The U.S. once led the world in middle class affluence, but thanks to a recovery from the Great Recession that involves giving all the money to the already-rich, we’re losing that distinction.

“In 1960,” said Harvard economist Lawrence Katz, “we were massively richer than anyone else. In 1980, we were richer. In the 1990s, we were still richer.”

Not so much anymore. This chart shows that many countries have been closing the gap.

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Good for them, of course, but the American middle class is struggling, too. Pew Research Center demographer Conrad Hackett summed it up:

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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.

Flashback Friday.

A website called Found in Mom’s Basement posted this vintage toilet paper ad that plays on the stereotype that Scottish people are cheap. From the post:

Although the stereotype of the cheap Scotsman isn’t as widely known in the U.S. today, going back a few decades it was an ethnic stereotype that was used freely, often making the Scots the butt of jokes.

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The post has links to other examples, such as the Studebaker Scotsman, a low-cost, minimal-options car:

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As a commenter to that post pointed out, Safeway’s store brand cigarettes, advertised as being inexpensive, was “Scotch Buy” (found at Cigarettespedia):

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For a more recent example, we have McFrugal, a hardware site (now down):

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A reader, Julia, noted that Scotch tape was named that because:

it originally had adhesive only on the edges of the tape.  [An early user] told a 3M salesman to go back to his “Scotch bosses” (presumably too cheap to put adhesive all over the tape) and make it stickier.

The Scots-are-cheap stereotype is a great example of how ethnic stereotypes can lose their power. Maybe I’m just oblivious, but until a few years ago, I’d never heard of the stereotype that Scots were cheap. Without that context, the associations the ads are attempting to make would be meaningless to me — I would have just thought it was odd that McFrugal had a guy with bagpipes, but not understood that it might have any meaning. When I asked students in my race class about this, only a couple had ever heard this stereotype.

Obviously, though, it used to be a very common, widely-recognized notion. Much like the Irish and other European ethnic groups, as Scots became part of the larger “White” racial category, ethnic distinctiveness and stereotypes have become less prominent.

Originally posted in 2009.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Despite the cellphone video of two police officers killing Kajieme Powell, there is some dispute as to what happened (see this account in The Atlantic). Was Powell threatening them; did he hold the knife high; was he only three or four feet away? 

The video is all over the Internet, including the link above. I’m not going to include it here.  The officers get out of the car, immediately draw their guns, and walk towards Powell. Is this the best way to deal with a disturbed or possibly deranged individual – to confront him and then shoot him several times if he does something that might be threatening?

Watch the video, then watch London police confronting a truly deranged and dangerous man in 2011.  In St. Louis, Powell had a steak knife and it’s not clear whether he raised it or swung it at all.  The man in London has a machete and is swinging it about.


Unfortunately, the London video does not show us how the incident got started. By the time the recording begins, at least ten officers were already on the scene. They do not have guns. They have shields and truncheons. The London police tactic used more officers, and the incident took more time. But nobody died.  According to The Economist:

The police in and around Ferguson have shot and killed twice as many people in the past two weeks (Mr Brown plus one other) as the police in Japan, a nation of 127m, have shot and killed in the past six years. Nationwide, America’s police kill roughly one person a day.

The article includes this graphic:

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I’m sure that the Powell killing will elicit not just sympathy for the St. Louis police but in some quarters high praise – something to the effect that what they did was a good deed and that the victims got what they deserved. But righteous slaughter is slaughter nevertheless. A life has been taken.<

You would think that other recent videos of righteous slaughter elsewhere in the world would get us to reconsider this response to killing. But instead, these seem only to strengthen tribal Us/Them ways of thinking. If one of Us who kills one of Them, then the killing must have been necessary and even virtuous.

Originally posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Flashback Friday.

This remarkable newspaper article illustrates how skin color (which is real) gets translated into categorical racial categories (which are not).  The children in the images below — Kian and Remee Hodgson — are fraternal twins born to two bi-racial parents:

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The story attempts to explain the biology:

Skin colour is believed to be determined by up to seven different genes working together. If a woman is of mixed race, her eggs will usually contain a mixture of genes coding for both black and white skin. Similarly, a man of mixed race will have a variety of different genes in his sperm. When these eggs and sperm come together, they will create a baby of mixed race.  But, very occasionally, the egg or sperm might contain genes coding for one skin colour. If both the egg and sperm contain all white genes, the baby will be white. And if both contain just the versions necessary for black skin, the baby will be black.

Fair enough.

But then the journalist makes a logical leap from biological determinants of skin color to racial categories. Referring now to genes for skin color as “black” and “white” genes, she writes: “Baby Kian must have inherited the black genes from both sides of the family, whilst Remee inherited the white ones.”  And, of course, while both children are, technically, mixed race*, the headline to the story, “Black and White Twins,” presents them as separate races.

We’re so committed to racial differences that the mother actually speaks about their similarities as if it is surprising that twins of different “races” could possibly have anything in common.  She says:

There are some similarities between them. They both love apples and grapes, and their favourite television programme is Teletubbies.”

This is also a nice example of a U.S.-specific racial logic. This might not have been a story in Brazil at all, where racial categories are determined more by color alone and less by who your parents are.  It is not uncommon there to have siblings of various racial designations.

The twins, by the way, are seven now.

* Of course, identifying them as mixed race also re-inscribes racial categories in that you must believe in two or more racial categories to believe that it is possible to mix them.

