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.

Graphic via kissclipart.com.

Wage inequality in the United States has been increasing for four decades, and there are documented wage gaps by education, race, and gender. But new research shows that as big as wage inequality is in the United States today, benefit inequality is worse. And these gaps especially affect low-income Americans. 

The United States is unusual in that retirement benefits, health care, and paid leave are tied to employment rather than provided by the federal government. Employer-based benefits such as pension plans and employer-based health care therefore are not simply “extras,” but instead are the core of how Americans access health and other well-being resources. 

Just as some jobs pay much higher wages than others, some jobs come with much more extensive benefit packages. To examine the pattern within these benefit packages, Tali Kristal, Yinon Cohen, and Edo Navot examined the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s Employer Costs for Employee Compensation microdata. These data include the hourly cost of benefits for a nationally representative sample of jobs. The jobs are linked to employers, allowing researchers to track employer practices over time in a variety of sectors.

Looking at the time period between 1982-2015, inequality in benefits grew more than twice as fast as inequality in wages. Benefit inequality is larger than wage inequality both between and within workplaces (meaning both when comparing line workers at two different companies and when comparing a janitor to a CEO). Benefit inequality is only slightly higher than wage inequality within workplaces — largely because both are so high and have grown so much since the 1980s. But between-workplace inequality was almost six times higher in total benefits than in wages, indicating that the measure of a good job is more about benefits than the weekly paycheck. 

Why has benefit inequality grown? The authors have two answers: the decline of unions and the increase in nonstandard employment practices. Fewer and weaker unions mean less employee pressure for employers to provide strong benefits. Unions are especially effective at advocating for more equality in benefits, so the loss of union power is felt more in benefits than in wages. In addition, changes to employment practices including classifying more workers as independent contractors, temporary, or part-time mean that fewer workers qualify for generous benefit packages. A key part of these authors’ analysis is that workplaces have more control over the setting of benefits than the setting of wages, making benefits an easier place to decrease total compensation. 

While wage inequality is mostly a story of the richest Americans separating themselves from the middle-class, benefit inequality is largely a story of low-income jobs getting worse. For instance, while large firms can more easily provide a good package of benefits to all of their workers, these firms have increasingly subcontracted janitorial, food service, and delivery work. 

Benefit inequality is increasingly visible and increasingly life-or-death. These statistics represent the lives of workers who lack paid leave and health care during a global pandemic, and this article is a crucial addition to our understanding of how inequality matters today. 

Pamela Herd, Jeremy Freese, Kamil Sicinski, Benjamin W. Domingue, Kathleen Mullan Harris, Caiping Wei, Robert M. Hauser, “Genes, Gender Inequality, and Educational Attainment,” American Sociological Review, 2019
A woman receives her college diploma. Photo via pxfuel.

Both nature and nurture have always influenced who goes furthest in school. Recent advancements in genetics have found a way to modestly predict educational success through genes, and sociologists are engaging with that work to explore what social factors affect the expression of those genes. Because women’s access to higher education has historically been limited by social and structural barriers, genetic predictors of educational success may have been muted. Over the past century, women’s college access has increased, but has this also equalized the role played by genetics in predicting who attains a higher education? Tracing gendered effects of genetics over time can expose effects of gender discrimination in education.

Pamela Herd and her research team including Jeremy Freese, Kamil Sicinski, Benjamin W. Domingue, Kathleen Mullan Harris, Caiping Wei, and Robert M. Hauser decided to find out. Using data from three longitudinal surveys, they examined the educational attainment of participants born during different generations, including the Silent Generation (born 1931-1941); War Babies (born 1942-1947), Early Baby Boomers (born 1948-1953), Mid Baby Boomers (born 1954-1959); and Generation X (born 1976-1983). Each respondent provided a saliva sample which was analyzed for genetic intelligence indicators, or alleles associated with higher educational attainment. Respondents were then assigned a polygenic score — a big summary measure that has been shown in other studies to modestly predict educational success. The researchers used these scores to compare how much genes predicted educational attainment for the men and women born throughout the 20th century, and how this changed over time.

They found that the role of genetics in shaping educational attainment is strongly patterned by gender. Among participants born in 1939-1940, they found that men’s polygenic score was more tightly linked to their schooling than women’s at every age. Genetic predispositions helped men graduate college, but even women with the same genetic predispositions were limited by societal factors. 

