Tag Archives: SES

Affluenza: A Cute Name for the S.O.S.

Photo by Martin Bowling via Flickr CC

Photo by Martin Bowling via Flickr CC. Click for original.

The latest controversy in criminal justice revolves around the defense of 16-year-old Ethan Couch, who killed four people when he hit them with his car, driving at double the speed limit and double the legal blood alcohol level (as an underage drinker, actually, there is no acceptable limit, but let’s stick with the charges). Couch’s defense argued that he suffered from “affluenza”—a condition under which he had lived such a privileged and entitled life, with so few consequences for bad behavior, that he could not now be held suddenly responsible for his actions. Bizarrely, the judge accepted this defense and sentenced Couch to ten years of probation and a stay in a rehab facility known for its hippotherapy (affectionately, if a bit dismissively, known as “having a therapy pony”). Had affluenza not been accepted as a defense, the usual sentence for Couch’s crimes would have been 10-20 years of prison time.

In an article for Forbes, Dr. Dale Archer reminds us that the lack of consequences that accompanies privilege isn’t anything new:

Economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen introduced the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ in the 19th century to explain the behavior of […] families who spent their accumulated wealth in ostentatious ways to show off their newfound prestige and power.

Archer goes on to stress that the real worry is how common the modern trend of affluenza seems to be. He worries that the Keeping Up With the Kardashians era may be breeding a generation of narcissists, if not sociopaths who not only don’t understand punishment but also balk at the idea that they have anything to be punished for. He cites social psychologist Sara Konrath of the University of Michigan:

Her study of 13,737 college students found that there was a 40% decrease in empathy currently, when compared with 20 or 30 years ago.

In the end, it may be the application of the cute name “affluenza” that proves most offensive: personal responsibility is all the rage when it comes to the poor and people of color, but wealthy whites’ privilege appears to have found yet another way to keep them above the fray.

See more on “Affluenza” at: http://thesocietypages.org/sociologylens/2013/12/20/catching-affluenza-the-role-of-money-in-criminal-justice/

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Movin’ on… Down

Photo by Richard Eriksson via flickr.com.

Photo by Richard Eriksson via flickr.com.

Thinking about moving conjures images of moving up—for a better job, a cooler city, or even that deluxe apartment in the sky. However, a recent article from USA Today paints a much different picture about the reasons people in the U.S. pack up and go.

The report sums up a new analysis of Census data presented by the US 2010 project under the leadership of Brown University sociologist John Logan. It confirms our worst suspicions about the Great Recession: more people are moving down into cheaper housing, having lost their jobs or taken pay cuts. From the article:

“Typically, over the last couple of decades, when Americans moved, they moved to improve their lives,” said Michael Stoll, author of the research and chairman of UCLA’s public policy department. “This is the shock: For the first time, Americans are moving for downward economic mobility. Either they lost their house or can’t afford where they’re renting currently or needed to save money.”

In the face of the data, maybe it’s time to stop humming the theme from “The Jeffersons” and start listening to the words of Billy Joel: “If that’s movin’ up,” well, we’re just “movin’ out.”

Excavating the Wealth Gap

A chart from O'Rourke's paper, via the Boston Globe.

A chart from O’Rourke’s paper, via the Boston Globe.

A social problem examined by sociologists for decades, the white-black wealth gap has widened to record highs during the recession, with the median wealth for white households at twenty times that of their black counterparts. On the Boston Globe’s Brainiac blog, Kevin Hartnett shares a recent study by Princeton sociology graduate student Rourke O’Brien. The study quantitatively tests the idea that this wealth discrepancy is due, in part, to giving or loaning money to relatives.

Middle-income blacks are more than twice as likely as middle-income whites to have a poor sibling and more than four times as likely to have parents below the poverty line. And because of these relationships, they’re called upon more often to provide financial assistance.

Whereas investments can be used to generate more wealth, gifts and informal loans to family members are usually spent  paying bills or covering immediate financial needs. O’Brien argues that informal financial support networks can account for roughly 27% of the white-black wealth gap.