Flashback Friday.

Adam Smith observed in his Lectures on Jurisprudence (1762) — a series of talks that he gave at the University of Glasgow — that national character plays a significant role in economic transactions: the Dutch, he said, are “more faithful to their word” and better at “performing agreements” than the English, and the English more faithful than the Scots.

In the past few months, I’ve observed a similar kind of cultural variation in a much more prosaic setting: the panhandling interaction.

If you’re from North America, as I am, you’ve probably seen people on the street requesting money from strangers using appeals such as “Homeless—Please Help” or “Homeless Veteran.”  There are a number of variations, but homelessness is the common theme in many cases.

Photo by Steve Baker.

Elsewhere in the world, panhandlers use quite different rationales—or what the great mid-century sociologist C. Wright Mills would call “vocabularies of motive.” Mills wasn’t interested in what actually motivated people—such as what psychologists would term “needs” or “drives”—but rather in the ideologically-charged terms they used to justify their actions to themselves and others. As he observed, some motives are more acceptable than others, and we can learn something about local cultures based on what passes for a “good reason.”

So it’s sociologically interesting that within the North American context, the concept of “home” has such resonance that the claim of “homelessness” is considered a compelling and sufficient motive for giving money to strangers. But while the need for shelter would seem universal, it’s rare to see a panhandler outside North America requesting a donation on the basis of homelessness.

In Germany, for example, one often finds people begging for trinkgeld—”drinking money.” And they’re not playing for laughs, as one sometimes finds in the US, when panhandlers give a wink and a nod to the stereotype that money given to beggars is only ever used to buy alcohol (or drugs). When a panhandler asks for “drinking money” in the US, it’s sort of an in-joke, or an attempt to appear disarmingly honest; based on the limited examples I’ve seen, this seems to jolly people up and get good results (i.e., quantities of cash).

But in Germany, drinking money is serious business. In the four years I lived in the Rhine Valley, I saw dozens of men (always men) on public transport and on the street, asking for “trinkgeld, bitte” in monotonous, dirge-like tones that seemed to express just how grim a fate it was to lack beer money. Equally surprising to me was the willingness of Germans to open their purses for this reason, as if it was a truth universally acknowledged that a man with empty pockets must be in want of a beer. In the interactions I witnessed, no one on either end of the transaction ever smiled.

Yet another vocabulary of motive can be found on the streets of Istanbul, where panhandlers often approach passers-by with a request for ekmek parası—Turkish for “bread money.” In perhaps 10 visits to Turkey in the last 3 years, I’ve never seen anyone on the street claiming to be homeless. Nor have I seen a cardboard sign of the kind so common in North America.

In all three settings, the vocabularies of motive among panhandlers have a common theme of need: for shelter, drink or food. What’s interesting is how each cultural setting changes the calculus about what kind of motive is most likely to bring in the cash. Perhaps it comes down to what each society views as among the basic human rights: in the US, shelter has a plausible claim to that status, but beer does not; whereas in Germany, it an appeal for trinkgeld succeeds as an appeal to common humanity and decency; in Turkey, hunger seems to trump all other claims.

Originally posted in 2010.

Brooke Harrington is Associate Professor of Economic Sociology at the Copenhagen Business School. She is the author of two books: Pop Finance: Investment Clubs and the New Investor Populism and Deception: From Ancient Empires to Internet Dating.  She is currently doing research on offshore banking and blogs at our fellow Society Pages blog, Economic Sociology.

This month sociologist Matthew Desmond won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Desmond’s book documents, in rich and depressing detail, what it’s like to try to pay rent as a low income earner and how easy it is to end up on the street. Eviction is not caused by personal “irresponsibility,” Desmond insists, it’s essentially “inevitable.”

Eviction is psychologically scarring, but it also throws families further into poverty, destabilizing their work and family lives, often stripping them of their few possessions, and costing money — all while enriching landlords.

Here’s 7 minutes from Desmond about his experience living among low income families and the lessons he learned:

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

4The Numbers

Some History

The Winners and the Losers

Tax Cultures

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Where you grow up is consequential. It plays a critical role in shaping who you are likely to become. Where you live affects your future earnings, how much education you’re likely to receive, how long you live, and much more.

Sociologists who study this are interested in the concentrated accumulations of specific types and qualities of capital (economic, cultural, social) found in abundance in certain locations, less in more, and virtually absent in some. And, as inequalities intersect with one another, marginalization tends to pile up. For instance, those areas of the U.S. that are disproportionately Black and Latino are also areas struggling economically (see Dustin A. Cable’s racial dot map of the U.S.). Similarly, those areas of the country with the least upward mobility are also areas with some of the highest proportions of households of people of color. And, perhaps not shockingly (although it should be), schools in these areas receive fewer resources and have lower outcomes for students.

