The 1940 census is awesome — December 3, 2013

The 1940 census is awesome

The Census Bureau, 72 years after the 1940 census, put the raw data from the 1940 census up on the web last year. It is completely fascinating.

It’s also tricky, for me anyway, to find my ancestors’ information. My partner has an easier task for her grandparents: they lived in New York City, and the New York Public Library helpfully posted 1940 phone books expressly to help people navigate the 1940 census (thanks, New York Public Library!). No such luck for Burlington, Vermont. But by asking my parents, I was able to find my dad’s parents, 7 years before my dad was born, when it was just my grandparents and my aunt. Among the interesting tidbits:

* My grandfather was listed as unemployed (and seeking work) at the time of the census; in 1939 he had only been employed 30 weeks. He had been unemployed for the four weeks preceding March 30.
* In 1935 they had lived in Alburg, Vermont on a farm.
* My grandfather’s profession was listed as ‘weaver’ at ‘woolen mill’. I knew him as a watchmaker, though I imagine he was just an all-around handyman.
* As of 1939, his salary was $630. Looking around a bit, I found a Social Security Administration document from 1947, which says that the median family income in 1939 for a family with 3 people, with a male head of household under age 35 (my grandfather was 30) was $1,373. So as of 1940, it looks like my grandparents weren’t doing so well. I’ll be curious how that changes when the 1950 census data become available in 2022.
* Both my grandmother and grandfather had fourth-grade educations.

There are a couple things to note about this. First, my method for chasing down the census records was basically ad-hoc; I asked my parents, who asked my aunt, who guessed what their street address had been when she was seven years old and was basically right on the money. Even with that information, the census data aren’t terribly easy to navigate. With luck, you can use an address to get an Enumeration District, which is basically the terrain that a single census-taker covers. But even within an ED, there are a lot of scanned census forms to peruse. This seems like a case that would derive a lot of value from some crowdsourcing: people using the 1940-census site would be able to tag individual records or pages with whatever information they want to contribute: street addresses, names, etc. Over time, it ought to be possible to write SQL queries against raw census data (“SELECT * FROM 1940_data WHERE state = ‘Vermont’ and LastName = ‘Laniel'”).

Even in my partner’s case, which is less ad-hoc, not everyone had a phone in 1940. What would we do if we wanted to look up the census information of someone alive in 1940? I’m sure there’s a well-known way to bootstrap oneself to a family tree, but I’m not familiar with it. And I’d vastly prefer a SQL query to a complicated bootstrapping process.

What’s the definition of “disposable personal income”? — November 8, 2010

What’s the definition of “disposable personal income”?

Matt Yglesias today looked at the change in disposable personal income over the last few years, and I wanted to check that the definition of the term didn’t count “disposable income” as income less, say, mortgage and credit-card payments. If it did, then you’d expect to see disposable income go down as people pay down debt.

Turns out the definition doesn’t deduct debt payments, but it confuses me in other ways. Here it is:

Personal income is the income received by persons from participation in production, from government and business transfer payments, and from government interest. Personal income includes income received by non-profit institutions serving households, by private non-insured welfare funds, and by private trust funds. Income from production is generated both by the labor of individuals and by the capital that they own. Private income not earned in production, such as from capital gains or the sale of assets, is excluded. Personal income is calculated as the sum of wage and salary disbursements, employer contributions for employee pension and insurance funds, proprietors income, property income (personal interest, dividend and rental income), and transfer payments to individuals, less personal contributions for social insurance.

Disposable personal income is personal income less personal tax payments. While personal income does not include capital gains realized through the sale of assets, personal income taxes do include the taxes paid for these capital gains.

(Internal footnote omitted.)

