In The Princess and the Frog, Tiana and her parents can only dream of opening a restaurant.
In The Princess and the Frog, Tiana and her parents can only dream of opening a restaurant.

Disney movies get a lot of flack for promoting unrealistic gender expectations, especially for young girls. But kids are getting messages about more than just gender. A recent article in New York Magazine featured a study helmed by sociologist Jessi Streib that revealed that successful G-rated movies, including many Disney films, communicate unrealistic depictions of social class.

In over half of the 32 films they studied, the main characters were upper- or the upper middle-class, clearly misrepresenting the distribution of wealth both in the U.S. and the world. In addition, many downplayed or even romanticized the hardships of lower-class status. For instance, in Aladdin, wealth and poverty are depicted as two sides of the same coin with each equally constraining individuals’ lives. Unlike in adult films where working class characters tend to be portrayed as irresponsible, in G-rated films, working-class characters are shown as warm members of a tight-knit community. In fact, in Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, it is the lower-class characters who teach their upper-class characters about humanity, empathy, and love:

The key takeaway, from the authors’ point of view, is that these films legitimize and reinforce class structures. Middle-class and poor people are de-emphasized, as are the difficulties associated with not having enough money. Moreover, climbing the class ladder isn’t presented as particularly difficult.


The Live Below the Line campaign helped people in many countries express solidarity with fellow citizens working to make ends meet.
The 2015 Live Below the Line campaign helped people in many countries express solidarity with fellow citizens working to make ends meet.

The U.S. presidential election is beginning to take on issues of poverty and class. Such conversations often look at “the poor” from a careful remove, but work by Thomas Hirschl of Cornell and Mark Rank of Washington University says that outsider angle is a comfortable farce. As explained by an article in Salon, the unpleasant fact is that over fifty percent of Americans will experience poverty during our lifetimes. Impoverishment and “the poor”—and the politics and policies that affect them—are actually very close to home.

Of course, demographic factors are a big part of predicting one’s likelihood of experiencing poverty. (If you’re interested in calculating your own odds, check out Hirschl and Rank’s poverty calculator!) Education is one big factor, as is race: white people are half as likely as non-white people to fall into poverty. And married people are less likely to become poor than singles. Still, as candidates and voters debate nature of class and poverty in America, we would do well to remember that they affect us all. To pretend like anyone’s above poverty would be a poor show.

Turin's Olympic Village in 2005, before the athletes arrived. Marco Scala, Flickr CC.
Turin’s Olympic Village in 2005, before the athletes arrived. Marco Scala, Flickr CC.

Ever wonder what happens to Olympic villages once the athletes and spectators leave? Some thrive, and some end up as ghost towns.

Turin, Italy’s village has taken an interesting turn. The city tried to make an international name for itself with the 2006 Olympic Winter Games. Sociologist Sergio Scamuzzi, a member of an academic Games-monitoring group called the Olympics and Mega Events Research Observatory, told the Guardian that the Olympics “gave an opportunity to the inhabitants to be proud of the city, of its capacity for innovation, its capacity to organise such a big event.” Soon after the games ended, however, the area was almost abandoned.

Today, Turin’s Olympic village hosts more than 1,000 refugees from over 30 countries. Many of these occupiers were migrant workers from African countries who found themselves out on the streets in 2013, when Italy’s Emergency North African program ended abruptly, and some still survive on seasonal labor farm jobs. The village now features a weekly pop-up medical clinic, common spaces for office and legal advice drop-ins, language classes, barber shops, restaurants, and stores. However, many of the buildings are overcrowded and falling apart. Plans to redevelop the area have been made, and eviction orders have been issued by the government.

The actual eviction of so many seems almost impossible, and residents continue their daily lives despite the threat. According to a resident formerly from Senegal, “For now it’s just words, no one knows what will happen.” In the meantime, an international community lives on in the dormitories and cafeterias that once hosted international athletics’ elite.

Patrick Sharkey's 2013 book traces generational reproduction of wealth and poverty.
Patrick Sharkey’s 2013 book traces generational reproduction of wealth and poverty.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders stated that he is against reparations for African Americans, and the declaration has spurred a fair number of back-and-forth pieces between authors on the political left. One notable article by writer and recent MacArthur “Genius” Grant winner Ta-Nehisi Coates responds to an open letter by Cedric Johnson, a professor of African American studies and political science who critiqued Coates’ call for reparations. Johnson tries to make the case that those who call for reparations are missing the main point: if broad class inequality is addressed, the economic and other inequalities faced by blacks will fall away. Further, Johnson characterizes liberals who disagree with him as uninterested in promoting solidarity. As Coates explains, however, race is far more complex. Whiteness and white identity still confer privilege, and that enduring system is another form of “solidarity,” a historical collection of forces that reinscribe inequality.

