Tag Archives: social networks

The Iron Cage in Binary Code: How Facebook Shapes Your Life Chances

There was a great article in The Nation last week about social media and ad hoc credit scoring. Can Facebook assign you a score you don’t know about but that determines your life chances?

Traditional credit scores like your FICO or your Beacon score can determine your life chances. By life chances, we generally mean how much mobility you will have. Here, we mean a number created by third party companies often determines you can buy a house/car, how much house/car you can buy, how expensive buying a house/car will be for you. It can mean your parents not qualifying to co-sign a student loan for you to pay for college. These are modern iterations of life chances and credit scores are part of it.

It does not seem like Facebook is issuing a score, or a number, of your creditworthiness per se. Instead they are limiting which financial vehicles and services are offered to you in ads based on assessments of your creditworthiness.

One of the authors of The Nation piece (disclosure: a friend), Astra Taylor, points out how her Facebook ads changed when she started using Facebook to communicate with student protestors from for-profit colleges. I saw the same shift when I did a study of non-traditional students on Facebook.

You get ads like this one from DeVry:

2 (1)

Although, I suspect my ads were always a little different based on my peer and family relations. Those relations are majority black. In the U.S. context that means it is likely that my social network has a lower wealth and/or status position as read through the cumulative historical impact of race on things like where we work, what jobs we have, what schools we go to, etc. But even with that, after doing my study, I got every for-profit college and “fix your student loan debt” financing scheme ad known to man.

Whether or not I know these ads are scams is entirely up to my individual cultural capital. Basically, do I know better? And if I do know better, how do I come to know it?

I happen to know better because I have an advanced education, peers with advanced educations and I read broadly. All of those are also a function of wealth and status. I won’t draw out the causal diagram I’ve got brewing in my mind but basically it would say something like, “you need wealth and status to get advantageous services offered you on the social media that overlays our social world and you need proximity wealth and status to know when those services are advantageous or not”.

It is in interesting twist on how credit scoring shapes life chances. And it runs right through social media and how a “personalized” platform can never be democratizing when the platform operates in a society defined by inequalities.

I would think of three articles/papers in conversation if I were to teach this (hint, I probably will). Healy and Fourcade on how credit scoring in a financialized social system shapes life chances is a start:

providers have learned to tailor their products in specific ways in an effort to maximize rents, transforming the sources and forms of inequality in the process.

And then Astra Taylor and Jathan Sadowski’s piece in The Nation as a nice accessible complement to that scholarly article:

Making things even more muddled, the boundary between traditional credit scoring and marketing has blurred. The big credit bureaus have long had sidelines selling marketing lists, but now various companies, including credit bureaus, create and sell “consumer evaluation,” “buying power,” and “marketing” scores, which are ingeniously devised to evade the FCRA (a 2011 presentation by FICO and Equifax’s IXI Services was titled “Enhancing Your Marketing Effectiveness and Decisions With Non-Regulated Data”). The algorithms behind these scores are designed to predict spending and whether prospective customers will be moneymakers or money-losers. Proponents claim that the scores simply facilitate advertising, and that they’re not used to approve individuals for credit offers or any other action that would trigger the FCRA. This leaves those of us who are scored with no rights or recourse.

And then there was Quinn Norton this week on The Message talking about her experiences as one of those marketers Taylor and Sadowski allude to. Norton’s piece summarizes nicely how difficult it is to opt-out of being tracked, measured and sold for profit when we use the Internet:

I could build a dossier on you. You would have a unique identifier, linked to demographically interesting facts about you that I could pull up individually or en masse. Even when you changed your ID or your name, I would still have you, based on traces and behaviors that remained the same — the same computer, the same face, the same writing style, something would give it away and I could relink you. Anonymous data is shockingly easy to de-anonymize. I would still be building a map of you. Correlating with other databases, credit card information (which has been on sale for decades, by the way), public records, voter information, a thousand little databases you never knew you were in, I could create a picture of your life so complete I would know you better than your family does, or perhaps even than you know yourself.

It is the iron cage in binary code. Not only is our social life rationalized in ways even Weber could not have imagined but it is also coded into systems in ways difficult to resist, legislate or exert political power.

Gaye Tuchman and I talk about this full rationalization in a recent paper on rationalized higher education. At our level of analysis, we can see how measurement regimes not only work at the individual level but reshape entire institutions. Of recent changes to higher education (most notably Wisconsin removing tenure from state statute causing alarm about the role of faculty in public higher education) we argue that:

In short, the for-profit college’s organizational innovation lies not in its growth but in its fully rationalized educational structure, the likes of which being touted in some form as efficiency solutions to traditional colleges who have only adopted these rationalized processes piecemeal.

