For those of us fueling ourselves with the late-night pizza and discount wine that a graduate stipend affords us, the idea of spending at least a year or two on poverty-level incomes may not feel shocking. It may, however, be more common than we once thought.
A new study by sociologists Thomas Hirschl and Mark Rank finds that nearly 60% of Americans will spend at least one year living off of poverty-level incomes. These rates are heavily concentrated among those under the age of 30, with 42% of those young adults experiencing at least one year of poverty (20th percentile of income), and 23% experiencing extreme poverty (10th percentile of income). And for those without savings or parental help to fall back on, these low incomes can lead to homelessness and long-term financial struggle. According to their findings, 12% of Americans spend nearly a decade or more in poverty.
“There’s a great deal of fluidity in the income distribution,” Hirschl told Pacific Standard Magazine. “Economic insecurity—this is not a small effect. We have a tough road ahead of us.”
Many are familiar with the long history of student activism at University of California at Berkeley, but fewer have heard of the difference-makers at San Jose State University. “San Jose State is in the shadow of UC Berkeley when it comes to student activism,” sociology Professor Scott Myers-Lipton told The Nation. “But we’ve got this history as a working-class university that most people don’t know about.”
Starting in 2011, students in Myers-Lipton’s Social Action sociology class started thinking about ways they could bring change to their own community. San Jose houses big-name companies like Adobe, eBay, and Cisco Systems, but it’s the sixth most expensive city in the country. Many residents barely eke out a living. Student and after-school worker Marisela Castro, whose parents worked the California farm fields, pitched the idea of working toward raising the minimum wage. (Myers-Lipton estimates that 80% of his students work over 30 hours per week on top of being students.)
Working with South Bay Labor Council leader Cindy Chavez, Myers-Lipton’s students raised $6,000 to hire a polling agency and make thousands of phone calls to see if increasing minimum wage was an issue that voters would support. When over 70% of respondents said they favored minimum wage increase, Chavez went to the board of the Labor Council. Unions pledged over $120,000 to help the cause by the end of the meeting. After collecting 20,000 signatures, the students took their proposal to the Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce. The vast network of supporters (including Catholic Charities, United Way, churches, and non-profits) alarmed the Chamber, which raised $400,000 to defeat the measure.
The student activists were not defeated, however. They continued, keeping their message simple. Instead of getting into statistical debates, they touted the importance of economic fairness. On November 6th, San Jose became the fifth and largest city to raise its minimum wage, increasing the income for minimum wage workers by $4,000 per year. What started as a student brainstorming activity in a sociology class brought thousands in San Jose closer to economic sustainability.
After months of abuse and harassment from users, Reddit CEO Ellen Pao resigned from the website. Unfortunately, Pao’s experience is far from unique. Many female chief executives face character assassination based in large part on their gender; the anonymity of the Internet allows harassment to escalate as far as death threats. For many experts, Pao’s resignation is an example of the “glass cliff,” a point where women rise to higher positions only to be forced out through excessive personal attacks and abuse.
As lead researcher for Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Cooper is familiar with the gendered biases of the workplace and the use of female leaders as scapegoats for larger company problems: “Oftentimes, the women who inherit the problems are put in precarious positions, and if they fail, they are blamed for it.”
A recent New York Times/CBS News poll finds that nearly 60% of Americans are concerned with income inequality. The overall results may be surprising, given steady economic growth over the past few years. However, sociologist Leslie McCall has an explanation for this post-recession in the New York Times:
People think the returns to economic growth should be going to people like them as much as they should be going to people at the top.
The article highlights McCall’s research on public opinion about income inequality, specifically her analysis of the General Social Survey (GSS), a nationally representative survey conducted every two years by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. She finds that public concern about inequality rises after recession periods, peaking several years after initial economic growth.
In February, PBS’s Independent Lens series aired “American Denial,” a documentary examining the powerful unconscious biases around race and class that still shape racial dynamics in the United States. The film largely focuses on Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 book An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, comparing his findings about race relations in the Deep South during Jim Crow with more recent studies of racism and structural inequalities. Myrdal found that racism was not a “Negro Problem,” as his funders at the Carnegie Corporation of New York had told him, but a problem among whites perpetuating irrational fear of African Americans.
Among the many prominent scholars interviewed in the documentary is sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, whose best-selling book Gang Leader for a Day took an in-depth look at racial inequality and poverty within Chicago’s most notorious housing projects. In the film, Venkatesh says of racism:
“It’s anything but a ‘Negro Problem.’ It’s a condition produced fundamentally by exclusion, racism, discrimination, and the unequal distribution of resources. I think it’s really hard to say we’re not actually doing much better on a lot of these questions about race, because the narrative is ‘America gets better every day.’ Well, what if it doesn’t?”