Originally posted in 2008.

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.

Posted last year, but I love it, so here it is again!

In this fun four minute history of Santa Claus, CGP Gray explains how the character evolved, the role of Coca Cola, his conquest of the globe (i.e., Santa’s cultural imperialism), and the ongoing debates about where, exactly, he lives.

Also from CGP Gray:

Via Blame It On The Voices.

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.

We all know — because we are being constantly reminded — that we are, collectively, getting fat.  Americans are at the forefront of the trend, but it is a transnational one. Apparently, it is also transspecies: pets, wild animals, and laboratory animals are also gaining weight.  Here’s some country-level data from the New York Times:

Screenshot_1In an excellent review of the existing literature, David Berreby at Aeon skewers the idea that a simple, victim-blaming “calories in, calories out” model can explain this extraordinary transnational, transspecies rise in overweight and obese individuals.  I won’t summarize his argument here, except to simply list the casual contenders for which there is good evidence:

  • Sleeplessness
  • Stress
  • Viruses
  • Bacteria
  • Industrial chemicals
  • Heavy metals
  • Electric lights
  • Air conditioning
  • Famine in previous generations

If you ever want to have an opinion on fat again, read Berreby now.

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.

Our favorite economist, Martin Hart-Landsberg, has written a detailed account of what is causing the rise of income inequality around the world.  Here I’d like to highlight just one of his really interesting observations.

While we usually think that rising income inequality is caused by the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, a more complex picture is emerging.  The graph below plots the hourly wages of the 90th percentile (Americans who make more than 89% of the population) relative to the wages of the 50th percentile (the purple line) and the wages of the 50th compared to the 10th percentile (the dotted blue line).

In English: it asks how quickly the richest people (90th) are pulling away from the average person (50th) and how quickly the average person is pulling away from the poorest (10th).  The answer?  Income inequality has been increasing since the 70s but, since the late ’80s, rich people have continued pulling ahead of the average American, but the average American has not been gaining on the poor.

Wage-ratios

Another indicator that the middle class is shrinking is changes in the share of jobs that are low-, middle-, or high-paid.  The next graph shows that, across a wide range of countries, high- and low-paying jobs are on the rise, but middle-paying jobs are on the decline.  So, middle income jobs are disappearing, but there are more of both high- and low-income jobs.

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Hart-Landsberg suggests that the reason for this shift in the economy involves the globalization of production.  For more, visit Reports from the Economic Front.

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.

In survey questions, the result you get might depend on the choices you offer.

An article at The Atlantic explains “Why Americans All Believe They’re Middle Class.”  But is that what we all believe?  The author, Anat Shenker-Osorio, started with from these figure from a September 2012 Pew report.
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Only 8-9% of Americans put themselves in the lower or upper class.  The other 91% say that they are “middle class,” some with a modifier (upper or lower), some without.  Shenker-Osorio continues:

Researching how people’s unconscious assumptions affect their perception of economic issues, I explored the linguistic dynamics behind the term “middle class,” especially in comparison to other economic groupings.

That would be fine, except that both she and Pew made one huge omission.  The Pew survey didn’t include “working class” as an option.  Out of sight, out of unconscious assumptions.

Language and Surveys

How big an omission is this?  Since 1972, the GSS has asked a similar question to tap “subjective social class” (i.e., what class people think they are regardless of their objective circumstances).  But the GSS includes “working” along with the upper, middle, and lower.

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Like the Pew survey, the GSS finds less than 10% putting themselves in the upper or lower class.  But for the past forty years, the remaining nine-tenths of the population have been evenly split between “working” and “middle.”

Shenker-Osorio’s linguistic analysis runs into other data conflicts.  It’s not always easy to know what Americans mean by upper, lower, or middle class because:

Americans are relatively skittish about mentioning class. Contrasting databases of text from U.S. and UK sources, we find that Brits use “upper class” and “lower class” more readily; we prefer “wealthy” and “poor.”

But another database, the books in Google nGrams, shows something much different.

Contrasting Data

I constructed a ratio of American to British for the terms “upper class” and “lower class.”  A ratio of more than 100% means that the term appeared more frequently in American books.

Ratio for “upper class”:

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Ratio for “lower class”:

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In general, since 1900, US and UK books used these terms at about the same frequency.  But from 1955-1965, the US heard a crescendo in class talk.  By 1965, US books mentioned the “lower class” four times as often as did UK books.  Since then class talk in the US declined as rapidly as it had increased. (For some reason, Shenker-Osorio was unaware of my earlier post on these matters.)

The real US-UK difference is in “working class,” a term that Shenker-Osorio ignores. Since 1935, it has appeared less frequently in US books.  For the last 30 years, British books have mentioned the working class twice as often.

Ratio for “working class”:

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It may be that the databases Shenker-Osorio used are better than nGrams, and it’s frustrating to find different sources of data pointing in different directions.  More important, we still don’t know what people mean when they say they are middle class.  Shenker-Osorio sees it as a category of exclusion.  The images we have of upper and lower are so extreme as to apply to almost nobody.

Not finding popular depictions of wealth and poverty similar to our own lived experiences, we determine we must be whatever’s left over.

True perhaps, but it tells only what people think middle class is not. I’m not familiar with the research on subjective social class, but it seems that we still don’t know what people think “middle class” actually is.  Nor do we know what they have in mind when they say they are working class.  I have my own hunches, but I will leave them for a later post.

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.