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Michigan’s poverty rate did not “soar 17%” from 2009 to 2014. (In fact, it was exactly the same.)

Edit 2, 12:30pm 12/5/15: lots of traffic to this post–welcome! You should also check out the comment thread on’s discussion of this post; his readers offer a lot of good thoughts on what good reporting of these data *could* look like, and questions that could be asked.  And, to be clear, my point in this post is not to state that things are hunky-dory in Michigan: comparing the Census’ 1-year data for 2014 (from ACS) to 1999 (from the y2k Census), we see that statewide poverty rates climbed from 10.5% to 16.2% in those 15 years. That 547,000 more Michigan residents were living in poverty last year than at the turn of the century is clearly cause for concern. My frustration comes because bad data reporting actually obscures and misleads us from the real picture, preventing us from actually digging in and figuring out what’s going on and how to address it. All of the following commentary doesn’t get into that work–it only serves to get us out of the data dead end and back to square 1, so that we have the chance to set off down the right path.

Yesterday was one of my favorite holidays of the year: New Census Data Day.  Just as Black Friday follows Thanksgiving, though, Bad Data Headlines Day inevitably follows as one of my least favorite days.

Michigan’s poverty rate soars as income drops even in economic rebound, census shows! screams the MLive headline, with lead paragraphs reading,

Median income in three out of every four Michigan cities and villages declined in the past five years, according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau. At the same time, the share of people living in poverty rose in two-thirds of the state’s communities.

Statewide, more than one out of every six people are living in poverty, a 17 percent increase from the previous 5-year period. The median household income in Michigan from 2010-2014 was $49,087 per year – up a few hundred bucks from the 2005-2009 period, but when adjusted for inflation it’s down 8.7 percent during that time.

Of that, only the last sentence on household income is a clear and accurate explanation of the data; the rest ranges from misleading to flat wrong.

17% more poverty?!

First, the math issue that had people contacting me in some alarm.  From the wording of the article, they were led to believe that a net 17% of Michigan residents had newly fallen into poverty between 2009 and 2014–that if the poverty rate was, say, 10% in 2009, it must be 27% in 2014, because that’s a 17% increase.  (Of course, the statement “one out of every six” is actually only 16.7%, meaning this read of the 17% increase can’t possibly be right, unless the poverty rate was below zero in 2009–which suggests that “one out of every six” was not a useful way to state the current rate.)

In fact, the statewide poverty rate for the period 2010-2014 was only 16.9%, while the statewide poverty rate for the period 2005-2009 was 14.5%.  Since 16.9 is 16.55% larger than 14.5, it’s reasonably accurate to round it up to 17%–but confusing.  It’s like giving a weather report that, “It’s a chilly 35 degrees Fahrenheit out there right now, but the temperature is expected to rise by 7 degrees Celsius by lunchtime.”

Five-year periods

Any place the numbers “2014” and “2009” are used in these reports, they’re wrong. The new Census data is the 5-Year American Community Survey data for the period 2010-2014. These numbers are the result of surveys given over a 5-year period and rolled up (with some weightings) to create a statistically representative sample.

The Census Bureau’s pre-release webinar for media users explicitly states that the data “describe the average characteristics over a specific period of time, not a single point in time”.  (The webinar also states the 5-year data should be used when “No 1-year estimate is available”.  More on that in a minute.)

So what the data actually show is that, during the period 2010-2014, Michigan’s poverty rate was 16.9%, 2.4 percentage points higher than Michigan’s poverty rate of 14.5% during the period 2005-2009.

Those are big blocks of time.  In 2005, the housing boom was in turbo-mode and would be for sometime longer–and that’s averaged in with the 2009 depths of the recession.  Similarly, the “new” data covers a period from 2010–still on the economic rocks–to 2014.  This is not the right data to use to describe changes “in the past five years”, because that entire 5 year period is lumped together as a single data point.

So…do we know anything at all about poverty trends?

Sure.  Actually, much more useful data for this was released back in September, when the 1-year ACS numbers came out. While the 5-year ACS data covers areas down to the “block group” scale (around 1,000 people, as a rule of thumb), the 1-year data only covers areas of at least 60,000 people, in order to have statistically meaningful sample sizes. Fortunately, Michigan’s population is over 60,000 people, despite what decades of national press might lead one to believe.

