January / February 2001

Research   Resources   Events   Notable

Welcome to Research Notes, a summary of Princeton University research, events and experts of interest to the media and general public. This issue includes news of research on:

Child support: Why has the proportion of children receiving child support remained stagnant while the need has increased? A Princeton analysis suggests that child-support programs are based on obsolete assumptions and offers policy adjustments.

Body sense: Research on how the brain senses limbs and other body parts eventually could improve prosthetic limbs.

Black-white unemployment gap: When incarceration rates are taken into account, the gap between white and black joblessness is even greater than previously believed.

Group decision-making: Princeton researchers find that groups make decisions as quickly as individuals, and those decisions are usually better.

Older professors: Economists find that the number of faculty members over the age of 70 will continue to grow at universities across the country.

Faculty experts identified in this issue can comment on the Middle East, foreign policy challenges for the new administration, prescription-drug coverage and African child soldiers. Two important events open to the media, including an address by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, are noted at the end of this report.

Research Notes is available on the Internet at www.princeton.edu /pr/news/notes.

For information, contact Marilyn Marks at (609) 258-5748 or mmarks@princeton.edu.  [top]


Child support: Welfare and child-support policy may be driven by obsolete and incorrect assumptions about who participates, according to researchers in Princeton's Center for Research on Child Wellbeing.

More than half of all American children are expected to live apart from at least one biological parent -- usually the father -- by the time they are 18, largely because of non-marital childbearing. But welfare and child support policies are based on times past, when death and divorce were the main reasons that children lived without dads.

Economist Anne Case and sociologist Sara McLanahan, along with I-Fen Lin of Bowling Green State University, note that while the need for child support has increased dramatically, the proportion of eligible children who receive payments has not changed much since the late 1970s -- despite attempts by Congress to remedy the problem. Landmark welfare legislation in 1996 called for additional child-support enforcement mechanisms.

The Princeton report, "Understanding Child Support Trends: Economic, Demographic, and Political Contributions," is the first to examine this lack of progress by evaluating five explanations, including inflation and the shift to no-fault divorce, over 30 years. It is available online at www.wws.princeton.edu/ ~rpds/ macarthur/Underchildsupp.pdf (or home page, www.wws.princeton.edu/ ~rpds/ macarthur/ ).

The researchers found that two child-support policies -- legislative guidelines for awards and universal wage withholding -- are key to improving support levels, and that awards should be tied to changes in the inflation rate.

Still, current policies work better for divorced mothers than for those who have never been married, the researchers conclude. "Our analyses suggest that further gains in child-support payments will rest with our ability to collect child support for children born to unwed parents," they write. "These children are the fastest-growing group of children in the U.S. and they are the least likely to receive child support."

McLanahan may be contacted at (609) 258-4875 or mclanaha@princeton.edu. To reach Case, call (609) 258-2177 or e-mail her at accase@princeton.edu.  [top]

Body sense: Princeton neuroscientists are beginning to uncover the brain's surprisingly complex mechanism behind what would appear to be a very mundane ability: sensing the location of arms, legs, head and torso. In addition to answering fundamental questions about how the brain keeps track of the body, this research could one day help people with prosthetic limbs to have better mobility and dexterity.

"It's something that people take for granted, but your body sense is really one of the most important senses you have," said Michael Graziano, a research scientist in the psychology department. "You can lose sight and still recover your ability to function by relying on other senses. But if you lose your body sense, you don't know what parts are your own and what are external objects. You could not even organize and coordinate a movement. You would be totally bedridden."

In a paper published in the Dec. 1 issue of Science magazine, Graziano and colleagues found that the brain achieves this sense of what psychologists call "body schema" through a set of calculations that are much more complicated and finely tuned than was previously imagined. In particular, they found that certain neurons receive and reconcile a variety of sensory signals, including visual data as well as felt feedback from muscles and nerves.

Graziano has now become interested in the possibility that the brain can adapt its body-sensing neurons to recognize the identity and position of external objects, particularly tools. This line of research may one day help people with prosthetic limbs to successfully incorporate the devices into their body schema, said Graziano. "If we could understand the body schema sufficiently, we could perhaps devise better fake limbs or better training methods to allow people to adjust quickly to their new limbs."

