inequality

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In the past 50 years, marriage rates among U.S. adults have declined significantly. Social science suggests that financial success may play an central role in this trend. For example, in 2015 65% of adults 25 and older with a four year degree were married, while only 50% of those with a high school education were married. In a recent article in The New York Times, sociologists Sharon Sassler and Andrew Cherlin weigh in on this divergence in marriage rates.  

According to social scientists, some of the change has to do with economic trends. The decline in manufacturing jobs in the United States has made men without college educations less “marriageable.” According to Sassler, “women don’t want to take a risk on somebody who’s not going to be able to provide anything.” This decline has not, however, corresponded to a decline in births — births are just happening outside of marriage more often now. The article explains, 

“In reality, economics and culture both play a role, and influence each other, social scientists say. When well-paying jobs became scarce for less educated men, they became less likely to marry. As a result, the culture changed: Marriage was no longer the norm, and out-of-wedlock childbirth was accepted. Even if jobs returned, an increase in marriage wouldn’t necessarily immediately follow.”

On the other hand, those with college degrees are more likely to postpone marriage and children until after they feel financially stable, but then they do get married. They also may benefit from their own parents’ help in paying for education, birth control, and rent, allowing them the advantages of achieving stability not often available to lower and working class adults. Privilege, therefore, can play a key role in the decision to get married.

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Does talking about economic inequality really matter when it comes to influencing voters? A recent article in The Washington Post discusses research on whether income inequality impacts Americans’ support for certain economic policies. A report from Leslie McCall and Jennifer A. Richeson suggests that when presented with data on economic inequality, Americans develop skepticism about the existence of actual economic opportunity, and will tend to favor policies that promote equality. Using experimental data, the researchers found that when presented with information on income inequality, 58% of Americans surveyed responded more favorably toward policies proposing decreasing the pay gap (in contrast to 51% for those who did not receive information). The authors write,

“Americans tend to support greater spending on education when their opposition to inequality rises or inequality itself rises, consistent with a link between concerns about inequality and opportunity. But this pattern may be limited to particular time periods and does not extend to support for other kinds of spending or government redistribution generally.”

The research suggests that Americans are fully capable of linking income inequality with economic opportunity and that efforts should not be made to avoid discussing one or the other. The authors conclude,

“For this reason, the instinct to focus on economic opportunity instead of inequality seems misplaced. In the minds of Americans, the two can be linked quite readily.”

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It’s been well documented that religion played an important role in the 2016 presidential election, as well as recent state elections. ThinkProgress.org recently contributed a new analysis of this relationship, highlighting preliminary research from a number of sociologists on the role of “Christian nationalism” in President Trump’s victory. Their findings indicate that the belief that America is a Christian nation may both predict support for Trump and be connected to intolerant views of other groups.

Sociologists Andrew Whitehead, Samuel Perry, and Joseph Baker found that Christian nationalism was “strongly and positively associated with voting for Trump,” and they emphasized that Christian nationalism is not simply another measure of religiosity. Whitehead told ThinkProgress,

“For this study, when we look at a lot of the normal ways we measure religiosity, at the end of the day, none of them really predict a vote for Trump except Christian nationalism. It didn’t matter if you were evangelical or mainline [Christian], it didn’t matter if you went to church a lot or a little, what mattered was whether you think America is a Christian nation.”

Whitehead notes that an important part of this research regards findings about the ways Christian nationalism interacts with other ideologies, and ThinkProgress reached out to sociologist  Penny Edgell for further development of this connection. Edgell’s ongoing work with Evan Stewart and Jack Delehanty indicates that support for “public religious expression,” a variable that measures the belief that religion should be an integral part of public life and deliberation, is associated with intolerance against a variety of groups. Edgell emphasized the need for more analysis of white Christian nationalism, especially its role in propagating ideologies like Islamophobia and xenophobia. She told ThinkProgress,

“Certain white Christian institutions house and foster and bundle these attitudes all together, and link them to politics in systematic ways.”

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Over a year after 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first knelt during the national anthem in protest of police brutality, protests in the NFL spiked dramatically after President Trump attacked players who followed Kaepernick’s example. In recent weeks many more players knelt, locked arms, or stayed in the locker room during the anthem in response to Trump’s speech and series of tweets. During the flurry of media attention on the NFL, scholars Rashawn Ray and Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve wrote an Op-ed for NBC News about not losing sight of the original purpose of the protests.

