Author Archives: Erin

Financial Planning with the Three Six Mafia

"Soliciting," by Rachel's Secret via Flickr Creative Commons.

“Soliciting,” by Rachel’s Secret via Flickr Creative Commons.

It’s been a few weeks since CNN highlighted a new report by the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center on the income from underground commercial sex economies. Perhaps it was the pain of doing my taxes this week (down to the wire, I know) that jogged my memory. But the report estimates that this underground economy in Atlanta alone nets those working in the sex trade—from pimps to erotic massage providers—$290 million per year, with pimps making an average of $33,000 a week.

Until now, there has been little information about the size and scale of the sex economy. Though this report examines only eight cities across the U.S. (notably omitting Las Vegas), is one of the first forays into quantification. Meredith Dank from the Urban Institute told Time magazine,

With knowing the size of the economy, you get better a sense of what you’re dealing with and how big this market is. Law enforcement now knows they can potentially seize $290 million in Atlanta that can be used toward providing services and education.

Beyond what police asset seizures might do for city infrastructure, the studies also point out the enormous numbers of people working in the sex trade. Due to the secretive nature of their work, they may live outside the social systems of taxes, safety net benefits, and healthcare.


The Sociology of Oscar-Winning

Photo by Tim Olson via

Photo by Tim Olson via

Every year when I watch the Oscars, I wonder about this elusive “Academy” that each winner thanks. It wields such power over which movies become classics and which ones fade away into obscurity. In the build-up to the awards, there’s always much speculation about winning strategies for getting the attention, and votes, of the Academy. UCLA sociologist Gabriel Rossman and colleagues have researched films that have won Oscars over the years and identified a number of predictors of award success, which Rossman recently shared with The Atlantic.

They find that serious roles and “meaty” dramas that are released towards the end of the year (during awards season) are more likely to get nominations. Furthermore, the sociological concept of “cumulative advantage” can be applied to the Oscars, in that talented actors who work with other talented actors are more likely to get an award, rather than one particularly talented actor within an otherwise mediocre film.

These predictors for getting a nomination may seem obvious and even formulaic, but Rossman argues that films must meet these criteria while avoiding the impression of trying too hard. He says, “It turns out that audiences dislike movies that are ‘trying’ to get Oscar nominations but really like movies that actually ‘get’ Oscar nomination.”


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Un-tying the Knot

Photo by mandaloo via

Photo by Michael Swan via

Contrary to conservatives’ emphasis on family values, sociologist Jennifer Glass at the University of Texas at Austin concludes that “red” states have higher divorce rates than their “blue” counterparts. Although previous studies have argued that socioeconomic factors, such as financial strain, explain this difference, Glass and her team of researchers found that it is actually specific elements of conservative Protestant culture that contributed to this higher divorce rate. Religious conservatives are more likely to emphasize abstinence before marriage and discourage living together without being married. They also marry and start having children younger than other demographic groups. All of these factors, Glass argues, contribute to marriage instability and the higher rates of divorce in states like Alabama and Arkansas than in more liberal states.

Other scholars, including sociologist Phil Cohen, have examined the overall decrease in divorce during the recent economic recession. From 2009-2011, couples seemed to be sticking together through tough financial times. However, as the economy has rebounded, so has the divorce rate. Rather than pulling together to overcome economic hardship, it seems that couples have postponed divorce until they could afford it.

Sociologist Andrew Cherlin, who studies changes in marriage over time, asserts that this is far from a surprising or unique trend, telling the LA Times, “This is exactly what happened in the 1930s. The divorce rate dropped during the Great Depression not because people were happier with their marriages, but because they couldn’t afford to get divorced.”

Redesigning Work to Find Balance

Photo by @Saigon via

Photo by @Saigon via

In the age-old struggle to “have it all,” many of us try to squeeze extra hours out of each day in order to accommodate all of our work and family responsibilities. In the past this discussion has revolved around female workers, those who juggle full-time work, parental duties, and the domestic chores of the “second shift.” However, as the nature of work changes – becoming more precarious at the same time more demanding – this struggle for work-life balance extends to workers of all genders, ages, and social classes.

In a recent Huffington Post blog, sociologists Erin Kelly and Phyllis Moen discuss this very challenge, asserting,

The root problem, of course, isn’t that employees have family or personal commitments. The root problem is the rigid conventions of work that assume work must occur at certain times and places and that mistakenly gauge productivity by the number of hours spent at work.

Kelly and Moen research flexible working policies that can dramatically shift the very nature of work in order for this balance to be more attainable. They have found that the most effective flexible policies are those that are available to all workers, rather than perhaps mothers or specific individuals and that are collectively implemented with both employees and managers sharing control.

