Unemployment, Idleness, and Injury - Cognitive Classes and Social Behavior - The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life - Richard J. Herrnstein, Charles Murray

The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life - Richard J. Herrnstein, Charles Murray (1996)

Part II. Cognitive Classes and Social Behavior

Chapter 7. Unemployment, Idleness, and Injury

Economists distinguish between being unemployed and being out of the labor force. The unemployed are looking for work unsuccessfully. Those out of the labor force are not looking, at least for the time being. Among young white men in their late 20s and early 30s, both unemployment and being out of the labor force are strongly predicted by low cognitive ability, even after taking other factors into account.

Many of the white males in the NLSY who were out of the labor force had the obvious excuse: They were still in college or graduate school. Of those not in school, 15 percent spent at least a month out of the labor force in 1989. The proportion was more than twice as high in cognitive Class V as in Class I. Socioeconomic background was not the explanation. After the effects of IQ were taken into account, the probability of spending time out of the labor force went up, not down, as parental SES rose.

Why are young men out of the labor force? One obvious possibility is physical disability. Yet here too cognitive ability is a strong predictor: Of the men who described themselves as being too disabled to work, more than nine out of ten were in the bottom quarter of the IQ distribution; fewer than one in twenty were in the top quarter. A man’s IQ predicted whether he described himself as disabled better than the kinds of job he had held. We do not know why intelligence and physical problems are so closely related, but one possibility is that less intelligent people are more accident prone.

The results are similar for unemployment. Among young white men who were in the labor market, the likelihood of unemployment for high school graduates and college graduates was equally dependent on cognitive ability. Socioeconomic background was irrelevant once intelligence was taken into account.

Most men, whatever their intelligence, are working steadily. However, for that minority of men who are either out of the labor force or unemployed, the primary risk factor seems to be neither socioeconomic background nor education but low cognitive ability.

Having a high IQ makes it easier to do well in a job; we followed that story in Chapter 3. But what about the relationship of cognitive ability to that crucially important social behavior known as “being able to get and hold a job.” To what extent are dropouts from the labor force concentrated in the low-IQ classes? To what extent are the unemployed concentrated there?

In the following discussion, we limit the analysis to males. It is still accepted that women enter and leave the labor force for reasons having to do with home and family, introducing a large and complex set of issues, whereas healthy adult men are still expected to work. And yet something troubling has been happening in that area, and for a long time. The problem is shown in the figure below for a group of young men who are likely to be (on average) in the lower half of the IQ distribution: men 16 to 19 years who are not enrolled in school.

Since mid-century, teenage boys not in school are increasingly not employed either

Imag

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1982, Table C-42; unpublished data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Although the economy has gone up and down over the last forty years and the employment of these young men with it, the long-term employment trend of their employment has been downhill. The overall drop has not been small. In 1953, the first year for which data are available, more than 86 percent of these young men had jobs. In 1992, it was just 66 percent.

Large macroeconomic and macrosocial forces, which we will not try to cover, have been associated with this trend in employment.1 In this chapter, we are concerned with what intelligence now has to do with getting and holding a job. To explore the answer, we divide the employment problem into its two constituent parts, the unemployed and those not even looking for work. All of the analyses that follow refer exclusively to whites; in this case white males.

LABOR FORCE DROPOUT

To qualify as “participating in the labor force,” it is not necessary to be employed; it is necessary only to be looking for work. Seen from this perspective, there are only a few valid reasons why a man might not be in the labor force. He might be a full-time student; disabled; institutionalized or in the armed forces; retired; independently wealthy; staying at home caring for the children while his wife makes a salary. Or, it may be argued, a man may legitimately be out of the labor force if he is convinced that he cannot find a job even if he tries. But this comes close to exhausting the list of legitimate reasons.

As of the 1990 interview wave, the members of the NLSY sample were in an ideal position for assessing labor force participation. They were 25 to 33 years old, in their prime working years, and they were indeed a hardworking group. Ninety-three percent of them had jobs. Fewer than 5 percent were out of the labor force altogether. What had caused that small minority to drop out of the labor force? And was there any relationship between being out of the labor force and intelligence?

