Image: An Asian cashier bags the goods of a White mom at a Walmart checkout counter, her young daughters stand nearby. Image courtesy of Walmart corporate, CC BY 2.0.

The coronavirus pandemic has heightened the long-standing inequalities service sector employees face as they grapple with dangerous and potentially deadly working conditions. Yet new research shows that these inequalities have deep structural and interpersonal causes, which disproportionately impact workers of color and stand to endure beyond the current public health crisis. 

Using survey data from The Shift Project, sociologists Adam Storer, Daniel Schneider, and Kristen Harknett suggest racial and ethnic discrimination within and across service-sector firms shapes working conditions. The survey asked participants about scheduling practices, the amount of time off received, and various other human capital measures such as education and job tenure. Unlike other datasets on job quality, these data include matching responses from both hourly workers and their supervisors in more than 100 retail and food service firms. The big takeaway: the authors find non-white workers experience greater exposure to unpredictable and inflexible working conditions.

The data reveal that non-white workers are concentrated in positions with low job quality indicators. For example, non-white workers are more likely to work consecutive closing and opening shifts, or “clopening” shifts. Additionally, authors find that racial and ethnic tensions between employees and supervisors diminish non-white employees’ job quality. Non-white employees with supervisors of a different race or ethnicity reported a 7% higher likelihood of canceled shifts, difficulty getting time off, and clopening shifts. Unsurprisingly, these data suggest work quality disparities are worse for women, even more so for women of color, a finding supported by past research on gendered differences in earnings. 

Storer and colleagues also illuminate the ways individual relationships maintain these job quality disparities. Tense and racialized interpersonal relations between supervisors and workers are one of those, suggesting job quality is increasingly stratified by “racial discordance” within the workplace. What is more, the inequalities service sector workers face — like unpredictable scheduling and meager fringe benefits — have real impacts on health outcomes, like poor sleep and psychological distress. While the coronavirus vaccine might alleviate some of the immediate health risks frontline service sector workers face, the inequalities embedded in the structure of their work itself may prove far more resistant to change.

Image: A black and white image of a man walking by a body of water on a cellphone, his hand resting on his furrowed brow. “Worried!” by photoloni is licensed under CC BY 2.0

2020 has given us a lot to worry about from climate crisis, wildfires, superstorms, earthquakes, various elections near and far, to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. And, of course, we also worry as our daily lives seem ever so risky. But what about the kind of worry we experience for the people we love – our romantic partners, children, and close friends? While existing research has focused on individuals, a new study suggests we may in fact worry more about our loved ones. 

Social psychologists Mirjam Ghassemi, Katharina Bernecker, and Veronika Brandstätter ask whether people are more anxious when a loved one is about to do something risky than when they are about to engage in the same risk behavior themselves. Through a series of five experimental studies, the researchers presented participants with imagined scenarios of risks to health or safety to better understand the relationship between how individuals assess risk and the amount of anxiety they feel. These imagined scenarios ranged from everyday risks such as cycling without a helmet to the more dramatic risks such as boarding a plane with a recent history of mechanical failures.

Although not an exact image used in this series of experiments, participants received detailed descriptions of risky situations, designed to elicit an emotional response such as what we may feel when viewing a photo like this one. Dramatic POV photo looking down on feet standing on boards high above a city block, photo courtesy of Alexas_fotos  via pixabay CC0

The authors find that we worry more about our loved ones than we do about ourselves, even when they are taking the exact same risk as us. No matter who the person is to us (partner, child, or friend), the closer we are, the more we worry about them. It seems that we have a decent ability to manage worries about our own risk-taking, but our ability may be less refined when it comes to managing our worries about those who are close to us.

Why is there a discrepancy in how much we worry? The authors suggest this could be due to our lack of control over our loved ones’ behaviors. Another possible explanation is that we can more easily imagine worse outcomes for other people than we can imagine for ourselves, which increases our worry for them. These findings show that our close relationships to others makes us worry. However, we also need these close relationships to help support us in challenging and uncertain times. 

Image: Two women walk on either side of a young girl wearing a rainbow skirt, hands linked. Image courtesy of Tom Diggers, CC BY 2.0

While support for gay marriage has grown steadily over the past 15 years, 31% of adult Americans still oppose it. Opponents of same-sex marriage argue that it is harmful to children, and they some have cited social science studies to support this claim. This has been the subject of much controversy, with the American Sociological Association (ASA) filing an amicus curiae brief with the Supreme Court in 2015 to weigh in on the issue. Yet new research by Deni Mazrekaj, Kristof De Witte, and Sofie Cabus challenges these claims. Their study is the first large-scale nationally representative study to examine the school performance of children raised by same-sex parents from birth.

