Photo by Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose, Flickr CC

In the United States, poor parents face intense scrutiny for their purchasing decisions, especially for buying unhealthy food for their children. New research sheds light parents’ decisions to buy or not buy junk food for their kids. In a recent op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Priya Fielding-Singh explains that junk food consumption is an emotionally-rooted decision for impoverished parents.

Fielding-Singh observed the food-purchasing habits of 73 families. Families experiencing poverty honored their children’s requests for junk food more often than affluent parents. For poor families, junk food was one of few affordable luxuries. It was sometimes the only chance for parents to say “yes” to something their kids asked for. Fielding-Singh notes,

For parents raising their kids in poverty, having to say ‘no’ was a part of daily life. Their financial circumstances forced them to deny their children’s requests — for a new pair of Nikes, say, or a trip to Disneyland — all the time. This wasn’t tough for the kids alone; it also left the poor parents feeling guilty and inadequate.”

More affluent parents, on the other hand, had the means to grant these more indulgent requests. Saying “no” to junk food was their way of encouraging their children to have better dietary habits, as well as discipline and willpower. This doesn’t mean poor parents were unconcerned with their children’s nutrition. According to Fielding-Singh, “poor parents honored their kids’ junk food requests to nourish them emotionally, not to harm their health.” So, health disparities are not just about lacking healthy options or resources. This research shows that we also need t0 consider the emotional side of decision-making related to health. 

Racial Dot Map for Los Angeles based on 2010 Census. Photo by Eric Fischer, Flickr CC

The United States Census is a trusted source for population data. But, like all large-scale survey projects, the census must make decisions about how to define and analyze elements for categorizing data, like racial group.  In a recent article in The Washington Post, sociologist Richard Alba argues that the census over-estimates counts of racial and ethnic minorities, a move that can seriously affect politics and policies in the United States.  

Alba particularly has a problem with how the census counts mixed-race youth. For young people from a mixed Hispanic and White background, the census only counts them as Hispanic, not as both White and Hispanic — similar to the age-old idea of the “one-drop rule” instituted for Black people in the United States. This way of counting leads to an over-estimate of Hispanics in the United States, and this may fuel White fears about becoming a minority in the near future.

Alba points out that, “distorted census data can result in inaccurate statements of ‘fact’ and misleading projections for the future.” Take, for example, President Trump’s desire to limit immigration from African countries and encourage immigration from European countries like Norway. Alba argues that the lack of fundamental changes to the 2020 census will only continue to fuel misperceptions about racial and ethnic change in the United States:

“Census statistics will continue to roil the public discussion of diversity, by exaggerating white decline and the imminence of a majority-minority United States. Political figures and pundits who oppose immigration and diversity could exploit that, peddling an alarmist narrative that doesn’t fit with the long-standing reality of mixing between immigrant and established Americans.”

Photo by Rob Kall, Flickr CC

Since the 2016 presidential election, the gulf between the political left and right has become increasingly dramatic. Issues of gender equality often take center stage in these political debates. In a recent New York Times article, sociologists looked at how the #MeToo movement — focused on sexual harassment and assault — may affect that divide in future elections.

 Many researchers believe the movement will increase contentions between the two sides. Some think it could push less-active voting groups, like young women, to the left and ensure more votes for the Democratic party. However, other sociologists like Musa al-Gharbi believe ideological separation will do more harm than good. He says,

“Progressives have done a great job framing racial inequality, feminism and LGBTQ rights as part of the same basic struggle. However, this association works both ways. Accusations of misogyny, for instance, are often heard in the context of a fundamentally anti-white, anti-Christian culture war — a zero-sum campaign waged against ordinary hard-working Americans by condescending and politically-correct liberal elites.”

In other words, organizing political campaigns around the movement likely will alienate some voters. Research from Joanna Pepin and David Cotter finds evidence of a backlash against the #MeToo movement in recent survey data. Cotter writes,

“We can already see the beginnings of a backlash against #MeToo. There’s a large reservoir of gender traditionalism and misogyny as shown in the Trending towards Traditionalism paper — and it persists among youths so may be part of our social fabric for some time.”

Using gender inequality and sexual harassment as a motive for political organizing could prove successful. The #MeToo movement provides personal, relatable, and moving stories that could spur political change. However, views on gender are also deeply rooted in partisan identities, so support may not come as certainly as the Democrats hope. In order to be effective enough for a political victory, these tactics also need to appear inviting to new members, rather than divisive and polarizing.  