Looking at the 1-year ACS numbers, Michigan’s poverty rate over time looks like this:

2005 - 13.2%
2006 - 13.5%
2007 - 14%
2008 - 14.4%
2009 - 16.2%
2010 - 16.8%
2011 - 17.5%
2012 - 17.4%
2013 - 17%
2014 - 16.2%

From these one-year numbers, you can see that Michigan’s poverty rate in 2014 was the same as in 2009, at 16.2%, and that the poverty rate peaked in 2011, dropping every year since.  These numbers also clearly show why the five-year bundle of 2005-2009 is a bad data point to use for “the recession”, and 2010-2014 a bad data point for “the recovery”.

So are these numbers good for anything?

If you want to use the 5-year ACS poverty numbers that newspapers are publishing for local communities, think of them as an over/under comparison–how has my community fared over the last 10 years compared to the state?

For example, the state’s inflation-adjusted median household income dropped 8.7% from the 2005-2009 period to the 2010-2014 period.  By contrast, the City of Ypsi’s inflation-adjusted median household income dropped 13.6% between those periods, while the City of Ann Arbor’s increased by 1%–another data point in our local tale of two cities.


edit, 12/5/15: Also, I didn’t get in to margin of error here–the Census Bureau does include that information in the ACS, and the DetNews’ database of poverty rates, the their credit, does include a column stating whether the change over time is significant or not.

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In the first six months of parenting, these are the categories of music that one listens to:

  1. Music that makes your colicky, refluxy, teething little monster(s) fall asleep
  2. Nope, that’s it

This is mostly either whatever happens to be playing on shuffle at the moment when your midnight dancing around the living room finally works, or whatever lyrics you happen to remember at 4 am when rocking and sing/humming them back to sleep for the fifth time that night.

In the second six months of parenting, you start to move from desperate sleep-deprived dancing to something that could be mistaken for more joyful dancing, but is often just an effort to keep somebody distracted long enough for mama to take a shower.  These tend towards songs that feature the word “baby” prominently in the lyrics, combined with parental in-jokes (Arcade Fire’s Here Comes the Nighttime is a byword for impending doom in our household) or “milestones” (Sylvan Esso’s H.S.K.T. being the first time I caught them doing anything I could label “dancing” under their own steam).

Here’s the “Year 1” playlist I built up over the course of this, largely from a cargo cult mentality that if it worked that once, it will again, right?, presented in roughly chronological order of significance.  If you judge me for the music I will remember my kids’ infancy by, it’s a good sign you’re not a parent.

  1. Alice Cooper, Poison
  2. Erasure, A Little RespectAlwaysOh L’Amour (Depeche Mode was never a hit, though, oddly)
  3. Guns ‘n’ Roses, November Rain (a triumph of screaming to sleeping in a single song)
  4. The National, Fake EmpireSlow ShowStart a War (middle-of-the night low-pitched chest humming favorites)
  5. Lady Gaga, Bad RomanceLoveGameHighway Unicorn
  6. Arcade Fire, Here Comes the NighttimeAfterlife
  7. Of Monsters and Men, Little Talks
  8. OutKast, Hey YaMs. Jackson
  9. Dom La Nena, Start a War
  10. alt-J, Breezeblocks
  11. Sylvan Esso, H.S.K.T.Play it Right
  12. No Doubt, Hey Baby
  13. U2, Ultra Violet

And yes, I closed additions to this playlist about 5 months ago, but it’s taken me this long to chronicle it.  Parenting.


Violent Crime: Is Ypsi up or down from the 70s? (The data suggest down.)

With 3 days left to the election, Ypsilanti’s claws are out over on The Facebook, with one resident’s question of how conflicts of interest are defined and dealt with diverging into an argument about whether or not Ypsi is better today than in the ’70s.  (“Are you better off than 4 years ago?” is for the amateurs in Washington–this town prefers to argue in 40-year increments.)

A sample, redacted for neighborliness:

Ypsi: shouting about the '70s

Ypsi: shouting about the ’70s

At least one of these points of contention is fairly easily tackled.  “We had less violent crime [in 1979 than today]”–oh?

The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting database has its problems and needs heavy caveating (as they themselves explain), but it has its uses, and comparing trends over time is pretty fair.  They provide breakdowns of violent and property crimes, as well as crime rates in crimes-per-100,000-residents.  For local units, they only go back as far as 1985; for states they go to 1960, but that’s probably good enough for our purposes.  I pulled the “Violent Crime Rate” stat for Ypsi for 1985-2012 (most recent available) for same time period for Ann Arbor (for college town and local comparison), and for the 1960-2012 period for Michigan. (I used “rates” rather than total numbers to control for population change over time.) I then normalized it all to show relative trends over time–for each of these communities, how did past crime rates compare to today’s crime rates?  Graph as so:

A2, Ypsi, Michigan violent crime rates over time, normalized to 2012 violent crime rate = 1.

