November 15, 2005

Gotta Be The Shoes

Bill Cosby has often criticized poor black parents for spending way too much on fancy sneakers for their children—as he puts it, "$500 shoes". Alex Tabarrok looks at the BLS' Consumer Expenditure Report and says that he has the numbers to back this up:
I was curious so I went to Table 2100 of the Consumer Expenditure Survey and found the following for 2003:…

Expenditures on footwear by whites and other races: $274
Expenditures on footwear by blacks: $440.

Chalk one up for the good Dr. Cosby.
Um, okay. Except that according to the survey, the average black "consumer unit" has 50 percent more children than white "consumer units," so if anything, those two numbers are roughly proportional, at least if we're talking about sneakers for kids. (Age explains some of it as well.) Meanwhile, according to those same CEX figures, blacks spend proportionally much less on "entertainment" as a percentage of their income, less on tobacco, less on alcohol, less on video games than whites do. Totally irresponsible, you know?

No, in general, I'd agree that most poor families could stand to learn better budgeting techniques. Who couldn't? I'd also agree that just about every family could stand to spend less on shoes and more on, say, books for their kids. But it's also clear that a very large number of poor families won't escape poverty simply by practicing extreme frugality, as many libertarians seem to believe.

Nor is "personal responsibility" always as easy as it looks. A few summers back I lived with a single black mother in New York (long story why) who once pointed out, in so many words, that her two kids were being barraged with corporate shoe advertising from the moment they woke up in the morning to the minute they went to bed, and buying them sneakers, or splurging on eating out, or other "unthrifty" activities, were one of the few ways she could reward them for doing well in school, and that it's very easy to give in to children wanting and demanding and hectoring after an 80 hour work week. (And moralists take heart; she blamed herself for giving in.) I know a near-infinite number of what Cosby would consider "good parents" who've caved after less.

Not that this generalizes to all situations, and at some point you want to avoid making too many excuses for people, but it gets a bit irritating to hear that "all" poor families need to do is tighten the belt, stop being so frivolous, and they'll be fine. Meanwhile, David Shipler points out that newspaper reporting on poverty has become appallingly thin since its heyday in the 1970s, which probably explains why most of these conversations tend to involve glib writers sitting at their keyboards chatting ignorantly about this stuff. Me especially. It's not a good scene.
-- Brad Plumer 11:05 PM || ||