Tag Archives: politics

Strong and Stable: Personal and Civic Lives

Does loneliness leave us less civically inclined? Photo by Jacques Nyemb via flickr.com.

Does loneliness leave us less civically inclined? Photo by Jacques Nyemb via flickr.com.

Election year or not, questions about voting behavior are rarely lacking among political pundits. Face it, they need stuff to talk about. Who will turn out in next year’s mid-term elections? How will the “Obama coalition” break in 2016? Social scientists are also posing questions. For example, why don’t people vote after the death of a spouse?

A study of 5.86 million Californians before and after the 2009-2010 statewide elections showed that “11 percent of people who would have voted if their spouse were alive failed to make it to the polls even a year and a half after the death.” The research found that immediately after the death of a spouse, people were less likely to vote, and while widows and widowers slowly return to the polls over time, they did not vote as often as they did before.

One possible explanation draws upon a central theme of sociology—the interplay of personal and public life. This study suggests that a personal tragedy leads to a withdrawal from public life. As Emma Green writes in The Atlantic, “If that’s at least somewhat true, that public life seems less important when private life collapses, then it’s also worth looking at the inverse: Do strong relationships and stable private lives make people better citizens?”

The important insights on social life that may come out of extensions of this research into wider elections, different geographic areas, socioeconomic effects, and longer-term studies, may well give the pundits and commentators something to talk about until 2016.

God’s Green Earth

A 2012 Greek Orthodox Church gathering in Zimbabwe. Photo by The Alliance of Religions and Conservation via flickr.com.

A 2012 Greek Orthodox Church gathering in Zimbabwe. Photo by The Alliance of Religions and Conservation via flickr.com.

On both the left and the right, discussions about the environment can often turn to religion to remind us of our responsibility to take care of the planet. Both Presidents Bush and Obama have reminded us to be “good stewards of the earth,” despite the disagreement on what that really means, and the activism of a range of religious groups on the issue has led pundits and scholars to conclude that Americans’ Christianity has been getting greener over the past few years.

A new report from Michigan State University, however, may challenge this verdant vision. Lansing’s Fox News affiliate station reports that a new study by John Clements, Aaron McCright, and Chenyang Xiao suggests a real divide between between what Christian leaders are saying and congregants are doing. Their work with an environmental attitudes section in the 2010 General Social Survey found that rank-and-file Christians have not shown “a significant increase in pro-environmental attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.” In fact, nonreligious respondents in the survey were more likely to show concern about the environment and more willing to sacrifice to protect it.

The good news from the authors’ article in Organization & Environment is that, among Christians alone, those who were more religious were more likely to engage in “private environmental behaviors” like driving less and recycling. The real question, then, is not which religion gets to claim it cares more about the environment, but rather how to make these beliefs and behaviors more common for everyone.

Predicting Progess

Egyptian workers march on May Day 2013 Photo by Gigi Ibrahim

Egyptian workers march on May Day 2013. Photo by Gigi Ibrahim via flickr.com.

With ouster after ouster, Egypt has undergone constant changes in leadership in recent years. The situation may look like utter chaos, but political scientist Mark Abdollahian and his team of researchers believe they have a good idea of how the events will play out: They wrote a program. In a piece for CNN, Tara Kangarlou describes their work:

Abdollahian’s team used complex computer algorithm logic games that measure how people interact with one another to draw different scenarios of how segments of Egyptian society, power brokers, religious sectors and other sociopolitical variables would affect the outcome of the transition.

Abdollahian had earlier predicted that the Egyptian military would take an important role in watching over the restructuring of the nation and would serve as an important safety net in keeping good relations with the U.S. and its allies like Israel—important because of the massive amounts of American aid the Egyptian military relies on.

These researchers and others saw Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood as the best answer during the “Arab Spring,” but even at the time, they predicted that the Egyptian people would expect change within a year. Since true change is extremely difficult to achieve in such a short span, the team predicted Morsy’s rejection.

Asked what they think might unfold now, Abdollahian and his colleagues predict that the military will support elections and a revamping of the constitution. But first, they believe there’s a strong possibility of continued violence in which “regular Egyptians are the casualties.”

Demography is Democrats’ Destiny?

