Saturday, August 12, 2006

Ask Someone Who Knows: News from the ASA Convention (Day Two)

From Ash:

A brisk, feels like Fall, day in Montreal.

Today was another fascinating round of discussions - my two favorites being a discussion of familial wealth, and single mothers' use of time. Which it turns out, are surprisingly related, in a macro- world-view sort of way.

In the wealth session, the presenters detailed how marital couples fair so much better, financially, than do those who are divorced, widowed, separated or never married. The data on this seems pretty clear. What isn't so clear is the causation. Well, for divorce, the causation is usually the division of assets. But there's the threshold question if, on a personality level, the people who are likely to be married are the same ones who will have a better control of their finances, etc. to begin with.

This lead to some fascinating remarks by a University of Chicago professor, who really questioned the role and importance of wealth, in an individual family, and in our large society. In some ways, we disdain wanting to address the issue of wealth, but as he pointed out, it shapes family dynamics more than we'd like to admit. It's money that often keeps us up at night, and it's just as likely as what we're still fighting over at the breakfast table. It's not just a resource, but indicative of our place in society, our relationship to past and future generations, an insurance policy for the future. And wealth can have an independent existence quite apart from one's personal income.

A rich topic, indeed.

The fact that most single mothers are financially so far behind than - well, everyone else - made the paper on their time use all the more interesting.

In that paper (again, still in a development phase), professors at Ohio State University have challenged the commonly-held belief that single mothers are the most "time poor." This is the idea that single moms are the most overscheduled and have the least amount of leisure because a two-parent family can tag-team parenting and other responsibilities.

But according to this study, once you take a look at the reality of single mothers' living arrangements and marital history - from a divorced woman who is cohabitating to a never married woman living on her own - the picture is quite different. It turns out that single and married women do vary slightly in their child care and housework, but in small amounts - around 15 minutes a day. But single, never married mothers who live on their own have more leisure - about an hour more a day - than the married ones do.

Who knew?

But I think it was the insight in the discussion afterwards that really showed me the value of being here, the difference between reading the paper and hearing from its authors. Following their principal presentation, they acknowledged that there were still questions yet to be addressed: for example, is the reason that single mothers on their own have more leisure time - but it's more television watching - because that way they are still available for their kids, when the other mothers can get out of the house. And what constitutes "leisure" in the minds of these mothers. There are specific activities that are formally classified as leisure, such as volunteering - but that could actually feel like an obligation to the woman (e.g. mandatory hours of service at her kid's school), not "leisure" at all. And there may be some women who consider sleep "leisure" (including the presenter, she admitted abashedly), when they wouldn't classify that as such.

And the comment from the floor, from another OSU professor, observing that for many of us, we consider poor time management to be a personal failing - a lack of character, rather than an inability to manage a scare resource.

All of which bringing us back to the question of the day - regarding the nature of wealth - be it time savings or that which in the bank - what it is and what it represents.


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