native, and white.

The American Human Development Index measures well-being and access to opportunity (not happiness, as some blogs have suggested) using official U.S. government statistics in the following three areas:

  • • HEALTH: we calculate life expectancy at birth using mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention;
  • • EDUCATION: the indicators we use are degree attainment for adults age 25 and older and school enrollment for everyone age three and up from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS); and
  • • INCOME: we use median personal earnings for all workers age 16 and above, also from the ACS. We do not adjust for cost of living as there is no official measure of the cost of living. The methods that do exist are rife with problems: they typically only consider the consumption habits of certain segments of the population and do not take into account living costs typical in rural areas or for middle- and low-income households. Despite their imperfections, the existing measurement methods suggest that the variations in the cost of living across the country are considerably smaller than is generally assumed. Focusing on outliers in some neighborhoods of some cities (Manhattan and San Francisco, for instance), skews perceptions about typical variations in the cost of living in different parts of the country.

We combine these three indicator sets into a single index that ranges from zero to ten, ten being high (see the Methodological Notes to “A Century Apart” for a more detailed explanation). This exercise allows us to compare different groups on the overall index, which we would argue reflects the basic building blocks of a good life, and also in terms of the three components individually. Mr. Brooks’ piece does not discuss the composite index, but rather considers its three components separately.

The five racial and ethnic categories we use are determined by the Office of Management and Budget and used by the Census Bureau and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These categories are imperfect, as many readers have pointed out. “Asian American,” for instance, includes people who trace their heritage to a wide range of countries, from Japan, Korea, and China to India and Pakistan to Vietnam and Laos. The category “whites” includes people whose ancestors arrived on the Mayflower, descendants of Irish who came in the 1840s or of Jewish immigrants who arrived at the turn of the century, and many Eastern Europeans and Middle Easterners who have arrived more recently, to name just a tiny fraction—also an extremely diverse group. “Latinos”—called Hispanic or Latino by the Census Bureau—can be of any race; they are bound together in this category chiefly by their shared language and can trace their family origins to Spain or to the countries in North, Central, and South America.

We would love to be able to disaggregate beyond these broad categories to gain a better understanding of the important differences within them, but cannot do so because the information is not consistently collected in this way across the country and down to the county level. Nor is data connected by religious affiliation; thus we cannot compare the well-being of American Catholics, Muslims, or Protestants, for instance. Imperfect and overly broad though the categories are, however, the U.S. Census Bureau data sets are the best available for research that seeks to compare groups across the nation.


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