But in comparing the patterns of men and women born in different generations, they found that gender differences varied as social conditions changed. Among the older cohorts, men showed a stronger link than women. The researchers believe that this was because women’s participation in higher education was severely limited during the 1950s and 60s, and because many men who had the grades (and the genes) to go to college either opted to do so to avoid the draft or mandatory military service or took advantage of GI benefits afterward. During the 1950s, however, the pattern began to reverse. This was likely because women in the older cohorts entered middle age, they returned to school as their childrearing responsibilities lessened and educational opportunities became more widely available. At that point the relationship between genetic factors and attainment increased–that is, the women who were genetically predisposed to do well at school were more likely to return in later adulthood. Around that time, more young women also began taking advantage of increased opportunities for higher education.

Among the youngest respondents, born in 1982 and for whom educational opportunity has been the most equal, genetics is no stronger a predictor of postsecondary educational attainment for men than for women. 

Examining the interplay between genes and the environment can help us understand how gender inequalities in educational outcomes have changed over time. It also reveals that finishing college is not automatically the result of individual traits, but instead shaped by the social environment.

While the number of families in poverty has risen over the past two decades, the number of TANF recipients has declined.

As the United States enters a deep economic recession, more families will need to rely on the government for financial support. Many families have already received stimulus checks (though some are still waiting). But how much difference does cash assistance really make? According to a new study, direct assistance programs play a vital role in helping families with children avoid food and housing insecurity. 

H. Luke Shaefer, Kathryn Edin, Vincent Fusaro, and Pinghui Wu first examined state administrative data from 2001 to 2015 on the number of families relying on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)– a short-term cash assistance program to support families with children struggling financially. They found that as eligibility rules were tightened, fewer households qualified for TANF and caseloads declined from 2.26 to 1.50 million. At the same time, families in poverty increased from 5.31 to 6.48 million.

Because the researchers were interested in how declines in cash assistance programs affect families’ well-being, they then looked at data on homelesseness and food insecurity. Data on the number of homeless public school children came from the National Center for Homeless Education, and data on food insecurity came from the Current Population Survey (CPS). Households were considered food insecure when they did not have access to an adequate amount and quality of food. For instance, families might not have had enough money to afford balanced meals or they might have cut the size of their meals to save money.

For all households with children, the decline in TANF caseloads led to increased food insecurity and student homelessness. The food security of single mothers with children were most affected by these declines. In addition, the relationship between cash assistance and homelessness was especially strong. This suggests that the decline in direct-assistance programs like TANF has increased the instability of children’s living situations. This is troubling because previous research shows that housing instability often leads to school instability and lower rates of graduation

This research shows how cash assistance programs play an important role in easing hardship for families struggling financially. As governments consider how to mitigate the effects of the coming recession, cash assistance is a proven way to help keep children housed and fed. 

A Peace Corps Volunteer paints a mural on a main street with her students in the Dominican Republic. Photo by Peace Corps via Flickr.

Students graduating from college now are searching for jobs at the same time as 1 in 5 American adults have filed for unemployment in the past month. A growing number may have applied to service programs like the Peace Corps or Teach for America — 1-3 year programs that come with a small stipend or require fundraising and are dedicated to a specific mission. Scholars have hypothesized that these programs allow students to explore their identity during an extended transition to adulthood. But new research from Alanna Gillis finds that there are distinct class differences in why students choose service programs. 

Gillis interviewed 30 juniors and seniors at an elite public university who were considering service programs. She identified four different ways that students thought about their service opportunities. Some, for instance, saw service programs like Teach For America as pathways to employment, whereas others thought about service programs as a short-term, service-oriented experience before settling into a more stability-motivated long-term career. These ways of thinking corresponded with different social class backgrounds and orientations toward work values. But despite these differences, all of the students were using service programs to respond to constraints of the labor market.

