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.

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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NBP Gold by Giorgio Monteforti via flickr
NBP Gold by Giorgio Monteforti via flickr.com

Much of Switzerland’s wealth is built upon its powerful and secretive financial sector.  While it has long been a safe haven for wealthy individuals seeking to stash their cash, sociologist Jean Ziegler (no relation) argues that it is time for the famously neutral nation to reform its banking sector. In an interview with German newspaper Der Spiegel, he asserts that the country has enriched itself through stolen goods:

Money comes to Switzerland through three illegal sources: tax evasion in other developed countries, the blood money of dictators and other rulers in the Third World and organized crime.

Ziegler, who served on the Swiss National Council for 18 years and also acted as the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food for another 8, is lukewarm about the prospects for change. On the one hand, he sees popular pressure from neighboring Germany and data leaks that could reveal the origins of deposits in his country’s banks.  That said, he notes that much inertia must be overcome before real change can happen.

The structure of the Swiss ruling class is rock-hard, and unchanged since the time of Napoleon. They sit on their mountains and lecture the world on democracy.

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.