One such relationship was entirely predictable. A few men were out of the labor force because they were still in school in their late 20s and early 30s—most of them in law school, medical school, or studying for the doctorate. They were concentrated in the top cognitive classes. But this does not tell us much about who leaves the labor force. We will exclude them from the subsequent analysis and focus on men who were out of the labor force for reasons other than school.

To structure the analysis, let us ask who spent at least a month out of the labor force during calendar year 1989. Here is the breakdown of labor force dropout by cognitive class for white males.2 Dropout from the labor force rose as cognitive ability fell. The percentage of Class V men who were out of the labor force was a little more than twice the percentage for men in Class I.

Which White Young Men Spent a Month or More Out of the Labor Force in 1989?

Cognitive Class

Percentage

I Very

10

II Bright

14

III Normal

15

IV Dull

19

V Very dull

22

Overall average

15

SOCIOECONOMIC BACKGROUND VERSUS COGNITIVE ABILITY. The next step, in line with our standard procedure, is to examine how much of the difference may be accounted for by the man’s socioeconomic background. The thing to be explained (the dependent variable) is the probability of spending at least a month out of the labor force in 1989. Our basic analysis has the usual three explanatory variables: parental SES, age, and IQ. The results are shown in the figure below. In this analysis, we exclude all men who in either 1989 or 1990 reported that they were in school, the military, or were physically unable to work.

These results are the first example of a phenomenon you will see again in the chapters of Part II. If we had run this analysis with just socioeconomic background and age as the explanatory variables, we would have found a mildly interesting but unsurprising result: Holding age constant, white men from more privileged backgrounds have a modestly smaller chance of dropping out of the labor force than white men from deprived backgrounds. But when IQ is added to the equation, the role of socioeconomic background either disappears entirely or moves in the opposite direction. Given equal age and IQ, a young man from a family with high socioeconomic status was morelikely to spend time out of the labor force than the young man from a family with low socioeconomic status.3 In contrast, IQ had a large positive impact on staying at work. A man of average age and socioeconomic background in the 2d centile of IQ had almost a 20 percent chance of spending at least a month out of the labor force, compared to only a 5 percent chance for a man at the 98th centile.

IQ and socioeconomic background have opposite effects on leaving the labor force among white men

Imag

Note: For computing the plot, age and either SES (for the black curve) or IQ (for the gray curve) were set at their mean values.

It is not hard to imagine why high intelligence helps keep a man at work. As Chapter 3 discussed, competence in the workplace is related to intelligence, and competent people more than incompetent people are likely to find the workplace a congenial and rewarding place. Hence, other things equal, they are more likely than incompetent people to be in the labor force. Intelligence is also related to time horizons. A male in his 20s has many diverting ways to spend his time, from traveling the world to seeing how many women he can romance, all of them a lot more fun than working forty hours a week at a job. A shortsighted man may be tempted to take a few months off here and there; he thinks he can always pick up again when he feels like it. A farsighted man tells himself that if he wants to lay the groundwork for a secure future, he had better establish a record as a reliable employee now, while he is young. Statistically, smart men tend to be more farsighted than dumb men.

In contrast to IQ, the role of parental SES is inherently ambiguous. One possibility is that growing up in a privileged home foretells low dropout rates, because the parents in such households socialize their sons to conventional work. But this relationship may break down among the wealthy, whose son has the option of living comfortably without a weekly paycheck. In any case, aren’t working-class homes also adamant about raising sons to go out and get a job? And don’t young men from lower-class homes have a strong economic incentive to stay in the labor force because they are likely to need the money? The statistical relationship with parental SES that shows up in the analysis suggests that higher status may facilitate labor force dropout, at least for short periods.

