Uncomfortable questions

Steven (Freakonomics) Levitt, Ronald Fryer and their co-authors ask an uncomfortable question: “What’s it like to grow up with one parent who is black and another who is white?”

Here’s part of how Levitt describes their results:

The really interesting result, though, is the next one.

4) There are some bad adolescent behaviors that whites do more than blacks (like drinking and smoking), and there are other bad adolescent behaviors that blacks do more than whites (watching TV, fighting, getting sexually transmitted diseases). Mixed-race kids manage to be as bad as whites on the white behaviors and as bad as blacks on the black behaviors. Mixed-race kids act out in almost every way measured in the data set.

We try to use economic theory to explain this set of facts. I can’t say we are entirely successful. If we had to pick an explanation that best fits the facts, it would be the old sociology model of mixed-race individuals as the “marginal man”: not part of either racial group and therefore torn by inner conflict.

Read the rest of the blog post at Freakonomics where there is also a link to the paper.

What’s next? Will Levitt be asking how the children of gay couples fair? It is an empirical question that has not been answered.

Here’s a more comfortable question: Will church attendance boost your child’s GPA? Researchers say, yes:

“There are two directions you can go with this research,”[said Jennifer Glanville, a sociologist at the University of Iowa]. “Some might say this suggests that parents should have their kids attend places of worship. Or, if we use it to help explain why religious participation has a positive effect on academics, parents who aren’t interested in attending church can consider how to structure their kids’ time to allow access to the same beneficial social networks and opportunities religious institutions provide.”

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  1. Derek Olsen

    On the latter question, I wonder (without having read the article) about correlation vs. causation. Eating ice cream and drownings both increase in the summer-time too… Is it the attendance that helps them increase or is it certain family systems that do things together like go to church that help?

  2. John B. Chilton

    I wondered the same thing, Derek. I’m presuming that they are careful researchers and accounted for that statistically, but I couldn’t access the research paper in order to check what they did.

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