A2, Ypsi, Michigan violent crime rates over time, normalized to 2012 violent crime rate = 1.


It’s pretty clear from this that Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor, and Michigan all have  lower violent crime rates today (well, 2012) than they did in 1985–Ypsi’s current rate is half what it was 30 years ago, and Ann Arbor’s 1/3.  Also, both of those communities track the overall Michigan rate in broad strokes, though more exaggerated and spikier (because of the smaller samples): if we assume that tracking of state trends extends further back, we can estimate that Ypsi’s violent crime rate throughout the 70s was 50% or so higher than in 2012.

My conclusion: at least in violent crime rates, Ypsi’s clearly a lot better off than it was in the ’80s and ’90s, and probably significantly better off than it was in the ’70s.

EDIT 3 Nov. 2014: Okay, so presenting things as ratios of present (2012) rates seems to have confused people, with multiple people on Facebook taking this to mean A2’s violent crime rates are or have been higher than Ypsi’s.  That’s not the case– for most of the 1985-2012 time period, the total (population adjusted) violent crime rate in Ypsi has been 3x Ann Arbor’s, or more.  What the graph above shows is relative rate of change: Ann Arbor’s crime rate has dropped faster than Ypsilanti’s, and Ypsi’s has dropped faster than Michigan or national averages, over the past 30 years.

Here’s another version of the graph that may (or may not!) clarify that, using 1985 as the “100% point.”  The intent in presenting some year as a baseline / 100% point was to focus on change over time, in this case to address the concern that “Ypsi’s crime has dropped [only] because the national crime rate has dropped,” to show, nope, Ypsi’s crime rate is falling faster than national or state trends alone would suggest.


Letter to Ypsi Planning Commission re: Riverside neighborhood zoning

For context, Ypsilanti is in the process of a broad overhaul of its zoning ordinance, based on the new Shape Ypsi master plan.  It’s long overdue–parts of the ordinance date back (as best as I can tell) to the late 1960s and early 1970s, with 40 years of cruft built on those aged foundations, making it a confusing mess of cross-references and contradictions that were a PITA to administer.

There’s a ton of great stuff in the new ordinance text, though with a Planning Commission meeting tonight to review the draft zoning ordinance and zoning map after a serious of neighborhood informational meetings, most of the feedback I’ve seen has taken the form of, “No, my neighborhood needs to changed to a less intensive zoning category.”  Following is my input to the Commission in the other direction.


Ms. Gillotti, Ms. Wessler, and Planning Commissioners:

I am concerned to see that portions of my neighborhood (Riverside) have been changed from a “Core Neighborhood” designation to “CN-Mid” in the most recent proposed zoning map (dated Oct 13). While this designation is reasonable for many of the properties affected, it is the absolute minimum designation appropriate for the area, and I believe any further change to more restrictive designations in the Riverside area would be harmful to our neighborhood and to the larger community.

Please do NOT further restrict this area: Riverside needs zoning that supports the diverse, dense, urban neighborhood that it is now.


Richard Murphy

[address omitted]

More thoughts follow, if you want the long-winded version, numbered for convenience: [note: this WAS part of the original email, not just bloggy commentary]

  1. Diversity of housing stock:  I live in Riverside because I want to raise my kids in the diversity of age, race, class, and life situation offered by the neighborhood—a diversity that relies on having a broad range of housing styles and arrangements: neighborhood rentals allow new residents to fit into and find their place in the Ypsilanti community, in-house apartments provide options for people who don’t need (or want) the hassle and cost of house ownership, group living arrangements support those who, due to age or disability, cannot maintain a home of their own. Overly restrictive zoning threatens this neighborhood diversity by limiting available options.
  1. Density of residents:  I also want to raise my kids in a neighborhood that makes walking, biking, and transit use normal, with access to lots of local businesses and other destinations.  This value relies on a critical mass of residents both to raise drivers’ awareness of pedestrians and cyclists (safety in numbers) and to provide a customer base that serves as the foundation for local businesses (a recent economic impact study by the Michigan Main Streets program found that each “downtown” household contributes approximately $9,000 annually to downtown businesses).  A more restrictive zoning erodes both of these factors.
  1. Community integration of students:  Students are not an exception to the above points, but are particularly important to provide neighborhood options for.  EMU students are our best source of prospective long-term residents—a talent attraction pipeline that many communities would love to have–but giving them a reason to stay here after graduation requires giving them the option of being a part of our neighborhoods and our community, not just relegating them to campus housing or isolated apartment complexes. We need to plan for the inclusion of today’s students in order to create tomorrow’s homeowners, business owners, and civic leaders.
  1. Maintenance of properties:  Creating non-conformities discourages upkeep, by reducing the long-term value of properties, as well as by limiting their appeal to buyers.  By example, over the 8 years I’ve lived in this neighborhood, the most significant upgrades to properties have involved adding units to make the finances work: a 2- to 3-unit conversion on the 400-block of Perrin, a house-to-duplex conversion on the 400 block of Ballard, and Barry LaRue’s beautiful restoration and duplex conversion of 505 N Hamilton. By contrast, our visible vacant properties are those that were rendered non-conforming by unit count in 2006: the 4-plex on the 400 block of N. Hamilton that burned in 2008 and has not yet been renovated under the 1- and 2-unit zoning; the apparently stalled 3-to-2 unit conversion on 500 N. Hamilton.

