According to a new report from the Pew Research Center, Americans are almost evenly split over who is responsible for poverty and whether the poor have it easy or hard. Here are some factoids from the data:
44% think that the government should do more for the needy, even if it means more debt
51% think the government can’t afford to do more for the needy and shouldn’t
45% think that poor people today have it easy
47% think that poor people have it hard
Here’s the data:
Notice that responses correlate with whether the respondents themselves are rich or poor. A third of the richest Americans think government benefits don’t go far enough, while two-thirds of the poorest think so. As to whether the government should and can do more, 60% of the least economically secure say “yes,” while 62% of the most secure say “no.”
At Everyday Sociology, sociologist Karen Sternheimer made a nice observation about the problem of teen drinking. It’s not our biggest alcohol problem.
According to the CDC, the age group most likely to die from binge drinking is people 35-64 years old. In fact, three out of every four alcohol poisoning deaths are in this age group — 4.5 out of a total of 6 a day — and 76% of them are men, especially ones who earn over $70,000 a year.
So why all the PSAs aimed at teens?
Sternheimer argues that the focus on teens has to do with who what groups are identified as problematic populations. In the 1800s and early 1900s, she points out, laws were passed in several states making it illegal for African Americans and Native Americans to drink alcohol. Immigrants were also targeted.
Young people weren’t targeted until the student rebellions of the 1960s and ’70s. Like the “protest psychosis” attributed to black Civil Rights activists, the anti-establishment activism of young people was partly blamed on drug and alcohol use.
White, middle-class men over thirty typically have more social power than the groups commonly targeted as problems. They also vote, and no sane politician is going to campaign warning of the danger some of these men cause and how we can control them.
Not to mention, she says, how the alcohol industry would feel about the government telling their richest customers to curb their drinking. They much prefer that PSAs focus on young people. “This industry can well afford the much-touted ‘We Card’ programs,” says Sternheimer, “because teens usually don’t have the money for the expensive stuff that their parents can buy.”
The industry’s marketing to wealthy, white men, then, goes unchecked.
The United States imprisons more people than any other country. This is true whether you measure by percentage of the population or by sheer, raw numbers. If the phrase mass incarceration applies anywhere, it applies in the good ol’ U. S. of A.
It wasn’t always this way. Rates of incarceration began rising as a result of President Reagan’s “war on drugs” in the ’80s (marijuana, for example), whereby the number of people imprisoned for non-violent crimes began climbing at an alarming rate. Today, about one-in-31 adults are in prison. his is a human rights crisis for the people that are incarcerated, but its impact also echoes through the job sector, communities, families, and the hearts of children. One-in-28 school-age children — 2.7 million — have a parent in prison.
In a new book, Children of the Prison Boom, sociologists Christopher Wildeman and Sara Wakefield describe the impact of parental imprisonment on children: an increase in poverty, homelessness, depression, anxiety, learning disorders, behavioral problems, and interpersonal aggression. Some argue that taking parents who have committed a crime out of the family might be good for children, but the data is in. It’s not.
Parental incarceration is now included in research on Adverse Childhood Experiences and it’s particular contours include shame and stigma alongside the trauma. It has become such a large problem that Sesame Street is incorporating in their Little Children, Big Challenges series and has a webpage devoted to the issue. Try not to cry as a cast member sings “you’re not alone” and children talk about what it feels like to have a parent in prison:
Wildeman and Wakefield, alongside another sociologist who researches the issue, Kristin Turney, are interviewed for a story about the problem at The Nation. They argue that even if we start to remedy mass incarceration — something we’re not doing — we will still have to deal with the consequences. They are, Wildeman and Wakefield say, “a lost generation now coming of age.”
The subtitle of their book, Mass Incarceration and the Future of Inequality, points to how that lost generation might exacerbate the already deep race and class differences in America. At The Nation, Katy Reckdahl writes:
One in four black children born in 1990 saw their father head off to prison before they turned 14… For white children of the same age, the risk is one in thirty. For black children whose fathers didn’t finish high school, the odds are even greater: more than 50 percent have dads who were locked up by the time they turned 14…
Even well-educated black families are disproportionately affected by the incarceration boom. Wakefield and Wildeman found that black children with college-educated fathers are twice as likely to see them incarcerated as the children of white high-school dropouts.
