The Atypical Family is Normal

The U.S. Department of Commerce released a study back in 2010 concerning what it meant to be a Middle Class Household in the U.S..  The report begins by explaining that 92% of Americans consider themselves to be middle or working class — the report does not put a line in there per se. The report then goes on to analyze the budgetary possibilities at multiple income levels for two configurations of household: one parent with two children (1+2), or two parents with two children (2+2). They did this because “A family with two children under age 18 is often considered the typical American family.”

But we have census data readily available, so let’s test their “often considered” against reality. Census shows that 20% of women who are between 40 and 44 are also childless and thus quite unlikely to have children in their household. Census also shows that 21% of households have 3 or more children in them. So our dear Department of Commerce just disenfranchised over 40% of households in America from being “typical” by choosing a stupid model. (Got a grandparent living in that house? You’re a freak, too. Only one child? Better get another one, freak. Empty nesters? Too late for you, freaks.)

The most immediate effect of the Department of Commerce’s insulting an increasingly large swathe of the population with their errant normative judgment is that all evidence in and conclusion from this report are of doubtful application: whatever it is they’ve researched clearly doesn’t apply as widely as their opening suggestion of 92% of households. But then it turns out that the bottom 25th percentile of the 1+2 households is actually below the poverty line, so this report isn’t for them anymore. (We didn’t realize they were freaks when we started, but I guess they are.)

The report goes on to subtly nudge more people out: despite the claim that Middle Class Americans “want to protect their children’s health and their own health […and…] desire employer-provided health insurance” (disenfranchising the self-employed or people keen on socialized medicine, freaks) the report clearly shows that 1+2 households and the first 25th percentile of 2+2 households require government assistance to get health insurance for their children to be Middle Class. Only, last time I looked, part of being Middle Class was not needing overt government assistance to maintain that lifestyle.

Eduardo Porter seems to agree, jumping over the lumpy data provided to the conclusion that “Even two-earner families making almost $81,000 in 2008 — substantially more than the family median of about $60,000 reported by the Census — would have a much tougher time acquiring the attributes of the middle class than in 1990.” Or, to put it another way, you have to be well above the median income and thus upper-middle class before you’re really middle class.

But what does the report want to be true?

First, the report wants us to believe that progress continues up the socioeconomic ladder. The report claims that “[i]n 1990, two-parent two-child families reported a median income of $67,100, increasing to $80,600 by 2008, a 20% increase,” despite the fact that their graph clearly shows that the entire 20% increase happened from 1990-2000: from 2000-2008 almost all wages have flat-lined or decreased, a point that they concede two paragraphs later before going right back to talking about the gains that their normalized dual-income households saw from 1990-2008.

Second, the report wants us to blame the freaks when normal families can’t get ahead. Seriously, this is on page 22.

Families with two children are a declining share of the overall population, with particularly large declines in the share of the population living in two-parent two-child families. More people are living in single-parent families (even though the share of people in families with single parents and two children has fallen), living alone or living in families without children. So, even while incomes among families with two children are growing, aggregate incomes are growing much more slowly because fewer people are living in this family structure.

To be fair, it’s probably true that the net income for everybody in the 2+2 demographic combined is shrinking because that demographic is shrinking (and the report’s model is decreasingly relevant to the America people live in). But the report is looking at sluggish average income growth and then blaming selfish freaks like me for taking the money away from the typical 2+2 families, which is necessary to defend the relevance of their model. But screw their model, they’re saying that it’s my fault that my friend (who has 2 kids) isn’t getting a raise. Which is flat out not true: she’s not getting a raise because she’s a public school teacher, and public school teachers have been getting screwed on raises for years now. And I mention my friends who are long-suffering teachers in public education because of how the report concludes:

To provide stability for American families, our nation needs a healthy economy, a responsible private sector that offers decent jobs with health care and pension plans, and an effective public sector that provides high quality schools for all children. When these goals are met, more families will be able to reach their middle class dreams.

Which shows us that the report wants, thirdly, to believe in the responsibility of the private sector. This is, of course, the same private sector relentlessly works to cut back on their labor expenditures, inclusive of health insurance to such a degree that government assistance is required by most of the demographic points in the report. But never mind that; the Department of Commerce also wants pension plans to make a comeback. Apparently they’ve not been keeping up on current events, where private sector pension plans get jettisoned in bankruptcy courts and public sector pension plans have been crippling the quality of schools for years, which is allegedly a large part of the reason why teachers haven’t been getting raises for some time now. But the most astounding claim of this conclusion is that “more families will be able to reach their” — and here’s the awkwardly lackluster phrase of the year — “middle class dreams.” Because we know, from page 22, that “more people are … living alone or in families without children”: People are abdicating those dreams with their waking lifestyle choices.

Overall, this report is a particularly heinous example of data being ignorantly fitted around a bad model. I don’t think the people crafting the report did it out of malice per se, but rather that they did it without having anybody available to tell them how woefully inadequate their map was to the territory they intended to cover. Unfortunately, the existence of the report does reinforce normative judgments against us atypical freaks: when social engineering policy is fixed around nonsensical ideals, the large portion of the population that does not conform is essentially penalized for being who they are rather than who their government thinks it would be nice for them to be.

Policymaking based on wishful thinking is bad governance.