Poverty is Like Gravity.

April 28, 2010 at 11:50 pm (By Amba)

After the CNAs (certified nurse assistants) from hospice bathe and dress J and get him up, I like to hang out with them and have coffee before they go on to the next patient or (since we’re often their last stop) to their family caregiving duties at home.  Most of them are black (in all the multifarious shades of golden, freckled, ruddy and brown that word so flatly fails to suggest), and single motherhood is the norm in their community; the men have long since left or been kicked out, and those who’ve stayed are often described as not much help or not worth the trouble.  (By contrast, the South American woman who stays with J when I go away is married, and her husband helps with their three boys — all of whom were born with congenital vision problems and/or cleft palate, possibly because of occupational chemical exposure of one or both parents.  To paint these trends as monolithic would be stereotypical, but to say they are representative is, sadly, just statistical.)  On the plus side, mothers/grandmothers are always there to be relied on and to take care of babies and little children while daughter-mothers go to work and to school, struggling doggedly for education and certification and advancement.  In return, they take care of their aging mothers who struggle with arthritis, diabetes, heart failure.  It’s a hard life and takes a heavy toll on health.

Talk about the working class, these women work harder than anyone I’ve ever seen in the most palpable sense of “work.”  They are extremely conscientious.  They need physical strength and endurance, bottomless patience, basic medical knowledge, a strong stomach, a sense of humor, and a kind heart to do what they do.  And they get paid, and sometimes treated, very poorly.  Home health agencies charge the client $20 an hour and pay the woman or man who does all the work $9.  Hospice, I hope, pays more than that, but probably not a lot more.  Hospice patients, they say, are mostly grateful and respectful, but home health patients — those just out of the hospital convalescing from something acute and temporary — often treat them high-handedly like servants, expecting them, for instance, to clean house.

As I was thinking about what they’ve achieved against the odds and what it takes out of them, it struck me that poverty is like gravity.  The lower in economic altitude you start, the stronger a force you must overcome to rise.  Against that down-dragging force, to get an education, to have a career, to raise children and get them into college, you must ignite a solid rocket booster of will and determination over and over again.

It always takes effort and perseverance to achieve anything.  Inertia and dissipation are universal drags on our dreams.  But those of us who were launched into orbit by the circumstances of our birth — that is, by the struggles of our ancestors — will never know what it takes, and takes out of you, just to get off the ground.

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40 Comments

  1. Maxwell James said,

    A fellow I know from this organization has repeatedly pointed out to me that home health care is one of the major “jobs of the future” in our country. Not only is the # needed rapidly growing due to demographic trends, but cost efficiency pressures in healthcare are moving more and more low-wage workers from inpatient to home-based care. While there are good reasons for this trend, it is troubling that home health aides are exempt from federal minimum wage and overtime standards.

  2. amba12 said,

    it is troubling that home health aides are exempt from federal minimum wage and overtime standards.

    That should change. For one thing, there is an enormous gray market. A lot of home health aides are paid in cash and much of that income is not reported or taxed, because it isn’t worth the hassle for the employers of occasional aides to do all the paperwork (those who can hire full-time aides are more likely to do so). Plus, an employer paying an aide directly can pay considerably less than an agency charges and the aide still ends up with considerably more, so it’s a good deal for both. The down side of that for the employer is that gray-market aides aren’t necessarily vetted. They can be recommended by word of mouth and be fantastic. Or they can be recommended by word of mouth and . . . well, my first one, highly recommended, experienced, attractive and charming, turned into a crack addict before my eyes.

  3. amba12 said,

    Althouse’s old troll Mary showed up, asking just how J and I felt entitled to the labor of these women or how we could let society help us out after living as we chose, etc. etc. She is the only person I have ever banned, because she comments out of a combination of ignorance and malice and has crossed an uncrossable line with several of my other commenters. Her presence is toxic and drives others away.

  4. Maxwell James said,

    Oh, I don’t think anything can be done about the gray market, nor should it. But agencies themselves are also exempt from these standards (though not from individual state standards). This came before the Supreme Court back in 2007, but they basically kicked it over to the DOL, which has done nothing since.

  5. Maxwell James said,

    As for “Mary,” I hear she tried to get into this band back in the day, but wasn’t found intimidating enough. So instead she started her own one-troll group, the Snippies.