The film also recognizes earlier scholars of race including Frederick Douglass and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, noting that Myrdal’s work was given more recognition that Douglass and Du Bois’ because it came from a white European and was funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
The documentary can be watched in its entirety here.
As the nation’s gaze is set on Baltimore, sociologists have begun to talk to the press about the massive peaceful protests, outbreaks of rioting and violence, and media depictions of the city as it mourns the death of Freddie Gray (as of today, Friday, May 1, ruled a homicide and under investigation). Much of the emerging public criticism is aimed at media sources and public officials depicting protests as nothing but violent, unfounded riots led by “thugs.” Stefanie DeLuca sees these language choices as important, telling the Washington Post,
I thought the governor calling Baltimore a “state of emergency” was a colossal fail. These framings don’t help us—they take away from the humanity of the people here who have grievances. It takes away from the incredible potential of a city that has been struggling and fighting for everything it has.
Paul Bagguley, whose work focuses on race and social movements, also spoke to the Washington Post, contributing to a piece on looting during riots. He focused specifically on how small outbreaks of crime can happen once large-scale, otherwise civil protests become riots:
During riots, the normal rules of behavior are suspended—participants often describe a sense of freedom—so that normal respect for private property is suspended. In addition, contemporary societies are consumer societies where one’s status and participation in society is defined by consumer goods, hence those excluded from consumption—the poor—are during riot conditions able to obtain valued items.
Other sociologists spoke more broadly to the systemic inequalities that have long divided Baltimore and put men like Freddie Gray in increasingly subjugated, vulnerable positions. In a recent article at Mother Jones, Peter J. Cookson explained how it’s not just physical segregation that creates and reifies inequalities in health, wealth, education, and incarceration, but also disparities in housing safety, extracurricular activities, and educational programs in schools.
In an Op-Ed for The Tennessean, Tony Brown suggests paying closer attention to the evidence of ongoing racism in everyday American life:
We must document the significance of race and racism before we can address it. Make it routine to collect evidence that allows us to address it. Otherwise, we are bound to run in circles debating whether a problem exists, while things get worse.
Since 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 Voxthat 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.
Swedish nursery school teachers and LGBT groups have banded together over the addition of a gender-neutral pronoun to the official Swedish language. It all started five years ago. These two groups were among the first to use the gender-neutral hen as an alternative to the female pronoun hon and the male han. Now the common, conversational use of hen has led the Swedish Academy to include it in the newest edition of the country’s official.
First, if the gender is unknown or not relevant (as in: “If anyone needs to smoke, ‘hen’ may do so outside”). Second, it can be used as a pronoun for inter-gender people (as in: “Kim is neither boy or girl, ‘hen’ is inter-gender”).
In other words, the pronoun provides a way to talk about someone and disregard hen’s gender when it doesn’t matter or doesn’t conform to the traditional masculine/feminine binary.
In Sweden, ranked fourth on the World Economic Forum’s 2014 gender equality report, gender-neutral education is in vogue. Nurseries, kindergartens, and preschools have been at the forefront of the movement to help children grow up without feeling the impact of gender biases. At Egalia, a preschool in Stockholm, traditionally gendered toys and games are placed side-by-side to encourage children to choose by preference rather than convention; students are not referred to as male or female; and gender-neutral books line the shelves.
LGBT groups have also embraced the new pronoun as a way to raise awareness. Experts are cautiously optimistic that officially recognizing the word will encourage more people to use it., Lann Hornscheidt, a professor of Scandinavian languages and gender studies, believes hen really will help fight sexism and gender biases. As he told the Post,
The introduction of a pronoun which challenges binary gender norms has been an important step, following a more thorough debate over the construction of gender within the last 10 years.
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.
“Spark it up!” Sure, next time you’re in Colorado, you might want to stock up on Cheetos and take advantage of the state’s legalized marijuana. That is, if your skin’s the right color.
According to a new report by the Drug Policy Alliance, a pro-legalization collective, it’s already apparent that there are still racial disparities in the enforcement of the new drug laws in CO. As explained in an Associated Press article, laws that penalize carrying amounts in excess of 1oz of marijuana and the public use of the substance have disproportionately affected blacks compared to whites. Total marijuana arrests have dropped by nearly 95% since legalization, but blacks are twice as likely as whites to face sanctions under laws that criminalize illegal cultivation, public use, and excess possession. In Washington, the same phenomenon can be seen at work, the report states. In Seattle in 2014, one-third of the marijuana citations were issued to blacks, who only make up 8% of the city’s population.
According to University of Wisconsin sociologist Pamela E. Oliver, this discrepancy is indicative of African Americans’ overall treatment under the law, even after policy shifts: “Black communities, and black people in predominantly white communities, tend to be generally under higher levels of surveillance than whites and white communities… this is probably why these disparities are arising.” This discrepancy shows up in nearly all crime policing, from homicide to drug laws to robbery. In Colorado, it’s really killing the buzz.