Tag Archives: consumption

Household Spending by Class (UPDATE)

NPR’s Planet Money blog posted an interesting image of differences in how we allocate income based on how much we make. The image looks at three income groups and shows what percent of their  household income budget they spend various categories, using Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey data:

As we see, the largest expense for every group is housing; for the low-income group, 40% of their income goes just to paying for a place to live. They also use more of their income to cover basic necessities — utilities, food eaten at home, transportation.The high-income group, on the other hand,  spends quite a bit more on education.

Look at that last row: saving for retirement (which includes Social Security contributions). This is a particularly striking difference. The affluent are able to put away a significant portion of their income for retirement; for those living just above the poverty line, it’s much, much less than the amount financial planners would recommend (even the middle-income group is saving about the minimum amount generally recommended to prepare for retirement). When so much of your income goes to simply meeting day-to-day needs, saving for the future is a luxury many just cannot afford.

UPDATE: NPR has updated their post, saying the image they had up initially incorrectly. They posted a new image, with notably lower spending on housing:

Eagle-eyed reader David C. pointed this out to me. The revised numbers seem surprisingly low to both of us.Looking at the NPR post again, I think I misunderstood what they were representing; I think this isn’t the percent of total income, but rather % of the household budget, which may not be identical. That said, I looked at some Consumer Expenditure Survey data (here and here) and can’t get the numbers to work out to what they’re showing in the updated image. If someone can, please send us a note at socimages(at)thesocietypages.org and we’ll do another update. Thanks!

Who Picks the Cacao for Your Chocolate?

When asked to contribute to an exhibition about chocolate, photographer James Mollison decided to “explore the disparity between the producer and consumer.”  Chocolate is always a luxury, of course (and is often deliberately marketed this way), and the product, at its finest, can be exceptionally delicious and exceptionally expensive.

Mollison went to Côte d’Ivoire, the country responsible for producing the largest proportion of cacao, to bring the contrast between the product and its producers to life.  The men he photographed, he reports, earned less than $1 a day. Here are three of them.

Sorogo Hamidou:
Zongo Arouna:
Mohammad Ouedraogo:

Also from Mollison: Where Children Sleep and The Disciples, photographs of hard-core music fans.

As always, in gratitude for his work, I encourage you to visit his site.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Is it Possible to Go “Off the Grid”?

In the Sociology of Gender textbook I am (very slowly) writing, I spend a chapter discussing the idea of institutions.  I define the term as “persistent patterns of social interaction aimed at meeting the needs of a society that can’t easily be met by individuals alone.”  These needs  include educating the next generation, providing health care, ensuring safety, and enabling efficient transportation.  These things are done better and more efficiently if we all chip in and put together a system.

What is interesting about institutions from a sociological perspective is that, once they’re in place, it is essentially impossible to opt out.  You can choose not to buy a car, for example, but the government is still going to spend your tax dollars on highway infrastructure.  You can amass as much medical knowledge and experience as you like, but you’ll still be a criminal if you practice medicine without a licence.  You can believe the government is corrupt and stay home on voting day, but Congress is still going to pass legislation to which you will be held accountable.

You get the picture.

In any case, I thought of this when I came across the striking photography of Eric Valli.  Valli seems to specialize in capturing the lives of people living very close to the earth.  In one series, he follows a group of individuals who have decided to live “off the grid.”  That is, they’ve “unplugged” from the social institutions that sustain us. The first image I came across was this one:

Clearly this is no joke.  And, yet, as I scrolled through additional photographs, I couldn’t help to notice how many trappings of the rest of the world were part and parcel of their lives (canoes, coats, oil lamps, cooking and eating utensils, halters, firearms, hot sauce, etc).

As I write in the book:

You can go “off the grid” to avoid capitalism, find an isolated spot in some wilderness, cut down some trees, build a hut, and live off of roots and berries.  Then again, where did you get the axe?  Will you bring a book on poisonous mushrooms?  Even the bare-handed, bunny-catching woodsman hermit will buy a few things to get along and, in any case, he can’t help but draw on knowledge that he acquired through institutions like schools, families, publishing, and the mass media.  After all, how did he know where to find the forest?

I’m not questioning, at all, whether or not these people are off the grid. They certainly appear to be.  But it is interesting to notice how much of the grid is still a part of their lives.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Just How Big is Walmart?

Mother Jones magazine offers some comparisons. Highlights:

  • Its net sales is greater than the GDP of Norway.
  • Its entertainment sales is triple that of Hollywood.
  • It emits more CO2 than the 50 lowest-emitting countries together.
  • It employs a workforce the size of the population of the 50 smallest countries in the world.
  • Its square-footage exceeds that of the island of Manhattan.