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine meeting with local officials to discuss criminal justice reform. Photo by Senator Tim Kaine, Flickr CC

According to a new report, rates of felony conviction are on the rise in the United States. In response, policy influencers in many states are seeking strategies to combat this increase. However, solutions often unveil further challenges. A recent article from PBS discusses a new study on the rise of felony punishments on a state-by-state basis, as well as the barriers to policy reform.

From 1980 to 2010, felony convictions increased in every state. Sociologist Michelle Phelps discusses the context behind these high rates: 

“When crime rates rose in the 1980s and early 1990s, local and state leaders hired more police and they made more arrests, including felony arrests… In addition, many states elevated nonviolent crimes like drug possession to felony status, and many district attorneys adopted a get-tough strategy, seeking felony charges whenever possible. Police focused drug enforcement on high-crime neighborhoods, which were often predominantly African-American…As a result, felony convictions rose much faster among blacks than among whites.”

In an effort to combat high incarceration rates, states like Georgia have tried replacing prison sentences with probation. But as Phelps points out, probation can be just as damaging as serving a prison term since, in addition to having a criminal record, individuals on probation must also abide by additional rules and requirements:

“Though it’s frequently dismissed as a slap on the wrist, probation can entail onerous requirements…For instance, probation can require a job and good housing as a condition for staying out of prison, but the felony conviction itself can make it hard or impossible to get that job.”

In sum, policymakers searching for new ways to bring felony numbers down must consider unintended consequences of reforms — especially when reforms have the potential to reinforce or worsen deeply structural racial inequalities.

Photo by Kyle Pearce, Flickr CC

In the 1950s and 60s, middle-class White families moved from cities across the United States into suburbs. Today, we see movement in the opposite direction. Middle-class families are moving to previously neglected inner-city neighborhoods, a process known as gentrification.  While gentrification provides middle and upper-class families with more urban living options, previous residents in those neighborhoods are often forced to move out when they can no longer afford the rising cost of living. In a recent NPR article, sociologist John Schlichtman discusses negative consequences of gentrification. Schlichtman explains, 

“The reason gentrification has a bad rap is due to the inequity between race and housing. Race is, at its heart, a class issue…The devaluing of lower-class neighborhoods, usually residents of color, is the result of a history of unjust policies, including government defunding and redlining.”

According to Schlichtman, those who move into gentrifying neighborhoods may feel guilty because they benefit from “an unjust gap.” At an individual level, Schlichtman suggests investing in businesses that already exist in the community, instead of new ones. But to really create social change, action must go beyond the individual:

“We need to put pressure on our city governments as a community to not put profit and investment as the number one priority. It can be balanced with other priorities of community.”

In short, gentrification can reinforce racial and class inequalities in the United States. And while gentrification is not only about individual choices, individuals — especially those moving into gentrifying neighborhoods — can take steps to counter its negative effects.

Flowers and Candles for Kiante Tay Campbell. Photo by George Kelly, Flickr CC

Despite the current administration’s affirmations of high crime rates and push for more tough on crime policies, their approach does not align with the reality of crime in the United States, where violent crime fell substantially over the past 25 years. In a recent article in The New York Times, sociologist Patrick Sharkey discusses his research on both the causes and social benefits of the violent crime drop.

Reductions in crime improved the overall climate in major cities, but especially improved social conditions in disadvantaged communities of color. Declines in homicide led to increased life expectancy for young Black males. Sharkey’s research also demonstrates that declines in homicide helped to narrow the achievement gap between Black and White children and decreased concentrations of poverty in many cities. According to Sharkey, “living in poverty used to mean living with the constant threat of violence. In most of the country, that is no longer true.”

Undervalued forms of violence prevention —  non-profit organizations in particular — could help keep levels of violent crime low. Sharkey argues that a method that focuses on safety and creating community, rather than tough policing and prosecution, is the next step to a further reduction in violent crimes:

“These findings suggest a new model for combating urban violence. While police departments remain crucial to keeping city streets safe, community organizations may have the greatest capacity to play a larger role in confronting violence. Working directly with law enforcement and residents, these organizations are central to the next stage in the effort to make our cities even safer.”

Photo by Yandle, Flickr CC

Around this time of year — when many people are focusing on their romantic partners — it’s easy to forget how important our friendships are. In fact, spending more time with friends may actually improve romantic relationships. In a recent article in The New York Times, Stephanie Coontz reviews social science research demonstrating that a flourishing social life can lead to a better marriage. Coontz writes,

“Socializing with friends and family and participating in clubs, political organizations, teams, unions and churches are essential components of what sociologists call social integration. And health researchers report that maintaining high levels of social integration provides as much protection against early mortality as quitting smoking.”

