Tag Archives: consumption

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.

Super Bowl Spending: Chicken, Chips, and Antacids

Dolores R. sent in an infographic with various statistics regarding the superbowl.  I thought this bit about food and drink consumption was especially great:

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.

Selective Transparency in an Egg Marketing Campaign

Cross-posted in Portuguese at Conhecimento Prudente.

Philippa brought our attention to a recent ad campaign by the Egg Farmers of Ontario, an organization that promotes Ontario’s egg industry. The campaign, titled Who Made Your Eggs Today?, draws the consumer’s attention to the families engaged in producing Canada’s eggs. The images and videos focus on an idealized image of family farms, emphasizing tradition, family togetherness, and a connection to the land:

But as Philippa pointed out, there’s something noticeably absent here: the chickens themselves. There’s quite a bit of talk about chickens — how much the farmers enjoy working with them, how amazing it is that they produce an egg nearly every day, what they eat, and so on — but I didn’t see a single chicken in any of the videos listed on the Farm Families page.

This ad campaign seems to provide transparency into how food is produced; we get to see into the lives of actual egg producers in Ontario, and hear them speak about their lives and the process that brings eggs to the consumer. And for those of us concerned about how the conditions under which our food is produced, this is an important step, as most consumers have little or no direct experience with farming or the lives of people who raise food. The appeal of farmers’ markets , community-based agriculture, and other alternative food distribution outlets is not just the idea of getting environmentally sustainable produce, but also making a connection to a specific producer, and often a desire to support small-scale family farmers.

But the insight into the egg supply chain offered here is selective.  What is carefully avoided in the videos is any discussion of how the hens are treated. We never quite see into the barns to see how the chickens are housed; we don’t hear whether artificial lighting and other techniques are used to boost egg production in ways that cause physical stress to the hens; we don’t know anything at all, in fact, about the chickens.

We enter the story when the eggs have been separated from layers’ housing; we see clean, pretty eggs moving along on mechanized belts or being carefully placed into cartons by hand; our attention as consumers is directed to the people running the farms and away from discussions of the animals or larger concerns about sustainability. As Philippa says, “in giving the egg farmers a public face, the campaign is actually distancing the public from the product they are promoting.”

Also check out our post about Nathan Meltz’s artwork highlighting modern food production, including his Chicken Coup video.

The Commodification of the Ghetto

In this minute-and-a-half, sociologist Nikki Jones talks about the way that the idea of the ghetto has been commodified — especially in rap and hip hop — in ways that informs Americans who don’t live in inner-city urban areas, but potentially mystifies the reality of that life as well:

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 I’m Not Married

Earlier this month I read an essay that explained to me why I am not married. These reasons included:

  • I’m a bitch.
  • I’m shallow.
  • I’m a slut.
  • I’m a liar.
  • I’m selfish.
  • I don’t think I’m good enough.

I’m not kidding.

Coincidentally, the Pew Research Center released 2010 data showing that just 51% of all American adults were currently married. This is an all time low, down from 72% in 1960.

Comparing this data with the essay above is a nice illustration of the difference between “normative” and “normal.”  Normal is what is typical in a statistical sense; it is what actually holds.  Normative is what is believed to be good and right in an ideological sense; it is what it is believed does or should hold.

If you go by the essay, written by the thrice married and now single Tracy McMillan, marriage is an ideal state that we all should, or do, desire.  In her reality, if you aren’t married, it’s because you’re doing something wrong.  Marriage is normative.  In actual reality, though, the state of being married is not any more normal than the state of being unmarried.

Only if marriage is normative does the non-normality of marriage become something that needs explaining.  McMillan jumps in with hateful stereotypes, but social science has much better explanations.

  • Low-income women often do not take-for-granted (as many middle class people do) that they can sustain a marriage through tough times.  Accordingly, they wait much longer before marrying once they meet someone they like (as long as 10 years or more), so that they can be as sure as possible about the match.  In other words, they take marriage very seriously and are reticent to just jump right in.  They know they’re “good enough,” Tracy; in fact, they value themselves and their relationships enough to really put them to the test.  (Read Promises I Can Keep for more.)
  • Other women get divorced because men don’t do their fair share.  Unresolved conflicts over childcare and housework are one of the top reasons that couples dissolve.  Women struggle to keep up when they’re working a full time job and doing 2/3rds to 3/4ths of the childcare and housework.  They may not see the data, but they may intuit that single mothers do less housework than married ones (it’s true).  So they divorce their husbands.  They’re not “selfish,” they’re just trying to survive. (Read The Second Shift for more.)
  • Other people aren’t married because they’re in love with someone of the same sex.  They’re not “sluts,” they’re discriminated against.

And, just for the record:

  • I’m not married because I don’t want or need the state’s approval of my relationship and  I certainly don’t want it interfering if we decide to part.
  • I’m not married because the history of marriage is ugly and anti-woman; because I don’t like the common meanings of the words “wife” and “husband”; and because even today, and even among couples that call themselves feminist, gender inequality in relationships is known to increase when a couple moves from cohabitation to marriage (and I don’t think I’m so special that I’ll be the anomaly).
  • I’m not married because I’m opposed to the marriage industrial complex. It’s exploitative, stereotypical, and wasteful.
  • I’m not married because I value the fact that my partner and I decide to be together every day, even though we don’t have to jump through legal hoops to do otherwise.
  • I’m not married because I don’t want to support a discriminatory institution that has and continues to bless some relationships, but not others, out of bigotry.
  • I’m not married because I don’t believe in giving social and economic benefits to some kinds of relationships and not others.  I don’t believe that a state- or church-endorsed heterosexual union between two and only two people is superior to other kinds of relationships.

After reading some of the great comments, I’d like to add that I’m not married because of several points of privilege:

  • I’m not married because I live in a society that allows women to work, keep their paychecks, rent an apartment, and have a bank account.  (And, frankly, I think it’s kind of neat to be in the first generation of American women who can realistically choose not to marry. I like the idea of embracing that.)
  • I’m not married because both my partner and I are lucky enough to have  a stable, full-time job that offers benefits, so we don’t need to get married so that one of us can get the other health insurance or some other benefit.
  • I’m not married because we are both U.S. citizens and don’t have to marry in order to live together.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

The point is that when the normal and the normative don’t align it often leads to social conflict over the meaning of the gap.  Some people, like McMillan, may jump in to tongue-lash the deviants.  Others may revel in defending non-conformity.  In any case, it will be interesting to see how the conversation about marriage continues, especially if, as the trend suggests, married people become a minority in the near future.

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.