Social class and financial situations were key to how students saw service programs. For instance, one set of students were intrinsically motivated to do a service program because of the identity and values that they had developed in college. They saw service programs as a step towards a service-oriented career that they couldn’t yet precisely define. These students came from more privileged backgrounds or had qualified for large enough scholarships that they had little student debt. In contrast, students who came from more marginalized backgrounds and had more immediate financial precarity were more likely to be “backup planners,” interested in applying for service programs largely to make sure they had some form of employment immediately after graduation, even though they would prefer a full-time job. 

Although these interviews took place in 2015-16, when economists saw the United States as mostly recovered from the 2008 recession, these students perceived difficulty in getting jobs. Whether service programs were a backup plan, an escape before taking a more constraining job, an explicit pathway into the labor market, or a short-term way to build human capital, service programs were a way to respond to challenges in the labor market. Given the horrific labor market during stay-at-home orders related to covid-19, it is likely that a lot of students are now backup planners. Considering that students in a good economy were looking to service programs to fill (and help jump) the gap between no job and a rewarding career, it is likely that service programs of all stripes will be more important than ever. 

A older man reads a newspaper while sitting on a park bench. Photo by Hasan Albari via Pexels.

Today, there is a higher volume of news options than ever before and heightened concerns about the proliferation of “fake news.” One could argue it is more important than ever to research content before relying on it. But consumers are more likely to rely on it first, then verify it, according to recent media studies research.

The team of Stephanie Edgerly, Rachel Mourão, Esther Thorson and Samuel Tham used an experimental design with 841 participants to study when audiences seek to verify the news. After showing respondents a Fox News or Washington Post headline, the experiment asked respondents to indicate if they were likely to check other major news outlets, ask friends/family members, use a search engine, check Facebook/Twitter, or consult some other source to see if the headline was supported. 

Respondents showed greater intent to verify content from a source they considered credible or a headline that they perceived to be congruent with their already-established beliefs. Or, stated in the opposite manner, if participants found a source had low credibility and questioned the veracity of the headline, they showed less intent to verify. This finding goes against the reasonable belief that people would verify a headline if they were uncertain. Instead, readers strove for further proof to information that is consistent with what they want the answer to be.

Validating the news takes extra time and energy on a reader’s part. A reader must take additional actions in response to information they encounter. Overall, the team found respondents were more motivated to engage in confirmatory validation. Why? To dominate debate. “The incentive to take on the extra work of verification is greater when people think they can use the information to win future arguments,” the authors say. Credible headlines that back up partisanship values provide strong evidence for arguments. Less credible headlines that are against partisanship values are useless in debates. And, let’s face it, in this time of extreme partisanship, people are eager for a verbal battle. 

A freestyle rap battle in NYC. Photo by Eli Duke, Flickr CC

Early hip-hop forwarded themes of counterculture, anti-establishment, and underprivilege; marginalized groups used hip-hop to tell their stories. Today, however, hip-hop is a multinational and multi-billion dollar industry. Can hip-hop music hold onto connections with disadvantaged communities? Sarah Becker and Castel Sweet explore this in new research based on interviews with 25 Southern hip-hop artists, most who are black men. The authors draw on “black placemaking” theories to explain how artists maintain connections to disadvantaged communities and to explore how perceptions of and connections to physical place can shape hip-hop and art.

Artists interviewed in the current study represent a variety of personal backgrounds and hip-hop styles; some are from disadvantaged, lower-class communities and some are not. The authors turn to theories of “black placemaking” about how black Americans build meaningful community solidarity in the face of oppression, marginalization, and disadvantage, both past and present. Research on black placemaking has found that alliances between black working-class and middle-class neighborhoods can bolster how underprivileged neighborhoods build community and solidarity.

Artists from concentrated disadvantage in impoverished areas draw heavily on community connections and responsibilities when describing their artistic visions and personal goals. Being a role model and helping the community is an important motivator for many of these artists, and many shared tales of community resilience in the face of adversity and marginalization. Interestingly, artists from middle-class backgrounds who have personal connections with disadvantaged communities or now live in such areas also discuss community building and dealing with concentrated disadvantage. 

This study shows that, in addition to driving community resilience and solidarity, black placemaking can shape artistic visions, goals, and careers. It also illustrates how cross-class alliances and middle-class blacks continue to play a role in how underprivileged neighborhoods survive and thrive in hard times, and this can drive some sick rhymes; commercialism be damned, hip-hop is still alive!!! #bars