  6. realpc said,

    I observed some of that when my mother was still living alone, after she got dementia, and she needed home care aides. They seemed very caring and wonderful, in general. Anyone I have met so far who takes care of old people has seemed to be very kind. They were not terribly energetic however, because there was a lot of dirt they never noticed, or noticed and ignored (part of their job was cleaning). And the turnover was very high. As soon as my mother would get to really know one of them they would leave. The pay was abysmal, and most could not afford a car.

    I never understood why they aren’t paid enough to live. I guess it’s because the agencies don’t have the resources, and/or because the qualifications for the job are so minimal ,and it’s easy to find poor women who will do it for a while.

    I am not sure about your analysis of poverty though. I really don’t know what causes it, and I don’t know if anyone has it all figured out. For one thing, poverty absolutely must exist ,since it’s defined as the lower end of the spectrum. If most people were billionaires, then millionaires would be poor.

    But of course there are Americans who have a terribly hard life, even if they are not actually going without food or emergency medical care. As you have described, this fate is mostly for single mothers without much education. Being a single mother is just terribly hard.

    So this could be partially blamed on a sub culture that doesn’t discourage single motherhood, or doesn’t adequately encourage stable marriages.

    I think you described it as if these poor women are basically helpless victims, and maybe they are but I am not sure. Sometimes it’s hard for me to see it that way because I was raised in a family that started as middle class but became poor because of divorce. And even worse, we were raised by our mentally ill mother.

    None of us, myself or my siblings, are poor and we did not get launched anywhere by our parents. So I think maybe it’s more than just how much money your parents had when you were growing up.

  7. amba12 said,

    Obviously, they are not helpless victims!! since they’ve been helping themselves and each other quite well! There is also great variation among them — the Caribbean immigrants often are more stably middle class from way back.

    It’s just that the force they have to work against is so much stronger. And yes, stable marriages would help a lot (since writing this I’ve seen that the Hispanic community is now going rapidly down the path of single motherhood; I’ll find the link later).

  8. amba12 said,

    her own one-troll group, the Snippies

    She’s past snippy and up to vitriolic, destructive and invasive. Ask some of her other targets. She’s driven by envy of people (especially women) she imagines have had more advantages handed to them than she has, and she is poisonous.

  9. realpc said,

    “since writing this I’ve seen that the Hispanic community is now going rapidly down the path of single motherhood; I’ll find the link later”

    I guess the question is why. I have heard that extreme poverty is mostly caused either by being a single mother, or mental illness or addiction. In other words, most people can find a way to survive as long as they don’t have something impossible to deal with.

    And is having to work against a force really so bad? We might have more self-confidence if we weren’t helped by others.

    I am mostly just questioning some of the progressive assumptions, that poor people should have special breaks. I think that should only apply if the person is a single mother because of misfortune (not for cultural reasons) or they are disabled.

    Because I really do think that the progressive attitude is very disrespectful and paternalistic. Of course I realize they are just trying to be compassionate and helpful.

    But once you realize that aside from serious disabilities and being a single mother, everyone can find a way, then you realize people deserve a lot of respect.

    And I have been thinking about this a lot lately. I decided I have much more respect for people in general than a typical progressive has.

  10. amba12 said,

    is having to work against a force really so bad?

    Everybody has to work against a force — the force of our own nature and of the second law of thermodynamics. The heirs of rich families have to work against the temptation to just dissipate their lives and inheritance.

    It’s just that the force seems stronger or weaker at different economic altitudes. Of course, by failing to successfully fight “the force” at a higher level, you can and will slide down to a lower level where the forces are even stronger.

  11. realpc said,

    I don’t know, I just feel the progressives are wrong about poverty.

  12. PatHMV said,

    I think gravity may be a good analogy, amba. I also fear that the lack of decent, stable men becomes a terribly vicious cycle. When a single mother and grandmother have seen the men in their lives become worthless, unemployed, drug-addicted, imprisoned, or whatever, it’s going to tend to lead them to assume that the same will be the end point for the young boys they are trying to raise. “You’re going to be worthless, just like your father!” is a remarkably poisonous and self-fulfilling prophecy. And when there’s only a handful of positive male role models in an entire community, that makes the odds of becoming a successful adult male pretty low.

    As for breaks for unwed mothers, it’s a tough thing to analyze. On the one hand, if the mothers were even poorer than they are with food stamps, the kids would probably end up even worse. On the other hand, every bit of help means that much less pressure on the men to live up to their obligations. And help from the government comes with no strings these days, whereas if the help came from charities, more behavioral strings might be attached which might do at least some folks some good.