The analysis of labor force dropout is also the first example in Part II of a significant relationship that is nonetheless modest. When we know from the outset that 78 percent of white men in Class V—borderline retarded or below—did not drop out of the labor force for as much as a month, we can also infer that all sorts of things besides IQ are important in determining whether someone stays at work. The analysis we have presented adds to our understanding without enabling us to explain fully the phenomenon of labor force dropout.

EDUCATION. Conducting the analysis separately for our two educational samples (those with a bachelor’s degree, no more and no less, and those with a high school diploma, no more and no less) does not change the picture. High intelligence played a larger independent role in reducing labor force dropout among the college sample than among the high school sample. And for both samples, high socioeconomic background did not decrease labor force dropout independent of IQ and age. Once again, the probability of dropout actually increased with socioeconomic background.

JOB DISABILITIES

In the preceding analysis, we excluded all the cases in which men reported that they were unable to work. But it is not that simple. Low cognitive ability increases the risk of being out of the labor force for healthy young men, but it also increases the risk of not being healthy. The breakdown by cognitive classes is shown in the following table. The relationship of IQ with both variables is conspicuous but more dramatic for men reporting that their disability prevents them from working. The rate per 1,000 of men who said they were prevented from working by a physical disability jumped sevenfold from Class III to Class IV, and then more than doubled again from Class IV to Class V.

Job Disability Among Young White Males

No. per 1,000 Who Reported Being Prevented from Working by Health Problems

Cognitive Class

No. per 1,000 Who Reported Limits in Amount or Kind of Work by Health Problems

0

I Very Bright

13

5

II Bright

21

5

III Normal

37

36

IV Dull

45

78

V Very dull

62

11

Overall average

33

A moment’s thought suggests a plausible explanation: Men with low intelligence work primarily in blue-collar, manual jobs and thus are more likely to get hurt than are men sitting around conference tables. Being injured is more likely to shrink the job market for a blue-collar worker than a for a white-collar worker. An executive with a limp can still be an executive; a manual laborer with a limp faces a more serious job impediment. This plausible hypothesis appears to be modestly confirmed in a simple cross-classification of disabilities with type of job. More blue-collar workers reported some health limitation than did white-collar workers (38 per 1,000 versus 28 per 1,000), and more blue-collar workers reported being prevented from working than did white-collar workers (5 per 1,000 versus 2 per 1,000).

But the explanation fails to account for the relationship of disability with intelligence. For example, given average cognitive ability and age, the odds of having reported a job limitation because of health were about 3.3 percent for white men working in white-collar jobs compared to 3.8 percent for white men working in blue-collar jobs, a very minor difference. But given that both men have blue-collar jobs, the man with an IQ of 85 had double the probability of a work disability of a man with an IQ of 115.

Might there be something within job categories to explain away this apparent relationship of IQ to job disability? We explored the question from many angles, as described in the extended note, and the finding seems to be robust. For whatever reasons, white men with low IQs are more likely to report being unable to work because of health than their smarter counterparts, even when the occupational hazards have been similar.4

Why might intelligence be related to disability, independent of the line of work itself? An answer leaps to mind: The smarter you are, the less likely that you will have accidents. In Lewis Terman’s sample of people with IQs above 140 (see Chapter 2), accidents were well below the level observed in the general population.5 In other studies, the risk of motor vehicle accidents rises as the driver’s IQ falls.6 Level of education—to some degree, a proxy measure of intelligence—has been linked to accidents and injury, including fatal injury, in other activities as well.7 Smarter workers are typically more productive workers (see Part I), and we can presume that some portion of what makes a worker productive is that he avoids needless accidents.

Whatever validity this explanation may have, however, it is unlikely to be the whole story. We will simply observe that self-reported health problems are subject to a variety of biases, especially when the question is so sensitive as one that asks, in effect, “What is your excuse for not looking for a job, young man?” The evidence in the NLSY regarding the seriousness of the ailments, whether a doctor has been consulted, and their duration raises questions about whether the self-reported disability data have the same meaning when reported by (for example) a subject who reports that he was two months out of the labor market because of a broken leg and another who reports that he has been out of the labor market for five years because of a bad back.

