Photo of an electricity bill
Photo by Brendan Wood, Flickr CC

In the United States, more than 1 in 10 households spend at least half of their income on housing costs meaning these households struggle to pay for other basic needs with their remaining income. New research goes beyond housing payments and potential eviction to help us understand the complexity of housing hardship. In a recent study, Ryan Finnigan and Kelsey D. Meagher examine households that missed housing payments and utility payments. They find that missing utility payments is associated with persistent economic disadvantage, and an onset of missed payment is predicted by a major change in health.

The researchers use U.S. census data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation, in which approximately 30,000 households complete a survey every four months for two to five years. They specifically focus on households with missed payments for housing, utilities, or both (13-16% of households in the sample).

More households missed payments for utilities than for rent or a mortgage, and missed payments for utilities persisted over time, while missed housing payments did not. For example, half of households that missed utility payments in 2009-10 continued to miss payments a year later, whereas households that missed housing payments were more likely to catch up by the next year. The authors suggest this may be because households prioritize housing payments in order to avoid eviction.

Those that missed payments for utilities (or both utilities and housing together) tended to have the most disadvantaged characteristics — higher poverty rates, lower average incomes, fewer employed household members, lower homeownership rates, and a household member in poor health.

The biggest predictor of households missing payments for utilities, housing, or both was declines in health — even more so than losses to income. Since the authors controlled for out-of-pocket medical expenses in their analysis, they suggest this finding may be related to increased caregiving responsibilities on other members of the household.

This research helps us to understand that housing hardship isn’t just about losing your house. Even when people are able to prevent eviction, they may struggle with making payments for other basic needs like heat or water. This means that policymakers interested in reducing hardship may want to consider aid for utilities and other basic needs, instead of primarily focusing on housing and food insecurity.

Marina Tulin, Bram Lancee, and Beate Volker, “Personality and Social Capital,” Social Psychology Quarterly, 2018
Harry Potter sorting hat on a stool.
Photo by Suzelfe, Wikimedia Commons CC

Do you belong in Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, or Slytherin? Consulting the sorting hat may help you make sense of who you are, but psychologists typically distinguish personality differences using a different set of categories. The Big Five identifies a set of five broad personality traits –extraversion, openness to experience, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and agreeableness — that are known to be stable over a person’s lifetime. Recent research considers whether those personality traits can predict how good someone is at forging beneficial social connections, which matters because hobnobbing with the right crowd is an effective means of getting ahead. After all, who would Ron Weasley be without Harry and Hermione?

In their study, Marina Tulin, Bram Lancee, and Beata Volker analyze data from a survey of over 1,000 Dutch adults from different neighborhoods to find out whether people’s personalities can predict their social networks. Controlling for age, gender, education, and migration background, they looked to see if certain personality traits predicted having social networks with contacts in many different types of employment and with more prestigious jobs.

Extraverts were more likely to have diverse social ties and to feel that their networks were highly supportive. The researchers believe this is likely due to extraverts’ comfort in social settings, which offers opportunities to meet a large variety of people, as well as their willingness to nurture existing ties. Openness to experience was also an important predictor, likely because of open respondents’ tendency to prefer social contexts with more diversity and novelty.

Whereas sociologists typically explain what happens in the social world as effects of forces at the group or society level, psychologists tend to look at the individual level. In comparing the social networks of extraverted individuals who are open to new experiences to those of their introverted and routine-loving peers, this study combines ideas from sociology and psychology. And it gives us a new appreciation for our Hogwarts House by helping us to understand how the combination of personal characteristics and social world shapes important outcomes across the life course.

Eric A. Stewart, Daniel P. Mears, Patricia Y. Warren, Eric P. Baumer, and Ashley N. Arnio, “Lynchings, Racial Threat, and Whites’ Punitive Views Toward Blacks,” Criminology, 2018

Photo of the Memorial for Peace and Justice by Judson McCranie, Wikimedia Commons, CC

The Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice honors the lives of the over 4,000 Black men, women, and children who were lynched on U.S. soil between 1877 and 1950. When the memorial opened in Montgomery, Alabama last spring, reporters asked founder Bryan Stevenson, why build a lynching memorial? Stevenson aptly replied that the memorial serves to not only honor lynching victims but to highlight how the legacy of racial violence affects U.S. punishment practices today. A new study from Eric Stewart and colleagues helps us understand the relationship between lynching and the contemporary punitive attitudes of whites.

The study builds on a long line of research that stems from the work of Ida B. Wells and examines how this history of racial violence shapes criminal justice practices. Wells was one of the main public voices to challenge the common justification for lynchings among whites — that Black men committed acts of rape and other crimes against white women. Her work demonstrated that lynchings were in fact, not a response to crime but a tool of economic and political control used to maintain white dominance in both the South and North. Stewart and his co-authors attempt to unpack this complex history and its implications for criminal justice attitudes today.