And just like that we were back to the for-profit colleges that prompted Taylor and Sadowski’s article in The Nation.

Efficiencies. Ads. Credit scores. Life chances. States. Institutions. People. Inequality.

And that is how I read. All of these pieces are woven together and its a kind of (sad) fun when we can see how. Contemporary inequalities run through rationalized systems that are being perfected on social media (because its how we social), given form through institutions, and made invisible in the little bites of data we use for critical minutiae that the Internet has made it difficult to do without.

Tressie McMillan Cottom is an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University.  Her doctoral research is a comparative study of the expansion of for-profit colleges.  You can follow her on twitter and at her blog, where this post originally appeared.

#InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism

2An article in The Onion mocks voluntourism, joking that a 6-day visit to a rural African village can “completely change a woman’s facebook profile picture.”  The article quotes “22-year old Angela Fisher” who says:

I don’t think my profile photo will ever be the same, not after the experience of taking such incredible pictures with my arms around those small African children’s shoulders.

It goes on to say that Fisher “has been encouraging every one of her friends to visit Africa, promising that it would change their Facebook profile photos as well.”

I was once Angela Fisher. But I’m not any more.

***

I have participated in not one but three separate, and increasingly disillusioning, international health brigades, short-term visits to developing countries that involve bringing health care to struggling populations.

Such trips – critically called voluntourism — are a booming business, even though they do very little advertising and charge people thousands of dollars to participate.

How do they attract so many paying volunteers?

Photography is a big part of the answer.  Voluntourism organizations don’t have to advertise, because they can crowdsource.  Photography – particularly the habit of taking and posting selfies with local children – is a central component of the voluntourism experience. Hashtags like #InstagrammingAfrica are popular with students on international health brigades, as are #medicalbrigades, #globalhealth, and of course the nostalgic-for-the-good-days hashtag #takemeback.

It was the photographs posted by other students that inspired me to go on my first overseas medical mission. When classmates uploaded the experience of themselves wearing scrubs beside adorable children in developing countries, I believed I was missing out on a pivotal pre-med experience. I took over 200 photos on my first international volunteer mission. I modeled those I had seen on Facebook and even premeditated photo opportunities to acquire the “perfect” image that would receive the most “likes.”

Over time, I felt increasingly uncomfortable with the ethics of those photographs, and ultimately left my camera at home. Now, as an insider, I see three common types of photographs voluntourists share through social media: The Suffering Other, The Self-Directed Samaritan, and The Overseas Selfie.

The Suffering Other

In a photograph taken by a fellow voluntourist in Ghana (not shown), a child stands isolated with her bare feet digging in the dirt. Her hands pull up her shirt to expose an umbilical hernia, distended belly, and a pair of too-big underwear. Her face is uncertain and her scalp shows evidence of dermatological pathology or a nutritional deficiency—maybe both. Behind her, only weeds grow.

Anthropologists Arthur and Joan Kleinman note that images of distant, suffering women and children suggest there are communities incapable of or uninterested in caring for its own people. These photographs justify colonialist, paternalistic attitudes and policies, suggesting that the individual in the photograph…

…must be protected, as well as represented, by others. The image of the subaltern conjures up an almost neocolonial ideology of failure, inadequacy, passivity, fatalism, and inevitability. Something must be done, and it must be done soon, but from outside the local setting. The authorization of action through an appeal for foreign aid, even foreign intervention, begins with an evocation of indigenous absence, an erasure of local voices and acts.

The Self-directed Samaritan

Here we have a smiling young white girl with a French braid, medical scrubs, and a well-intentioned smile. This young lady is the centerpiece of the photo; she is its protagonist. Her scrubs suggest that she is doing important work among those who are so poor, so vulnerable, and so Other.

1 (2) - Copy

The girl is me. And the photograph was taken on my first trip to Ghana during a 10 day medical brigade. I’m beaming in the photograph, half towering and half hovering over these children. I do not know their names, they do not know my name, but I directed a friend to capture this moment with my own camera. Why?

This photograph is less about doing actual work and more about retrospectively appearing to have had a positive impact overseas. Photographs like these represent the overseas experience in accordance with what writer Teju Cole calls the “White Savior Industrial Complex.”

Moreover, in directing, capturing, and performing in photos such as these, voluntourists prevent themselves from actually engaging with the others in the photo. In On Photography, Susan Sontag reminds us:

Photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing – which means that…it is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.

On these trips, we hide behind the lens, consuming the world around us with our powerful gazes and the clicking of camera shutters. When I directed this photo opportunity and starred in it, I used my privilege to capture a photograph that made me feel as though I was engaging with the community. Only now do I realize that what I was actually doing was making myself the hero/star in a story about “suffering Africa.”

The Overseas Selfie


[Photo removed in response to a request from Global Brigades.]

In his New York Times Op-Ed, that modern champion of the selfie James Franco wrote:

Selfies are avatars: Mini-Me’s that we send out to give others a sense of who we are … In our age of social networking, the selfie is the new way to look someone right in the eye and say, “Hello, this is me.”

Although related to the Self-Directed Samaritan shot, there’s something extra-insidious about this type of super-close range photo. “Hello, this is me” takes on new meaning – there is only one subject in this photo, the white subject. Capturing this image and posting it on the internet is to understand the Other not as a separate person who exists in the context of their own family or community but rather, as a prop, an extra, someone only intelligible in relation to the Western volunteer.

***

Voluntourism is ultimately about the fulfillment of the volunteers themselves, not necessarily what they bring to the communities they visit. In fact, medical volunteerism often breaks down existing local health systems. In Ghana, I realized that that local people weren’t purchasing health insurance, since they knew there would be free foreign health care and medications available every few months. This left them vulnerable in the intervening times, not to mention when the organization would leave the community.

In the end, the Africa we voluntourists photograph isn’t a real place at all. It is an imaginary geography whose landscapes are forged by colonialism, as well as a good deal of narcissism. I hope my fellow students think critically about what they are doing and why before they sign up for a short-term global volunteer experience. And if they do go, it is my hope that they might think with some degree of narrative humility about how to de-center themselves from the Western savior narrative. Most importantly, I hope they leave their iphones at home.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard and at Mondiaal Nieuws in Dutch.

Lauren Kascak is a graduate of the Masters Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University, where Sayantani DasGupta is a faculty member.  DasGupta is the editor of Stories of Illness and Healing and the author of The Demon Slayers and Other Stories and Her Own Medicine.

Why Don’t More Women Commit Fraud?

Women in the U.S. have made some monumental gains at work.  We’re now at least half the labor force and more women today are middle- and upper- managers in corporate America.  Even so, I wasn’t surprised to discover that women have not (yet) made similar inroads into high-level corporate crime.

Rather, it’s “business as usual” when it comes to who is responsible for orchestrating and carrying out major corporate frauds.

For the American Sociological Review, Darrell Steffensmeier, Michael Roche, and I studied accounting malpractices like security fraud, insider trading, and Ponzi schemes in America’s public companies to find out just how involved women were in these conspiracies.  The Corporate Fraud Task Force indicted 436 individuals involved in 83 such schemes during July 2002 to 2009.  We read and recorded information from indictments and other documents or reports that described who was involved and what they did.

I expected the share of women in corporate fraud to be low – definitely less than the near-half that are women among (low-profit) embezzlers arrested each year– like your bank teller or local non-profit treasurer.   However, I was surprised that women corporate fraudsters were about as rare as female killers or robbers – less than 10% of those sorts of offenders.  Of the 400+ indicted for corporate fraud, only 37 were women.

Most of these frauds were complex enough to require co-conspiracy over several years and a criminal division of labor.  Often, women weren’t included at all in these groups.  When they were, they were nearly always in the minority, often alone, and most typically played rather small roles.

The Enron conspiracy, for example, led to over 30 indictments; three were women and each played a minor role. The five women indicted among 19 in the HealthSouth fraud were in accounting-related positions and instructed by senior personnel to falsify financial books and create fictitious records.  Martha Stewart, rather than criminal mastermind of an insider trading conspiracy, committed “one of the most ill-fated white-collar crimes ever” in which she saved just $46,000 after receiving a stock-tip second-hand from her broker.

Women were almost never the ringleader or even a major player in the fraud.  Only one woman CEO led a fraud – the smallest fraud we studied – and two women with their husbands.  One reason surely must be that women are not as often in positions to lead these schemes.  However, even when we compared women and men in similar corporate positions, women were less likely to play leadership roles in the fraud.  Is there a “glass ceiling” in the white-collar crime world?

What most surprised me, however, was how little the women benefited from their illicit involvement.  The wage gap in illicit corporate enterprise may be larger than in the legitimate job market.  Over half the women did not financially gain at all whereas half the men pocketed half a million dollars or more.  The difference in illicit-gains persisted even if we compared women to their co-conspirators.  Males profited much more. Women identified “gains” such as keeping one’s job.

2

Even when women are in the positions to orchestrate these frauds, it’s likely that the men who initiate these conspiracies prefer to bypass women, involving them in minor roles when need dictates or when trust develops through a close personal relationship.  And women hardly initiated any schemes.  Women business leaders tend to be more risk-averse and apt to stress social responsibility and equity, perhaps making corporate fraud unlikely.

So, would having more female leaders reduce corporate crime?  We don’t know, but we think it’s likely.  Women executives tend to make more ethical decisions, avoid excessive risk-taking, and create corporate cultures unsupportive of illegal business practices.  Time will tell if, on the other hand, women moving up the corporate ladder increasingly adopt a wheeler-dealer, “dominance at all costs” corporate ethic.

Some may be a little disappointed that women either cannot yet or do not exercise their power over others to illegally advance their business (and personal) interests as men have been doing for generations.  There are moments when I catch myself “rooting” for a more successful pink-collar offender – and examples exist.  However, when I consider the destruction and havoc wrought on the U.S. economy and so many peoples’ lives by these financial crimes, I am reminded that this is not the way in which I hope women wield power when business leadership roles are more equally shared.

This posts originally appeared at the Gender & Society blog.

Jennifer Schwartz, PhD, is an associate professor of sociology at Washington State University.  Her research focuses on the gender and race demographics of criminal offenders, violence, and substance abuse.

The Average White American’s Social Network is 1% Black

American divisions over the state of our country’s race relations were brought to the forefront in the aftermath of Mike Brown’s shooting by a Ferguson, MO police officer named Darren Wilson. Black Americans are more than twice as likely as whites or Hispanics to say that the killing was part of a broader pattern (source).  And blacks are twice as likely as whites to say that race played an important role in Wilson’s decision to shoot (source).

At The Atlantic, Robert Jones argues that these disparate opinions may be caused, in part, by the different life experiences of the typical white and black American. He shows data, from the American Values Survey, indicating that black people are much more likely than whites to report living in communities rife with problems, from a lack of jobs and inadequate school funding to crime and racial tension.

In the meantime, whites may be genuinely naive about what it’s like to be black in America because many of them don’t know any black people.  According to the survey, the average white American’s social network is only 1% black.  Three-quarters of white Americans haven’t had a meaningful conversation with a single non-white person in the last six months.

2

In contrast, the social network of the average black American is 65% black and, among Hispanic Americans, 46% Hispanic.

The average white person’s failure to engage meaningfully with people of color isn’t solely a matter of personal choice, though that is certainly part of it.  Nor is it simply a function of the country being majority white, non-Hispanic (but not for long).  White insularity is caused, too, by occupational and residential segregation which, in turn, is the result of both individual choices and institutionalized mechanisms that keep black people in poverty and prison.

If we want the people of America to embrace justice, we must make our institutions just.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

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.

Newsflash: Facebook has Always Manipulated Your Emotions

Emotional Contagion is the idea that emotions spread throughout networks. If you are around happy people, you are more likely to be happy. If you are around gloomy people, you are likely to be glum.

The data scientists at Facebook set out to learn if text-based, nonverbal/non-face-to-face interactions had similar effects.  They asked: Do emotions remain contagious within digitally mediated settings? They worked to answer this question experimentally by manipulating the emotional tenor of users’ News Feeds, and recording the results.

Public reaction was such that many expressed dismay that Facebook would 1) collect their data without asking and 2) manipulate their emotions.

I’m going to leave aside the ethics of Facebook’s data collection. It hits on an important but blurry issue of informed consent in light of Terms of Use agreements, and deserves a post all its own. Instead, I focus on the emotional manipulation, arguing that Facebook was already manipulating your emotions, and likely in ways far more effectual than algorithmically altering the emotional tenor of your News Feed.

First, here is an excerpt from their findings:

In an experiment with people who use Facebook, we test whether emotional contagion occurs outside of in-person interaction between individuals by reducing the amount of emotional content in the News Feed. When positive expressions were reduced, people produced fewer positive posts and more negative posts; when negative expressions were reduced, the opposite pattern occurred.

In brief, Facebook made either negative or positive emotions more prevalent in users’ News Feeds, and measured how this affected users’ emotionally expressive behaviors, as indicated by users’ own posts. In line with Emotional Contagion Theory, and in contrast to “technology disconnects us and makes us sad through comparison” hypotheses, they found that indeed, those exposed to happier content expressed higher rates of positive emotion, while those exposed to sadder content expressed higher rates of negative emotion.

Looking at the data, there are three points of particular interest:

  • When positive posts were reduced in the News Feed, people used .01% fewer positive words in their own posts, while increasing the number of negative words they used by .04%.
  • When negative posts were reduced in the News Feed, people used .07% fewer negative words in their own posts, while increasing the number of positive words by.06%.
  •  Prior to manipulation, 22.4% of posts contained negative words, as compared to 46.8% which contained positive words.

1 (1)

Let’s first look at points 1 and 2 — the effects of positive and negative content in users’ News Feeds. These effects, though significant and in the predicted direction, are really really tiny. None of the effects even approach 1%. In fact, the effects are all below .1%. That’s so little! The authors acknowledge the small effects, but defend them by translating these effects into raw numbers, reflecting “hundreds of thousands” of emotion-laden status updates per day. They don’t, however, acknowledge how their (and I quote) “massive” sample size of 689,003 increases the likelihood of finding significant results.

So what’s up with the tiny effects?

The answer, I argue, is that the structural affordances of Facebook are such users are far more likely to post positive content anyway. For instance, there is no dislike button, and emoticons are the primary means of visually expressing emotion. Concretely, when someone posts something sad, there is no canned way to respond, nor an adequate visual representation. Nobody wants to “Like” the death of someone’s grandmother, and a Frownie-Face emoticon seems decidedly out of place.

The emotional tenor of your News Feed is small potatoes compared to the effects of structural affordances. The affordances of Facebook buffer against variations in content. This is clear in point 3 above, in which positive posts far outnumbered negative posts, prior to any manipulation. The very small effects of experimental manipulations indicates that  the overall emotional makeup of posts changed little after the study, even when positive content was artificially decreased.

So Facebook was already manipulating your emotions — our emotions — and our logical lines of action. We come to know ourselves by seeing what we do, and the selves we perform through social media become important mirrors with which we glean personal reflections. The affordances of Facebook therefore affect not just emotive expressions, but reflect back to users that they are the kind of people who express positive emotions.

Positive psychologists would say this is good; it’s a way in which Facebook helps its users achieve personal happiness. Critical theorists would disagree, arguing that Facebook’s emotional guidance is a capitalist tool which stifles rightful anger, indignation, and mobilization towards social justice. In any case, Facebook is not, nor ever was, emotionally neutral.

Jenny Davis is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at James Madison University and a weekly contributor to Cyborgology, where this post originally appeared. You can follow her on Twitter.

Social Networking and the National Movement to “Know Your IX”

I absolutely love this photograph of a collage on the wall of an activist in the rather new national movement to hold colleges and universities accountable for sexual assault.  Referencing Title IX and the “bigger picture,” it documents cross-college efforts to use the amendment to ensure that sex crimes on campuses don’t interfere with women’s rights to equal access to education.

1

What is exciting is that this is a national movement. The many college names pinned to the board are just some of the schools that have filed, are filing, or will file Title IX complaints with the Office for Civil Rights. “Oxy” is my school.

I’ve been somewhat involved with Oxy’s role in this movement — the credit goes to Drs. Caroline Heldman and Danielle Dirks and the dozens of survivors who, as part of the coalition, have publicly and confidentially shared their stories — but I’ve had the pleasure of talking to journalists about our case.  Regarding the national movement, they often ask me “Why now?”

Why Now?

This is a tough question to answer and, first and foremost, credit goes to the extraordinary people at the center of this fight, such as Annie Clark, Andrea Pino, Dana Bolger, and Alexandra Brodsky at Know Your IX.  As Margaret Mead famously said:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Screenshot_2

Importantly, though, the efforts of this small group have been greatly enhanced by the internet and, specifically, social networking sites.  Students (and sometimes faculty, staff, and administrators) are no longer confronting these issues alone.  They are reaching out across campuses and talking with each other; they are teaching each other how to file federal complaints; they are building and sharing templates; they are sharing stories of institutional foot dragging and spin and developing effective resistance and protest strategies.

For example, Annie Clark, who filed federal complaints against the University of North Carolina, helped Profs. Dirks and Heldman at Occidental College file their complaints: “Over the past few months,” she writes:

I have spent countless hours with them on Skype and the phone in order to share information and help the[m] write their complaints. Yet, six months ago, I had never even heard of Occidental College — and many of the 37 women there who filed had not yet heard about Title IX protection against gender discrimination beyond athletics.

These coalitions are creating both activist networks and fast friends. This is a picture of students at Swarthmore (Swat) showing their love for students at Occidental (Oxy). Both campuses filed Title IX complaints on the same day:

1

As Prof. Dirks explains, this collaboration is a big deal:

[L]earning the stories of other survivors who are actively pushing their colleges and universities to create safe and equitable learning environments has opened the floodgates of what students now feel empowered to do.

This is all possible, of course, because the internet is still at least a somewhat democratized technology. You and I are equals on the internet, at least in principle.  So we all have the opportunity to produce content.  In contrast, other forms of media — TV, radio, movies, magazines, books — typically offer us only the opportunity to consume.

The activists in this movement have a platform and a megaphone, then, metaphorically speaking.  The technology — and our regulation of it in ways that preserve its democratic nature — is helping enable this movement.  Just as the TV made a huge difference in shifting popular opinion about the Civil Rights Movement.  Accordingly, we need to remember this when corporations fight to own and control the internet and its distribution.  For reasons like this one, we should be fighting back with the goal of making the internet a public utility.  Democracy depends on it.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

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.

Social Class and the College Choices of High School Valedictorians

Cross-posted at The Huffington Post and Pacific Standard.

Sociologist Alexandria Walton Radford has some new research that is rather disheartening.  Radford was interested in the college choices of ambitious and high-performing high school students from different class backgrounds.  Using a data set with about 900 high school valedictorians, she asked whether students applied to highly selective colleges, if they got in, and whether they matriculated.

She found a stark class difference on all these variables, especially between high socioeconomic status (SES) students and everyone else.  Over three-quarters of high SES valedictorians (79%) applied to at least one highly selective college.  In contrast, only 59% of middle SES and 50% of low SES valedictorians did the same.  Admission and matriculation rates followed suit.

2

Interviews with a smaller group of these valedictorians shed light on why we see such dramatic differences in the application choices of low, middle, and high SES students.  Radford explains that most students applied to schools with which they were already familiar. High SES students were much more likely to know people who had attended highly selective colleges, so they were more comfortable applying.  They also felt more confident that they’d be successful at such an institution; less affluent students were more intimidated by these schools.

Radford concludes by arguing that it’s a mistake to leave decisions about whether and how to apply for college admission to families.  Doing so, she writes, “allows the advantages (and disadvantages) of one generation to be passed on to the next generation.”  School-based college guidance would go some way towards evening out the differences and making higher education admissions more meritocratic.

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.

Family Members in Need: Why Some Middle Class Blacks Can’t Get Ahead

Cross-posted at Policy Mic and The Huffington Post.

The gap between the household wealth of Black and White families is massive.  Today the median wealth held by White households is 20 times that of Black households.  There are lots of reasons for this difference and a new study offers great data on one of them: the need to assist poor relatives.

Kevin Hartnett, at Braniac, writes:

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.

Sociology graduate student Rourke O’Brien used data on spending and other financial patterns among Americans to test whether this is a significant source of the wealth gap (link).  He found that, at all but the most low income level, Black households are more likely than White households to give money to struggling relatives.  And the wealthier the Black household, the more likely they were to help others.

The graph below illustrates this.  The vertical axis represents the proportion of households offering assistance and the horizontal axis represents increasing income levels (in thousands of dollars).

blackwhitewealth

The lesson is simple, but all too often unnoticed.  Due to hundreds of years of enslavement and discrimination, African Americans are more likely to be poor than Whites. If you grow up poor then most of the people in your family are poor.  Accordingly, even if you “make it out” and arrive in the middle class (income-wise), you will likely be less financially secure than a person that earns the same income but came from a middle class family.  That person can put all of their extra money towards buying a home (and earning equity), retirement, additional degrees, starting a business, and sending their kids to college.

But the poor person who earns a middle-class income might use a significant portion of their income keeping their parents’ heat on, helping their little brother go to college, or buying back-to-school clothes for their nieces and nephews.  This makes it much harder for poor and working class people who become middle class to stay that way.  And the cycle continues.

Via Citings and Sightings.

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.