To move beyond decades of discussing work-life balance to meaningful change, employers need to shift from one-off accommodations. It’s time to make working efficiently, creatively, sustainably and flexibly the new norm.

These policies, such as remote work and varied hours, benefit organizations as well as employees. With these flexible policies, employees are not only more healthy and less stressed but also are more likely to work hard to keep their jobs.

Slots, Pot, and the Culture Wars

Photo by Jeff Kubina via

Photo by Jeff Kubina via

With Illinois poised to become the fifteenth state to legalize gay marriage (when Governor Pat Quinn signs the bill into law on November 20), the tide of public opinion about legal rights for same-sex couples seems to be changing at a rapid rate. In a recent NY Times article, Ross Douthat argues that this trend is also evident in other cultural debates, including attitudes toward the legalization of gambling and marijuana.

Since 1990 when casinos were isolated to Nevada and Atlantic City, almost half of states have legalized and developed commercial casinos. Rather than a Hangover-style bachelor weekend in Las Vegas, for many people, casino-going is a much more mundane experience, a regular weekend excursion.

Additionally, the public opinion ratings about marijuana legalization have grown at the same rate as approval for gay marriage. Indeed, in addition to the recreational legalization of pot in Washington and Colorado, twenty other states have already legalized medical marijuana.

Douthat uses late sociologist Robert Bellah’s concept of “expressive individualism” to explain these attitudinal and  legislative changes. Expressive individualism refers to the notion of being free to express oneself through rich experiences and feelings without restrictions. For Douthat, expressive individualism highlights “the rise of a live-and-let-live social libertarianism, the weakening influence of both religious conservatism and liberal communitarianism, the growing suspicion of moralism in public policy.”

However, in the midst of this growing support for individual choice and freedom, Douthat cautions against the social consequences of some of these new policies. He argues,

Previous societies made distinction between liberty and license that we have become loath to draw—because what seems like a harmless pleasure to the comfortable can devastate the poor and weak.

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Why Are Poor White Women Dying Younger than Their Moms?

Photo by Kris Mouser-Brown via

Photo by Kris Mouser-Brown via

In a recent article in The American Prospect, Monica Potts examines the mystery of what is killing poor white women. Research on longevity by Jay Olshanky from the University of Illinois in Chicago and a team of collaborators found that white women who dropped out of high school are dying on average five years earlier than the their equivalents in the generation before them. These results have researchers baffled – not since the fall of the Soviet Union, when life expectancy for men dropped by seven years, has there been such a dramatic change in longevity in a single generation.

Most Americans, including high-school dropouts of other races, are gaining life expectancy, just at different speeds. Absent a war, genocide, pandemic, or massive governmental collapse, drops in life expectancy are rare. “If you look at the history of longevity in the United States, there have been no dramatic negative or positive shocks,” Olshansky says. “With the exception of the 1918 influenza pandemic, everything has been relatively steady, slow changes. This is a five-year drop in an 18-year time period. That’s dramatic.”

Numerous researchers are investigating the root causes of this drastic shift. Jennifer Karas Montez from Harvard and Ann Zajacova from the University of Wyoming tested a number of potential factors, including employment, income, and health behaviors like smoking and drinking. White female high school dropouts are less likely than women with a high school education or more to work, and if they do work, it is often low wage, low skill jobs in the service sector. But certainly, many other demographic groups work minimum wage jobs. Indeed, black women who dropped out of high school have seen an increase in their life expectancy over this time.

Although women generally outlive men in the U.S., such a large decline in the average age of death, from almost 79 to a little more than 73, suggests that an increasing number of women are dying in their twenties, thirties, and forties. “We actually don’t know the exact reasons why it’s happened,” Olshansky says. “I wish we did.”


A Fitting Tribute

Best known for her seminal text The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander has examined the injustices and inequality perpetuated through mass incarceration, particularly its effects on black men in the United States. However, her recent article in The Nation, reflecting on the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, “breaks her silence” on interrelated topics, such as NSA spying, drone warfare, and the detention of immigrants.

In a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., Alexander seeks to “connect the dots” between mass incarceration and broader systems of poverty, racism, militarism, and materialism. Motivated by King’s wider critiques of the Vietnam War abroad and labor exploitation at home, Alexander refuses to keep a narrow view of the inequality of mass incarceration or “stay in her lane,” as she describes it. In the spirit of the March on Washington, she links her own research with the national and international phenomena of the war on terror and the war on drugs, saying,

When we declare war on “things” like terrorism and drugs, it becomes easy to forget that real people—mothers, fathers and children—will be targeted, caged and killed without due process, without consideration of their basic humanity, and without asking the hard questions required of complicated social and global problems that cannot be solved by a simple declaration of war.


