Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Emerging adulthood and medical subject headings

Emerging adulthood has been recognized as a concept in sociology for over a decade, and is generally recognized as extending to age 30. Adolescent health research often extends up to age 25 because brain development continues until about that age. Last year I asked Alan Guttmacher, the head of the National Institute for Child Health and Development (NICHD), about the definition of adolescents for the purposes of NICHD funding, and he said that it's reasonable for research to go past age 18.

In view of that, I'm submitting a new manuscript today, and as I was choosing keywords, I was surprised to notice how they classify ages.

Adults are ages 19-44. Young adults, a term added in 2009, are ages 19-24.

My study is about the transition to adulthood --- how people get college degrees in early 20s and develop professionally in their late 20s and early 30s --- and it doesn't seem to fit into either of these categories. The study examines how the subjects are in the process of becoming adults, socially and economically, but according to the medical subject headers, they are already. It's striking to be reminded of how our systems of thought have changed in such a short time, and an indexing system naturally didn't catch up.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Public sector layoffs among African-Americans

Kathy Newman wrote about how low SES minorities rely on public sector jobs for social mobility in her book, No Shame in My Game. Newman studied young adults in Washington Heights and nearby areas who were employed in fast food restaurants, as well as some young adults who had applied but were not hired for fast food jobs. Jobs were scarce in the neighborhoods she studied, so that even these fast food jobs had a great deal of competition. Many youth, particularly African-Americans, studied for civil service exams, and regarded these jobs as one of their only ways to achieve a middle class existence, but even these jobs were hard to get. The relatives of her study participants who got civil service jobs were able to build middle class lives for themselves, move to the suburbs, and be role models for the rest of their families. Growing up in a diverse community, I knew at least one minority family who had achieved upward mobility thanks to a federal civil service job.

The current backlash against government, combined with tight budgets, has meant that many African-Americans with these coveted civil service jobs are in danger of losing them. That conclusion was self-evident, or should have been, but I hadn't seen the issue raised (and the issue hadn't occurred to me), until seeing this NY Times article.

People like to mock the government for having exacting requirements to document the procedures followed to ensure that there is no measurable discrimination. I don't how how much time I've spent filling out the EEOC paperwork for the dozens of faculty jobs I've applied for in my life, for instance, and the extensive other measures to make sure that people get treated equally. As much as everyone might mock these efforts, and I'm sure that they are imperfect and clunky, they do seem to have produced more equal opportunity for minorities than the private sector has been able to offer. The private sector may be more "efficient", but they are also less likely to hire people with distinctly minority-sounding names, according to randomized experiments, such as "Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?".

Publication bias and the result that got away

An economist writes about his would-have-been dissertation: he gathered the data, did a regression, and found no relationship. So his dissertation was on another topic. 8 years later, he publishes the null relationship. It's refreshing to see someone talking about how publication bias affected their own research, as opposed to the studies published in epidemiology journals that suggest publication bias in macro.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Gluten-free processed foods for the masses

NY Times published today a fluff piece whose title posed the question whether everyone should go gluten free. Rather than addressing the question in the title, they gave a portrait of a processed food company's endeavor to address this niche market.

I wish they had addressed the question of gluten posed in the title. I'm also baffled by the claim that there's no gluten-free food --- there's plenty of gluten-free food in every single supermarket, and there always has been. The types of processed foods that they address in the article should comprise no more than a few percent of a person's diet. Celiacs used to be lucky for being forced to eschew the processed food-like products that have taken over the standard American diet, such as breakfast cereal, canned soups, cookies, crackers, and frozen foods. With greater quantities of gluten-free processed foods, they are free to be as unhealthy as anyone else.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Jennifer Fox, the former foster child in Seattle who miscarried

There's a tragic story about a 19 year old formerly homeless young adult in the foster system who says that she miscarried after being kicked in the stomach repeatedly and pepper sprayed. That's excessive force regardless of gender and pregnancy, but another story says that she may have been lying about the miscarriage.

Reading the article, I don't see reason to doubt it given that it was documented by police earlier. She has no obligation to turn over her medical records to the press. And given that she has a foster mother who is abusive enough to call her names in the press, clearly she has little emotional support.

Regardless, I think she is an instructive case of the reason for the Occupy Protests. The research suggests that she'll have more chances in life if she waits a few years to get pregnant until she has attained a community college certificate and has a job and a husband. If she continued the pregnancy she would have higher chances of continued poverty and intimate partner violence.