    And always remember that it’s EXPENSIVE to be poor. “Rich” folks can afford to pay cash for a sofa up front. Poor folks can’t, and if they need a sofa, they have to go to rent-to-own, which is one hell of a racket, and requires them to pay many times what the sofa actually costs, in interest charges.

  13. Danny said,

    That hourly wage is appalling for such a position. I’m guessing those rates are wildly different in European countries and elsewhere.

  14. amba12 said,

    I wonder!

  15. wj said,

    Pat, I wonder how much of the single mother problem is “men not living up to their obligations” (or not understanding that they have obligations), and how much is men simply not being available because they are locked up somewhere. I mean, if someone is in prison, it doesn’t matter if they accept that they have obligations to their children, and the mothers of those children, they aren’t in a position to do anything about it.

    I wonder if we couldn’t make a massive improvement in the single mother situation as a side benefit of applying some sanity to our drug laws. As in, letting them go the way of Prohibition. Fewer young men from impoverished backgrounds in prison for involvement in illegal drugs. Fewer dead from drug gang (or drug-financed gang) activity.

    Not a magic total solution, of course, because the culture will still need to change back from one where young men frequently feel no obligation. But, IMHO, a massive step forward.

  16. Maxwell said,

    whereas if the help came from charities, more behavioral strings might be attached which might do at least some folks some good.

    While I don’t totally disagree with this, the behavioral strings piece is not easy to get at. For instance, the OPORTUNIDADES program in Mexico, which issues payments to poor families based on work and school performance and other factors, has been a huge success. The attempt to replicate it in NYC was recently aborted due to an underwhelming evaluation. I read the reports in question, and the differences were really stunning – for whatever reasons, the same approach was simply not resulting in meaningful culture change for the NYC participants.

  17. amba12 said,

    Maybe that’s because in the U.S., the self is the ultimate authority and the only one we feel a need to please.

  18. William O. B'Livion said,

    I think you’ve got it backwards.

    It’s not that my parents (and by extension my environment) placed “rockets” on me it’s that my parents (and by extension etc. etc.) did NOT place the sorts of shackles on me that keep people down.

    My parents did not pay for my education (public primary and secondary). I did. My parents did not pay for my College, the Marine Corps and I did (although there was some “room and board” assistance from the folks).

    What my parents *did* do was encourage the sorts of behaviors and attitudes that fall under the rubric of “middle class values”.

    This means I show up–even in SillyCon Valley–for job interviews. It means I show up for work on time, and I bath once a day whether I need it or not.

    It means I don’t consider sick time to be “use it or lose it”. It means that I and my female peers prevented procreation (mostly) until after high school. They raised me to be responsible for *my* actions, meaning when I did procreate outside the boundaries of matrimony I felt *bad* (and still do, even though my daughter is in college) about it, and paid my child support at minimum. It also meant that I did everything I could to pass these lessons on to my daughter, and will do everything I can to pass it on to my new daughter.

    These are not “rockets”, and it’s not race or ethnicity specific.

    On anther forum I read a post from a guy who worked to get low-income folks into their own homes. He said (quoting to the extent that my memory allows) “Even when we could get them to the door they would often show up with massive consumer debt, credit cards with 20% interest, furniture loans, high interest car loans”.

    Often “these people” didn’t understand compound interest, they just don’t have *that* level of math.

    And “these people” doesn’t mean blacks and hispanics. It means *poor people*. I saw Marines of all colors engage in these behaviors. The only reason we see it more in blacks and hispanics is because they make up the urban poor, the white poor tend(ed) to migrate out to the suburbs and more rural areas (West Virginia, Arkansas and rural Missouri (remember the Clampetts?)

    Once one internalizes “the rules”, aka “The keys to the shackles” one is free. you may not reach the heights, that takes more than just hard work and intelligent financial allocation, but getting into the lower middle class?

    Not rocket science.

  19. amba12 said,

    GREAT post, Wm.

    I would add one thing though: even if one internalizes “the rules” in an environment of poverty, one is likely surrounded by — and emotionally involved with — people who haven’t. Unless one is completely ruthless about cutting family ties, which is very hard for most humans, this will tend to act as second-hand shackles, because there is a lot of second-hand hassle to deal with.