I understand that some have offered potential nuisance concerns about some of the uses included in the CN district, but using zoning to address those concerns is the slowest and least effective tool in our arsenal, and brings collateral damage to our community equity, economic development, and quality of life. We have targeted tools of ordinance enforcement, rental property maintenance, historic preservation, and vacant and dangerous building regulation: let’s not risk what makes the neighborhood unique when we have better ways to resolve our concerns.

Campaign notebook: What I borrowed for the NaGs

While the Not-a-Gnolls campaign idea was spun out of some pretty minimal excerpts of published setting material, I borrowed a lot in the course of running it: the “file off the serial numbers, change the names, and make it yours” school of GMing.

Here’s what I remember, from flipping through my campaign binder:

  • Immediately after the attack on the village, while chasing gnolls through the forest and into the foothills beyond, the party discovers hostages being sacrificed and turned into undead beings. They follow a side trail to discover a shrine built into the side of a mountain, where they discover, amongst much ick and gross, the connection from the gnolls to Malar. For this shrine, I used the latter part of the adventure Mad God’s Key from Dungeon magazine, the lovely-named “Tomb of Blood Overflowing”. I believe I used a lot of the encounters from the printed dungeon mostly as written, but redrew the map with some changes to add some things I needed.
  • Back on the trail of the main group of gnoll raiders, the party arrived at their encampment deep in the forest.  I used part of The Distraction, a capture-the-flag style module also from Dungeon magazine, for this adventure, though changed some things to accommodate the objective of hostage rescue.
  • The party returned to town to find a trade cartel had “just happened to be sailing by” and noticed the devastation, stopping to provide aid.  Oh, and, just happening to set themselves up as the martial law in the town. One character knew this group to be bad news bears from his pre-campaign background, but there wasn’t time to address that before the party ventured into a cavern complex that had been opened by the sinkhole, in search of some lost kids.  This used Crown of the Kobold King, a very good D&D3.5 adventure by Paizo. This I used largely as written, with some difficulty boosts to reflect the 6-player group.
  • Having saved the children from the caverns, the party had now established themselves as town heroes, and the cartel wanted to get them out of sight for a while, telling them–accurately–that the key to Nobanion’s rebirth may lie in the city of Westgate.  They also had a fallen comrade from the kobolds’ dungeons, so made  a side trip to have the dead monk’s order reincarnate her.
  • Westgate, a wretched hive of scum and villainy in the Forgotten Realms, of course had to use material from Westcrown, a wretched hive of scum and villainy in Golarion (the world of Pathfinder). The Sixfold Trialfrom Pathfinder’s Council of Thieves, is a fantastic caper story–the party stars in a play in order to be invited to an after-party at the Mayor’s house, so that they can sneak into an extra-dimensional space hidden within the house. I used some suggestions from the Paizo messageboards to expand the play from 4 roles to 6, using lines from Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Sorcerer for one of the added characters.  Otherwise, most of the adventure was run as written, with the artifact at the end of course replaced with a phylactery containing the soul of the recently-killed Nobanion.
  • On opening the phylactery, the party was teleported to the top of a stepped pyramid inside a giant, hemispherical underground cavern, which, of course, contained the tomb of Nobanion’s original, pre-deification body. But this was all homebrew, so not the point of this post.  Moving on.
  • After the party successfully applied Nobanion’s phylactery to his tomb, and were surprised that the god in fact returned to life as an infant, rather than, you know, a god, they had to find their way back to the surface. Here I used The Chasm Bridge, another Dungeon magazine adventure, as the major encounter on their journey to the surface.

