Thursday, January 16, 2014

From such misunderstandings are dreadful unintended consequences born.

Interesting. From Wealthy Women Can Afford to Reject Marriage, but Poor Women Can't by Emma Green.
But income actually has a significant effect on how women can afford to think about marriage. Often, self-described feminists question the merits of marriage and urge their fellow women to remain independent if they choose. As Carol Gilligan, a New York University professor who sat on a panel with Ehrenreich, put it, "Does anybody know the word patriarchy?"

Taking a stand against patriarchy is much easier if you're well-educated, have a stable income, and live in a community where you could theoretically find an educated, employed man to marry. For poor, uneducated women, especially those who have kids, the question of whether to get married looks a lot different: It's the choice between raising children on one or two incomes, between having someone to help with household chores and child-rearing alone while working multiple jobs.

And that's the big difference: For a poor woman, deciding whether to get married or not will be a big part of shaping her economic future. For a wealthier woman, deciding whether to get married is a choice about independence, lifestyle, and, at times, "fighting the patriarchy." There's a cognitive dissonance in Ehrenreich's straight-up dismissal of the economic benefits of marriage, because the statistics tell an awkward truth: Financially, married women tend to fare much better than unmarried women.
I have long been commenting that much of modern day feminism smacks of some of the worst forms of self-indulgent classism, the projecting onto everyone else, the privileges one enjoys as the educated and already wealthy. Sometimes the policies advocated for such privileged individuals do also benefit poor women as well or even the entire community. But often not. The failure to accept a broader perspective of the community and reality can be catastrophic when setting policy. I think there is good substance to Green's article but I wish she had added numbers. According to the US Census, the average household with married-couple families and children, earn approximately $72,000 (all data from 2009). If the wife works, the median income is $86,000, if not working, $48,000. Households with children and a single male parent have an annual income of $42,000. These are about 25% of all single parent homes. Single mother with children homes (75% of all single parent homes) have an annual income of $30,000.

I have recently commented that sometimes we ought to be looking at things from the perspective of families as competing economic structures (The real productivity competition is between familial models not between genders) and this reinforces that view. In looking at that census data, it is interesting to note that in 1947, in constant 2009 dollars, the range was much narrower than today. Today, the lowest is the single mother household with an average of $30,000 and the highest is the married couple both working household with income of $86,000, more than 2.9 times as high. In 1947, the single mother household was $17,000 and the married couple both working was $30,000. So two observations - single moms today are earning as much today as dual income married families in 1947. Two, the productivity premium for marriage has increased from 1.8 to 2.9.

Separate from all that, Green's article reminds me of the case of the Green Revolution which I recall from my undergraduates days studying economic development. In the 1960s, American agronomists came out to the India, Philippines and Southeast Asia with these great new strains of rice. The aid workers and agronomists were immensely frustrated with how slow the local farmers were at taking up the new strains even though they were multiple times more productive, disease resistant, etc. There were lots of issues, but much of it came down to the fact that the two parties, aid workers and local farmers, had distinctly different profiles of risk sensitivity. Aid workers were on well paid contracts with the prospects of returning to booming agribusinesses or growing universities. There was very little risk to them. Local farmers however were using heuristics based on multigenerational experiences of living on the knife edge of poverty between hardship and starvation.

From their perspective, the new strains had to deliver reliably and predictably, not just productively. A shortfall of even ten percent in the crop might mean privation, anything more and starvation. Crop failure would mean likely loss of young and old.

The good intentions of the aid workers and the data they were using were not in question. But they simply did not take into account the well grounded risk aversion of local farmers.

Green's article highlights this from a class perspective. As long as you can go home to parents or fall back on well established siblings, or have enough savings for big risk taking, you are entitled to a much broader range of decisions and choices. It is important to remember that others are not so privileged and that the increased choices of the privileged are not always beneficial, and sometimes are harmful, to those less privileged. From such misunderstandings are dreadful unintended consequences born.

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