There are multiple ways social integration can be beneficial. For example, sociologist Kristi Williams suggests that difficulties of those divorced and widowed may be based in their lack of self-reliance skills and smaller social networks, rather than the end of their marriages. Additionally, one experiment showed that couples who went on double dates reported more passionate feelings toward their partners than those who went on a date only as a couple. So, when you’re planning your next date night, consider inviting your friends.

Photo by futureatlas.com, Flickr CC

In the decades since the Holocaust, the international community created mechanisms like the 1951 Genocide Convention in order to ensure that the world would “never again” experience such tragedy. Even so, genocide and mass violence continue to occur across the world. Recent AP reports provide even more evidence of a genocide in Myanmar, yet military response and global governance are again lacking. In a recent article in The Washington Post, Aliza Luft addresses these failings and suggests that economic tactics may succeed where others have failed.

Many factors can influence violent behavior, like prejudice and propaganda, but for many who commit violence, economic considerations are essential. For example, some governments use poverty to motivate civilians to engage in violence, offering resources in exchange for participation. According to Luft:

“Thus, one strategy for intervention is to even the economic playing field: to lower the capital of the génocidaires while increasing that of their potential recruits. Responses can include targeted financial measures such as asset freezes and economic divestment from major firms that help fund genocidal governments. Additionally, non-governmental relief efforts might focus not only on food, medicine, and housing for the displaced, but also on creating economic opportunities to reduce the potential for recruitment by genocidal authorities.”

Economic strategies can take many forms, including organizations that guide companies towards pro-human rights policy, as well as online campaigns that have dissuaded companies from working with genocidal regimes. Luft argues that anyone can aid in genocide prevention through personal spending choices, outreach, and activism. She suggests civilians use financial strategies that may influence politics and policy:

“To deepen the link between investment or operations abroad and commitments to human rights, civilians can emply boycotts and social media campaigns to pressure these companies over their complicity in genocide. Research has shown that economic and reputational concerns can motivate a company to change its policies. It is time to mobilize on behalf of the Rohingya, and to target businesses whose taxes and revenue fund violence.”

Photo by Gareth Simpson, Flickr CC

With the highest incarceration rate in the world, many policymakers in the United States are looking to reform the criminal justice system. Some have turned to fines as an alternative to jail or prison. Unfortunately, fines may not be the best solution, according to sociologist Alexes Harris

In a recent New York Times article, Harris argues that a fine-based system places a huge financial burden — the responsibility of funding the entire criminal justice system — directly on those who are often least able to pay. Harris writes,

These people are paying for the system of justice from which we all benefit, but they cannot afford to do so. They are often poor, unemployed and of color. In research on monetary sanctions in nine states, my research team and I found that many people have trouble navigating the legal process associated with fines and fees, like finding out how much money they owe and meeting minimum payment requirements. Of the 380 people we interviewed, over half received public assistance and a vast majority had problems paying their legal debt.

Consequences for not paying can be severe. Not only do delays in payment often result in late fees or interest charges, warrants are sometimes issued for those who fail to pay, and they may end up incarcerated anyway. However, Harris explains that there are other alternatives to incarceration besides fines:

“They should instead search for ways to reduce criminal justice budgets by prioritizing preventive measures proved to decrease recidivism and improve public safety such as free drug and alcohol treatment programs, low-cost housing, restorative justice and job training. To start, lower courts should rely on day fines, where monetary sanctions are determined based on a person’s daily wage and the seriousness of the offense. The sanction is proportionate to a person’s ability to pay and the degree of harm inflicted.”

Photo by Maryland GovPics, Flickr CC

In the wake of tragically-familiar mass shootings, the media and concerned citizens understandably look to a perpetrator’s background to understand why they would carry out a shooting and whether it could have been prevented. Many of these investigations identify mental illness as blameworthy.

There’s a problem with this routine, however. It assumes that mental illness is the root cause of violent acts. New research from Miranda Lynne Baumann and Brent Teasdale shows this assumption is not valid. Writing in The Conversation, Baumann and Teasdale detail their findings from a project that followed people who received treatment for mental illnesses and compared them to a demographically-similar group of people who did not. Results demonstrated that respondents with mental illness did not pose a significant threat to their communities. In fact, the authors write that:

“People with serious mental illness who have access to firearms are no more likely to be violent than people living in the same neighborhoods who do not have mental illnesses…the reality of firearm-related risk among individuals with mental illness lies not in the potential for harm to others, but in the risk of harming oneself.”

In other words, the only significant difference between these groups was the suicide rate, not rates of violence against others. These trends suggest that we should also pay attention to other factors, such as access to firearms, emergency response practices, and cultural assumptions about violence and masculinity, in our attempts to limit the impact of mass violence, rather than singularly focusing on mental illness.