From that point, much more of the campaign became original content–I had accumulated lots of loose ends in the overarching plot to start tying up, and by this point we knew we were on track to becoming parents of twins, so I was on the clock to get the campaign into a parking space.   My external source borrowing from that point became more piecemeal: an NPC here, a map of a keep there. I also had a lot of bits and pieces of material I’d prepped over time, but which the party hadn’t encountered, so was able to borrow from my six-months-or-so-ago self, tweaking to fit the party’s current power level and the current state of the plot.

In fact, my best borrow was perhaps the character I managed to work in who had been one of my own characters…nearly 20 years ago.  But save that for later.

Diapering: earth destroyer, or crazy hippie?

Overall, our parenting is somewhere in the range of a 7 on the crappy crunchy scale, with some dips into the 2 range. (Yep, I’ll wait….okay, back now?)

Diapers are one of the both-ends-of-the-scale things.  Our primary diaper is the cloth/synthetic BumGenius FreeTime All-in-One, which, yes, costs $20 per diaper.  At night, though, we go Huggies Overnights disposables.  Cloth dipes first:

Cloth diapers have come a loooong way from the absorbant squares that you hand-fold and attach with safety pins that I and my siblings were clad in. These guys are high-tech wicking fleece numbers with multiple sizing options in 2 dimensions: we’ve been using our set since they were about 8 weeks and 8 pounds old to now, going on a year and 25 pounds old. (For the first 8 weeks, we rented a set of newborn-sized diapers from our friendly neighborhood diaper shop, Ann Arbor’s Little Seedling.)

They’re pretty darned easy to use–there’s definitely some practice bias, but we both find them easier to put on a squirming baby than the fussy little tabs on disposables–and the long-run cost/benefit is crazy good.  Even if you don’t get a bulk discount, that $20 gets you a diaper that you use about once every 36-48 hours. For us, at 9.5 months of use so far, that means we’ve used each diaper between 140-190 times so far.

At the low end of that scale, that means each diaper would have cost us 14.3 cents per use so far.  At the high end, and at Little Seedling’s bulk pricing, that cost would be about 9.4 cents per use.  If we use them until the kids are two, that cost per use ends up in the 4-6 cents per use range.

By comparison, disposable diapers are in the range of about 20 cents per diaper. If we used exclusively disposables, at our typical rate of usage, that’d be somewhere in the $2,500 range over two years.  Our set of 30 cloth diapers, plus the rental of the set of newborn diapers: about $800. Yes, there are costs to washing them and drying them (we gave up our clothesline once the dog started turning all the clean laundry on it into toys), but the 2-year savings on purchase cost of cloth diapers are enough to cover the cost of a brand-new high-efficiency washer and dryer.

There’s also a practical benefit to the reusables: it’s quite reasonable to receive a 2-year supply of cloth diapers and wipes at a baby shower, because once you’re using them, you don’t need storage space for the others, because they’re the same diapers over and over again.  Even if your friends and family wanted to give you $2500 worth of disposables at your shower, you’d be left renting a storage locker to hold them all.

If you want to talk environmental benefits, the disposable diaper industry claims no significant difference (surprise!), while the cloth diaper trade group claims those life cycle analyses are flawed, comparing the best case disposables to the worst case cloth diapers.  Fortunately, I find the practical and financial benefits of cloth diapering to be enough that it doesn’t matter if there’s zero environmental benefit.

Now, as I mentioned, we do use disposables at night.  There are certainly benefits to those chemical super-absorbing agents in disposable dipes–like letting the kiddos sleeping for 10-11 hours straight without needing a change. So using 1 disposable diaper, per kid, per night, is part of our “sleep is good for everybody” suite of parenting choices.

Campaign notebook: the origins of the Not-a-Gnolls

For about the two years before parenting started, my major D&D game (used in the generic sense for a game using Pathfinder, in this case) was the “Not-a-Gnolls”, a band thrown together by circumstance to restore the minor god Nobanion.  The ultimate session was a somewhat rushed climax which, as a result, didn’t work terribly well and was sadly anti-climactic–but there were a lot of good parts along the way.

The campaign map: a section of the Forgotten Realms, photocopied at 400%, traced over and hand-colored, with some names changed to suit.

The campaign map: a section of the Forgotten Realms, photocopied at 400%, traced over and hand-colored, with some names changed to suit. Just like middle school!