The authors draw from a wide range of sources, including a 2013 national survey of crime and punishment attitudes and multiple historical lynching data inventories matched to modern county boundaries. Their findings indicate that this history of racial violence is relevant for whites’ beliefs about crime and punishment today. Specifically, white people who reside in areas where lynchings were more common have increased punitive sentiments towards Black people, including greater support for imprisonment, longer prison sentences, and the death penalty.

This effect is amplified among whites who view Black people as more prone to violence against white people. This finding demonstrates that the historical myth used to justify lynchings of black-on-white violence continues to hold sway over white beliefs’ about crime and punishment today. Further, the findings seem to apply nationally — not just in the South — and lynchings do not appear to impact the punitiveness among Black survey respondents.

Stewart and colleagues’ study demonstrates that the legacy of lynchings has shaped contemporary white views of crime, criminality, and punishment through a racial lens. Similar to Stevenson’s comments, the authors conclude that researchers must continue to unpack the importance of historical context in shaping contemporary views of crime and other social issues.

Photo by anokarina, Flickr CC

If a woman brewed your beer, would you like it less? Sociologists Elise Tak, Shelley Correll, and Sarah Soule suggest that you might, but only if you don’t have another way to judge its quality. We know that systemic gender bias occurs in many institutions, such as the militaryacademia, and science. This new research shows that not only do women occupy a lower status in society, but this low status can be passed on to the products that they make.

The researchers performed two online experiments to see how people evaluate male- and female-created products in two highly gendered markets: craft beer and cupcakes. In each experiment, participants read a label that identified the brewer’s or baker’s gender and whether the product had won an award. After reading the label, the participants rated the overall quality of the beer or cupcake.

As predicted, participants discriminated against female brewers. Among non-award-winning beers, participants judged the product quality to be greater if it was brewed by a man. However, there was no gender discrimination among award-winning beers. This is because female-brewed beer received a large boost in perceived quality if it won an award, while male-produced beer was viewed as high-quality regardless of recognition.

A woman faces challenges when she enters a male-dominated field, though the reverse is not generally true. This same principle held up in the experimental cupcake market. Male cupcake bakers experienced no disadvantage. The baker’s gender did not influence how raters perceived the quality of the cupcake, and award recognition gave an equal boost to male- and female-made products.

This study reveals when and how the lower status given to women transfers to the products they make. Female entrepreneurs must pass a high bar if they want to enter traditionally masculine fields, while men who make traditionally feminine products are given the benefit of the doubt. Importantly, this double standard did not vary by the rater’s gender. Both men and women gave lower ratings to female-brewed beer, showing how these gendered assumptions are part of the larger social structure.

However, the authors also note the power of external recognition to undo the bias against female-made products in male-dominated fields. Tak, Correll, and Soule suggest that if consumers are given more status markers to judge the quality of a product, they will rely less on gendered cues. Dismantling gender bias in awards might help alleviate gender bias in consumption.

Photo of students at a party by Jirka Matousek, Flickr CC

Sexual preferences are more than just sexual orientation. Since individuals attach different meanings to sexual acts, they may experience and look back on the same sexual activities in very different ways. New research expands our understanding of how social factors like gender affect feelings of regret after sexual activity. In one study, Jeremy Uecker and Brandon Martinez focus on whether college students regret their hookups.

Using data from the Online College Social Life Survey (OCSLS), the researchers examine answers from 13,020 heterosexual college students who reported ever regretting a hookup and regretting their most recent hookup. Researchers did not provide a definition of “hookup,” instead allowing participants to respond based on their own understanding of what a hookup is. In their analysis, the authors first test for gender differences in regret in different contexts. Then they use logistic regression to figure out what might explain these gender differences, like attitudes about sex, initiation of sex, enjoyment of sex, and perceived loss of respect from one’s partner and oneself.

Regardless of gender, students do not regret most hookups, especially their most recent hookups. Yet, the majority of students do regret sexual activity that happened in at least one of their hookups. In terms of gender, the amount of men and women who regret hookups are not that different overall. However, there are certain aspects of hookups that women regret more than men — specifically vaginal sex with a first-time partner. Out of the variables the researchers examined to try to explain this gap, three stood out:

  1. Initiation and Agency — Social norms indicate it is more appropriate for men to initiate sexual activity than women, so men tend to be in positions of power more often than women and thus may regret sex less. The authors also note that men appear to use this power to pressure women into having vaginal sex the women may not have wanted in the first place.
  2. Sexual Satisfaction — The authors found large gender differences in sexual satisfaction in hookups involving vaginal sex, especially when the hookup was with a first-time partner. They suggest this may be a result of men lacking partner-specific skills and knowledge that would make the experience sexually enjoyable for women.
  3. Perceptions of Respect — The sexual double standard (the idea that men can and should have sex with many partners but women shouldn’t) contributes to women feeling like their partner lost respect for them because of their sexual behavior.