Graziano may be reached at (609) 258-4890 or graziano@princeton.edu. To read the paper in Science, click on www.sciencemag.org/ cgi/content/ short/290/5497/1782.  [top]

Black-white unemployment gap: Standard estimates of the employment gap between black and white high school dropouts are greatly understated, according to a new paper by Princeton sociologist Bruce Western and a colleague at the University of Washington, Becky Pettit.

The two sociologists adjusted standard estimates by taking incarceration rates into account, and found that the employment difference among young male dropouts has been understated by about 45 percent. Joblessness of black, male dropouts grew steadily between 1982 and 1996 despite periods of very low unemployment in the labor market, they found.

Adjusting for imprisonment, Western and Pettit found that in every year between 1982 and 1996, fewer than half of all young, black, male high school dropouts held jobs. Indeed, fewer than one-third of all young, unskilled black men held jobs in 1996, despite very low unemployment throughout the economy. For white dropouts, the employment rate was more than 70 percent.

Low unemployment through the mid-1990s meant greater job opportunities at the margins for white workers, but not for blacks, the researchers conclude.

Western and Pettit suggest their analysis only partially describes how the criminal justice system influences job inequality, especially because a conviction is believed to hurt job opportunities long after release.

The article, "Incarceration and Racial Inequality in Men's Employment," was published in the October issue of Industrial & Labor Relations Review. It is not available online, but you may get a copy of the paper by calling the Princeton University Communications Office at (609) 258-3601. You may contact Western at 609-258-2445 or western@opr.princeton.edu.  [top]

Group decision-making: Two heads really are better than one, according to Princeton economists who have studied group decision-making. Professors John Morgan and Alan Blinder conducted two sets of experiments and found that groups were just as quick as individuals to reach decisions. On average, the groups also made better decisions.

In their paper, Blinder and Morgan note that there is little economic literature on group decision-making, since economists usually focus on individual choices. But many decisions in the real world -- including monetary policy -- are made collectively, they point out.

Most of the subjects in the experiments were Princeton undergraduates. One experiment contained no economic content, although it was designed to evoke the problems faced by monetary policy makers. The second experiment required its subjects to have had at least one course in macroeconomics. In that experiment, subjects were asked to steer an electronic model of an economy by manipulating the interest rate.

"The main implication of the study is to call into question the conventional wisdom about the 'paralysis of analysis' that is often thought to afflict group decisions," Morgan said. "Our results suggest that even in complex environments, groups are not paralyzed by indecision...If I were running a company, I think this would be a good thing to keep in mind when thinking about how to structure task forces for handling various key projects."

Visit www.princeton.edu/~rjmorgan/ Two Heads NBER.pdf (or home page, www.princeton.edu/~rjmorgan/) to read the paper. Morgan may be reached at rjmorgan@princeton.edu or (609) 258-4842.  [top]

Older professors: A new study on faculty retirement trends by economists at Princeton and the University of California at Berkeley suggests that most U.S. colleges and universities will experience a significant rise in the percentage of faculty over age 70 in coming years. Princeton's Orley Ashenfelter and Berkeley's David Card found that the fraction of faculty expected to remain employed until age 72 has risen from less than 10 percent to about 50 percent since 1994, when mandatory retirement of tenured faculty at age 70 was completely abolished.

The researchers conclude that the increase will be experienced at all types of institutions and among all disciplines. Their results contradict two 1991 studies which suggested that the elimination of mandatory retirement was unlikely to have a significant impact on retirement at most institutions.

Those studies "really didn't have the ability to observe the change in law as we did," said Ashenfelter. "We observed what happens to people when they hit that 70 threshold."

Card said the end of mandatory retirement definitely has had an effect. "You can argue whether the scale is big enough to worry about," he said. "But you're definitely going to see some 72-year-old faculty."

The new study, which is available at www.irs.princeton.edu / pubs/pdfs/448.pdf, analyzes detailed administrative records for more than 16,000 older faculty members at 104 colleges and universities across the country. You may reach Ashenfelter at (609) 258-4040.  [top]


Mid-East turmoil: As President Clinton's Middle East peace-making efforts come to an end, Michael Doran, assistant professor of Near Eastern studies, can comment on the region's politics and outlook. This semester, Doran is teaching about the Arab-Israeli conflict and about American policies toward the Middle East. He is available at (609) 258-0256 or msdoran@princeton.edu.

