A found notebook photographed by Thomas R. Stegelmann, Flickr CC.
A found notebook photographed by Thomas R. Stegelmann, Flickr CC.

 

Acting out in class? Your race could be an influential factor in whether you’re referred to the school psychologist of the local police force, says a new study featured in Sociology of Education. According to study author David Ramey, disadvantaged school districts—those with low graduation rates, high unemployment, and low incomes—are more likely to punish black students for behavioral issues than they are to seek medical or psychological support services.

Ramey recently explained his findings to The St. Louis American, noting that despite decreases in overall crime rates since the 1990s, the increase in media coverage of crime and the rash of school shootings have increased concerns about school safety. However, some students are being policed significantly more than others:

The bulk of my earlier research looked at how, for the same minor levels of misbehaviors—for example, classroom disruptions, talking back—white kids tend to get viewed as having ADHD, or having some sort of behavioral problems, while black kids are viewed as being unruly and unwilling to learn.

As a result, school districts with higher percentages of black students also have significantly higher rates of expulsions, suspensions, and law enforcement referrals than predominantly white schools.

For more research on how school punishments affect later educational achievement, see “The Social Costs of Punishment, From Prisoners to Pupils,” and, for research on how grade retention affects learning, see “Held Back.

Looks like a practical type. Photo by Nic McPhee, Flickr Creative Commons.
Looks like a practical type. Photo by Nic McPhee, Flickr Creative Commons.

“What’s your major?”

Often the reasons for choosing engineering or English extend beyond the student’s enthusiasm for the subject. Sociologist Kim Weeden explains to The Atlantic that parental income can play a part: students from wealthy families are more likely to study humanities and fine arts, while their lower-income peers tend to choose more “practical” majors like physics, engineering, or computer science. Weeden says:

It’s … consistent with the claim that kids from higher-earning families can afford to choose less vocational or instrumental majors, because they have more of a buffer against the risk of un- or under-employment.

In other words, if wealthy students cannot get lucrative jobs with a ceramics or history degree, they have a monetary safety net. NYU’s Dalton Conley elaborates:

It might seem like there’s a lot of social mobility that the offspring of doctors are artists, or what have you, but maybe they traded off occupational autonomy and freedom … They still have a high education level and they still have wealth.

Future employment is not the only explanation for why students from different income brackets choose their courses of study. Often, students from higher-income families have more prior exposure to arts, music, and literature, sparking an interest in these areas before college. Furthermore, according to Conley, the prestige of a major and its associated careers may matter more than the size of the actual paycheck:

There’s a notion that what people are maximizing is not income, per se, or wealth, per se, or prestige, per se, but just there’s a general sense of social class, and people in each generation make trade-offs.

A fine arts degree may have fewer career opportunities, but it also has an association with high socioeconomic status that a law enforcement degree does not.

Do declining government jobs chip away at the stamps' promise?
Do declining government jobs chip away at the stamps’ promise?

That’s likely true for a lot of reasons, but one is just coming to light: For many African-Americans, working for the government has provided a gateway to the middle class. “Compared to the private sector, the public sector has offered black and female workers better pay, job stability and more professional and managerial opportunities,” sociologist Jennifer Laird tells The New York Times. The civil service, delivering mail, teaching, operating public transportation, and processing criminal justice have historically provided steady income and opportunities to climb the economic ladder—often without an expensive college degree.

The recession’s recovery has not brought back employment at the local, state, and federal levels, though, and it’s causing struggle in black communities in particular. Population growth has also meant higher competition for ever scarcer public sector jobs. African-Americans once benefitted most from government employment, so cutbacks and layoffs hit them the hardest. Laird describes black government workers’ situation as a “double-disadvantage”:

They are concentrated in a shrinking sector of the economy, and they are substantially more likely than other public sector workers to be without work.

Everyone likes a slice of wedding cake, but our opportunities to munch on the delicious dessert might be shrinking. According to an article in the Dallas Morning News, new research shows millennials aren’t getting married. Even though millennials are a large generation (by some accounts, bigger than the Baby Boom cohort) and are at prime marriage ages, rates of marriage are dropping across the U.S. Some projections suggest it could drop to 6.7 in 1,000 in 2016—a historic low. Why are heterosexual millennials delaying or forgoing marriage?

University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen’s research shows that the proportion of people getting married for the first time at older ages has risen in America, as economic and educational pressures encourage people to wait to wed. In addition, the U.S. has become less religious and more comfortable with unwed parents and cohabitation. W. Bradford Wilcox, a University of Virginia sociologist, adds, however, that there are some upticks in marriage trends, such as a rise in the proportion of educated persons who wed and an influx of Hispanic immigrants that could have positive impacts on American marriage rates, if not in the immediate future.