Still, as a young adult in the foster system, which resources does she have to access higher education, and what chances does she believe she has to get a good job and find a worthwhile future other than as a mother? Most/all young adults who were in the foster system are eligible for Pell grants for community college to find a viable career, but few low SES young adults know that it's worthwhile to fill out the FAFSA or which classes to take in community college that will lead to a career in which they can have dignity and job security, and most community college guidance counselors have literally 500 students whom they're expected to advise so can't have help.

The current system gives disadvantaged young adults flimsy flip flops and then expects people to pull themselves up by the bootstraps.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Income inequality as a threat to adolescents and young adults

One of the core areas of adolescent health research is on the factors that prevent teens from developing into well-functioning adults: teen pregnancy, substance use, deviance. The assumption behind all of that research is that if teens don't engage in these behaviors, they will be able to become successful, educated, employed adults with families of their own. The current economic conditions threaten that transition to adulthood. Teens aren't assured of the chance to become productive adults, and it becomes more difficult to tell them to avoid risk behavior when their alternatives are so poor. If they have a high risk of unemployment, why not engage in risk behavior?

I recall Johns Hopkins Professor Laurie Zabin's story about working in the first federally funded birth control clinic, which was located in Baltimore in the early 1960s. An 18 year old Appalachian woman walked into the clinic asking for "a birth control" because she had just gotten a job with President Kennedy's Job Corps and for the first time in her life, she suddenly had a reason not to get pregnant.

With that thought, two stories related to income inequality and the Occupy Wall Street protests.

First, one of the markers of an advanced society is high quality infrastructure that the entire society can benefit from: clean/safe water systems, dependable electricity, and dependable and non-corrupt police. The marker of developing countries are private versions of these, such as private security guards and high walls and power generation because the main systems are not dependable. I thought of this while reading a story in the NYT Thursday Style section about how power generators have become a status symbol. The story didn't draw this conclusion, but it seems like an ominous sign of the direction of our society that a private electrical system is a status symbol in view of the lack of dependability of the public system. Particularly typical that many people in the article live in a NY suburb with many bankers.

Second, on police in the Occupy Wall Street protests, in NY and Berkeley and UC Davis: I keep reading the stories about students being beaten without provocation rather than just arrested, and it seems unbelievable. The former Poet Laureate of the United States visited the protest with his wife with the same type of disbelief. His wife got shoved to the ground while talking with an officer about non-violent protest. When he scolded the officer --- what kind of bastard shoves a 60-something year old woman, after all? --- he got beaten, and some of his colleagues got their ribs broken. I have seen similar reports of violence in NYC, UC Davis, and other cities, although not DC or Boston. Has this level of police brutality against non-violent protests been seen since the 1970s? Arguably, this brutality is even more perplexing because in contrast to the Vietnam protests where the police were not at risk of the draft, the protesters are directly fighting for the interests of the police --- fair pay, unionization, and more public spending including on police and the materials they need to do their jobs.

Former Baltimore police officer and sociologist Peter Moskos notes that attacking people without provocation is part of police training that teaches a hands-off approach: if people don't obey orders, they get maced. Smart police don't use this method, however:

Of course we didn’t do it this way, the way were taught. Baltimore police officers are too smart to start urban race riots based on some dumb-ass training. So what did we do to gain compliance? We grabbed people. Hands on. Like real police. And we were good at it....
if police need to remove these students, then the police can go in four officers to one protester and remove them. Lift them up and take them away. Maybe you need one or two more officers with a threatening baton to keep others from getting involved. It really can be that simple.

Exam strategies and meta-education

The humor site Cracked has a good exam study strategies article. When someone posted this piece on facebook, several faculty members mentioned that they often accumulate more materials than they read.

How many students learn how to learn? Would we have better exam outcomes if we taught students explicitly how to study?

I recall that research shows that such study strategy courses pay off in students doing well in their other courses, but still few students have the opportunity to take such meta-education courses: courses in how to study, learn, and benefit the most from coursework. Instead, students are left on their own to figure out by trial and error and possibly wasting the courses where they do less well because they aren't sure what to do. I know students find these types of courses to be tedious, or they feel like they ought to already know this material, so they act blase about learning the material. I remember feeling that way about Freshman Advisory class in high school, where they taught us how to study before our first exams as we rolled our eyes. The usual tips like don't study in front of the TV or in bed, but the tips stayed with me and every time that I tried to study in bed, I would remind myself that probably it would be a better idea to move to my desk. Although I wouldn't always.