Instead of focusing on the political implications of the president’s tweets or changes in protests over the past week (such as owners joining their players on the field), Ray and Van Cleve reiterate research on the violent repercussions of racial bias in policing. They emphasize that black athletes, even NFL stars, are subject to the same dangers of racial profiling as all other African Americans. In an MSNBC spot discussing the Op-ed, Ray told the panel,

“We really have to reorient the narrative. This isn’t about someone standing or sitting, this is about the fact that black lives matter. This is about the fact that football players, basketball players, baseball players, once they leave those stadiums they are black and brown men. And unfortunately in our society it doesn’t matter if you are affluent or less affluent, unfortunately you might be actually profiled by the police, and unfortunately that particular profiling can turn deadly.”

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Ambiguity from the Trump administration about the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program puts the current lives of many immigrant youth and young adults in a state of limbo — nearly 1 million people could face the loss of legal protection or even deportation. In a recent piece for The Globe Post, Stephanie Canizales outlines what the abolishment of DACA could mean for both the current DACA-recipients, or “Dreamers,” and others who may have qualified for the program in the future.

Beginning in 2012, Canizales conducted in-depth research with hundreds of now long-settled undocumented young adults. These young adults, now aged 18 to 31, arrived as unaccompanied minors to the United States between the ages of 11 and 17. Her research shows that upon arrival, and without parental support, many of these youth entered the workforce immediately, taking jobs in industries marred by deplorable working conditions and wages. These jobs were often extremely detrimental to mental and physical health, and forced many youth to work exceptionally long hours for menial pay.

Work permits under DACA appear to have helped alleviate these exploitative workplace conditions, and many Dreamers are now enrolled in college to further their careers. Canizales’ work demonstrates that the loss of DACA could also negatively impact young adults at work even if they aren’t deported. She concludes,

“Removing legal protections for immigrant youth and young-adult workers risks further increasing the exploitation of immigrants in the workplace, as well as poverty and marginality in their communities.”

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Surveillance technology dominates policing in many major cities, and software companies continue to develop tools that allow law enforcement to collect and analyze data on traffic violations, citizen complaints, and even license plate photographs. A recent CNN Tech article highlighted sociologist Sarah Brayne’s research on the Los Angeles Police Department’s use of one such data collection software, Palantir.  Brayne’s findings suggest that while the utilization of big data in policing facilitates communication, it also raises some major concerns of privacy and potential bias.

With the help of Palantir, LAPD officers use a point system to measure the risk of individuals with extensive criminal records, awarding points for a variety of law infractions and police interactions. However, Brayne found that individuals from low-income communities of color are more likely to have their risk measured — she cautions that such systems can be cyclic, with more points leading to more police contact, and vice versa.

Another potential problem is that of privacy. Palantir has improved location tracking abilities and allows law enforcement to gather and connect more information about individuals than ever before, but this often includes information on individuals without police contact. Certainly there are clear benefits; sharing data can help connect related crimes and more information helps police to work more efficiently and effectively. But challenges arise as technology develops. Brayne warns,

“I’d caution against the thinking that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. That logic rests on the assumption of the infallible state. It rests on the assumption that actors are entering information without error, prejudice or discretion.”

For more on the biases behind surveillance technologies, check out this TROT on computer code as free speech.

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America’s economic elite has a long been criticized for being ostentatious or showy, assumed to be constantly flaunting their wealth through fast cars, big houses, and lavish lifestyles. But a recent article in The New York Times by sociologist Rachel Sherman debunks some of these generalizations. Through interviews with 50 rich New Yorkers about their consumption patterns, Sherman found that most of her interviewees took steps to hide their wealth, like planning housing decisions and vacations in order to come off as “normal.” Sherman uses this study as a new window into economic equality in the United States, writing,

“The ways these wealthy New Yorkers identify and avoid stigma matter not because we should feel sorry for uncomfortable rich people, but because they tell us something about how economic inequality is hidden, justified and maintained in American life.”