Image by Ginny Washburne via FLickr CC
Image by Ginny Washburne via FLickr CC

 

Most people think of sociology as marriage-neutral, or even anti-marriage because the institution has been linked to patriarchy, heteronormativity, domestic abuse, and a general suppression of women’s rights; however, the field has seen a shift toward a pro-marriage point of view (see, for instance, scholars like Andrew Cherlin). In the Boston Globe, Philip Cohen from University of Maryland College Park says, “Criticism of marriage as a social institution comes from the universal and basically compulsory system of marriage in the 1950s.” Since ‘50s-style marriage is no longer necessarily true, it makes sense to see an evolving scholarly outlook on the issue.

Those who say matrimony matters point to its advantages for low-income children. According to Sarah McLanahan, children with unmarried parents spend less time with their fathers and receive less financial support. Cherlin, for his part, says marriage, more so than cohabitation, contributes to family stability that leads to better child outcomes.

The evidence doesn’t necessarily mean that marriage causes the “good things” attributed to it, either. Yes, unmarried mothers tend to make less money than their married counterparts, but marriage thrives among the more educated. Those with college degrees wait longer to marry and have more resources to give their children. This means the specific people who marry make it look like married people have better outcomes, when usually they were privileged before exchanging vows. Putting a ring on it will not automatically make people healthier, wealthier, or wiser.

This disparity in findings and even recommendations about marriage points to an issue bigger than family values: “This class divide in marriage and family life is both cause and consequence of the growing inequality in American life,” said W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project. Kristi Williams elaborates that economic circumstances can influence marriage, so trying to change marriage without fixing economic disparities is wrong-headed. Philip Cohen agrees, saying, “The idea that the culture is going downhill and we need a cultural revival happens to be very closely related to the idea that we should not address poor peoples’ problems by raising taxes and giving poor people money,” he said. “So there’s a political element” in marriage promotion efforts.

moynihanSince the 1965 “Moynihan Report,” conversations about disproportionate inequalities between white and black communities have historically focused on “black culture”—that is, explanations of racial discrepancies as products of different values, social norms, and cultural practices within black communities. The study, formally titled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” saw black poverty as the result of non-nuclear family structures and absentee fathers. Now, University of Maryland sociologist Philip N. Cohen tells Vox that academics are leaving the argument behind because it simply doesn’t hold up:

The predominant view now is that there is a specific condition of inner-city concentrated poverty especially in black communities, because of racial segregation and racism, and the structural conditions are very damaging to family life, family relationships. People lose jobs and housing because of incarceration, job discrimination, etc., which create real obstacles to family stability, which in turn is a challenging condition for children’s development.

Indeed, as social science has matured and issues of race and racism have come under scrutiny and greater focus, more people are aware that structural issues, rather than personal ones, best explain advantage and privilege by race. Hopefully 1960s-era thought is well on its way to being replaced with more nuanced understandings of the factors behind racial discrepancies.

Photo by JD via Flickr. Click for original.
Photo by JD via Flickr. Click for original.

 

Parents often equate good parenting with spending as much time with their children as possible. The idea is that, in those hours, parents will cultivate particular characteristics in their children that will contribute to bright futures. But is helicopter parenting really worth it? Sociologists Melissa Milkie and Kei Nomaguchi share the findings of their recent study with the Washington Post: “I could literally show you 20 charts, and 19 of them would show no relationship between the amount of parents’ time and children’s outcomes. . . . Nada. Zippo,” says Milkie.

It’s not the number of hours, but quality of time spent together that matters. Interactive activities like reading to a child, sharing a meal, and talking one-on-one benefit kids, while just watching TV together may be detrimental, as Amy Hsin found. Still, Milkie and Nomaguchi’s study did find that teenagers who engaged with a parent for six hours per showed lower levels of delinquent behavior and drug use than peers who spent less time with their parents.

The authors dug deeper, finding that when a parent was overly-tired, stressed, cranky, or feeling guilty, spending time with their children could lead to more behavioral problems and lower math scores. Nomaguchi says, “Mothers’ stress, especially when mothers are stressed because of the juggling with work and trying to find time with kids, that may actually be affecting their kids poorly.” This particularly impacts parents from low-income households who often lack access to social resources for improving mental health, but still feel the pressure to be “good” parents by spending time with their children. In fact, Milkie and Nomaguchi found that the biggest indicators of child success were mothers’ income and education levels:

“If we’re really wanting to think about the bigger picture and ask, how would we support kids, our study suggests through social resources that help the parents in terms of supporting their mental health and socio-economic status. The sheer amount of time that we’ve been so focused on them doesn’t do much,” says Milkie.

A screenshot from a Sesame Street clip about parents in prison.
A screenshot from a Sesame Street clip about parents in prison.

If you happen to be watching Sesame Street, you may notice a new Muppet named Alex. The child’s father is in prison. Many viewers may consider Alex’s incarcerated parent an unusual, heavy topic for the program that has taught generations of kids their ABC’s and 123’s. But children across the country, particularly African-American children, are in Alex’s position.

