Inequality: Sociology vs Economics

I do economic research for a reason. In community development research, however, you start to see the rigors of economics training and thinking seep into areas not normally approached by economists.

I attribute the beginning of that change to Gary Becker, the Nobel prize winning economist who revolutionized the study of everything from family choices like fertility to racial discrimination.

But there is always push back when other social scientists see economists trying to do their job, especially if they claim to do it better.

A recent story in the New York Times shows the difference. A sociologist recently claimed that the connection between inequality and health outcomes was well understood.

It’s not.

Economists dug deeper and found that it is not inequality that has a negative connection to health, but poverty. They did this by simply including a measure of poverty in the regression using the same exact data (if you don’t know what a regression is, you NEED to learn about it, because almost every empirical study lives or dies on how you specify it, including things like gender pay and minimum wage effects).

Higher inequality lends itself to higher poverty rates because the bottom part of the distribution is poorer in absolute terms, which of course is connected to poor health outcomes.

But I don’t fault sociologists for finding a connection like this that plays into their priors. Every sociology course in higher education focuses on the haves and have-nots as a class power struggle as if it is a matter of fact. The same goes for race. Such an attitude colors political philosophy as well.

If you study conflict for a living, it may be hard to role out conflict as a possible cause of social ills.

What is frustrating is that rebuttals of tenuous research or blanket claims in media are never as widely read as the original claims, and people tend to resign themselves to “Proof by ‘I have a PhD'” entirely too often.


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