Sherman’s interviewees often expressed a need to feel “ordinary,” even though their wealth enables a much more lavish lifestyle. Some went to surprising ends in an attempt to portray this normality, such as removing price tags from food, clothes, or furniture to ensure their employees could not see the cost. Some went even further — one interviewee changed her mailing address so her penthouse location would not be identifiable. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, the super-rich appear to be extra careful to avoid the “moral stigma” attached to their spending. Due to this stigma, some of the interviewees referred to themselves as “middle-class,” minimizing their financial situations in comparison to the even wealthier. Sherman notes that this distancing has broader implications,

“Ambivalence about recognizing privilege suggests a deep tension at the heart of the idea of American dream. While pursuing wealth is unequivocally desirable, having wealth is not simple and straightforward. Our ideas about egalitarianism make even the beneficiaries of inequality uncomfortable with it.”

Sherman’s work shows how discomfort around inequality permeates throughout American society. While acknowledgement of privilege is a key first step in addressing these issues, tensions lie deeper than ambivalence or confusion about one’s status. Sherman’s work suggests that it is essential to address not only ignorance, but also society-wide silence, in efforts to lessen inequality.

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Even in 2017, when more and more women enter historically male-dominated fields, archaic notions of what counts as “men’s work” or “women’s work” continue to persist in many workplace environments. A recent article in The Globe and Mail covers a study that shows how gender stereotypes hurt both men and women at work, and it particularly hurts employees in new fields.

Jobs in new industries are considered to be more gender-neutral than older professions, but gendered perceptions still take hold in these new roles. Using data from a microfinance bank in Central America, Laura Doering and Sarah Thébaud examine how initial interactions with either a man or woman in a gender-ambiguous position shape future perceptions of that role. They find that a client’s initial interaction with a male or female loan manager shaped their perceptions of the entire position as more masculine or feminine. As Doering points out,

“For example, if we first encounter a man in a new or gender-balanced job, we begin to associate the job with masculine stereotypes.”

Clients not only quickly attach gendered perceptions to the position, but are more likely to comply with the demands of the male rather than female managers. However, if the borrower first encounters a woman in the management position, they attribute less authority to the next manager, regardless of gender. As for ways to combat this bias, the authors suggest that one possible solution is an endorsement from a high-status employee among the presence of clients or other colleagues. Doering concludes,

“Such endorsements from high-status individuals can nudge clients and other employees toward more equitable treatment of workers in female-typed roles.”

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Americans’ views on race and racism have changed in many ways from those during the Civil Rights movement in the Jim Crow era. Today, most Americans agree that racism is not acceptable, and social norms have generally dictated that racist ideologies should not be part of the mainstream of American culture. Social norms are supported by institutions and leaders, however, and recent controversies over organized white supremacist groups call their stability into question. In The New York Times’ Upshot blog, sociologists Tina Fetner and Sarah Sobieraj describe how quickly these norms can change, especially amid criticism that the Trump administration has been slow to condemn white supremacist groups. From Fetner:

“It’s not because all of a sudden there is more racism now than there was a few weeks ago. It’s that the absolute condemnation of those most abhorrent views is crumbling away…”

And from the article:

“When norms of acceptable behavior and speech start to shift, it can disturb the shared beliefs, values and symbols that make up our culture.”

Leaders and institutions have the power to respond to controversy or to ignore it. Either way, their actions can change whether ideas appear to be part of the mainstream or the fringes of a society.

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Companies like Ancestry.com use DNA samples to educate people about their genetic ancestry. This relatively new service is used by a growing number of people, and a recent article on STAT explains how has caused some uncomfortable moments for white supremacists who learn of their non-white ancestry. The article covers research by Aaron Panofsky  and Joan Donovan who studied posts on Stormfront, a white nationalist website, wherein users discuss their genetic ancestry results.

While one might assume that white nationalists would avoid posting their non-white ancestry online, Panofsky and Donovan found that members of Stormfront are quick to support each other in the face of genetic testing results which show non-white heritage.

“Instead of rejecting members who get contrary results, Donovan said, the conversations are ‘overwhelmingly’ focused on helping the person to rethink the validity of the genetic test. And some of those critiques — while emerging from deep-seated racism — are close to scientists’ own qualms about commercial genetic ancestry testing.”

Users discuss the potential failings of genetic testing, or posit that individual knowledge of one’s history is more useful than some findings in a remote laboratory. In other cases, individuals were told that they could remain in Stormfront so long as they didn’t “mate” and spread their non-white genes, and others even claimed that a sprinkling of non-white ancestry bolstered the community’s “diversity”. In sum, though genetic ancestry testing undermines the narratives that white supremacists utilize, users on Stormfront are negotiating their community boundaries with each new genetic test, and “rethinking who counts as white” in the process.