    One example is the relatively young grandmother who ends up raising the child(ren) of her own drug-addicted child. (She cannot necessarily be blamed for her child’s drug addiction.) She is being responsible. But suppose she wanted to get additional training to upgrade her level of employment — that’s going to be doubly difficult.

  20. PatHMV said,

    wj…. if the man is in prison, then he has chosen not to live up to his obligations, because he chose to commit crimes. And based on my own work experience in the criminal justice field, let me tell you, they usually had to work pretty hard at it, to get sent to jail for any length of time. You don’t get long terms in prison for your first drug offense, unless maybe you’re selling heroin in the school yard. Certainly you don’t get lots of jail time just for USING drugs.

    Maybe drugs shouldn’t be against the law. But right now they are, and responsible men either don’t do drugs or, at the least, they take great pains to avoid being caught in the drug trade.

    Now, maybe the total harm would be less if we repealed the drug laws, but I’m not sure I see how. If the argument is that they turn to drug dealing because there are no other jobs, how is legalization going to help that? The drugs will be at the corner pharmacy or the local head shop or wherever. That’ll add maybe a few jobs, but not many. So then you still have huge unemployment, with either access to drugs, and lots of teens with idle hands. There were gangs before there were drugs to fight over.

    Maxwell… personally, I suspect the difference between the program in Mexico and the program in New York is that in New York, there are a lot of less string-filled alternatives available. In Mexico, the difference between life with the strings-attached subsidy and life without may be much starker than in New York, where more options are available even for the poorest of folks.

  21. realpc said,

    [Often “these people” didn’t understand compound interest, they just don’t have *that* level of math.]

    I just can’t believe this. I had ancestors who immigrated here and couldn’t speak English. They didn’t have any math skills. I guess they had plain old common sense and motivation, and they all did well.

    I have never heard a plausible explanation for American poverty that is passed down for generations. People who came here voluntarily mostly seemed to find a way to succeed.

    And by the way — my parents didn’t pay for my education and they didn’t instill any middle class values, and they didn’t teach me anything about money. I figured out for myself not to ever use a credit card or borrow money. It really doesn’t require any sophisticated mathematics to stay out of debt.

    It always seemed perfectly obvious to me, even way before I ever read a word of financial advice, that if you spend more than you earn something bad will happen. No college degree is required for figuring that out.

    I think it’s wrong to assume poor people are less intelligent than we are. I really think it’s something else, but I don’t know what.

  22. realpc said,

    PatHMV,

    I agree with you about drugs. A lot of people seem to think it’s a simple solution for a lot of problems, but I do not see why or how. For one thing, they certainly could never legalize all drugs and make all drugs available without prescriptions. The addiction and overdose rate would be astronomical if everyone could get all the vikodin they want, for example.

    And I think you’re right, gangs would still be shooting each other even if they didn’t have drugs to fight over. They would have to find other ways to make money illegally.

    I think marijuana should be legal but I doubt that would empty out the prisons.

  23. realpc said,

    [Often “these people” didn’t understand compound interest, they just don’t have *that* level of math.]

    I keep thinking of more reasons why this is wrong. Millions of Americans are in debt and it isn’t because they don’t understand the math. It’s because they want things, or because they don’t think about the future, or whatever. You don’t need an in depth understanding of compound interest to avoid debt, and understanding compound interest won’t do anything to keep you out of debt.

    There might have been cases of poor people who were sold houses because they didn’t understand how much interest they would have to pay in the long run. But I don’t think that’s a general cause of debt in America. I think it’s partly the culture which is intensely optimistic and also very materialistic and greedy.

  24. amba12 said,

    I really think it’s something else, but I don’t know what.

    The number one “rule” that William is speaking of just might be: delay of gratification.

    It’s in a vicious cycle with hopelessness, because if you don’t believe any attainment is possible for you, there’s no reason not just to grasp for immediate pleasure. Which is the great temptation humans are prey to (when not disciplined by necessity and stern tradition), and the most destructive thing there is.

  25. amba12 said,

    And something that goes with delay of gratification is what might be called “higher pleasures.” People can’t live without pleasure; you need to get hooked on the pleasures of curiosity, creativity, contemplation . . . the reward systems in the brain are designed to reward the meeting of challenges. What we’ve done is to detach the reward systems from the actions they’re supposed to reward and made them the targets of junk food, junk entertainment, sex, drugs . . . rock’n’roll . . . (I hate to append rock’n’roll to a list of evils!).