After the Emancipation Proclamation, Jim Crow hung like a weight around the shoulders of the parents of black and brown children. After Jim Crow, the GI Bill and residential redlining strangled their chances to build wealth that they could pass down. The mass incarceration boom is just another in a long history of state policies that target black and brown people — and their children — severely inhibiting their life chances.
Americans have become increasingly critical of public policy as a means of addressing social problems. Many believe that these policies don’t work; the reality is that public policies are often subverted in ways that make them ineffective or even counterproductive.
Take taxes and inequality. As Danny Vinik, writing in the New Republic explains:
The vast majority of Americans—both liberals and conservatives—believe that state and local taxes should also be progressive. That’s the finding of a new report released by WalletHub Monday. The researchers surveyed 1,050 Americans on what they thought the combined rate of state and local taxes should be at various income levels. Not surprisingly, liberals want the rate structure to be a bit more progressive than conservatives do, but their responses [as the following chart shows] were relatively similar:
However the reality is quite different. State and local taxes are actually quite regressive. The Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy studied the “fairness of state and local tax systems by measuring the state and local taxes that will be paid in 2015 by different [non-elderly] income groups as a share of their incomes.” They did this state by state and, as presented below, on an overall basis. As we can see, the lower the income, the greater the state and local tax burden.
Here are some of the report’s key findings:
Virtually every state tax system is fundamentally unfair, taking a much greater share of income from low- and middle-income families than from wealthy families. The absence of a graduated personal income tax and overreliance on consumption taxes exacerbate this problem.
In the 10 states with the most regressive tax structures (the Terrible 10) the bottom 20 percent pay up to seven times as much of their income in taxes as their wealthy counterparts. Washington State is the most regressive, followed by Florida, Texas, South Dakota, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Arizona, Kansas, and Indiana.
Heavy reliance on sales and excise taxes are characteristics of the most regressive state tax systems. Six of the 10 most regressive states derive roughly half to two-thirds of their tax revenue from sales and excise taxes, compared to a national average of roughly one-third . Five of these states do not levy a broad-based personal income tax (four do not have any taxes on personal income and one state only applies its personal income tax to interest and dividends) while four have a personal income tax rate structure that is flat or virtually flat.
States commended as “low tax” are often high tax states for low-and middle-income families. The 10 states with the highest taxes on the poor are Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, and Washington. Seven of these are also among the “terrible ten” because they are not only high tax for the poorest, but low tax for the wealthiest.
In short, we know how to construct tax policies that can lessen inequality, but we’re not using state and local taxes to do it.
Karl Marx argued that capitalist modes of production always involve the exploitation of the working class by the owning class. The owning class are the capitalists. They secure the means of production — the factories, tools, and machinery — and employ workers to use those resources to produce goods.
When these goods are sold, capitalists extract the surplus value. This isn’t an magical good that blinks into existence thanks to the Capital Fairy, it’s a concrete good derived directly from the exploitation of the working class. Surplus value only exists when workers are paid less than the value they added with their work. If they were paid as much as their work was worth, capitalists would break even. And that’s not what they have in mind.
In other words, if capitalists paid workers what their work was actually worth, there wouldn’t be any profit left to skim off the top, leaving the rest of us with a value deficit.
Disentangling the effects of race and class on the social mobility of black Americans is one of sociology’s important jobs. A new study by S. Michael Gaddis is a nice contribution.
Gaddis sent resumes to 1,008 jobs in three parts of the United States. Some of these fictional job applicants carried degrees from an elite university: Stanford, Harvard, or Duke. Some had names that suggested a white applicant (e.g., Charlie or Erica) and others names that suggested a black applicant (e.g., Lamar or Shanice).
Both phone and email inquiries from people with white-sounding names elicited a response more often than those from black-sounding names. Overall, white-sounding candidates were 1.5 times more likely than black-sounding candidates to get a response from an employer. The relationship held up when other variables were controlled for with logistic regression.
Gaddis goes on to show that when employers did respond to candidates with black-sounding names, it was for less prestigious jobs that pay less.
Comparing applicants who are black and white and have elite vs. more middle-of-the-road university degrees, blacks with elite degrees were only slightly more likely than whites with less impressive degrees to get a call back. As is typically found in studies like these, members of subordinated groups have to outperform the superordinated to see the same benefit.