Sociological research like this study can help us understand how we look back on sexual experiences. Gendered power relations, combined with social norms and beliefs about sex, contribute to who regrets casual sex and in what context. While these social components did lead to more women regretting vaginal sex than men, it is also important to remember that nearly three-quarters of these women did not regret those hookups at all — a finding that flies in the face of sexual double standards that argue women should not or cannot have sex casually.

Photo of a sign that says, “workers united can never be defeated!” Photo by rochelle hartman, Flickr CC

In a perfect world, the Internet would bring people together and give everyone a voice in the public sphere. When it comes to organizational activism for collective bargaining rights in North Carolina, however, Jen Schradie argues that digital technology creates a “treadmill that reproduces inequality,” but that only focusing on online data alone may miss social movement organizing that takes place offline. In her study “The Digital Activism Gap: How Class and Costs Shape Online Collective Action,” Schradie sets out to discover how the digital divide — defined as the economic, educational, and social inequalities between those who have computers and online access and those who do not — influences activism.

In 1959 the North Carolina General Assembly banned collective bargaining for the public sector, making North Carolina one of only three states in all of America that does not allow public workers to have collective bargaining rights. Schradie focuses on 34 organizations comprising individuals from various socioeconomic classes to better understand whether or not the digital divide influences activism. She combined online and offline data collection methods from 2011 to 2014, including in-depth interviews with 65 informants from the organizations; ethnographic observations of meetings, protests, and individuals’ personal internet use; and content analysis of each group’s website, Facebook, and Twitter posts. A research team also gathered data from Tweets, Facebook posts, and website metrics of the organizations under study.

Schradie found that digital engagement varies along class lines in a way that produces a digital activism gap. This gap is defined by two key takeaways: first, organizations with predominantly working-class members were much less likely to use the internet for organizing than those with members from middle and upper classes; second, two of the most active groups for collective bargaining rights lacked a web presence. While the digital divide affects social movements, organizations are still effective offline. To this end, Schradie notes the solution for activists and researchers is not simply to provide digital resources to the working class: it’s to understand that “theories — and policies — that are built only on those who have an empowered digital presence are limited.”

Photo of a student using a math workbook. Photo by Bindaas Madhavi, Flickr CC

There are two understandings of how schools affect inequality. On the one hand, evidence suggests that schools increase inequality by providing more advantages to students who are better off to begin with. On the other, schools are hailed as society’s “great equalizer” and believed to provide opportunities for all children to get ahead. New work from von HippelWorkman, and Downey revisits whether schools can compensate for family inequality.

The researchers replicated an earlier study that compared kindergarteners’ reading and math progress during the school year to their progress during summer vacation. Looking at summer vacation allows researchers to focus on inequality due to differences in the home. And by comparing summer vacation progress to school year progress, researchers can determine whether schools are making those differences larger or smaller. The earlier study found that, while inequality grew substantially between the start of kindergarten and the end of first grade, it grew much faster during summer vacations than it did during the school year. The researchers concluded that schools, in fact, were slowing down the growth of gaps due to inequalities in the home. 

In the new study, von Hippel, Workman, and Downey tested children who began kindergarten in 2010 with an updated measurement of achievement to see if school affected inequality differently in this younger cohort. For most students in both the original and the younger cohorts, gaps grew more quickly over summer vacations. For the 2010 cohort, however, the variation in scores upon entering kindergarten was reduced by the time they finished second grade. This means that not only are schools slowing down the growth of achievement gaps, they’re actually shrinking them. Yet, this finding was not the same for all children — for African American students, the pattern was reversed, with gaps growing wider when school was in session.

While it is heartening to know that schools have the ability to close achievement gaps, these early childhood gaps — especially those in basic reading and math — are still an issue. Since these gaps emerge before students begin kindergarten, later school or summer interventions are palliative, rather than preventative. It may therefore be wiser to develop policies that reduce inequalities among parents and their children before they’re old enough to enroll.

Photo of a bronze cast of an intrauterine device (IUD). Photo by Sarah Mirk, Flickr CC

Throughout history, concerns about women’s sexual behavior and reproduction have often been tied to mental health. For example, in the Victorian era, doctors believed that women’s bodies were incapable of physical exertion and mental activity, and they diagnosed many women — typically white women– with “hysteria.” Hysteria was a catch-all term often used to police women’s sexuality and bodies, and was characterized as a mental disorder in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual until 1980. While diagnosing women with hysteria may seem like an outdated practice today, mental health professionals still exercise control over women’s sexuality and reproductive choices. A recent study finds that clinicians today use both coercive and non-coercive techniques in facilitating reproductive decisions for their clients — especially female clients — diagnosed with mental illnesses like schizophrenia and major depression.