  26. realpc said,

    “People can’t live without pleasure; you need to get hooked on the pleasures of curiosity, creativity, contemplation . . . the reward systems in the brain are designed to reward the meeting of challenges. What we’ve done is to detach the reward systems from the actions they’re supposed to reward and made them the targets of junk food, junk entertainment, sex, drugs . . . rock’n’roll . . . (I hate to append rock’n’roll to a list of evils!).”

    Yes I think that is true. When you become “addicted” to healthy pleasures that involve a challenge and/or creativity, you lose interest in the lower, unhealthy pleasures. If you have a job you like and hobbies that you love, you most likely won’t go home and get drunk every night.

    Although now that I said that — what about all the famous creative people who are addicted to drugs? But I guess that’s a different thing, resulting from being famous.

    But I seem to know a lot of people who are not poor, but who prefer the lower pleasures over the higher. Being entertained is probably the number one American pastime. I think it’s too bad, because people used to entertain each other with music and stories. Now almost everyone just sits and watches the famous celebrities.

    So I still have not heard a convincing explanation for American poverty that spans generations. I really do think that anyone who is not mentally ill or severely disabled can succeed in this country.

    I don’t see what compelled those women to have babies without husbands, and maybe it’s something cultural that we don’t understand. Maybe these women, in their cultural context, get more status from being a mother than from having a successful career. Maybe they get more approval from their mothers for having a baby than from going to college. And maybe a cultural belief that men are irresponsible prevents them from even trying to find a good husband.

    Status is one of the biggest motivators we have. Owning a home, an expensive car, being educated, are the main sources of status. But being a mother, in some contexts, might outweigh all of those.

    So that’s my theory, I guess.

  27. wj said,

    real, I wonder if the cause might not be something as simple as people not getting taught early that actions have consequences.

    I observed that some of my peers in the Baby Boomer generation seemed to assume that they could do pretty much whatever they wanted, without even thinking about the possible repercussions. And those, in my admittedly less than exhaustive sample, were the kids whose parents had carefully shielded them from the consequences of their actions while they were growing up.

    Some of these folks were really bright. So, as you note, it wasn’t a matter of being unable to figure out the side effects of what they did. It was much more a matter of it never occurring to them to think about what the fallout might be. And they were, routinely, astounded when (for the first time, sometimes not until they were in their early 20s) something they did ended up biting them. And not only surprised — they clearly felt like it was an injustice that such a thing could happen.

    It is entirely natural, and a good thing, for parents to try to take care of their children and shield them from harm. But that is not the same as totally keeping them from any and every negative results from their actions.

    It is as though the parents were so obsessed with keeping the environment sanitary that their children never encountered a pathogen. Which, when it happens, leaves them with minimal immune systems. Yes, a child playing in the mud may end up with a mild illness. But a child who lives in a totally antiseptic house, and never encounters nature that isn’t likewise sanitized, is going to be in real trouble when they get out of the bubble.

  28. realpc said,

    No wj, poverty is not caused by over-protective parents. The people you’re talking about did learn eventually, as we all do. And lower class parents are much less likely to be over-protective than middle or upper class. So, no I don’t buy your theory.

    And I also decided, after thinking about it today, that we can’t really classify pleasures as high or low. Smoking cigarettes used to be a high pleasure and was considered sophisticated, but now we think of it as low. Is sex a high or low pleasure? It really depends. Is one kind of music or art high while another is low? I strongly disagree with that.

    These days poor Americans are more likely to smoke cigarettes and be overweight and in debt. But I don’t think it’s because they are less educated or because the like lower pleasures. All those things used to be just as, or more, common in the upper classes.

    I think maybe it’s related to tribal identity, pride and status. Different social classes have to set themselves apart somehow, as separate tribes. Not too long ago having a sun tan and being strong and healthy was a sign of being a lower class laborer. Being fat and pale and weak meant you were somebody special.

    So these things keep on changing and reversing. Maybe smoking cigarettes is now a sign of proud defiance, of refusing to go along with the politically correct crowd.

    The middle and upper classes admire people for being educated and speaking the standard upper class dialect. But in a lower class social context, the educated attitude may be seen as effeminate. We know that smart kids, or nerds, are tormented in some schools.