Where’d this campaign come from? I’d been playing D&D in the Forgotten Realms setting for over 20 years at that point, and basically just picked a spot on the map to say, “I’ve never really done anything over here.  Wonder what’s going on there.”  Browsing the campaign setting book (3rd Edition), I found,

Gulthmere Forest: The lion-god Nobanion ceaselessly roams the wood to protect it. All the tribes of Gulthmere venerate Nobanion and call on the deity to halt invasions by greedy northerners.

Et voila, a campaign is born: Who is Nobanion (not an actor I’d come across in my use of the setting), and what would happen if he did cease his ceaseless roamings?

Other sources suggested a feud with Malar, The Beastlord–both being gods of the hunt, but Nobanion in the way of giving thanks to a creature that gave its life so that one may eat, while Malar in the bloodsport, most-dangerous-game sense of the hunt. Nobanion, a regional power, had cast Malar and his followers out of his turf in a previous conflict, and now Malar wants back in–and wants revenge.  In the Realms canon, a god’s powers are linked to the number and faith of his or her followers: having been bested in direct combat, Malar would thus take his revenge by cutting off Nobanion’s source of power.

I renamed the town of “Nathlekh”, near the aforementioned Gulthmere Forest, to “Nob’s Lake”, deciding it would be the center of Nobanion’s human worshippers–the poor souls.

The opening of the campaign was set in Nob’s Lake, in the midst of Nobanion’s high holy festival, during which the faithful from around the region would gather in town. In the midst of the festival, the town was struck by a massive earthquake, destroying much of the temple in a huge sinkhole, followed with an assault by gnolls. The PCs all managed to survive the onslaught, making their way to the woods to hide: one, catching sight of another, whispered, “Hey, over here–I’m not a gnoll!” and the group’s name was determined.

I enjoyed the start of the campaign: the somewhat in medias res opening worked well, even if via action the PCs were not able to effect, to set the stage, to push the characters together, and to provide them some clear hooks for adventure. It was also fun to flip the trope of PCs meeting via saving the town’s festival (spoilers) from danger, and instead totally demolish the town. And, while I had planned for some next steps of the party going after the hostages, and trying to determine where the gnolls came from, I had a lot I hadn’t bothered to figure out yet: what happens when a god suffers a catastrophic loss of his fanbase? What could the PCs do to repair that? What was under the town to cause / enable the sinkhole?

As a side note, it looks like the Forgotten Realms are the “default”/base setting for the new Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. I’ve seen a fair amount of kvetching that the Realms are “done”, that 35+ years of publishing game material and fiction set in that world has left nothing gamers to explore or experience anew or define their own role in. Hopefully it’s obvious that I disagree with this sentiment: while I have at points had 4 editions worth of the campaign setting spread across a table while coming up with ideas, at no point have I felt limited by canon–it’s a pile of ideas: take a few, leave what doesn’t fit.  And even after a couple of decades of playing in the Realms, there are still a lot of good ideas on the pile to choose from.


“Do what’s right for your baby/family”…even if it’s conventional

It’s not common in parenting circles to brag about formula-feeding, disposable diapers, and sleep training, but: yep, we do those things (at least in part).  And, hopefully I can save some new parents out there a lot of grief by assuring: yep, it’s totally okay for you to do them too, if that’s what works for you.

For context, I find there to be a big trend in hip-and/or-middle-class-parenting of pushing back against the “modern” parenting practices of our parents’ generation.  By way of example, this article chastising the very question of “how’s your baby sleeping?” is what prompts my rant of the moment:

I’m going to start charging anybody who asks the parents of one of my patients “is your baby sleeping through the night yet?  The answer to the question, while it seems polite enough, often leads to a judgment of how we’re doing as a new parent.  We have enough judges. Plus, the answer is almost always “no” and physiologically, that’s the right answer. Most children don’t sleep through the night because they are built that way. 

The “let them cry it out, is the nursery ready, put that baby down you’re spoiling him” culture can also undermine our parenting efforts.  Our culture encourages independence from a very young age and says that normal babies were never meant to be held all the time, and were meant to sleep all by themselves. 

I see things like this shared around by way of saying, “Hey, it’s okay–just because grandma thinks you need to do something a particular way with your baby doesn’t mean that’s your only choice.” (Or your co-workers, or Babies R Us, or random passerby on the street, or your pediatrician…) These pieces then tend to go into detail about (for example) the science of sleep cycles and brain activity, some evolutionary psychology theories, and discussions of indigenous/traditional cultures’ practices in order to illustrate the fact that today’s standard parenting practice is not the one and only way to do things.

