Tag Archives: inequality

The Myth of the Self-Made Man

Photo by J.L. McVay via Flickr.

Photo by J.L. McVay via Flickr.

During election season, we are treated to story after story about how candidates have made themselves out of nothing. Wisconsin Governer Scott Walker, locked in a tight reelection battle with Mary Burke, his Democratic opponent, has made a career of turning talk about his lack of a college degree into a story about upward mobility rather than academic insufficiency. Much of Joe Biden’s appeal as both a Senator and a Vice President comes from his salt of the earth appeal as the son of father who faced financial ruin, lived with his grandparents, and, through hard work and dedication, made something of his life. Candidates on both sides of the aisle tap into the discourse of upward mobility to demonstrate that they understand the struggles of the people they hope will elect them.

When candidates talk about how they have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps on the campaign trail, they’re doing more than lauding their own humble pasts to gain voters’ trust. They’re also tapping into a social narrative that’s been used throughout American history to determine what counts as economic success and who it’s available to. At the same time as it aligns candidates with desired swaths of the electorate, especially middle-class whites who turn out in numbers, it also implies a subtle distance between candidates and social problems. All of us can do this, if only we try hard enough, goes the implied reasoning, and if you can’t do it, that’s on you. Who can’t do it? As usual in American society, that would be the out-groups: non-whites, immigrants, LGBT people, and the disabled. Advocates of the bootstraps school of social mobility like to counter this critique by linking economic success to cultural values. They point out that immigrant Jews have largely succeeded economically, while African Americans still struggle, and attribute this to a set of American cultural values that Jews share, but blacks don’t.

In an excellent longform Slate article on this topic, John Swansburg cites sociologist Stephen Steinberg’s 1981 book The Ethnic Myth, a critique of what Steinberg calls the “Horatio Alger Theory of Ethnic Success,” or the belief that all social outgroups start with the same set of disadvantages. Most early 20th century Jewish immigrants, Steinberg argues, came from urbanized, industrial European cities, where they gathered “years of industrial experience and concrete occupational skills that would serve them well in America’s expanding industrial economy.” Most American blacks, on the other hand, learned farming and field work—skills that benefited them little as they moved to the industrial North after Reconstruction.

When Scott Walker, Joe Biden, or any other candidate for office talks about his or her humble past, he or she is making a subtle implication that the problems of disadvantaged groups in America are  mostly cultural, rather than economic or structural. I know how to work hard and I know you do too, so elect me and I’ll make sure that our kind of work is rewarded. And those others, whose work is never rewarded? Well, they’re just not working hard enough.

For more on how candidates construct narratives to court voters, read (or listen to!) Jeffrey Alexander’s “Heroes, Presidents, and Politics,” now in podcast form.

Marriage or the Baby Carriage

Photo by Rob Tom via Flickr.

There are more married mothers among millenial women with college degrees. Photo by rob tom via Flickr.

Differences in education level lead to dramatically different views on when to become a parent, according to new research. John Hopkins University sociologist Andrew Cherlin shows that millennial women with college educations are more likely to wait until they are married before they have children than women without a college degree. In an interview with Sarah Kliff of Vox, Cherlin explains:

“We’re seeing the emergence two very different paths to adulthood. Among young adults without college educations, most of their childbearing is in their twenties and the majority of it is outside of marriage. That includes people who have gotten a two-year associate’s degree. The dividing line is the four-year degree. The vast majority of people with that college degree are having children in marriage. We didn’t see this 20 or 30 years ago. We didn’t see these sharp differences between the college graduates and non-graduates.”

This trend concerns Cherlin, as it could lead to a more unstable family life for the children of unmarried parents with a high school education. He sees a lack of middle-skill jobs as the cause of their financial instability. This leads to their higher rate of breaking up and ultimately reinforces economic inequalities between education groups. Parents who have a college education are less likely to get divorced, since they are the couples who are more likely to have two steady incomes.

When asked if we could turn this worrisome trend around, Cherlin posits:

“It depends on if you think we can turn the middle of the job market around, and if we can find productive employment for high school graduates. If that happens, then I think we have a chance of reversing the instability we’re seeing in family lives. I also think that it might be a good idea to promote a message that one should wait to have children until one is in a stable marriage.”

That said, providing an alternative vision of a future where the high-school and college-educated alike can navigate the new economy could lead to greater family stability for their kids.

 

“Brown Eggs” and the Hush-Hush Infertility Gap

Photo by woodleywonderworks via Flickr Creative Commons.

Photo by woodleywonderworks via Flickr Creative Commons.

