great expectations

A few years ago, I was a teaching assistant for an introduction to sociology course that structured every reading and lecture around exploring the idea that social class determines life chances. Reading the TSP special article Environmental Inequalities, by Hollie Nyseth Brehm and David Pellow, reminded me of what a powerful and simple framework that is to introduce new students to the discipline of sociology or discussions about social inequality in general.

In the article, Nyseth Brehm and Pellow tackle the issue of environmental injustice by looking at how low income people, immigrants, people of color, and indigenous communities are much more likely to live near a major environmental hazard. Dismissing the idea that this is an “environmental” problem, they explain that it is instead rooted in broader economic, political, and social inequalities that are imbedded in our social discourses, structures, and institutions. The people who live near these hazardous areas face profound risks: for example, pollution from two coal-fired power plants in Chicago is thought to be responsible for 42 premature deaths, 66 heart attacks, and 720 asthma attacks each year. Many more environmental hazards like this exist across the country and world.

This article would be a terrific way to introduce students to discussions on inequality, environmental policy, or climate change. But it would also be effective as part of a class that seeks to expand students’ understanding of the relationship between social class and “life chances”—or the odds that an individual will obtain the resources and opportunities necessary for a long and successful life.

There is tremendous evidence that the life chances of the poor in the US suffer in comparison to the wealthier strata of society. Wealthier individuals have increased educational opportunities, income earning potential, and employment prospects—all elements of living a successful life. But the evidence also suggests something more alarming: a host of studies have posited a relationship between class and mortality directly. Put simply, poor people in the US have lower life expectancies than their wealthier compatriots. There are a variety of mechanisms though which this inequality comes about: for instance, poor people may have less access to quality medical care and nutrition, in addition to a higher risk of occupational hazards (e.g. black lung or injuries from heavy machinery). Furthermore, as the article discusses, the poor disproportionately live in close proximity to environmental hazards that threaten their health.  Below are a few examples that you could draw upon to make these points in class.

Class and Life Chances in Disasters

The Titanic is the classic extreme example of the relationship between social inequality and mortality, and it could be used in a class setting to begin to illustrate how gender, race, and aspects of social class impact our lives. It is well known that a passenger’s chance of surviving the Titanic disaster was directly tied to gender and class. Because the ship was divided into 1st, 2nd, and 3rd class cabins, class stratification was exceptionally clear. 62 percent of 1st class passengers survived (97 percent of women and 32 percent of men), versus 43 percent of  2nd class passengers (86 percent of women and 8 percent of men) and 25 percent of 3rd class passengers (49 percent of women and 13 percent of men).  These percentages exclude children, and the source is found here.

Expanding this discussion to Hurricane Katrina and other more recent disasters would further the discussion, guided by the following questions:

  • Assess the statement: Nothing exposes social inequality like disasters. Do you agree? If so, why might this be the case? If not, why not? Can you think of examples of other natural disasters where this statement was accurate?
  • On the Titanic, what were some of the mechanisms that explain the relationship between ship class and mortality? (E.g. proximity of cabins to lifeboats, rumors of physical restraint of 3rd class passengers, social attitudes towards women and children, etc.)
  • During Hurricane Katrina, what mechanisms help explain the relationship between social class and chance of survival? (E.g. construction of houses, access to transportation, etc.)

There are untold other topics in this line of discussion—including on the relationship between social class and incarceration, illness, death in war, and crime (selected readings on these subjects are listed below). At this point it would be useful to bring in Nyseth Brehm and Pellow’s article to emphasize to students that even in a less “extreme” scenario, the relationship between social class and life chances is a defining feature of our social world that must be analyzed seriously.

The following discussion questions might be useful when discussing this article:

  • Assess the statement: Class determines place of residence. Do you agree? If so, why might this be the case? If not, why not?
  • How might a communities’ ability to demand better environmental protections also be mediated by race or class?
  • The article notes that climate change is another example of environmental inequality. How is this the case? What does this mean for certain populations around the world? What are some of the ways that climate change may disproportionately impact certain populations in the future? (e.g. destruction of crops, conflicts over water, desertification, etc.)
  • Can you think of other situations in which class, race, or gender may play a determining role in an individual’s life chances? Mortality? Chance of success in the future?

Supplemental Readings

To deepen the discussion about the relationship between social class and life chances, a variety of subjects and articles might be introduced. Below are several readings to get the discussion going:

On the link between social class and death in war:

Zeitlin, Maurice, Kenneth G Lutterman, and James W Russell. 1973. “Death in Vietnam: Class, Poverty, and the Risks of War.” Politics & Society 3(3):313-28.

Dunne, John Gregory. 1986. “The War that Won’t Go Away.” The New York Review of Books.

On the link between social class and health/life-expectancy:

Antonovsky, Aaron. 1967. “Social class, life expectancy and overall mortality.” The Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly 45(2):31-73.

Donkin, Angela, Peter Goldblatt, and Kevin Lynch. 2002. “Inequalities in life expectancy by social class, 1972–1999.” Health Statistics Quarterly 15:5-15.

Deaton, Angus. 2003. “Health, inequality, and economic development.” Journal of Economic Literature 41(1):113-58.

Tavernise, Sabrina. 2012. “Life Spans Shrink for Least-Educated Whites in the US.” New York Times.

*Marie Berry is a graduate student in the Sociology Department at UCLA. Special thanks to Maurice Zeitlin for the inspiration for this post.