And I’ve come to the realization that I’m not the target audience for this.  The target audience is the parents who were themselves raised on day care, cartoons, formula, Huggies, and cribs, and who need every detail of the alternatives spelled out for them in order to get basic familiarity and comfort with trying it out. I and my younger siblings, though, were breastfed, cloth diap’ed, and no-“screen timed” by our at-home mom, so, yeah, sure, these things are totally within my experience.

And, further, I’ve kind of got a giant chip on my shoulder at this point about it. Something about a pair of type-A perfectionists trying to parent twins “right” and reading things like this while short half our brain capacities from sleep deprivation led us to absorb a lot of guilt out of this: the detail and justification and assertiveness that’s calibrated for chipping away at Western cultural norms to create an openness to new ideas has an entirely different effect on somebody who already holds those views, and is now being waterboarded with them in conjunction with chronic sleep deprivation.

The inevitable conclusion of these advice pieces–that “only you really know what’s best for your child and family”–is intended as a shield against nosy normative interlopers, to say, “Hey, look, those cultural norms may be totally fine for some babies, but if they’re not working for your baby, it’s really okay to try something else. Unfortunately, the level of hammering home of their points that most of these writers do has the effect of implying, “(…and what’s best for your baby is clearly this stuff, not the conventional stuff.  How can you read all that stuff about millions of years of human evolution and tens of thousands of years of traditional practices, and possibly believe that suddenly after World War II we struck on something better?)”

Some of the more zealous writers out there intentionally play on this emotional vulnerability, rather than making any pretense of simply laying out options, for example, 

Likewise, why do sleep-trained babies stop calling out? Perhaps because it is futile for them to continue crying. Why cry when nobody comes?  This knowledge hurts your soul when you consider that a baby’s cry is their first attempt at communicating. Through it, the baby establishes his status as someone who deserves something. When the communication is answered, the baby’s sense of positive entitlement as a person becomes stronger. However when their cry is ignored, this sends the opposite message – that they are not worthwhile.

I fell for this parenting terrorism for quite a while, up until about the third or fourth incident of nearly drowsing off and driving into a bridge abutment on my way home from work, when I decided, you know what?  Daddy making a trip to the morgue probably isn’t “what’s best for your baby.”

For others struggling with the same, I’ll offer up a bit of an antidote: when you’re feeling guilt about not co-sleeping, or not exclusively breastfeeding, or not holding your baby 24/7, open up the Dr. Sears Baby Book and find an anecdote of traditional societies’ practices of childrearing. Then grab Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? to the section on childrearing practices, and wonder at how different the two accounts are.  Then remember that one of these two writers has spend 50 years doing field work in places like New Guinea, while the other charges tens of thousands of dollars for speaking engagements to tell parents how to feel good about themselves, after using his books to riddle them with guilt.

Then use that comparison to feel okay about ignoring the oh-so-clear-cut Right Way that Sears offers, and make your own decisions.  Even if those decisions involve formula.


A line in the stats: gerrymandered crime reporting

This weekend, the Ann Arbor News offered a look “behind the numbers” at crime stats in the Ypsilanti area.  Their findings: crime is higher than state and national averages in the City of Ypsilanti, near or below averages in Superior Township and Ypsilanti Township.

Unfortunately, the story spends a lot of ink on the numbers itself–not necessarily a bad thing–with virtually no “behind” to be found.  The analysis of why a disparity might exist is limited to a vague quote from a city police officer that sums up to “I don’t know,”

Ypsilanti police Lt. Deric Gress attributed the higher crime rates to Ypsilanti’s urban nature, with an estimated 19,809 people living in four square miles, per the U.S. Census. “I don’t have a real reason we’d be higher than any others, other than being in an urban environment,” he said.

and some discussion of differential levels of community engagement, a discussion that uses a few anecdotes of positive engagement in areas like West Willow to generalize across the township, while generalizing that the city police have struggled in recent cases with a prevalent ‘No Snitching’ culture in the city.” This discussion ignores that the city’s police department started a community policing program like the one lauded in West Willow a decade ago, and the “uncooperative witness” factor, as far as I can tell, has been limited to a few shootings at a single housing complex.  (But it makes a good story, right?)

Coming up with some theories on the “why” behind the numbers isn’t that hard; here’s a couple, with some discussion:

  1. Ypsilanti is a college town.  College kids do dumb stuff, with some of that stuff being criminal and some of it leading to them being victims of crime. Consider these two graphs, the first from the City of Ypsilanti’s Master Plan, the second from the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Arrest Data Analysis Tool (This is a thing.  Cool!)

    College town Ypsi has nearly 3 times the 18- to 24-year-olds of Ypsi Township or Michigan--an age bracket featuring prominently in Federal arrest statistics.