Mazrekaj and coauthors use government administrative data from the Netherlands, which was the first country to legalize same-sex marriage in 2001. The researchers followed children born between 1998 and 2007, tracking their school performance until 2019. This differs from previous studies with smaller sample sizes or those that have relied on U.S. Census data. Previous studies included children born to different-sex parents, who then divorced before entering into same-sex unions. Parental separation is known to have negative impacts on children’s wellbeing, so this method of counting same-sex couples likely skewed earlier results. The unique contribution of this study is the ability to directly compare children raised by same-sex parents from birth with those of different-sex parents. 

The authors find that children raised by same-sex parents from birth performed significantly better than their peers on standardized tests and were nearly 7% more likely to graduate from high school. The same-sex parents in this study tended to have a higher socioeconomic status, which is shown to have positive outcomes on children’s school performance. This makes sense given the high investment of time and resources required for same-sex couples to have children. Kids of same-sex couples still slightly outperformed their peers, even when the data were adjusted to control for socioeconomic factors.

This study directly challenges the claim that children of same-sex couples fare worse than their peers with different-sex parents. It shows that children’s wellbeing does not depend on the gender or sexual orientation of their parents, making it that much harder to argue against equal access to marriage and parenthood.

Image: a man fills in paperwork with a pen. Image courtesy of pixabay, CC0.

From 1900 to 1978, between 25 to 35% of American Indian children were forcibly removed from their homes. Federal officials used this practice to colonize indigenous lands and undermine tribal sovereignty. In 1978, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) which created new legal protections for Native children in child welfare cases. At the time, this legislation was considered “the most far-ranging [Indian rights] legislation ever enacted.” Despite this legislative success, American Indians continue to be disproportionately represented in foster care, continuing the legacy of child removal.

Under the ICWA, state officials must determine whether or not a child is American Indian In order to apply these new legal protections.How do state agencies and officials decide if a child is American Indian? Hana Brown examines how state child welfare agencies, state courts, and federal courts implemented the Indian Child Welfare Act between 1978 and 2018. Analyzing state archival data, she explores how these agencies identify Native children and the consequences of those everyday decisions.

Brown explains that American Indians are classified as both citizens of sovereign tribal nations and as racialized minorities. Although the ICWA applies to citizens of tribal nations, caseworkers and public officials often applied the law based on race, not citizenship. For example, a caseworker may think a child “does not look Native” and marks them as non-Native. By assuming who “looks Native,” the caseworker treats citizenship status as something that is visible. In doing so, they racialize American Indians. When state workers misclassify Native children, they deny the sovereign legal rights of both individual children and tribes. In short, this misclassification strips away the tribe’s agency in child welfare cases of their own citizens, halting the progress of the Indian Child Welfare Act.

Native children have a unique set of legal protections due to tribal sovereignty. While the ICWA combats the legacy of child removal in American Indian communities, the application of the law does not always enable these added protections. This research shows how legislation advancing racial justice or tribal sovereignty is often just a first step toward equality. The force of such laws is determined by the small, everyday moments in which the rules are applied. Without this analysis, we overlook how state actors may reproduce inequality and undermine sovereignty, even when they attempt to rectify it.

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. 

Man in a suit speaks into several microphones. Image by www.audio-luci-store.it, CC BY 2.0

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.

An overcast sky above a dirt road with fields on either side, and a telephone line to the right. Image via pixabay, CC0.

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.” 

Image of young students working together in a classroom courtesy of Ludi via pixabay CC0.

The practice of placing students in classes below or above their ability level is called mismatching–and while it may sound bad, it is often done deliberately and can be beneficial. For example, “overmatching”–when students are placed in more advanced classes than their previous performances would ordinarily merit–can actually improve performanceat the college level, as overmatched college students tend to rise to the occasion and succeed. But, does mismatching occur earlier on, in the middle school years? And is overmatching always the most advantageous position?

Fitzpatrick and Mustillo use nested, state-wide standardized testing data in their recent study to answer these questions. Starting with end-of-year test scores from Grade 5, and comparing scores in Grades 6-8, the authors find substantial mismatching does occur in middle school, with some students being more than a full grade level above or below their classmates in ability level. The most consistent predictor of mismatch was a poverty indicator. Non-poor students tended to be overmatched and poor students tended to be undermatched. And the outcomes of these mismatches are consequential and revealing.

When students are undermatched in these middle school years, their learning is slowed, and in the end, they underperform in all subjects. This means poorer students, who tend to be placed in classes below their demonstrated past ability, consistently show diminished growth. And while middle schoolers tend to benefit from being overmatched in math, the authors find that overmatching is detrimental in language arts. 

These findings suggest that all middle school students perform best when sorted into the most advanced math class possible, an opportunity more likely to be given to non-poor students. Alternatively, students perform best in language arts only when appropriately matched, which seems to not happen for most students. These findings call into question school sorting practices which appear to disproportionately undermatch poorer students and overmatch non-poor students. While schools and parents may think undermatching or even overmatching is beneficial, intentional mismatching seems to be harmful for most middle schoolers despite their economic status.

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.