Stacks of silver coins increasing in height from left to right. Image via pixabay.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, families are especially reliant on prior wealth (savings, home equity, other assets) to deal with potential changes in income and health. But the racial wealth gap is extreme, with Black Americans holding only 2.6% of wealth in the United States. Disparities in wealth, a household’s assets minus its debts, are a key source of generational inequality. Wealth disparities are greater between Black and White households, and in a recent article, Christine Percheski and Christina Gibson-Davis find that racial wealth inequality is even greater for a key group: families with children.

Percheski and Gibson-Davis examine nationally-representative data collected by the Federal Reserve. The Survey of Consumer Finances took place every three years between 2004 and 2016. This data set indicates that the gap between Black and White households with children (child households) is bigger than the gap between general Black and White households at every level of wealth; although both gaps are quite large. In 2016, the median Black child household had only one cent in wealth for every dollar that the median White child household held. This means $294 in wealth for the median Black child household and $47,250 for the median White child household. 

In dollars the disparity is most dramatic when comparing the wealthiest households. For example, Black child families in the 90th percentile hold $69,773 in wealth as compared to $565,700 for White child families at the same percentile. But the biggest relative gaps (the smallest ratio of wealth between Black and White child families) are at the bottom of the wealth spectrum. Black-White differences in wealth have grown since 2004, and they have grown more quickly for households with children. 

Wealth differences are not primarily a story of jobs. Income differences between Black and White families with children have not changed since 2004. Since 2004, Black families with children have seen a decline in home ownership and home equity levels and an increase in educational debt. These changes hit Black families more than White and Hispanic families, and by 2016, Hispanic child households had greater wealth than Black child families. This research indicates that the recovery from the 2008 recession was especially limited for Black families with children, which makes these families particularly vulnerable to economic disruptions due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

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Since the 2016 presidential election violent hate crimes have risen by over 12% in America’s largest cities. It is not unusual for hate crimes to rise during election years, but they typically decrease quickly in the following year. For the first time in American history, however, hate crimes continued to rise after the last election. Hate crimes, or violent crimes committed against someone due to their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion or national origin, are not simply individual acts. They are also symptomatic of racial power dynamics and are employed to reestablish a group’s dominance.

Using federal violent hate crime statistics and data on US federal government actions from 1992 to 2012, Laura Dugan & Erica Chenoweth examine this phenomenon. They ask how the federal government’s expressions of support or opposition to racial and ethnic minorities, such as affirmative action policies or hostile rhetoric towards immigrants, affect hate crimes rates.  

The authors find that when political gains are made by Black Americans, they are more likely to be targets of hate crimes. For example, when the government supports civil rights protections, hate crimes against Blacks people increase. Conversely, when politicians engage in hate speech against immigrant populations, demonizing and degrading these groups, hate crimes against Latinx folks increased.

These findings suggest that hate crimes that target Black people are used to reestablish White dominance because they occur when Black people have made political progress and are consequently seen as a political threat. This differs for Latinx persons. Hate crimes are more likely to target Latinx persons when politicians support anti-immigration policies or use hate speech.

These findings show how political actions aimed at minorities (such as protection measures and hate speech) may result in hate crimes, but these actions affect Black people and Latinx communities differently. The authors suggest this may be because Whites view Black people as “insiders,” and therefore, as a greater political threat. Alternatively, while Latinx persons may be seen as less politically threatening “outsiders,” the racist and exclusionary language of officials can encourage violence against Latinx targets.

This article cautions us that government actions and hate speech among elites have serious consequences and may in fact motivate Americans to commit hate crimes. In this election season, this research demonstrates the important role of government actions in driving violence against racial and ethnic minority groups.

Image of a toy gun resting on top of an open bible. Image by melanerpist, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 2016, 53% of white women voted for Donald Trump. This support was suprising due to his insensitive remarks about women and the Republican Party’s documented opposition to women’s issues, including abortion and paid family leave. In a recent article, Abigail Vegter and Margaret Kelley show how religious beliefs and a fear of “supernatural evil” inform women’s support for another mainstay of the Republican Party: Gun Ownership.

From 2018-2019, the authors conducted 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork in gun ranges in Northwest Kansas. They spoke with 62 shooters and gun owners, the majority of whom were women. They show that fear of a supernatural evil and gun use are linked by a narrative of Christian duty to protect what they see as their vanishing way of life. 

The female shooters touched on gendered notions of care and familial protection in justifying their views and actions. Building on the notion of supernatural evil, interviewees revealed a sense of threat from both satanic forces and an overreaching government which, they believe, justifies their self-protection. For these religious women, their religious duty merges with their duty as caretakers and mothers. For instance, Vegter and Kelley show how the belief in a “Satanic force,” including Armageddon, hell, and demons has profoundly personal implications, demanding the protection of their children’s “endangered innocence”. 