After DOMA

Image via, an organization formed to fight a proposed Constitutional amendment that would have banned gay marriage in MN, but repurposed to help make marriage equality the law in the state once the amendment was defeated.

Image via, an organization formed to fight a proposed Constitutional amendment that would have banned gay marriage in MN, but repurposed to help make marriage equality the law in the state once the amendment was defeated.

Today marks the first day that gay couples can legally marry in the states of Rhode Island and Minnesota, the eleventh and thirteenth states respectively to legalize gay marriage. In the wake of  the recent Supreme Court decision on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California’s Prop 8, many gay and lesbian individuals and allies around the country are celebrating advances in the rights and recognition extended to gay couples on a federal level.

However, in the midst of these celebrations, Rick Settersten points out in a recent LA Times article that same-sex couples, who do not reside in the thirteen states and the District of Columbia where gay marriage is legal, continue to be left out by the law. He states,

For those of us trapped elsewhere in the country—even in places we love—the verdict reinforces the fact that the security of our families and our futures rises or falls depending on where we live.

Highlighting the variation and inconsistency by state in legal rights extended to gay and lesbian partnerships, Settersten describes the reality of gay couples that migrate to states with more legal recognition. Settersten, his partner Dan, and their two children moved from Ohio in 2004 when the state banned recognition of any form of same-sex coupling (marriage, civil unions, or domestic partnerships). At the time, their new home state of Oregon enabled them to co-adopt children and register as a domestic partnership. Although they have been together for almost thirty years, their domestic partnership in Oregon will not be federally recognized under the DOMA decision, forcing them to move yet again if they want to benefit from federal recognition of their union.

By Any Other Name

With celebrity baby names like Apple, Blue Ivy, and now-old-fashioned northwest airlines calling cardMoon Unit, it is perhaps a little surprising that Kanye West and Kim Kardashian evoked an uproar by naming their child North West. The blogosphere erupted with jokes about the strange moniker, including many twitter users posting pictures of compasses and Northwest Airlines planes as the child’s first photo.

In a recent article in Vogue, sociologist Dalton Conley comes to the parents’ defense. With his own children named E and Yo Xing Heyno Augustus Eisner Alexander Weiser Knuckles (which you can sing to the tune of “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt”), Conley argues that North West is just one in a long legacy of eccentric and often gender-neutral names. He also points to the historical rise in unique black names after the Civil Rights Movement, a trend examined by sociologists Stanley Lieberson and Kelly S. Mickelson.

Conley points out that these strange names often turn out to be less gender-neutral than they may first appear. In fact, many respondents in Lieberson and Mickelson’s study correctly guessed the gender of child in possession of the unique name, and Conley writes:

My own experience mirrors this. Nobody mistakes Yo for a girl’s name. Meanwhile, three other Es, who heard about my daughter’s name from my public musings, wrote me. (So much for unique…) Two of them were female, bringing the total percent female to 75. I only wish I had 25 other kids, so I could test the gender of every letter in the alphabet.

Later this year, Conley will be releasing a new book, Parentology: Everything you wanted to know about the science of kids but were too exhausted to ask.

A New South Africa?

A child is fed in the South African refugee camp De Dooms. Photo by Courtney Brooks via

A child is fed in the South African refugee camp De Dooms. Photo by Courtney Brooks via

Amidst the uncertainty surrounding the health of Nelson Mandela, it’s an interesting time to reflect on the legacy of race and inequality in South Africa. Although the work of Mandela and others has extended human rights to black South Africans, a recent Al Jazeera article by Minnesota sociologist Cawo Abdi illustrates the continued violence and racism against Somali immigrants in South Africa, as highlighted by the recent gruesome murder of a young Somali refugee.

Relegated to informal housing settlements, many Somali refugees work as entrepreneurs in the informal economy. They open shops, called spazas, that provide goods and services to neglected, poor black neighborhoods. These neighborhoods themselves are rife with violence, both criminal and vigilante. Abdi writes:

Labeling violence against migrants as simply xenophobic diverts attention from the context of violence, the generalized criminality that is a daily reality for those in informal settlements. The brutality forces us to confront the limited access that many South Africans have to the social, economic, and political rights enshrined in the country’s progressive constitution.

Historically considered an issue of racial equality between black and white South Africans, Abdi demonstrates that issues of economic inequality and anti-immigrant sentiment are just as pervasive in the country.