    College town Ypsi has nearly 3 times the 18- to 24-year-olds of Ypsi Township or Michigan–an age bracket featuring prominently in Federal arrest statistics.

  2. Ypsilanti has a lot of people living in poverty. Poverty exposes people to crime as well as making crime appealing, for lack of access to better opportunities.  As of the 2012 ACS, 28.8% of Ypsi City residents were living in poverty, compared to 16.3% of Michigan residents.  A quick literature search finds a 2011 paper from Justice Policy Journal, Does Age or Poverty Level Best Predict Criminal Arrest and Homicide Rates? A Preliminary Investigation, which finds that, “poverty … displays three to four times
    more explanatory power in predicting arrest rates and eight times more in predicting homicide death rates than does age”. (That is, teenagers are more likely to live in poverty than 40-year-olds, and it is their poverty, not their age, that is the best statistical predictor of their being arrested or murdered.)  I especially like this link for contradicting my first theory, leaving some work for the enterprising journalist!

There are policy implications of each of these hypothesis that we could dive into (and should! …in a future post), but the one I want to call attention to up front is Sheriff Clayton’s slicing and caveating of the data:

After Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton’s statements in July that the crime rate in eastern Washtenaw County is below the national and state crime rates, The Ann Arbor News analyzed crime rate statistics from 2008 to 2012 — the last five years available — from Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Township and Superior Township, the three most populated areas of eastern Washtenaw County. …

On Thursday, Clayton clarified his statement, saying he was speaking about the areas the sheriff’s office is primarily responsible for, Ypsilanti and Superior townships.

“If you add in the city’s numbers, that’s what spikes it and when I’m talking (in the press conference), I’m talking about our area,” Clayton said. “When you take Superior and Ypsilanti Township, they are below the national rate.”

This whole “investigation” was sparked by a comment of Clayton’s, in which he has to draw a particular line–adding Superior Township to Ypsilanti Township, but carefully excluding the city that’s directly in the middle of that area–to bring his stats down below a target number. He’s not slicing by political jurisdiction, lest Ypsi Township look bad, nor by “community” in an identity sense of the word, because he’d have to include the city, but by what makes the numbers line up in his department’s favor.

If the standard by which we’re measuring crime prevention is how well somebody can draw creative lines to make the crime Somebody Else’s Problem, then we stand little chance of actually addressing it.

Ypsi as the value stock of Michigan?

It was recently suggested to me that my beloved Ypsilanti was “the most under-performing city in the state.” Hyperbole aside, they had a fair assessment:

You’ve got everything you’re supposed to have: two great little downtowns, historic neighborhoods, the river and the parks along it and the festivals, you’re a college town, and you’re  right next door to one of the biggest research universities in the country.  So what gives, why isn’t Ypsi thriving?

I offered a couple of themes, some of which (totally coincidentally?) may just make good topics for future posts.

  1. The public schools are on the wrong end of a collective action problem–though we’re seeing friends’ kids moving back into the public schools as they hit grade levels with new options, which gives hope for changing trends. (We’re only 4 short years from kindergarten ourselves, and would rather join an upward curve than start one.)
  2. Crime genuinely does happen here. You can avoid nearly all of it the same way you can anywhere–by avoiding things like the drug trade, bad romantic relationships, picking fights while intoxicated, being poor, or foolishly leaving electronics in front of open windows at night–but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem, both for the individuals it does strike and the community as a whole.
  3. We haven’t figured out how to deal honestly with our diversity of needs and goals. I see three major Ypsilantis: the Ypsi trying to be Ann Arbor’s newest enviable zip code (the Old East Side?), with kids playing in the sleepy, homeowner-filled neighborhoods; the college town Ypsi of students and recent grads, with all the attendant chaos and bustle; and the struggling factory town that hasn’t figured out how to replace 4,000 Ford jobs.
  4. Long grudges and old fears dominate many discussions: opinions are often formed not in the context of here and now, but on who is offering them, or on something that happened decades ago. For a community whose median resident was born in 1990, we hold the 1970s incredibly present in our policy conversations.
  5. Our ambitions seem too low. While some cities would find success simply in stemming their losses, and others might look on Plymouth or Chelsea as their goal, Ypsilanti would be selling itself short on the first–and ignoring, or expelling, many of our residents en route to the second.

It’s a thorny problem, and I have no pat solutions to offer. In this context, though, and considering the role of history in all of the other challenges, it will be interesting to watch our new mayor, who will be the youngest to take that office since George Goodman in 1972.