Matthew Shapiro

Matthew ShapiroResearchers have found that government jobs figures are no longer as accurate as they once were because the unemployed have become less willing to keep responding to surveys designed to track employment. But a new solution may have emerged: Twitter. ISR researcher Matthew Shapiro and colleagues analyzed tweets stripped of identifying data to measure changes in the unemployment rate by looking for references to job loss and related outcomes. “Naturally-occurring data, whether from accounts or social media, have the potential to reduce respondent burden, reduce the cost of data collection, and improve data quality while protecting the confidentiality of individuals,” Shapiro explained. The University of Michigan Social Media Job Loss Index, featured in an Aug. 27 CBS Moneywatch article, found significant job market fluctuations after Hurricane Katrina hit, and also came up with more accurate figures than the Bureau of Labor Statistics after the installation of new computers delayed processing unemployment claims.

Vicki Freedman

Vicki FreedmanA man unhappy in his marriage may still report high life satisfaction if his wife reports that the marriage is good. Research featured Sept. 9 on Fox News showed that being in better-rated marriages is linked with greater life satisfaction—no great surprise. But how women feel about their marriages may matter more to that satisfaction than how husbands feel. “Older husbands and wives in better marriages are more satisfied with their lives,” said ISR researcher Vicki Freedman. “But overall life satisfaction for an unhappily married man depends on how his wife describes their relationship. If she describes their marriage as higher quality, his life satisfaction is buoyed—even if he gives the marriage a less glowing assessment.” A possible explanation for why a woman’s good report matters more than a man’s is that women often bring more emotional and practical support to a marriage, and a man would likely reap those benefits from a satisfied wife. Freedman and a colleague analyzed 2009 data from a sample of almost 400 couples who were part of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics.

Trivellore Raghunathan

Trivellore RaghunathanThe research enterprise in India has grown significantly in recent years, but doesn’t arise from or involve faculty and students at universities to the extent it should, according to ISR researcher and Director of the Survey Research Center (SRC) Trivellore Raghunathan. In a May 21 Q&A in The Times of India, Raghunathan said India’s research and development activities occur mainly outside of the university system. Unlike in the United States, most faculty don’t conduct leading-edge research, and graduate students don’t get the opportunity to contribute to or do their own research. In India, Raghunathan said, “there is a complex web of government bureaucracies with confusing jurisdictions, overlapping mandates leading to turf wars and internal competitions. India needs a system that directly connects the university students to research along with their learning in the classrooms.” Last year, the University of Michigan and SRC signed a five-year memorandum of understanding with India’s National Council of Applied Economic Research to encourage collaboration in survey research.

Pamela Smock

Pamela SmockCohabitation has become a normal state for American couples, either preceding marriage, following a breakup, or, in a smaller number of cases, replacing marriage. In 1960, only 400,000 couples in the U.S. cohabited, but by 2013 that had risen to 8 million couples, according to ISR researcher Pamela Smock. Of those cohabiting couples, 50 percent will eventually marry, 40 percent will break up, and 10 percent will cohabit for a longer period, Smock told Fox Business News in a May 16 interview. Still, while the majority of couples now live together outside marriage at some point in their lives, Smock said, cohabitation plays a different function for different people. “The role of cohabitation in our lives depends on what social class one is from,” she said. “The more privileged people are meeting, dating, and cohabiting, then marrying, with a wedding, and having children.” Those with less money and education are more likely to cohabit without marriage and to have children before marriage. Of the 41 percent of births now occurring out of wedlock, 60 percent are to cohabiting couples, Smock said.

Philippa Clarke

Philippa ClarkeLiving in a polluted area may be bad for more than your heart and lungs, it may also affect how clearly you think as you get older. A study by ISR researcher Philippa Clarke found that older adults living in highly polluted areas showed greater rates of cognitive decline than those living in more pristine environments, according to a June 18 article in The Chicago Tribune. Clarke and a colleague analyzed data on 780 adults aged 55 or older who participated in ISR’s 2001-2002 Americans’ Changing Lives Study. As part of that study, participants’ cognitive function was measured by math and memory tests. Clarke and her co-researcher linked those cognitive results to EPA air monitoring data from the different census tracts where respondents lived and found that participants who lived in the most polluted areas had test error scores that were one and a half times those of participants who lived in low pollution areas. Although the nation has made significant progress in the last decade to reduce air pollution, the study is further evidence of the need to continue and advance these efforts, the researchers said.