Using interview data with 98 patients at two state hospitals and three community mental health centers, Brea Perry, Emma Frieh, and Eric Wright examine clients’ interactions with service providers and family members regarding their sexual behavior and contraceptive use. The authors find that mental health professionals use strategies ranging from full client participation (what the authors call “enabling”) to no input by the client (what the authors called “coercion”).  

Providers used coercive techniques more frequently with women than with men. In the most extreme cases, this took the form of unwanted and traumatic sterilization procedures. More frequently, providers and female clients’ family members did not include women in key decisions, provided misinformation, or did not gain consent for the birth control medications prescribed. For male clients, providers used education through classes or group therapy more frequently. While these sessions often framed sex as risky for male clients, this technique allowed men much more reproductive freedom than many women experienced. The researchers also found that providers used “enabling” strategies (those that included full client participation), like  providing condoms or sex starter kits, for both genders at similar rates.

These findings demonstrate that women’s mental health remains inextricably linked to concerns about women’s bodies and their sexual behavior. Gender norms and expectations, especially those regarding sexual behavior and reproduction, have enduring impacts on our understanding of mental illnesses, as well as the medical decisions made for or by people diagnosed with a mental illness. To avoid these patriarchal patterns in the the future, Perry and colleagues suggest providers focus more on sex positivity rather than risk avoidance for their clients.

Photo of a child sitting on a sidewalk. Photo by Chris Beckerman, Flickr CC

In 2016 there were more than 400,000 children in foster care in the United States. Kids are placed in foster care because of parental neglect, abuse, incarceration, and other reasons that make it unsafe for them to live at home. The majority of these kids are successfully reunited with their parents after their parents complete a case plan. However, a sizable minority of these reunited children will re-enter foster care. New research by Sarah Font, Kierra Sattler, and Elizabeth Gershoff identifies the policy and family conditions that make foster care re-entry more likely.

Foster care is meant to be a temporary status, and the federal government pushes states to achieve “permanency” for kids in care as quickly as possible. Federal funds can even be withheld from states if too many children remain in foster care for longer than a year. A “permanent” home has two main forms: reunification with parents, or terminating parents’ rights and matching kids with an adoptive home. Terminating parents’ rights is considered an extreme step. Doing so requires detailed evidence that parents are not making timely progress toward their goals. By contrast, the standards for reunification are less clear. This means that if parents’ progress is not good, but also not bad enough to terminate their rights, the state has an incentive to reunite them with their kids as they approach federal deadlines. Returning children to parents who have made sub-par progress makes it more likely that they will be taken from their home again in the future.

The researchers analyzed data of children from Texas to find out what family conditions predict foster care re-entry. The children most at risk of re-entry were those who initially entered foster care because of parental substance abuse and neglect (substance abuse is rarely the only reason children are removed from a home). Of these cases, parental substance abuse and neglect were also typically the reasons for reentry, showing that these issues within the home persist over time.

These findings are especially important at a time when opioid use (combined with neglect) is increasing the number of children being removed from their homes. The researchers do not suggest that states should lower their standards to terminate parents’ rights. Rather, they advocate that timelines toward permanency should be relaxed and more post-reunification services should be offered to formerly substance-abusing parents to reduce the risk of returning a child to a home that is still unsafe.

Photo by Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York, Flickr CC

Originally posted August 14, 2018.

Helping former inmates return to communities after being released from prison is a serious challenge. Poor and unskilled populations with criminal records face significant barriers to enter the labor market, especially when trying to access formal and stable jobs. New research by Naomi Sugie describes the day-to-day experiences of job search and survival for 133 men recently released from prison in Newark, New Jersey.

Since former prisoners are a highly mobile and hard-to-reach population, Sugie distributed smartphones among participants and asked them to report their daily job search and employment experiences. This type of self-reporting and real-time data also prevented the difficulties of trying to remember past work experiences. The more than 8,000 real-time daily measures showed that respondents experience extreme job instability. Only about half of the participants ever worked at least two consecutive days and only one-quarter of the sample ever worked at least four consecutive days. Most men ceased looking for jobs after the first month, and for those who continued to search,  the chances of finding a regular job were still fairly low. To survive and fulfill their immediate needs, men relied on various low-skill and irregular jobs — from warehouse keepers to carnival maintenance workers. 

To explain the experience of working at the margins of the labor market, Sugie created the concept of work as foraging, which refers to engagement in intermittent, short-term, and precarious work needed to make ends meet. The irregular and sometimes exploitative experience of work as foraging may even exacerbate strain or criminal activities among marginalized job seekers. This particular type of work — work as foraging — challenges the idea that work always leads to social integration and desistance. On the contrary, working as a form of survival is more likely to lead to higher social inequality and lower social integration for foraging workers.