    People want to fit in with their tribe. That is one of the strongest drives. So the women in Amba’s original post are not suffering from being ignorant of math or addicted to low pleasures. They are not lacking common sense or wisdom or foresight. They are going along with the ways of their tribe.

    That’s my theory, and I like it.

  29. Icepick said,

    Talk about the elephant in the room no one wants to acknowledge!

    So I still have not heard a convincing explanation for American poverty that spans generations.

    Hmm. What could possibly affect generation after generation and follows bloodlines? Hmmm.

  30. realpc said,

    “What could possibly affect generation after generation and follows bloodlines? ”

    No, it can’t be DNA. All the races of homo sapiens survived hundreds of thousands of years. There was no welfare until recently, so if there were any incompetent races they died out right away.

  31. wj said,

    Just to be contrary (because I’m having that kind of a morning).

    One could argue that some groups might have DNA which, while not a problem for most of human history, has a problem with the modern technological world. I don’t believe it for a minute (there being, IMHO, way too many individual counter-examples for it to be true). But it could be the basis for an argument.

  32. Icepick said,

    Real, are you talking about incompetence, or poverty in a relative sense and in a technically advanced civilization? They’re two different things. The more complex the society, the more stratification will arrise. That’s by definition.

    wj, you’ve almost got it, but you apparently have no idea of statistical variance within a population.

    But anyway, as the fracas at Harvahd Law makes clear these things can’t even be discussed. Everybody is exactly the same in every respect. We’re all the same height, the same weight, the same unisex, the same religion, have identical levels of motivation, and all think exactly the same way. Nope, no variance here whatsoever. It’s mathematically impossible, dontchaknow?

  33. Icepick said,

    Real, most of humanity for most of its history has lived in subsitence situations. Most populations adapted to local conditions. As climatic shifts and other chance events occurred they moved around. Sometimes they mingled with those they met, sometimes one group more or less wiped out another. Sometimes a trait may have become common in one group for no good (or bad) reason. Such traits may later prove useful. Or detrimental. Or continue on in their complete uselessness.

    But isolated populations will develop genetic profiles after a while. THat doesn’t mean everyone in the group will have all the distinguishing markers, but it does mean those markers will pop up more frequently some populations. Sickle cell anemia is relatively common in certain sub-Saharran groups. Not so much with Finns. Swedes are far more likely to be (naturally) blond than a Han. Epicanthic folds aren’t too prevalent in Europe or Africa.

    Traits vary from group to group. They vary within groups as well. I doubt that every Dinka tribesman is over seven feet tall. But a helluva lot of them are. Such variations have implications. One might expect, for example, that Dinka tribesmen would be over-represented in fields where great height is a plus, and that, say, those masses we collectively call Chinese might be under-represented in the same field. Look at the NBA. The Dinka, with a population of about 1.5 million, have produced two NBA players. The Chinese have a population almost 1000 times larger, and they’ve produced three (or so) NBA players. Both population groups are far removed from American sports, and people from either country would have high barriers to entry into American sports, so that’s more or less a wash. Population genetics do tell sometimes.

  34. wj said,

    Actually, I am familiar with variance. Lots of years doing statistics at work.

    For the purposes of this discussion, the critical variance question involves both how large the variance is within a population (i.e. what the distribution is) and how the size of that variance compares with the difference in the median between two populations. (Don’t get me started on why averages are worthless, while the median and the mode may actually tell you something useful about what you are looking at.)

    Unfortunately, any use of statistics is necessarily going to assume that we are talking about some trait which is measurable. And have some agreement about how to measure it reliably. Can we do that for a trait like “sense of responsibility”? Nope. Can we even do it reliably for intelligence? The evidence strongly suggests that we cannot.

    We do have IQ tests, for example. But even in their own terms, and assuming that what they measure is what they say it is, they simply don’t work. (Because if they did work as claimed, any individual would have IQ test scores which cluster randomly, and closely, around his “true” IQ. And nobody would have IQ test scores which span 40+ points. Not to mention being monotonic increasing. For that to happen, they have to be measuring something other than what they claim.)

  35. Christy said,

    Am I the only one who never understood how much of the basics does not get taught to the children of poverty? My parents spent 35 years raising money for athletic scholarships for the local high school grads. About 15 years ago, Mom fought hard to give that year’s scholarship to a youth being raised by his grandmother and who just that, his senior year, was being bussed in from a bad side of town. He was a good kid, decent grades, fine athlete (but not recruiter-bait good) and Mom was then raising her own difficult grandson. Mom even went the extra mile for the kid by securing a grant money to cover what the scholarship did not. He never showed up for registration. He just didn’t know how. He had never known anyone who had gone through the process of going to college.