Yu Xie

Yu XieThe income gap between rich and poor has been growing steadily in China in the last few decades and is now wider than that of the United States. An April 29 article described University of Michigan (U-M) research showing that income inequality in China almost doubled between 1980 and 2010. Researchers found that China’s Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, had increased from 0.3 in 1980 to 0.55 in 2010. By comparison, the United States’s coefficient in 2010 was 0.45. A coefficient of 0.5 or higher shows a severe income gap. A recent survey of Chinese citizens ranked income inequality as the nation’s top social challenge. But according to ISR researcher Yu Xie, the Chinese generally have put up with the disparity between rich and poor. “Chinese recognize income inequality as a serious social problem; on the other hand, they seem to have high tolerance for income inequality,” said Xie. “They don’t like it, but they seem to accept it as a fact of life. Something they have to pay for fast economic growth.”

Lauren Nicholas

Lauren NicholasThere are “good deaths” and “bad deaths,” and having a living will can make the difference between the two. So wrote Ellen Goodman, author and co-founder of The Conversation Project, an effort to encourage doctors and family members to have conversations about advance directives before it’s too late. Goodman, in an April 10 post on the Health Affairs Blog describing her sister’s painful decline after developing Alzheimer’s disease, cited work by ISR researcher Lauren Nicholas and colleagues showing the importance of advance directives in making health care decisions for patients with advanced dementia. With a living will in hand, family members were more likely to be able to avoid aggressive and unnecessary efforts to prolong life beyond what the patient would have wanted, the research showed. But, Goodman, cautioned, families must have those end-of-life conversations early, even before a diagnosis, or they probably won’t happen. “You see,” she wrote, “it’s always too soon until it’s too late. Say it now. And hope that it will be respected.”

Yvonne Terry-McElrath

Yvonne Terry-McElrathHigh school seniors today drink less alcohol and smoke less pot than their predecessors. One-third of high school seniors say they didn’t do either drug in the last year, compared to just 12 percent who reported abstaining in 1979. But drug use is still an issue. And for teens who both drank and smoked, and especially for those who did both at the same time, the risk of unsafe driving is higher, according to an April 28 article in ScienceDaily. The article featured the work of ISR researcher , who analyzed data from the Monitoring the Future study, which looks at teenagers’ use of drugs and alcohol. Some 21 percent of youth who participated in the study said they drank and smoked pot at the same time. And their safety records were worse than those of teens who just drank, or those who used both but not at the same time. “It’s well known that both drinking and other drug use are linked to risky driving,” said Terry-McElrath. “But this suggests that it’s not only the frequency of substance use that’s important. The patterns of drug use are also related to the risk of unsafe driving.”

Gwenith Fisher and Jessica Faul

Gwenith Fisher and Jessica FaulJobs that require thinking creatively, making decisions, and solving problems may produce better brain function after retirement, according to a study by ISR researchers Gwenith Fisher and Jessica Faul. The research, featured in a March 24 article in The Huffington Post, suggests that people who hold mentally challenging jobs will likely stay sharper both while working and after they retire. The researchers analyzed data on 4,182 participants in the Health and Retirement Study who were interviewed about eight times between 1992 and 2010, starting when they were between the ages of 51 and 61. “These results suggest that working in an occupation that requires a variety of mental processes may be beneficial to employees,” Faul said. The study controlled for education and income levels of participants, but did not establish whether people with higher mental functioning to begin with were the ones to hold demanding jobs. “What people do outside of work could also be a factor,” Fisher said. “Some people may be very active in hobbies and other activities that are mentally stimulating and demanding, while others are not.”

Colter Mitchell

Colter MitchellIt’s long been known that growing up in stressful environments is bad for kids. But the degree to which poverty and instability affect children is tempered by their specific genetic makeup, according to a study by ISR researcher Colter Mitchell. Mitchell and colleagues studied a group of 40 African-American nine-year-old boys, half from nurturing environments and half from harsh home environments, using telomeres as markers of stress, according to an April 9 article in The Newcastle Star. (Telomeres protect the ends of chromosomes from deterioration and generally shorten with age, disease, or stress.) The study showed that environment affected all the boys—with good conditions leading to longer telomeres and bad causing them to shorten. But boys with heightened sensitivity in the serotonin and dopamine genetic pathways had both the shortest and the longest telomeres. “Our findings suggest that an individual’s genetic architecture moderates the magnitude of the response to external stimuli—but it is the environment that determines the direction,” Mitchell says.