Monday, December 30, 2013

Fewer US homeless?

When the Great Recession began in 2008, housing experts expected a rise in homelessness when millions of Americans lost their jobs. To the surprise of many social scientists, estimates for the number of homeless actually dropped to 610,042 in 2013 from 664,414 in 2008. As described in chapter 3 of The Data Game, measuring homeless is tricky. But the numbers, published by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, don't show a recession-induced bump; instead homelessness declined steadily, if slowly, since 2008.

It may take a while to understand these statistics. The federal government report credits a 2010 program called Opening Doors as a reason for fewer homeless. Similarly, the Bush administration attributed the 2007 homelessness decline to its "housing first" policies. As with the unanticipated decline in the US crime rate (see chapter six), there are likely many factors at work. And, there are anomalies in the data. The federal report indicates that the decline is exclusively in the number of people who do not seek shelter. Those in shelters actually remained nearly constant since 2008, while there has been an increase in the number of people doubling up with friends and relatives. There are local reports that contradict the rosier national picture. We will need more statistics and careful analysis to fully understand why economic troubles didn't lead to more homelessness.

Hat tip to Tim Taylor for his blog post.

More students going to college? not by much

Australian economist John Quiggin corrects the often-stated statistic that more US students are attending college. While it is true that more Americans have a college degree, now over 30 percent, up from less than 20 percent in the early 1980s, the reason isn't that students are now attending college in greater numbers. What has happened is that many people educated before World War II, when few people finished college, are no longer living.  As a result, the current population contains a larger percentage of people who graduated from college in the 1950s and 1960s when, indeed, college attendance sharply increased.

However, since about 1970, the proportion of young people graduating from college has been relatively stable. Looking at the single age group, 25 - 29, those with a college degree has remained at about 25 to 30 percent since then-- although there have been notable increases in college graduation by women and some minority groups.

These statistics demonstrate the importance of taking into account cohorts (that is age groups) as well as the entire population. In this case, the rising number of past college graduates masks a leveling off in attendance by the more recent generation. These statistics are important for debates about the role of college as vehicle for economic advancement.