The data:


Via SocProf.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Changes in U.S. Spending Patterns

Recently we posted a comparison of the types of jobs Americans held in 1940 and 2010, based on Census data. Now NPR has posted an interesting image showing how spending on different categories has changed:

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics. Credit: Lam Thuy Vo / NPR

[Note: Sorry I initially accidentally left out the link to the original NPR story!]

The change in spending on food is especially noteworthy, given the role that cost of food plays in determining the poverty line in the U.S. It is still based on a calculation developed in the 1960s, which assumed that the average family spent about a third of its income on food. To figure out how much a family needed to survive, the minimum cost of a nutritionally-complete diet for a particular family size was calculated; multiplying it by three provided the poverty line. It was then adjusted over time. This is the number generally used to determine eligibility for government assistance programs.

But since then, food prices have fallen significantly, while other necessities, such as housing and medical care, have often gotten more expensive. Many have criticized the poverty line calculation, including the National Academy of Sciences, arguing that as food has gotten cheaper, the official poverty line does a worse and worse job of capturing exactly how much it costs to survive in the U.S.

NPR also provided a more detailed breakdown of spending on a number of major categories in 2011:

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics. Credit: Lam Thuy Vo / NPR

Thanks to my friend Kathy B. for letting me know!

Target Knows You’re Pregnant: Psychological Management and Consumer Data

Cross-posted at Global Policy TV.

A great story at the New York Times, sent in by Katrin, reveals how the evolving science of marketing is creating its own set of challengers for advertisers.  Target, like many companies, tracks its customers purchases and uses the data to send packets of coupons tailored to individuals and households.  In this way, they tempt us into the store by offering us deals on things they know we want.

Target is also in the business of predicting what a person will want.  So the marketing company decided to try to use costumer shopping habits in order to predict pregnancy.  If they could start sending the woman baby-related before she started shopping for them in earnest, the company figured, she might end up always thinking of Target when she needed to spend money on the baby.

Using an algorithm that considered the purchasing patterns typical of newly pregnant women — e.g., prenatal vitamins, scent-free instead of scented lotion, a sudden uptick in the acquisition of cotton balls — they were able to make a pretty good guess as to whether a female customer was expecting.  Suddenly these women were getting coupons like this:

This caused two problems.

First was the father of the teenage girl who started getting coupons for diapers in the mail.  This led to an angry phone call to Target and, later, a chagrined apology by the stunned grandpa-to-be (story here).

The second was the reaction of the intended target, the expectant moms.  Some were pretty freaked out that Target knew they were pregnant!  It’s one thing, it turns out, for Target to know you like vanilla better than chocolate ice cream, or you fancy scented candles; it’s different, perhaps, to suddenly realize that it knows your you’re having a baby.  That could feel like a serious invasion of privacy.

So Target learned that the ability to predict our needs and desires comes with the need to do some psychological management as well. Accordingly, they began sneaking baby-related coupons into coupon books that also included other things.  So far, Target reports, these women are none the wiser… and thinking of Target as their one-stop baby shop.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Climate Change and Global Comparisons of Inequality

In an earlier post we reviewed research by epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett showing that income inequality contributes to a whole host of negative outcomes, including higher rates of mental illness, drug use, obesity, infant death, imprisonment, and interpersonal trust.

In the six-minute video below, Kate Pickett talks about how more equal societies are kinder to each other, give more in foreign aid, are less status-conscious, consume less, and even recycle more.  Based on this, she argues that reducing inequality within societies is a good strategy towards addressing climate change.

How to increase equality? It turns out there are lots of options.

See Dr. Pickett making similar arguments as to why raising the average national income in developed countries doesn’t make people happier or enable them to live longerwhy unequal societies are more violent, and how status inequality increases stress.

And see more about income inequality and national well-being at Equality Trust.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Why It’s Not Altruistic to Help the Poor

In an earlier post we reviewed research by epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett showing that income inequality contributes to a whole host of negative outcomes, including higher rates of mental illness, drug use, obesity, infant death, imprisonment, and interpersonal trust.

She summarizes these findings in this quick nine-minute talk at a Green Party conference:

See Dr. Pickett making similar arguments as to why raising the average national income in developed countries doesn’t make people happier or enable them to live longer, why unequal societies are more violent, and how status inequality increases stress.

And see more about income inequality and national well-being at Equality Trust.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.