Using research from, among others, sociologists Patrick Sharkey of NYU and Robert Sampson of Harvard, Coates shows that white and black poverty are distinct. First of all, blacks are more likely to live in poor neighborhoods in which structural issues such as limited access to healthy groceries and banking are more heavily felt. After all, living in a poor neighborhood can have independent effects on poverty, effects which disproportionately affect African Americans. For example, Sampson’s research shows that incarceration rates in poor black neighborhoods can be forty times higher than in poor white neighborhoods, and incarceration rates are tied to further poverty in many ways. Trying to reduce issues of race to issues of class is, Coates explains, a disservice to both dynamics. Race and class intersect and overlap in ways left untouched by Johnson’s black-and-white characterization of poverty, reparations, and inequality.

For many, the “American Dream” seems beyond possibility. Zhang Yu, Flickr CC.

Work by Harvard University’s Robert Putnam and Princeton’s Doug Massey was featured in a recent article in The Atlantic, which discusses the need for policy changes to fight poverty and begin a new “civil-rights movement” for the poor. As the article describes, through policies in housing, employment, and education, the poor are at an inherent disadvantage in America, one that is often outside their control.

Putnam, in his work Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, states that poor children are often less prepared than their middle-class counterparts to develop skills and succeed. Communities and families within poor contexts are less likely to have the same resources and starting platform with which to help their kids participate in “The American Dream.” The article presents arguments to suggest potential change within housing, educational, and employment contexts. Doug Massey’s research, for example, is cited in support of housing policies that enable the poor to live in better-resourced communities. The article makes multiple suggestions for ways to empower the poor and increase their life chances, and research shows that such policies can effect positive change.

The Live Below the Line campaign helped people in many countries express solidarity with fellow citizens working to make ends meet.
The Live Below the Line campaign helped people in many countries express solidarity with fellow citizens working to make ends meet.

For those of us fueling ourselves with the late-night pizza and discount wine that a graduate stipend affords us, the idea of spending at least a year or two on poverty-level incomes may not feel shocking. It may, however, be more common than we once thought.

A new study by sociologists Thomas Hirschl and Mark Rank finds that nearly 60% of Americans will spend at least one year living off of poverty-level incomes. These rates are heavily concentrated among those under the age of 30, with 42% of those young adults experiencing at least one year of poverty (20th percentile of income), and 23% experiencing extreme poverty (10th percentile of income). And for those without savings or parental help to fall back on, these low incomes can lead to homelessness and long-term financial struggle. According to their findings, 12% of Americans spend nearly a decade or more in poverty.

“There’s a great deal of fluidity in the income distribution,” Hirschl told Pacific Standard Magazine. “Economic insecurity—this is not a small effect. We have a tough road ahead of us.”

Chicago's "Overpass Light Brigade." Photo by Mikasi, Flickr CC.
Chicago’s “Overpass Light Brigade.” Photo by Mikasi, Flickr CC.

San Francisco recently passed legislation which will eventually increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour in incremental, planned hikes. On the heels of the “Fight for 15” movement, this seems like good news for those living on or near the minimum wage. As explained by an article on NBC online, with help from CUNY Graduate Center’s Ruth Milkman, a sociologist of labor and labor movements, people may not start celebrating just yet.

Many people working on the minimum wage at the moment, for example, work multiple jobs. As Milkman states, “[I]f you’re working at the current minimum wage in a lot of places, you’re still in poverty, especially if you’re supporting other people.” When the wage is going to be increased in gradual increments, those gradual changes may not make much of a dent in what it takes to support oneself or dependents, especially in areas experiencing gentrification. Consequentially, as Milkman explains, this can create a “lot of discontent in a lot of the working population.”

