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Training the Human Element

American Income Volatiilty: Sprung, Brooks, and Rose

My reading of Stephen Rose is that the best way to report his finding is: "fully 60% of adults aged 34-59 in 2005, over the previous ten years, had at least one year in which their household's total income excluding capital gains would have supported material living standards for its members that, when adjusted for family size and composition, would have equalled or exceeded the material living standards of a family of four with household income greater than $100,000 in 2009."

From Andrew Sprung:

xpostfactoid: In which I (essentially) win my "quick bet against Brooks": Three weeks ago... [David] Brooks reported that according to Rose, "Over the last 10 years, 60 percent of Americans made more than $100,000 in at least one of those years, and 40 percent had incomes that high for at least three." My inference, that Rose was referring to household rather than individual income and that "Americans" should be "American households," was based on past Rose writings and a near-identical error that George Will made in citing Rose's income data claims.... Brooks complained that I was wrong, that Rebound did refer to "adults" as opposed to "households." The Dish posted a direct quote from Rebound:

Another way to look at incomes over many years is to see how often people experienced high and low incomes. Indeed, fully 60 percent of adults had at least one year in which their incomes were at least $100,000 (p. 119).

I posted a retraction and apology.... Today my copy of Rebound finally arrived.... [W]hile the book does indeed (of course) contain the sentence above, Rose's definition of terms earlier in the chapter makes it clear "their incomes" signifies the household income of each "adult" -- adjusted, moreover, for age and household size. The chapter in question, "The Myth of the Declining Middle Class," begins with a bit of terminological slippage that's clarified later but turns up in Brooks' representation....

These longitudinal data show that many people have long term incomes of over $100,000 a year--a level that permits a minimum level of discretionary expenditures in most parts of the country. This large base of families with reasonably high incomes provides the underpinning of our mass-consumer market as evidenced by crowded suburban malls (103).

That conflation is more or less explained later in the chapter, when Rose discusses the various factors that need to be folded into apples-to-apples comparisons of household incomes across different eras and income levels:

Analysts agree that one's standard of living is best reflected by total family income--a figure that includes all sources of income (e.g., earnings, business income, rental payment, interest and other financial income, and transfer payments such as Social Security, unemployment insurance, and welfare and disability payments) from all members of the family.... Few dispute that the same amount of money does not support the same level of consumption in households of different size, and researchers have developed methodologies to align income and size to get equivalent standards of living.  For example, in the approach that is used here, a single person with $50,000 of income has the "equivalent income" of a family of three with $86,600 or a family of four with 100,000....

I should not have cast my inference that Brooks was misquoting Rose as a near-certainty without being able to verify it. Literally, there was no misquote -- or rather a minor one, converting Rose's "fully 60 percent of adults had at least one year in which their incomes were at least $100,000" to a more active verb formulation: "Over the last 10 years, 60 percent of Americans made more than $100,000." Brooks' re-cast also edits out a ghost of pronoun slippage in Rose's studiedly vague formulation: "adults" had years in which "their" incomes were over $100k. While "their" grammatically agrees with "adults," keeping both in the plural somehow highlights the elision by which household income (the term Rose uses in earlier writings citing similar statistics) becomes the income enjoyed by the individuals in the household. If Brooks read the full chapter, -- and it's not clear whether he had an advance copy or simply interviewed Rose -- he should have noted the multiple lenses through which that vision of "60 percent of adults" enjoying the magic six-figure income level was filtered.