Photo by Nevele Otseog via flickr.com

Photo by Nevele Otseog via flickr.com

The shifting ethnic and racial composition of the United States has social scientists and political strategists busy calculating the “new electoral math”. By 2040, Latinos will surpass 30% of the population, while whites will be a minority. A new study from the Pew Research Center suggests this could spell serious trouble for the GOP—children of Latino immigrants are more likely to lean Democrat than their parents.

Jody Agius Vallejo, a sociologist at USC, believes that the data is correct: Latino voters are going blue. She pushes back against the notion that the Latino vote will eventually break toward the Republicans due to “traditional values,” instead arguing that Republican policies like Arizona’s controversial SB1070 will continue to drive Latino voters to the left. She puts it bluntly:

Latinos are presently not attracted to the Republican party and there is no reason to think that Latinos will become Republicans just because a few Republicans support immigration reform.

Immigration reform figured prominently in both President Obama’s State of the Union address and Senator Marco Rubio’s GOP response. As the debate heats up in Congress, the increasing voting power of Latinos will certainly factor into how both major parties draw up their positions.

Real Talk on Immigration

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski via flickr.com.

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski via flickr.com.

We all appreciate some theoretical noodling now and again, but it is important to remember that social science research can still bring key information into national debates. When major policy issues are at stake, academics don’t necessarily want to build walls of complex verbiage between their research and public understanding.

Nancy Foner gives us a refreshing dose of plain language with three short bullet points on immigration reform in the National Journal’s series on demography and public policy issues. In under 300 words, Foner breaks down our understanding of the U.S.–Mexican Border, changes the conversation about immigrants’ work ethics, and gives data a reality check. Her clincher is that policymakers radically underestimate the number of children with U.S. citizenship who face instability because their parents are undocumented immigrants.

This piece is a striking example of the how researchers with a handful of key facts and a targeted understanding of where the policy talk needs to change can break down the barriers between research and practice.

War of Word-Craft

With states such as Minnesota and Maryland voting on same-sex marriage amendments in this year’s election, a surprising group is taking on the issue (and free speech): NFL players. In one early example, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo publicly supported gay marriage in 2009. He was met with some shock and backlash, but remains outspoken on the issue. So much so that an elected official sat up and took notice this fall, leading to a rather public war of words.

Rep. Burns’s controversial letter to Ravens owner Scott Bisciotti.

Maryland state delegate Emmett C. Burns, Jr. wrote to Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti asking him to “inhibit such expressions from your employee.” In the letter, released by a local television station and republished by Yahoo! Sports, Burns goes on to state that “many of my constituents and your football supporters are appalled and aghast that a member of the Ravens Football Team would step into this controversial divide,” and assert that he had no knowledge of any other players taking similar stances. Burns turned to familiar ideas about sport, saying Ayanbedejo had no place in the same-sex marriage debate because such political issues have no place “in a sport that is strictly for pride, entertainment, and excitement.”

Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe did not take kindly to Burns’s request for censorship. He went on to write an open, colorful, scathing, and, many would argue, entertaining response (in clean—but hilarious—and uncensored versions) to the Maryland delegate. In his letter, originally published by Gawker Media’s sport site Deadspin, Kluwe condemns Burns’s attempts to quiet Ayanbedejo, saying that not only do politics hold an important place in sport (as evidenced by athletes’ successful work to end segregation in their sports), free speech is a protected right, and, even further, stating simply “that gay people getting married will have zero effect on your life.” He closed by refuting the politician’s note that players haven’t been talking about gay marriage: “I’ve been vocal as hell about [it.]”

Other players took to the papers and airwaves to respond to Burns, too. Ayanbedejo’s teammate (who has played with Kluwe in the past), Ravens Center Matt Birk wrote for the Star Tribune, defending his teammate’s right to free speech. Instead of backing Ayanbedejo’s beliefs, however, Birk articulately and respectfully voiced his opposition, stating that marriage should remain between a man and a woman because same-sex marriage would negatively affect the welfare of children. This time, Kluwe, too, responded in the Star Tribune, armed with facts rather than expletives. He delineated the problems he saw in Birk’s argument one by one, providing many well-honed arguments and citing various social facts, statistics, and a meta-study showing no difference between children of heterosexual and GLBT families as borne out by 17 social scientific studies.

In the end, all of these players demonstrated the power of free speech, showing they had every right to be on the field of public discourse. Why should they be forced to the sidelines when they can bring their opinions and even well researched arguments to an often heated and controversial public debate—simply because they play a game for a living? It’s certainly not news that politicians (from Emmett C. Burns, Jr. to Barack Obama and everyone in between) have used sport to their advantage for many years.