I’m puzzled by a couple aspects of this definition:

  1. “[E]mployer contributions for employee pension and insurance funds” makes it in? So when my employer contributes to my 401(k), that counts as disposable income? Okay, I can half-see that: if need be, I could raid the 401(k). But I’d pay a penalty if I did, so I hope that something less than 100% of my contribution counts toward my disposable income. But then what about the “insurance funds” part? My employer’s contribution to unemployment insurance counts toward my disposable income? The employer contribution to long-term disability? To health insurance? This would seriously inflate this measure of disposable income: as has been well-documented, health-care costs have been rising, so a lot of money that might otherwise have gone toward rising salaries has instead gone into health-insurance payments.

  2. Disposable income doesn’t include capital gains? But why? That’s income I can spend, just as much as is income earned through honest toil. And if they’re not going to include capital-gains income, then why do they deduct capital-gains taxes?

I’ll look around for a more in-depth discussion of this definition. If anyone can clarify, please do.

A quick note on life expectancies — August 24, 2010

A quick note on life expectancies

The next time you hear someone say that the Social Security retirement age needs to go up because “back when Social Security was started, people weren’t expected to live much past retirement age,” first point out to them that the terminology is confusing: “life expectancy” means “life expectancy at birth.” Life expectancy at birth goes down if you die in the crib. What’s actually important, when setting the retirement age, is your life expectancy at age 65. Since we’ve made big strides on reducing child mortality, life expectancy at birth has gone way up; life expectancy at age 65 has only gone up by a little less than six years across all races and sexes, and has only gone up by a bit less than three years for black men. See the tables (with sources linked) below.

A couple other things to note:

* Suppose we’re in a recession when you’re in your late 60s. You get laid off. How likely do you think it will be that you’ll get re-hired? (Though as a friend mentioned the other night: employers may refuse to hire older folks because they know that their new employees will only be working until they hit 65; an increase in the retirement age might make employers think they can get a few more productive years out of them, thereby making age discrimination less of a problem.)

* There’s a gap in life expectancy by income, which the figures by race and sex don’t necessarily capture. (Though since race and sex affect income — women and black people are paid less — the life-expectancy numbers based only on race and sex may already capture an income effect. What we want is are models that predict life expectancy as a function of race, sex, and income, holding each constant while the other varies.)

I’ve had a book in my queue for a while, namely [book: Working Longer: The Solution to the Retirement Income Challenge], which seems to address these issues. I’ve had a visceral resistance to reading it — namely that if someone suggests I work later in life, I might suggest in response that they perform an anatomical sexual impossibility. But I’ll overcome that resistance and read it for you, out of affection.

Life expectancies, 1939-1941:
All White men White women Black men Black women
At birth: 63.62 62.81 67.29 52.26 55.56
At age 65: 77.80 77.07 78.56 77.21 78.93
Life expectancies, 2006:
All White men White women Black men Black women
At birth: 77.7 75.7 80.6 69.7 76.5
At age 65: 83.5 83.1 84.8 80.1 83.6
Methods of measuring GDP — May 30, 2010

Methods of measuring GDP

A colleague the other day mentioned his annoyance with the Hans Rosling TED talks on global poverty. His annoyance generally stems from treating developing nations’ GDP estimates as anything more than numerical hocus-pocus.

A few things I know basically nothing about:

* I really have no idea how hocus-pocusy these GDP estimates are.
* I also have no idea how hocus-pocusy the U.S.’s own GDP estimates are.
* Another thing I have no idea about is whether every year’s GDP estimates from a given country are mangled in the same way, so that (estimated GDP in year 2) minus (estimated GDP in year 1) is actually a reasonably accurate measure of year-over-year change in GDP.
* Per-capita GDP estimates might introduce another source of uncertainty, namely uncertainty in the population estimates. I likewise have no idea how accurate most nations’ population estimates are. And I have no idea whether per-capita-GDP estimates come from sampling individual people on their incomes, or estimating the country’s aggregate GDP and dividing by an estimate of the population.

I guess what I’d like, then, is a good introduction to the problems of measurement in countries with not-very-well-established economic-measurement systems — and for that matter, an introduction to how the U.S. statistical-measurement agencies do their work. Paging Chris Blattman