The Nation consulted sociologists Christopher Wildeman, Sara Wakefield, Kristin Turney, and John Hagan about the effects of parental incarceration on children. They found that children with incarcerated parents had significantly higher rates of aggression, mental-health issues, behavioral problems, and risk of homelessness than peers whose parents had never been to prison. However, although they have identified a key link between parent imprisonment and children’s mental health, researchers like Turney are still figuring out how and why this connection exists. “Is it stigma, attachments, income loss, parents breaking up and relationships not surviving? We don’t know,” Turney reports.

More than a decade ago, Hagan stated that effects on children might be “the least understood and most consequential” results of incarceration. According to Wildeman, 1 in 30 white children and 1 in 4 black children born in 1990 experienced a parent going to prison before turning 14. The surge in incarceration rates disproportionately affects African-American children. Even if their fathers have a college degree, these kids are twice as likely as white children with parents who didn’t finish high school to have a parent in prison. And regardless of whether incarceration rates decline in the next few years, the effects of current imprisonment rates will last for several generations. That means that optimism about any decline in mass incarceration “must therefore be set against the backdrop of the children of the prison boom—a lost generation now coming of age,” according to Wildeman and Wakefield.

Photo by WoodleyWonderworks, Flickr.com.
Photo by WoodleyWonderworks, Flickr.com.

School segregation has been the topic of social science research and public debate for decades. Still, the average person may think than in the post-Civil Rights era, when the law explicitly forbids racial discrimination, school segregation is an issue of the past. In fact, sociologists of education point to changes in demographics, living arrangements, and school funding that have lead to unforeseen issues increases in school segregation. One city in particular, San Francisco, is seeing a resurgence; the number of schools considered “racially isolated,” or over-representative of one race, has climbed there in the last few years.

A recent article in the San Francisco Public Press describes new practices that determine where students get placed and how such mechanisms can undermine diversity. Parents can apply for placement across San Francisco’s public schools, meaning that many students don’t go to school in the area they live. This enrollment fluidity may seem helpful for increasing diversity, but the ability to make informed and effective choices within school system application is nuanced and heavily influenced by who you know, what you know, and what matters to you. Parent choices, especially within particular racial or ethnic groups, can exacerbate school segregation.

The article quotes Prudence Carter, a Stanford sociologist who studies inequality and education and was involved in creating the San Francisco school-choice system (implemented in 2010). Carter uses Asian families as a case in point: “there’s a lot of pride in the Chinese community in having created educational enclaves.” For example, a Chinese family is more likely to send their children to a school with a certain reputation; replicated across a community, it can lead to a school with a disproportionate number of Chinese students. Similarly, disproportionate concentration of students from certain income backgrounds can lead to a racially segregated student body.

If parents want to be part of segregation solution, Carter advises, “You have to think grander, and beyond your own self-interest… So long as we live in an individualistic and self-interested country, we’re going to probably continue to have this problem.” In her view, policy makers will have to adapt legislation to account for the sociology of parent choice when trying to increase diversity in education.

Oregon State University-Oregon State Penitentiary professor Michelle Inderbitzen shares a photo of a book her "inside" students inscribed for her.
Oregon State University-Oregon State Penitentiary professor Michelle Inderbitzen shares a photo of a book her “inside” students inscribed for her.

The American public tends to balk at any prison amenities or “luxuries.” Others, however, challenge the idea that prison is meant to be stark and bleak. Those who look to a rehabilitative view of prison’s role include Dr. Reid Helford, a sociologist from Chicago’s Loyola University who works in areas outside traditional academia, such as prisons. Recently quoted in a Seattle Times article, Helford states that teaching in prison is “the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done.” Personal fulfillment aside, why should society spend public efforts, time, and funds on providing college courses and instructors for prison inmates?

Sociology helps us look past the surface morality of this debate and consider the broader contexts in which our prison system operates. Regardless whether one believes prison should offer punishment, rehabilitation, or a hybrid, society clearly benefits from lower rates of recidivism (criminals returning to crime). But what does education have to with recidivism? Helford was quoted:

Education does more than offer inmates a credential… it teaches them how to be the people we want our fellow citizens to be—thoughtful, critically aware of the world around them, disciplined and able to recognize authority.

Thus, Helford and his colleagues believe a college course (or eve degree) can help an inmate succeed in the outside world. The benefits of inmate education also spread into the communities to which they return after finishing their sentences. The Seattle Times cites a 2013 study that “concluded that prisoners who participated in education programs were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years of release, and also found that every dollar spent on inmate education translated to $4 to $5 saved on re-incarceration.” This study considered GED, college, and vocational inmate-education together, and new studies are already in motion. A sociological understanding of those findings will be key to implementing and perfecting inmate-education programs like the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, which works to create nation-wide partnerships between universities and state and federal incarceration centers.

A short film via Temple University’s Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program: