How To Increase Voter Turnout in Communities Where People Have Not Usually Participated in Elections

Mobilizing Inclusion Cover

Voter turnout among members of different groups of Americans varies widely, with Latinos and Asians generally lagging behind other groups. Blacks usually fall in between, with turnout usually ahead of other minorities but behind whites—although black participation surged in 2008 and 2012 in response to the historic candidacy of Barack Obama. Additional segments of the American public also vote less than they might, including lower-income citizens and youth.

Low levels of voting matter, because election results are supposed to reflect the preferences of all Americans. In addition, recent trends indicate that Latinos, if they vote at their full potential, have considerable capacity to influence election outcomes, increasingly at the national as well as state and local level. Getting out the Latino vote was a crucial part of the Obama 2012 reelection strategy, and activists striving to boost Democratic Party prospects in Texas are spending tens of millions of dollars registering eligible Latinos. Understanding how to motivate voting by Latinos and other under-engaged citizens is thus of concern to candidates and parties as well as scholars.

How Can Reluctant Voters Be Mobilized?

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To Understand Elective Officeholding by Minorities, Look at Who Runs for Election, Not Just Who Wins

In 2011, @kissmei'mpolish created a graphic to compare the overall US demographics (in the outer arc) with the demographics of the House (middle ring) and Senate (inner ring). Click to see more on Graphic Sociology.

In some ways, the United States has made great progress toward including men and women from minority backgrounds in elective offices. A black president sits in the White House; the 113th Congress includes two Asian American and two Latino Senators along with 44 black and 30 Latino members of the House. More than one thousand minorities sit in state legislatures, 13 percent of the total; and the ranks of black and Latino mayors have also swelled. Yet despite this progress, gains for minorities in U.S. elective offices have failed to keep up with the presence of racial and ethnic minorities in the national population—and the shortfall is growing.

What explains this gap in representation? Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, social scientists have investigated minority underrepresentation from a demand perspective—that is, they have asked how the attitudes and behaviors of voters influence the chances of minority candidates to win elections and take office. However, minorities cannot win elections if they do not run, so my research also focuses on the prior, critical issue of the supply of minority candidates. To what degree is representational imbalance due to too few minority contenders? (more…)

Why Jobless Americans Experience Deep and Prolonged Distress

Photo by David Shankbone via Flickr

Many American workers have not yet regained their footing in the aftermath of the Great Recession, yet unemployment insurance has become politically controversial even though jobs are still scarce. Critics claim that America’s unemployment insurance program “subsidizes leisure” by “paying people not to work.” Some critics have lampooned extended unemployment benefits for supposedly turning “our social safety net into a hammock.” Congressional Republicans deferred to such criticisms in January, 2014, when they blocked the sort of renewal of long-term unemployment aid that has been traditional after previous severe economic downturns. As a result, roughly one million of the long-term unemployed saw their benefits abruptly cut off.

How much truth is there in these criticisms of unemployment benefits? By easing the financial harm of job loss, does unemployment insurance actually undermine people’s desire to find work? Does it make work less attractive or encourage the jobless to enjoy their added “leisure” time?

To address these questions, I used data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics to track thousands of people over time as many experience events that change their life circumstances—not just job loss, but other disruptions such as changes in income, giving up their house, suffering a debilitating illness or injury, having a child, and watching children leave the family nest. What comes through loud and clear in my study is that job loss is a severely disruptive occurrence that proves psychologically devastating to many people who experience it. The effects can also persist long after formerly unemployed people find new jobs. (more…)

Why Taming Corporation Promotion of Dangerous Consumer Products Is Vital to improving Public Health

Image from Robert VerBruggen via Flickr Creative Commons

Chronic diseases and injuries are the leading causes of premature death and preventable illnesses in the United States and around the world. Injuries cause many unnecessary deaths among young adults and children. Traffic crashes hurt 50 million worldwide each year, and firearms and alcohol are also leading threats. Meanwhile, half of all Americans suffer from chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer that account for seven out of every ten deaths and eat up three-quarters of health care dollars. By 2030, chronic diseases will cause more than three quarters of deaths worldwide, costing some $47 trillion over the next two decades.

Conventional wisdom attributes the growth of injuries and chronic illnesses to seemingly inevitable causes such as population aging and changing lifestyles. Such forces are at work, of course, but it is the task of public health scientists like me to probe more deeply.

A closer look reveals that many unnecessary injuries and chronic health problems are spurred by what might be dubbed the “corporate consumption complex” – a network of consumer products companies, financial institutions, trade associations, and public relations firms that deliberately urges people to buy unhealthy foods and unsafe products. In 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower warned that the military industrial complex posed a danger to our democracy and well-being. Today, the consumption complex constitutes a similarly grave threat. (more…)

How Discrimination Hurts Health and Personal Wellbeing

Image from Jessica via Flickr Creative Commons

Since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the United States has used the force of nationwide law to prohibit discriminatory treatment in the job and housing markets, in government and educational institutions, and at stores and facilities serving the general public. Many legally proscribed forms of exclusion and ill treatment are directed against people because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, age, and disability status. To this day, efforts continue to extend protections to additional groups, including gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.

Core American values of fairness and equality inspire nondiscrimination measures, but there is also an important health rationale. Research has repeatedly confirmed what common sense suggests: when people are subjected to discriminatory acts ranging from subtle putdowns to outright harassment or exclusion from opportunities, their personal wellbeing suffers. Discrimination contributes to health inequalities – and fighting bias can reduce them.

The Harmful Effects of Discrimination

Discrimination typically refers to unfair treatment of people on the basis of social identities defined by race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or religion. Many Americans report facing discrimination that constrains their livelihood – for example, when they are unfairly fired or denied a job or promotion, when they are denied a bank loan or medical treatment, or when they are discouraged by a teacher from pursing further education. Banned by law, such blatant forms of discrimination also affect victims’ health by depriving them of jobs, medical treatments, and other benefits and opportunities that keep them out of poverty and open doors of opportunity. (more…)

Race and Penalties at the Frontlines of Welfare Reform

Photo by Justin Garner via Flickr.com CC

In 1996, the United States fundamentally changed the rules of welfare for the very poor. Instead of giving cash benefits to poor mothers, the new Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program emphasized moving recipients quickly into the paid labor force, no matter how low the wages. The federal government gives states funds to support public assistance, but in return for temporary assistance and very limited services, clients must prove they are completing work activities and looking for employment. The new approach assumes that poor people mismanage their lives and need to develop greater self-discipline to become self-sufficient. Front-line administrators set clear behavioral expectations, monitor compliance, and use incentives to encourage compliance. When rules and incentives do not work, case-workers must apply penalties – up to and including the termination of aid altogether.

Today as in the past a high proportion of welfare clients come from racial minorities. In the tough new U.S. system, how do front-line welfare administrators decide which clients should be sanctioned for misbehavior? My colleagues and I have done research to nail down the answers. (more…)

How “Gentrification” in American Cities Maintains Racial Inequality and Segregation

Photo by Andre Van Vegten via Flickr Creative Commons

After decades of population declines, cities are adding population more rapidly than suburbs for the first time in nearly a century, as trendy middle-class neighborhoods continue to grow in number and size across areas that more affluent Americans once considered places to avoid. Yet research tells us that American cities continue to exhibit high levels of neighborhood inequality and poverty, especially for racial minorities. My research seeks to understand these two seemingly contradictory trends by examining how gentrification unfolds over time. Do neighborhoods gentrify at the same pace or to the same degree? Does gentrification spread evenly into its adjacent disinvested neighborhoods? If not, what factors influence these differences – leaving some urban areas mired in extreme poverty?

My research with sociologist and SSN Scholar Robert Sampson examined these issues in a study of Chicago neighborhoods. We define gentrification as the reinvestment and renewal of previously debilitated urban neighborhoods that occurs as middle- and upper-middle-class residents move in. To measure neighborhood change, we went beyond traditional sources of Census data to use information on the location of institutions and urban amenities, police data, community surveys, and – most innovative of all – visual information from Google Street View. The visible streetscape of neighborhoods provides direct indicators of change, such as new construction, rehabilitation, and beautification efforts. By assessing the presence of our various indicators of gentrification for nearly 2,000 blocks, we were able to measure degrees of gentrification for neighborhoods of varying racial composition. Additional research I have done also probes the impact of immigration. (more…)

Crime and Turning Points across the Life Course

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Are children and adolescents who break the law fated to become lifelong offenders? To answer this important question, we started in the 1980s to track the lives of 1000 disadvantaged males born in Boston during the Great Depression era. We were able to build on data collected during offenders’ boyhoods for a classic mid-twentieth-century study, Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency, conducted by Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck at Harvard Law School. We used early waves of data from this study, and then tracked down males included in it to collect further information on their histories of criminal offending through old age. Over the last 25 years, we have used this rich, long-term trove of information for two books and dozens of journal articles and chapters. This brief summarizes our core ideas and major findings.

The Importance of Tracking and Explaining Lives

The idea that adult criminality is the inexorable result of childhood traits and troubles is a dominant theme in the science of criminology and media coverage of crime. Connections between childhood and adult behavior certainly do exist, but our research has been premised on the realization that findings about crime can be distorted when scholars start with adult offenders and then ask about their childhoods. In this retrospective approach, adult criminals regularly turn out to have been troubled children with early histories of delinquency. It is easy to jump to the simple, seductive conclusion that “bad boys grow up to become bad men.”

But if we start with children and follow lives forward for many years, we find considerable heterogeneity in adult outcomes. For example, although it is easy to presume that most antisocial children will become involved in delinquency as adolescents and then graduate to adult offending, in fact most antisocial children cease offending by adulthood. Although long-term research is challenging to carry out, only what scholars call “longitudinal prospective data”—that is, information repeatedly collected as particular children become adolescents and then younger and older adults—can allow researchers to shed full light on complex causal processes playing out over many years in people’s lives. Yet even repeatedly collected data are not sufficient. Also needed is a life-course theory of crime to make sense of the underlying patterns. (more…)

How Gender Inequality Persists In the Modern World

Stereotypes come to affect real outcomes. Image by Scott Chene via Flickr.

In the United States as in many other societies, gender relationships are changing and inequalities between men and women are questioned in virtually every sphere – at work, in the home, and in public affairs. Yet the cold, hard facts show that gender gaps and inequalities persist, even in the face of startling social and economic transformations and concerted movements to challenge women’s subordination.

How can this be? Especially in advanced industrial nations, why are gender inequalities proving so difficult to surpass? My research shows that the answers lie, above all, in how people think about gender as they relate to one another. Day by day people use gender as taken-for-granted common sense to manage their relationships with others. Interpersonal negotiations are constantly influenced by gender stereotypes – and that, in turn, causes older ways of thinking about men and women and their relationships to be carried into all spheres of life and even into very new kinds of tasks and social settings. (more…)

How Fathers’ Imprisonment Undercuts Children’s Readiness for School—Especially Hurting Black Boys

Over the past four decades, the United States has sent astonishingly high numbers of its citizens to prison—especially poor minority men. The price has been paid not just by the imprisoned men themselves, but also by their communities and families, including very young children.

On any given day, approximately 2.7 million children are estimated to have a parent in prison or jail. When we also take into account children who have fathers previously in jail or prison, it turns out that nearly one of every ten U.S. residents under 18 has been affected by parental imprisonment. Researchers like me are just beginning to look into the impact of fathers’ imprisonment on children’s preparation to learn when they start attending school. For all American children, doing well at school is crucial. Early gaps lead to growing inequalities in U.S. society as a whole.

About 1 in 10 American kids has a father who is in or has been in prison. How will it affect their life chances?

About 1 in 10 American kids has a father who is in or has been in prison. How will it affect their life chances? Photo via Flickr CC (click for original).

Why School Readiness Matters

“School readiness” is an idea developed by scholars to indicate how well prepared pre-school children are to learn in formal classrooms. It refers both to cognitive skills—such as understanding words and numbers and the ability to solve problems—and to such behavioral skills as the ability to pay attention, follow directions, and control emotions like anger or frustration. (more…)