According to the New York Times, research from everyone from the Department of Health and Human Services to the CDCP, National Survey of Family Growth, the Tinina Q. Cade Foundation, and black women themselves shows that, despite centuries’ old stereotypes and even fears that black women are particularly fertile, well, they’re not. In fact, married black women have twice the odds of infertility than white married women, but it’s rarely talked about.

Regina Townsend of thebrokenbrownegg.org tells the Times:

“With women of color, specifically Hispanic and African-American women, the stigma attached to us is that it’s not hard to have kids, and that we have a lot of kids,” she said. “And when you’re the one that can’t, you feel like, ‘I’ve failed.’”

Some of the disparity in seeking treatment for infertility comes from differing health networks (see our recent piece with Brian Southwell for more on that) and some from differing financial positions (see decades upon decades of research on the wealth gap between black and white U.S. citizens). That is, black women seem less likely to talk to other women, their gynecologists, and their faith communities about fertility (or a lack thereof), and they’re less likely to have the resources—financial, medical, and network-wise—to seek infertility treatment.

Part of the problem, said Arthur L. Greil, a sociologist at Alfred University in western New York who has studied infertility and women of color, is that middle-class white women tend to have the confidence and connections to navigate the health care system better than less affluent minority women.

Even further, since fibroids (benign tumors that can significantly affect fertility) are more prevalent among black women and black women take longer to reach out for fertility advice, problems are compounded by time. Fertility drops naturally over the years, of course, but Dr. David B. Seifer said:

…fibroids [are] just one of various “cultural issues, biological issues and social issues” black women face that can affect their fertility. He said black women often waited longer to seek a diagnosis of or treatment for infertility, which “gives all of these other biological factors more time to become more severe.”

As Cariesha Tate Singleton told the article’s author, she knows she’s up against a stereotype that women like her are naturally “baby-producing machines.” Groups like Fertility for Colored Girls are working to change that notion.

Maximizing Your Parental Investment: 10 Easy Steps*

Photo by Travis Barfield, Flickr Creative Commons.

Photo by Travis Barfield, Flickr Creative Commons.

Forbes Magazine recently highlighted some shocking numbers. According to the USDA,

A child born in 2012 will cost his parents $241,080 in 2012 dollars, on average [in the first 17 years of life]… And children of higher-earning families drain the bank account more: Families earning more than $105,000 annually can expect to spend $399,780 per child.

That works out to about $14,000 a year on the low end. Now that, as author Laura Shin points out, is a big investment—especially when kids used to be contributors to the household economy, not drains on it. Today, NYU professor Dalton Conley calls on research from colleague Viviana Zelizer who says “kids are emotionally priceless and economically worthless.” And yet, “We think of them as our most important life project.”

In a hard economy in a country with high inequality, parental investment in children is truly important, Conley goes on. “We know… that investments at home in time, energy and from birth and before are what actually develop kids that are successful in terms of this knowledge economy.” And those successful kids will get into better schools, have better jobs, and maybe even be able to support their parents into old age. But how do can parents get the best return on this investment?

That question, Shin writes, is at least partially answered with Conley’s new book Parentology: Everything You Wanted to Know about the Science of Raising Children But Were Too Exhausted to Ask. Along with Conley, she goes on to boil down the how-to for investing in your child to ten easy (well, depending on means, time, and commitment) steps. Be sure to click on over for all the good stuff on number, timing, names, parental work decisions, public v. private school, bribes, ADD, and whether to “stay together for the kids.” In the meantime, Shin concludes, “The most important guideline is to make your actions speak louder than you words.” Parenting the Warren Buffett way!

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*Edited to better contextualize the USDA’s numbers and why parents’ investment might have an ROI at all (someone’s got to foot the bill for all those Golden Years we’ve heard so much about… particularly if we blew all our cash on soccer lessons). Another reader points out that it’s worth looking at all the sociology on how to maximize returns by minimizing investment (that is, not having children at all).

 
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Development and Climate Change

Photo by Nicolas Raymond via flickr.com

Photo by Nicolas Raymond via flickr.com

Is economic development compatible with environmental sustainability? Are “green jobs” the way of the future? Those questions are at the center of sociologist Andrew Jorgenson‘s research on the economic activity and carbon emissions of 106 countries.

Analyzing data from 1970 to 2009, Jorgenson calculated a ratio of carbon emissions to life expectancy at birth, and then compared it with each country’s gross domestic product. The results are not encouraging. Jorgenson found that in all regions of the world except for Africa, development is linked with an increase in carbon emissions. Africa may be the exception that proves the rule. Jorgenson noted that, since 1995, African nations have experienced much more carbon-intensive development in exchange for increasing life expectancies of their populations.