    Gravity.

    I’ve long suspected that we cannot help those deep in the hole, only those hovering around the edge. Slowly shift the center of gravity.

    Do you remember
    John Scalzi’s
    2005 blog post “Being Poor?”

  36. Icepick said,

    We do have IQ tests, for example. But even in their own terms, and assuming that what they measure is what they say it is, they simply don’t work. (Because if they did work as claimed, any individual would have IQ test scores which cluster randomly, and closely, around his “true” IQ. And nobody would have IQ test scores which span 40+ points. Not to mention being monotonic increasing. For that to happen, they have to be measuring something other than what they claim.)

    People can have spans of 40+ points for very simple reasons: Testing error, by either the test taker or the person giving the test. (That is, the person giving the test could administer it incorrectly, or it could have been designed poorly.) That’s hardly a shock. As for the other points: the point of the tests is that they TEND to correlate to ‘g’, not that they provide specific measures in all cases. It’s not like measruing height. There’s more than simple variance to this issue.

    And if what you were claiming is a problem were trully a problem, then we would see most people have 40+ point gaps, with monotonically increasing scores. That just doesn’t happen. In my own case I was tested fairly regularly from the age of 10 to 30, by a wide array of tests. Some of them were actual IQ tests, some were proxies like the SATs (from the old days when it was more heavily loaded to quantitative work) and the GRE and GRE subject tests. My scores were very tightly clustered within a 5 point range over the whole period. I doubt many could do that either over a 20 year period, but my experience is probably much closer to the norm.

  37. Icepick said,

    And one doesn’t really need tests. Hang around people and one realizes that some are smarter than others. And like height and male-pattern baldness, it tends to run in families. That doesn’t mean that everyone with the last name of Bernoulli will be a genius, just as not every male in an otherwise tall family won’t be over six feet tall. Regression towards the mean and all that. But it does suggest that something is going on.

  38. amba12 said,

    Cats, too: some are distinctly smarter than others. And you can really, really tell. But in cats, there’s a real “wild card” quality to it. In the same litter, there can be wide variation.

  39. Icepick said,

    As always, this topic of tests and correlations has come up in Rhazib Khan’s blogging again.

    WORDSUM & IQ & the correlation

  40. wj said,

    Ice, I had a quite similar experience. I grew up in a school district which was big on IQ tests, and gave them to us every year or so. (Since an IQ is supposedly fixed for an individual over a lifetime, I’m not sure why they felt the need to repeat the tests. Unfortunately, the people in charge are no longer alive to ask.)

    An occasional outlier is certainly possible in any statistical sample. But if
    — what you are measuring is actually measurable (at least in the way you are going about it) and
    — constant for a lifetime (baring substantial external trauma), and if
    — the measurement is supposed to produce only random fluctuations with a standard deviation of +/- 2 to 3 points (which is what is claimed for IQ tests),
    then with a reasonable number of data points (say 10-12 for an individual over at least a similar number of years) you ought to see something closely resembling a bell curve in the scores.

    A random scatter, where scores go up and down, combined with a single outlier 40 points away? Sure, that can happen — although it is extremely unlikely. A case where a handful of scores for an individual grow over time, but only within a range of 5 points or so? Also possible; not real likely, but possible on rare occasions. But a 40 point range (that’s around 10 standard deviations!), combined with constantly increasing scores which are spread throughout that range, is pretty strong evidence that either you are not measuring what you claim you are, or what you are measuring is nowhere near being a constant. Statistics just don’t work that way. (OK, with an infinite number of test subjects, you could get one of anything. But the odds against it happening are 1 in a number way larger than the total number of human beings.)

    Yes, some people are smarter than others — however one defines intelligence. But that is a separate question from whether it is possible to actually measure intelligence, and if so whether IQ tests are a way to do that. And that was my (obviously not well expressed) point earlier: IQ (i.e. the score someone gets on an IQ test) is not a meaningful number in its own terms of what it is supposed to be showing. Which is not to say that whatever it is actually measuring may not be correlated to some extent with intelligence. But how closely and reliably correlated, that’s hard to tell without being able to measure intelligence in some kind of objective manner.

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