To follow the unfolding debates, you can find Brendon Ayanbadejo (@brendon310) and Chris Kluwe (@ChrisWarCraft) on Twitter, Maryland State Representative Emmett C. Burns, Jr. at his official state website, and information about Matt Birk (including headlines) at his official NFL player page

The 96 Percent

Poster by Mitch Rosenberg via zazzle.com

Poster by Mitch Rosenberg via zazzle.com

Think 47% of all Americans are moochers? Try 96%. Political scientists Suzanne Mettler and John Sides argue in the New York Times that Mitt Romney has grossly underestimated how many U.S. citizens take advantage of government social programs.

The beneficiaries include the rich and the poor, Democrats and Republicans. Almost everyone is both a maker and a taker.

Mettler and Sides draw on nationally representative data from a 2008 survey of Americans about their use of 21 different government social programs, including everything from student loans to Medicare.

What the data reveal is striking: nearly all Americans — 96 percent — have relied on the federal government to assist them. Young adults, who are not yet eligible for many policies, account for most of the remaining 4 percent.

On average, people reported that they had used five social policies at some point in their lives. An individual typically had received two direct social benefits in the form of checks, goods or services paid for by government, like Social Security or unemployment insurance. Most had also benefited from three policies in which government’s role was “submerged,” meaning that it was channeled through the tax code or private organizations, like the home mortgage-interest deduction and the tax-free status of the employer contribution to employees’ health insurance. The design of these policies camouflages the fact that they are social benefits, too, just like the direct benefits that help Americans pay for housing, health care, retirement and college.

The use of such government social programs cuts across all divides, including political party affiliation and class. But ideology does seem to play a role in how people think about their relationship with government programs.

…conservatives were less likely than liberals to respond affirmatively when asked if they had ever used a “government social program,” even when both subsequently acknowledged using the same number of specific policies.

These ideological differences have significant consequences for how government social programs either divide or unite us.

Because ideology influences how we view our own and others’ use of government, Mr. Romney’s remarks may resonate with those who think of themselves as “producers” rather than “moochers” — to use Ayn Rand’s distinction. But this distinction fails to capture the way Americans really experience government. Instead of dividing us, our experiences as both makers and takers ought to bind us in a community of shared sacrifice and mutual support.

For more from Suzanne Mettler on government social programs and the “submerged state,” check out our Office Hours Podcast.

The Peculiar History of Pledging

Pledge Photo by Jeffery Turner via flickr.com

Photo by Jeffery Turner via flickr.com

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America….”  Many of us can remember standing and reciting this each morning at school.  But how many of you have thought about its origins?

NPR’s Shirish V. Dáte raised this question last week in reaction to Mitt Romney’s use of the Pledge of Allegiance in his campaign.

When Mitt Romney uses the Pledge of Allegiance as a metaphor for all that’s good and right with America, how many in his audience know that the two-sentence loyalty oath was penned not by the Founding Fathers in 1776, but a fascist preacher more than 100 years later?

Or that the original recommended posture was with a straightened arm raised upward and outward? Or that it was changed to the hand over the heart during World War II after the Nazis adopted the original as their salute?

Though Dáte makes several points about the use of the pledge in politics, the sociological point is that its use becomes so institutionalized that we (regardless of our political affiliation) don’t even question its origins.

And what are the precise origins of this custom?  Well, Francis Bellamy (the “fascist preacher” noted above) and his friends asked President Benjamin Harrison to incorporate the pledge, which he wrote, into the 400th anniversary celebration of Columbus’s arrival in America. It has been used ever since, with one change.  In 1954, President Eisenhower added “under God.”

For more on the use of the pledge in politics, see the rest of the blog post here.

Myth v. Data: Job Market Edition

Photo by US Department of Labor's photostream on flickr.com

Atty General Holder visits Potomac Job Corps via flickr.com

Ask Mitt Romey and Barack Obama about the lingering high unemployment rate and they’ll likely cite a “skills mismatch” between American workers and available jobs as at least one part of the problem. Despite this striking point of agreement across the political spectrum, Barbara Kiviat argues in The Atlantic that social science data tell a different, much murkier, story.

Consensus over whether U.S. workers have the skills to meet employer demand has see-sawed over time.

