Measuring Human Rights (20): What is More Important, the Number or Percentage of People Suffering Human Rights Violations?

Take just one human right, the right not to suffer poverty: if we want to measure progress for this human right, we get something like the following fact:

[N]ever in the world have there been so many paupers as in the present times. But the reason of this is that there have never been so many people around. Indeed never in the history of the world has been the percentage of poor people been so low. (source)

So, is this good news or bad news? If it’s more important to reduce the share of the world population suffering a particular type of rights violation, then this is good news. On the other hand, there are now more people – in absolute, not in relative numbers – suffering from poverty. If we take individuals and the distinctions between persons seriously, we should conclude that this is bad news and we’re doing worse than before.

Thomas Pogge has argued for the latter view. Take another example: killing a given number of people doesn’t become less troubling if the world’s population increases. If we would discover that the real number of the world’s population at the time of the Holocaust was twice as large as previously assumed, that wouldn’t diminish the importance of the Holocaust. What matters is the absolute number of people suffering.

On the other hand, if we see that policies and interventions lead to a significant lowering of the proportion of people in poverty – or suffering from any other type of rights violation – between times t and t+n, then we would welcome that, and we would certainly want to know it. The fact that the denominator – total world population – has increased in the mean time, is probably something that has happened independently of those policies. In the specific case of poverty, a growing population can even make a decrease in relative numbers of people suffering from poverty all the more admirable. After all, many still believe (erroneously) in the Malthusian trap theory, which states that population growth necessarily leads to increases in poverty in absolute numbers.

More posts in this series are here.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (19): Fun With Percentages

A certain company discovered that 40% of all sick days were taken on a Friday or a Monday. They immediately clamped down on sick leave before they realized their mistake. Forty percent represents two days out of a five day working week and is therefore a normal spread. Nothing to do with lazy employees wishing to extend their weekends. They are just as sick on any other day.

A more serious example, now, more relevant also to human rights:

The stunning statistic that 70% of black babies are born out of wedlock is driven, to be sure, by the fact that many poor black women have a lot of children. But it turns out it is also driven by the fact that married black women have fewer children than married white women. (source)

The fact that married black women have fewer children than married white women obviously inflates the percentage of black babies born out of wedlock. If married black women had just as many children as married white women, the proportion or percentage of black babies out of wedlock would drop mechanically. But why do they have fewer children? It seems it’s a matter of being able to afford children.

It’s well known that the black middle class has a lot less in the way of assets than whites of similar income levels – hardly surprising, given the legacy of generations of discrimination and poverty. But that also means that things that a lot of white middle class people take for granted – like help with a down-payment on a house when you have your first kid – are less available. Middle class black parents have less in the way of a parental safety net than their white equivalents, so they’re less likely to have a second kid. (source)

The 70%, when compared to the national average which is about 40%, may seem high, but it’s artificially inflated by the relatively low number of black babies in wedlock. So before you go out yelling (see here for example) that all the poverty and educational problems of African-Americans are caused by the fact that too many of their children are born and raised out of wedlock, and presumably by single parents (although the latter doesn’t follow from the former), and that it’s better to promote “traditional marriage” instead of affirmative action, welfare etc., you may want to dig a bit deeper first. If you do, you’ll paint a more nuanced picture than the one about dysfunctional black families and irresponsible black fathers.

Nevertheless, while the percentages may not be as high as they seem at first glance, it remains true that black babies still make up a disproportionate share of kids born out of wedlock. And if “born out of wedlock” means “single parents” (usually mothers) then this can be a problem. Although many single parents do a great job raising their children (and often a better job than many “normal” families), it can be tough and the risks of ending up in poverty are much higher. And yet, even this is not enough to justify sermons about irresponsible black fathers. Maybe the misguided war on drugs, racial profiling and incarceration statistics have something to do with it.