Achieving the three-legged stool of economic growth, reduced harm to the environment, and improved human health will not be easy, and Jorgenson is skeptical that technological advancements alone are likely to accomplish the task. “We need to start seriously thinking differently about solutions to these sustainability challenges and recognizing that hoping for technology and engineering solutions … is probably not the way to go,” Jorgenson said.

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The Persistence of the Second Shift

Photo by Kristine Lewis via flickr.com

Photo by Kristine Lewis via flickr.com

A survey about how Americans spend their time reports that men and women are finally working similar numbers of hours per week, at the office and in the home. That means the end of women bearing the bulk of the domestic load, right? Wrong.

The Wall Street Journal Online explores the different ways mothers and fathers spend their time in an article adapted from Jennifer Senior’s new book “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood.” Though men are pitching in more around the house, it seems that women are still doing the more arduous domestic tasks, a phenomenon that sociologist Arlie Hochschild termed “the second shift.”

Senior points out one of the fundamental problems: “Not all work is created equal. An hour spent on one kind of task is not necessarily the equivalent of an hour spent on another.”

For instance, taking care of children is often more stressful and strenuous than other solitary and monotonous domestic tasks, like washing dishes. One woman in Senior’s book describes doing the dishes as an opportunity to sit in the kitchen and let her mind wander. When put that way, it sounds a lot less stressful than wrangling toddlers.

Women also tend to be responsible for time-sensitive tasks. Getting kids ready for school or carting them off to extracurricular activities on time can greatly add to a woman’s stress. This leads women to do more multi-tasking than men. Having to manage time so strictly can cause mothers to worry and feel a constant sense of urgency.

Although it seems we have come a long way with men and women dividing chores on the domestic front, when we break it down to the stress and demand involved with individual tasks, women are still bearing the brunt of household management and childrearing.

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4.0 in School Violence

Photo by Alberto G. via flickr.com

Photo by Alberto G. via flickr.com

For many students, school violence, including bullying and physical fighting, is a daily concern and a regular experience. But what effects do these experiences or observations of violence within school have on students’ educational achievement?

Sociologist Julia Burdick-Will’s research on this question has uncovered some surprising and seemingly contradictory answers. She found that school violence had a negative effect on standardized test scores but yielded no changes in GPA. Burdick-Will argues that these findings may not be as oppositional as they first seem and suggests,

Violent crime rates affect the amount of material learned by the entire student body, but not the study skills or effort of individual students. GPAs, she points out, not only reflect learning, but also student behavior and standing within the classroom. Test scores are a more objective measure of content knowledge and performance on a given day.

In an age where school funding is increasingly reliant on standardized test scores rather than GPA, Burdick-Will’s findings suggest that unaddressed violence within schools could continue to have “lasting impacts on individual life chances and national levels of inequality.”



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Pink Ribbons for Africa

Photo by Shardayyy via flickr.com

Photo by Shardayyy via flickr.com

October is breast cancer awareness month in the U.S. Pink ribbons, 5k races, and educational events mark the campaign to educate the public about the disease and push for more research to find a cure. We hold fundraisers and portray survivors as heroes and positive role models. A number of sociologists and other academics have analyzed and critiqued the U.S. breast cancer industry, including Gayle Sulik, Sabrina McCormick, and Stefano Puntoni.

In other parts of the world however, breast cancer is silently killing women. For one, the disease still carries a stigma that keeps women from accessing treatment. New York Times blogger Denise Grady discusses this stigma towards the disease in developing nations, particularly African countries, as well as the many additional barriers to treatment. These barriers include scarce resources, shame surrounding the disease, corruption, and the real constraints of economic and family responsibilities, all of which make for a deadly combination. Grady states,

Survival rates vary considerably from country to country and even within countries. In the United States, about 20 percent of women who have breast cancer die from it, compared with 40 to 60 percent in poorer countries. The differences depend heavily on the status of women, their awareness of symptoms, and the availability of timely care.

Although it is not new knowledge that diseases disproportionately affect poorer countries and individuals, cancer treatment and education has been neglected in developing nations. It has been overshadowed by other diseases like malaria and AIDS, and due to a lack of public awareness on both the national and international scales, it has been underfunded by governments and foundations. Research from PRI indicates that “cancer kills more people in low- and middle-income countries than AIDS, malaria, and TB combined.”

Why Are Poor White Women Dying Younger than Their Moms?

Photo by Kris Mouser-Brown via flickr.com

Photo by Kris Mouser-Brown via flickr.com

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.”



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A New South Africa?

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

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

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.