We leave the analysis of labor force participation with a strong case to be made for two points: Cognitive ability is a significant determinant of dropout from the labor force by healthy young men, independent of other plausibly important variables. And the group of men who are out of the labor force because of self-described physical disability tend toward low cognitive ability, independent of the physical demands of their work.

UNEMPLOYMENT

Men who are out of the labor force are in one way or another unavailable for work; unemployed men, in contrast, want work but cannot find it. The distinction is important. The nation’s unemployment statistics are calculated on the basis of people who are looking for work, not on those who are out of the labor force. Being unemployed is transitory, a way station on the road to finding a job or dropping out of the work force. But it is hard to see much difference between unemployment and dropping out in the relationship with intelligence. We begin with the basic breakdown, set out in the following table. The extremes—Classes I and V—differed markedly in the frequency of unemployment lasting a month or more, with Class V experiencing six times the unemployment of Class I. Class IV also had higher unemployment than the upper three-quarters of the IQ distribution.

Which White Young Men Spent a Month or More Unemployed in 1989?

Cognitive Class

Percentage

I Very bright

2

II Bright

7

III Normal

7

IV Dull

10

V Very dull

12

Overall average

7

Socioeconomic Background Versus Cognitive Ability

The independent roles of our three basic variables are shown in the figure below. For a man of average age and socioeconomic background, cognitive ability lowered the probability of being unemployed for a month from 15 percent for a man at the 2d centile of IQ to 4 percent for men at the 98th centile. Neither parental SES nor age had an appreciable (or statistically significant) independent effect.

The Role of Education

Before looking at the numbers, we would have guessed that cognitive ability would be more important for explaining unemployment among the high school sample than among the college sample. The logic is straightforward: A college degree supplies a credential and sometimes specific job skills that, combined with the college graduate’s greater average level of intelligence, should reduce the independent role of IQ in ways that would not apply as strongly to high school graduates.8 But this logic is not borne out by the NLSY. Cognitive ability was more important in determining unemployment among college graduates than among the high school sample, although the small sample sizes in this analysis make this conclusion only tentative. Socioeconomic background and age were not independently important in explaining unemployment in the high school or college samples.

High IQ lowers the probability of a month-long spell of unemployment among white men, while socioeconomic background has no effect

Imag

Note: For computing the plot, age and either SES (for the black curve) or IQ (for the gray curve) were set at their mean values.

A CONCLUSION AND A REMINDER ABOUT INTERPRETING RARE EVENTS

The most basic implication of the analysis is that intelligence and its correlates—maturity, farsightedness, and personal competence—are important in keeping a person employed and in the labor force. Because such qualities are not entirely governed by economic conditions, the question of who is working and who is not cannot be answered just in terms of what jobs are available.

This does not mean we reject the relevance of structural or economic conditions. In bad economic times, we assume, finding a job is harder for the mature and farsighted as well as for the immature and the shortsighted, and it is easier to get discouraged and drop the search. Our goal is to add some leavening to the usual formulation. The state of the economy matters, but so do personal qualities, a point that most economists would probably accept if it were brought to their attention so baldly, but somehow it gets left out of virtually all discussions of unemployment and labor force participation.

As we close this discussion of cognitive ability and labor force behavior, let us be clear about what has and has not been demonstrated. In focusing on those who did drop out of the labor force and those who were unemployed, we do not want to forget that most white males at every level of cognitive ability were in the labor force and working, even at the lowest cognitive levels. Among physically able white males in Class V, the bottom 5 percent of the IQ distribution, comprising men who are intellectually borderline or clinically retarded, seven out of ten were in the labor force for all fifty-two weeks of 1989. Of those who were in the labor force throughout the year, more than eight out of ten experienced not a single week of unemployment. Condescension toward these men is not in order, nor are glib assumptions that those who are cognitively disadvantaged cannot be productive citizens. The world is statistically tougher for them than for others who are more fortunate, but most of them are overcoming the odds.