Prescription drugs: Uwe Reinhardt, a nationally known expert on health policy, told the National Health Policy Conference in December that it will become even harder to ensure that the elderly and chronically ill have access to pharmaceuticals. Reinhardt strongly supports a prescription drug program for the elderly. To reach him, phone (609) 258-4781 or send e-mail to reinhard@princeton.edu.

The new Northeast Asia: Kent Calder (calder@princeton.edu; 609-258-4788), director of Princeton's Program on U.S. -Japan Relations and former special adviser to two U.S. ambassadors to Japan, believes that the new U.S. foreign policy team must rethink regional policies to accommodate the fallout from the historic rapprochement between North and South Korea, deepening tensions across the Taiwan Straits, and missile proliferation across the region. In an article in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs, he sketches out a new policy toward Northeast Asia. Calder is a professor in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Globalization: Street demonstrations against the IMF and WTO in Seattle and Prague are small -- but loud -- illustrations of the rising disaffection with globalization. Richard Falk (rfalk@princeton.edu; 609-258-4864) professor of politics and international affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School, calls for a global parliament to respond to give citizens a voice in the global era. "Political leaders will find it more difficult to win citizen acquiescence to unaccountable policies that extend globalization's reach into people's lives," Falk and co-author Andrew Strauss write in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs. "To all those concerned about social justice and the creation of a humane global order, a democratic alternative to an ossified, state-centered system is becoming ever more compelling."

Child soldiers: About 120,000 children under 18 are now taking part in armed conflicts across Africa, some no more than 7 or 8 years old. Jeffrey Herbst, a Princeton politics professor, can discuss the tragedy of child soldiers, as well as other child victims of African unrest. The problem is likely to grow -- not only because of ongoing conflicts but because there will be an estimated 10 million orphans in Africa due to the AIDS virus early this century, and "these children will be especially vulnerable to being coerced into fighting," Herbst says. What's needed, he says, is for the international community to begin the difficult job of investigating how to enforce existing agreements to protect children. Herbst may be reached at (609) 258-5633 or herbst@princeton.edu.  [top]


Scalia on Madison: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia will be the keynote speaker at a conference Feb. 22 and 23 on James Madison. Scalia will speak at 8 p.m. Feb. 23 on "James Madison's Constitutional Interpretation." The conference celebrates both the 250th anniversary of Madison's birthday and the centennial of Princeton University's Graduate School. Madison, the fourth president of the United States, is believed to be Princeton's first graduate student in a field other than theology. He stayed on after his graduation in 1771 to study Hebrew and ethics.

The two-day conference will bring Madison scholars from across the country to Princeton to address such topics as "Was James Madison Really the Founding Father of the CIA?" and "James Madison and Constitutionalism." For information, contact the Princeton University Communications Office at (609) 258-3601 or visit www.princeton.edu/centennial/.

Back to the U.S.S.R.: Princeton's Center of International Studies and the Central Intelligence Agency's Center for the Study of Intelligence will host a conference March 9-10 to examine newly declassified documents covering the nearly 40-year span of the Cold War, from 1947-1991. Participants will address the accuracy of the CIA's analysis of Soviet political and economic developments, its military, and its scientific and technical capabilities and programs.

Speakers and panelists include both scholars and members of the intelligence community. This conference is open to the media. For information, contact the Princeton University Communications Office at (609) 258-3601.  [top]


Professor Richard Falk has been appointed to the three-member United Nations team investigating alleged human rights violations in the Palestinian territories. Falk also was a member of the Independent Commission on Kosovo and presented its final report to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. A professor of politics and international affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School, Falk may be reached at rfalk@princeton.edu or (609) 258-4864.

Princeton inaugurated its Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination in December. The Institute, created with a $12 million gift from Prince Hans Adam II of Liechtenstein, will serve as a research center on issues relating to self-determination and self-government. The Institute is directed by Wolfgang Danspeckgruber, who may be reached at (609) 258-5685 or wfd@princeton.edu.

•   •   •