Mark Dolliver’s Takes: Mixed Blessings

It’s high on the list of semi-rhetorical questions Americans ask themselves: Where’d my money go this month? Crunching data collected in 2005, a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics finds the answers vary with one’s income. It broke the figures down for each one-fifth (or “quintile”) of the population as ranked by income. For those in the bottom quintile, housing accounts for 39.4 percent of spending, vs. 33.8 percent for the middle quintile and 31 percent for the top bracket. Food also takes a bigger share of spending in the bottom quintile (15.9 percent) than in the middle (13.5 percent) or the top (11.1 percent). The pattern shifts when you look at spending on food away from home: The top and bottom quintiles allot the same share of their overall spending to this category (5.6 percent each), while the middle spends a shade more (5.8 percent). Transportation (ranging from car purchases to bus fares) takes more of the middle quintile’s spending (19 percent) than it does from the bottom quintile (14.3 percent) or the top (17.3 percent). The top quintile spends nearly as much on “apparel and services” as on healthcare (4.1 percent vs. 4.4 percent). For the bottom fifth, healthcare takes far more of total spending than clothing (7.6 percent vs. 4.5 percent). What about vices? Tobacco/smoking supplies claimed a bigger share of the bottom quintile’s spending (1.4 percent) than of the top’s (0.3 percent, with the middle’s at 1 percent). As for alcoholic drink, top-quintile households allotted 0.9 percent of their spending to this category—exactly matching the proportion spent by households in the bottom quintile.

It won’t surprise anyone who’s looked around lately at the crowd at a ballpark. But others will be struck by the size of a racial gap in Americans’ interest in baseball. An ESPN/ ABC News poll found 36 percent of adults calling themselves fans of professional baseball. Just 26 percent of blacks said they are fans, though, vs. 39 percent of whites. The poll also found a wide racial gap among self-described fans about the prospect of Barry Bonds surpassing Hank Aaron’s home-run record. Seventy-four percent of black fans said they’re rooting for Bonds to break the record; 28 percent of white fans said the same.

The wireless-phone-only population was scarcely big enough to measure a few years ago. Now, it’s large enough that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can issue a report (based on data for the second half of 2006) on the demographic traits of those who’ve ditched their landlines. Though the phenomenon skews young, it’s not confined to freewheeling single urbanites. Half of wireless-only adults are age 30 or older. While 11.8 percent of adults live in wireless-only homes, so do 11.6 percent of children. Renters are more than four time as likely as homeowners to have only a wireless phone (26.4 percent vs. 5.8 percent). There’s a bit of a gender gap as well: 13.1 percent of men are wireless-only, as are 10.5 percent of women. The report notes in passing that 2.2 percent of households have no phone service whatsoever.

So, they aren’t heedless outlaws after all. A survey of people who’ve downloaded music and other entertainment files via peer-to-peer Web sites finds 77 percent claiming to be “concerned about the legal aspects of downloading content” in this way. Conducted by Infosurv for Intent MediaWorks, the poll found them so concerned that they’d be willing to sit through sponsors’ ads if that were a way to get free content legally. When asked if they’d be “willing to watch general advertising during the download process in order to obtain the content legally and either free or at a reduced price point,” just 26 percent rejected the idea out of hand. Fifty-four percent would be game to watch a commercial video of 30 seconds or longer if they could legally own the downloaded content for free. Elsewhere on the music front, a poll by Ipsos Insight documents the shrinking consumer base for physical CDs. Fifty-one percent of consumers age 12 and up said they bought a CD in the past six months, down from the 60 percent who said so in a 2002 poll. Still, a majority of people who download music via the Internet “continue to purchase CDs of their favorite artists.” Sixty-two percent of downloaders bought a physical CD of their fave’s last release; 28 percent paid to download individual tracks. Twenty-three percent of downloaders said they’d bought “a la carte” tracks from an artist they weren’t familiar with, vs. 17 percent buying the whole CD.

The “deadbeat dad” is a cultural icon in our age of fractured families. Now, a fact sheet from the Census Bureau gives reason to think the “deadbeat mom” is claiming a place in the lowlife pantheon. Fathers accounted for 10 percent of post-divorce custodial parents to whom child-support payments were due last year. And, according to the most recent statistics, just 46 percent were getting all the money they had coming. Custodial fathers received $2.1 billion of the $3.3 billion they were owed in 2003. That’s slightly worse than the percentage for custodial mothers, who got $23.3 billion of the $33.7 billion owed to them.

One could scarcely blame them if their fondest wish were to escape their offspring for a while. And yet, Yankelovich Monitor polling finds mothers of kids age 5 and under would like nothing better than to do something fun with the little ones (see chart below). The responses also suggest that apparel marketers could profitably target mothers who feel in need of a little pampering. Given the number of mothers who cite sleep as a longed-for treat, they could probably use some pajamas.