Indeed, as basic struggles of living on the minimum wage continue after slight increases, there can be downsides as well. Businesses which rely on a greater proportion of minimum-wage workers can be more likely to operate in low-income areas, such as fast-food restaurants. Therefore, if businesses raise prices to handle paying a higher wage, the minimum-wage-hike could be hurting the people it was meant to help. At the moment, San Francisco is leading the way on raising the minimum wage, but don’t wager that the discussions are over just yet.

moynihanSince the 1965 “Moynihan Report,” conversations about disproportionate inequalities between white and black communities have historically focused on “black culture”—that is, explanations of racial discrepancies as products of different values, social norms, and cultural practices within black communities. The study, formally titled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” saw black poverty as the result of non-nuclear family structures and absentee fathers. Now, University of Maryland sociologist Philip N. Cohen tells Vox that academics are leaving the argument behind because it simply doesn’t hold up:

The predominant view now is that there is a specific condition of inner-city concentrated poverty especially in black communities, because of racial segregation and racism, and the structural conditions are very damaging to family life, family relationships. People lose jobs and housing because of incarceration, job discrimination, etc., which create real obstacles to family stability, which in turn is a challenging condition for children’s development.

Indeed, as social science has matured and issues of race and racism have come under scrutiny and greater focus, more people are aware that structural issues, rather than personal ones, best explain advantage and privilege by race. Hopefully 1960s-era thought is well on its way to being replaced with more nuanced understandings of the factors behind racial discrepancies.

Photo by Danny Fowler via
Photo by Danny Fowler via

The causes and effects of concentrated black poverty in urban neighborhoods came to the forefront of the internet over the past couple weeks, with Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait engaging in a back-and-forth about the subject and the explanations and remedies proposed by President Barack Obama and Congressman Paul Ryan.

Stefanie DeLuca, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, has a wealth of qualitative and quantitative data to contribute to the debate. For the past decade, she has been studying the effects of the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program, which provides vouchers for low-income families to move to integrated neighborhoods with lower poverty rates. To meet these criteria, many families have had to move out of Baltimore and into the suburbs, and they are given counseling to help them access resources and navigate their new environments.

The counseling is a critical piece of the program, says DeLuca. “Being poor doesn’t just mean you didn’t have enough resources and you had barriers to opportunity – but the benefits of those opportunities are relatively unknown.”

So far nearly 2,000 families have moved to the suburbs, and approximately two-thirds have stayed there. In conducting in-depth interviews with 110 families involved in the program, DeLuca and her colleague Jennifer Darrah of the University of Hawaii find “profound differences in the way many of the parents in the BMP thought about where they live now, where they want to live in the future, and where they never want to move again.”

Should this program become the new paradigm for fighting urban poverty in the 21st century?  While the results among people who have moved to the suburbs provide reason for cautious optimism, DeLuca notes that an important question arises: “What do we do about everyone else?”

In an era of ever-tightening budgets, how should public policy balance investments in poor neighborhoods with helping people move out of them?  It’s a tough question and important debate to which social scientists are well positioned to contribute.



Photo by jemsweb via

Fast food jobs are notorious for their low pay and negligible benefits. In an article for the New York Times, Steven Greenhouse explains that a group of fast food workers and union organizers have launched a campaign to unionize workers in New York City’s fast food industry called Fast Food Forward. The campaign is the largest effort to unionize fast food workers the United States has ever seen. Efforts to unionize these workers have been undertaken before, but never on this scale. The movement is not focusing of one franchise or chain, but instead includes many workers from popular chains around the city, including McDonalds, Dominos, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s.

The Fast Food Forward campaign hopes to increase wages and union recognition while reducing income inequality by unionizing these low-wage workers. Sociologist Ruth Milkman, of the City University of New York, says it’ll be no easy task, explaining that very few efforts have been in this direction in the past because of its perceived difficulty. She explains, “These jobs have extremely high turnover, so by the time you get around to organizing folks, they’re not on the job anymore.” Milkman is optimistic, however, New York City’s deep history of unionizing might help this movement find its footing.

A lot rests on the success or failure of this campaign. Right now, NYC has tens of thousands of fast food workers and nearly all of them are paid wages that place them below the poverty line (their median wage is $9 per hour, which means even if they work full time, which many can’t even if they’d like to, they’d earn just $18,500 a year, with sparse benefits). Because fast food pay is so low, many workers must also seek public assistance, and that means taxpayers (including the workers themselves) have to pick up the slack for multinational corporations. Unionization might be a first step in fiscal relief for thousands of households—and the government.