Women gun-users comprise the majority of respondents in the interview sample, authors disproportionately highlight narratives of male shooters in their findings. Intriguingly, they note the difficulty in recruiting male interview respondents, fearing their spouses’ judgement. Even among male shooters, similar motivations are at play when it comes to gun use, including the duty to be diligent against supernatural elements, and to protect their families from shifting cultural values. Citing cultural loss, respondents made clear their resolve to defend their way of life, even if it involved using lethal force.  For example, they drew on conservative cultural touchstones from the blockbuster American Sniper to the ongoing debate on religion in classrooms, to argue that they needed guns to protect them in the spiritual battle against cosmic forces. Gun owners saw it as their duty to preserve “good” from creeping “evil.”

Taken together, theological belief and notions of the supernatural still serve as unique indicators of policy choices. The issue of guns and self-protection takes shape in the cognitive and spiritual levels, but closely informs both cultural choices – such as consumption patterns – and political worldviews. According to these shooters, a vanishing way of life and a creeping supernatural evil in their lives required the duty to defend, be diligent, and protect themselves and their loved ones at all costs, including the use of deadly force. Consistent with prior research, respondents preferred less restrictive gun control measures alongside religious freedom policies and government deregulation. With rich interview and ethnographic data, Vegter and Kelley show how the metaphysical and spiritual interact, producing a host of coherent policy preferences.

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In rural Coffeyville, Kansas, residents have a routine for handling the town’s public library’s waiting list for its WiFi hotspot lending program. “As soon as you turn it in,” one person said, “you put your name back on the waiting list.” With almost 50 people on the list, it might be another month before you can get a one-week hotspot rental again.

The Coffeyville library was one of 24 rural libraries that joined a New York Public Library pilot program for hotspot lending. A team of researchers gathered qualitative and quantitative data from 18 libraries in rural Kansas and six in rural Maine. All told, the research team interviewed more than 100 people, including school and government officials, librarians and other library officials and community members who participated in the lending program. This project focused on two research questions: (1) How do people experience hotspot connectivity in the context of their normal patterns of access and information seeking?; (2) How do hotspot adoption and use affect these communities? 

For the communities that participated, the researchers found that improved Internet connectivity was valuable for many reasons. Most frequently cited was the value of social connection, staying in touch with family and friends, via Facebook or Skype. Without the hotspots, participants said they miss out on important moments, gossip and news. Additionally, the hotspots provided assistance for childhood education, work and entertainment (music, Netflix, etc) and offered privacy to conduct personal tasks (banking, health services, finding work, shopping, etc). Ultimately, the authors find hotspot lending programs provide a much-needed and valuable community service. 

In fact, several of the libraries felt the pilot program, initially funded by the New York Public Library, was valuable enough for the libraries to find funding to continue the service. Almost 20% of the United States population lives in rural spaces, and around 36% of the rural population lacks access to fixed broadband, according to the researchers. Only 4% of the urban population lacks such standard connections. In many rural communities, the only reliable broadband access is at government centers or libraries, where residents can “check out” the Internet. 

Rural residents often face what the authors call a “vexing communication environment,” where broadband access is limited, cell phone signal is spotty (at best), and digital literacy is lacking because residents simply don’t have ready access to the Internet. These issues create inequalities, in education, economic development and community building, among others. This research suggests that a hotspot lending programs may be part of the solution to solve our nation’s growing digital divide. The findings demonstrate the value of the hotspot programs but also show they may still be insufficient. Said the Coffeyville, Kansas, participant of the month-long hotspot waiting list: “It’s worth it, just for that week of getting to stay connected.” 

1 out of every 3 children will have their families investigated by Child Protective Services (CPS) over the course of their childhood. Many of these children come from poor families and/or families of color. Investigations by CPS are often invasive. Investigators enter family homes and ask probing questions. But through these investigations, CPS is also able to assess and respond to the needs of families, oftentimes concluding that child abuse did not occur.

Drawing on observation of 37 CPS cases, including interviews with investigators, mothers, and ethnographic observation of two Connecticut CPS offices, Kelley Fong argues that it is a combination of care and coercion that brings CPS investigators into so many family homes. CPS investigators can often provide much-needed resources to families that are otherwise difficult to access, such as care for mental health, as long as families comply with CPS’ demands.

Workers at schools, doctors’ offices, and social service agencies realize that many families and children need assistance that they are unable to provide. In response, such workers file reports with CPS even when they do not believe that abuse is occurring, in hopes that CPS will offer families the kind of tangible support that they are unable to offer.

However, the intervention of CPS is also coercive and intrusive. While CPS can provide access to resources, this help is offered alongside the threat that the agency will separate children from their parents. The anxiety and fear sparked by an investigation can make parents wary of interacting with any institution that may refer families to CPS, including schools, doctors’ offices, or social service agencies.

In the United States, a weak social safety net means that families are left with few options for receiving support. A referral to Child Protective Services is one of the few options left for administrators who are aware of the challenges children and families face at home. However, CPS investigations also bring fear and worry to these families and may marginalize them from the institutions of social life, such as their children’s school. Strengthening social support programs outside of CPS would allow families to get needed help from concerned professionals without intruding into and threatening family life.