That public discourse in the 1980s landed on the idea of a vastly under-skilled labor force is curious, considering that less than a decade earlier, policymakers believed that over-qualification was the main threat as technology “deskilled” work. In the 1976 book The Overeducated American, economist Richard Freeman held that the then-falling wage difference between high-school and college graduates was the result of a college-graduate glut. Sociologists studying “credentialism” agreed, arguing that inflated hiring requirements had led U.S. workers to obtain more education than was necessary. A 1973 report by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare ruminated about how to keep employees happy when job complexity increasingly lagged workers’ abilities and expectations for challenging jobs.

This simple story of a “skills mismatch,” regardless of whether workers are over- or under-qualified,  is not universally supported by data, depending on how you slice it. When looking at individual-level data, Kiviat notes:

The findings here are decidedly more nuanced. While certain pockets of workers, such as high-school drop-outs, clearly lack necessary skill, no nation-wide mismatch emerges. In fact, some work, such as an analysis by Duke University’s Stephen Vaisey, finds that over-qualification is much more common than under-qualification, particularly among younger workers and those with college degrees.

It seems that the heart of the matter really comes down to what story you want to tell about what kind of workers with what kind of skills, a much less neat and tidy task than painting a broad-stroked mismatch picture.

As sociologist Michael Handel points out in his book Worker Skills and Job Requirements, in the skills mismatch debate, it is often not clear who is missing what skill. The term is used to talk about technical manufacturing know-how, doctoral-grade engineering talent, high-school level knowledge of reading and math, interpersonal smoothness, facility with personal computers, college credentials, problem-solving ability, and more. Depending on the conversation, the problem lies with high-school graduates, high-school drop-outs, college graduates without the right majors, college graduates without the right experience, new entrants to the labor force, older workers, or younger workers. Since the problem is hazily defined, people with vastly different agendas are able to get in on the conversation–and the solution

Movin’ on Up, but Out of the Ballot Box?

Vote Here, Vote HoyThe Moving to Opportunity (MTO) experiment is well-known in social science circles and has provided evidence that relocating residents of poor neighborhoods to more advantaged neighborhoods can have positive outcomes, especially on physical and mental health for some groups. But new evidence cited in The Atlantic this month shows that such interventions may have and unintended dark side for political participation.

MTO’s designers in the mid-1990s hoped to improve conditions of employment, education, and health of low-income families in neighborhoods with poverty rates of 40 percent or higher. The experiment included about 4,200 families in five major U.S. cities.

The chance for residential mobility was determined by lottery. Some families remained in their current public housing development. A second group received standard Section 8 housing vouchers. A third set received vouchers that could only be used toward an apartment in a low-poverty neighborhood — areas with a poverty rate below 10 percent. (Families that received vouchers weren’t obligated to use them.)

Despite good intentions, not all of the results of this mobility have been positive. Some researchers have found that moving did not improve residents’ economic well-being and arrest rates for young men actually increased. It seems that Claudine Gay, political scientist at Harvard, has pinpointed another less-than-ideal outcome: decreased political participation.

Gay examined voter registration and turnout data in the 2002 primary and the 2004 presidential election. She compared the political participation of all three Moving to Opportunity groups: those who “lost” the lottery and stayed put, those who moved with Section 8 vouchers, and those who moved into low-poverty areas (as well as those who received vouchers but chose not to move).

Her analysis turned up no negative effects with regard to voter registration, and turnout for the 2002 primary was uniformly low. But Gay did observe a much lower voter turnout in the 2004 presidential election among families that received a voucher. The effects were especially pronounced for the so-called lottery “winners”: adults that moved into low-poverty neighborhoods had a lower voter turnout by 19 percent, compared with those who “lost” the lottery…

While hang-ups in the logistics of moving, like registering to vote in a new neighborhood or not knowing your new polling place, might seem like likely culprits in the decrease, Gay offers a different explanation:

Instead, Gay reasons, the primary source of decreased voter turnout is likely the “social disruption” that occurs when a poor urban family relocates to a higher-income area. Community connections are strongly linked with political participation, and while it takes time for a new resident of any community to connect socially, that difficulty may be greater for residents whose socioeconomic profile doesn’t match that of their new neighbors.

Given the high stake that poor citizens have in many public policy decisions, Gay argues that the effects of residential mobility on political participation must not be ignored.