How much education you receive is, in part, a result of where you grow up. Think about it: you’re be more likely to end up with at least a bachelor’s degree if you grow up in an area where almost everyone is at least college educated. It’s not a requirement, but it’s more likely. And, if you do and go on to live in a similar community and have children, your kids will benefit from you carrying on that cycle as well. Of course, this system of advantages works in reverse for communities with lower levels of educational attainment.

Recently, a geography professor, Kyle Walker, mapped educational attainment in the U.S. Inspired by Cable’s map of racial segregation, Walker visualizes educational inequality in the U.S. from a bird’s eye view. And when we compare Walker’s map of educational attainment to Cable’s map of racial segregation, you can see how inequalities tend to accumulate.

Below, I’ve displayed paired images of a selection of U.S. cities using both maps. In each image, the top map illustrates educational attainment and the bottom visualizes race.

  • On Walker’s map of educational attainment (top images in each pair), the colors indicate: less than high schoolhigh schoolsome collegebachelor’s degree, and graduate degree.
  • On Cable’s map of racial segregation (bottom images in each pair), the colors indicate: White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Other Race/Native American/Multi-Racial

So, one way of comparing the images below is to look at how the blue areas compare on each map of the same region.  

Below, you can see San Francisco, Berkeley, and San Jose, California in the same frame using Walker’s map of educational attainment (top) over Cable’s racial dot map (bottom).See how people are segregated by educational attainment (top image) and race (bottom image) in Chicago, Illinois:
Los Angeles, California:
New York City:
Detroit, Michigan:
Houston, Texas:
Compare regions of the U.S. examining Walker’s map with Cable’s racial dot map, you can see how racial and educational inequality intersect. While I only visualized cities above for comparison on both maps, if you examine Walker’s map of educational attainment, two broad trends with respect to segregation by educational attainment are easily visible:

  • Urban/rural divide–people with bachelors and graduate degrees tend to be clustered in cities and metropolitan areas.
  • Racial and economic inequalities–within metropolitan areas, you can see educational achievement segregation that both reflects and reinforces racial and economic segregation within the area (this is what you see above).

And, as research has shown, the levels of parents’ educational attainment within an area impacts the educational performances of the children living in that area as well. That’s how social reproduction happens. Sociologists are interested in how inequalities are passed on to subsequent generations. And it is sometimes hard to notice in your daily life because, as you can see above, we’re segregated from one another (by race, education, class, and more). And this segregation is one way interlocking inequalities persist.

Tristan Bridges, PhD is a professor at The College at Brockport, SUNY. He is the co-editor of Exploring Masculinities: Identity, Inequality, Inequality, and Change with C.J. Pascoe and studies gender and sexual identity and inequality. You can follow him on Twitter here. Tristan also blogs regularly at Inequality by (Interior) Design.

The Women’s March in Washington had three times more people in attendance than did President Trump’s inauguration. Many have argued about the reasons for these numbers (see here, here, and here), and used them both individually and together to make claims about activism and political support. But something is missing from these conversations. In order to fully understand the differences in attendance at these events in D.C., and to avoid taking these numbers to mean something they do not, we must account for class and race.

Gender, education and race may have been the biggest rifts in voters this past presidential election, but class is part of this political shift. At least part of why people didn’t show up for President Trump’s inauguration in droves but did show up to the Women’s Marches is a story of class privilege and the cultural capital that comes with it. Upper middle class white women and urban dwellers from all classes had easy access to Women’s Marches, both in D.C. and around the country. Many of Trump’s voters would have had to fly to D.C. Because research shows that only about 50% of the population in the US flies each year, and because that tracks with income and education, Women’s March supporters may have been more likely to fly than Trump voters were. If we look at data from just the five counties with the largest vote share for Trump, we see that, except for Buchanan, Virginia, these locations present great travel distance. Further, President Trump received 4.1% of the vote in Washington, D.C., and lost in surrounding states by large percentages. As CNN points out, a trip to inauguration would be a long one for a critical mass of Trump supporters.

White voters from rural areas and those without a college education represent the largest demographics to turn out for Trump. Many of Trump’s supporters reside in more rural areas that are struggling economically. Cost and familiarity with travel, ease and options in taking time off of work, and geographic proximity to D.C. may have affected participation in Inauguration events. Sociologists talk about cultural capital—or the non-financial goods that help with social mobility beyond economic means. Such capital can include knowledge, skills, and education—things that are both material and symbolic. When Emily lived in rural Arkansas, many people she met had never left the state or in some cases even the county. Indeed, when she told a friend there that she flew home for Christmas and it cost $70, he was surprised that a plane ticket cost less than it did to fill up his truck, because he’d never flown before. Emily’s knowledge of air travel is a form of cultural capital, and one that could put her at an advantage in planning a trip to fly to Washington, D.C. for the March. There is an intimidation that comes from not having done that or been there before—your cultural capital can determine how well versed you are in navigating AirBnB and the slew of cheap flight websites that exist.

Why was the Women’s March so highly attended? Many have analyzed the mass turn-out in D.C., nationally, and internationally. For the first time, the Women’s March brought out highly educated, more affluent white women who have the forms of capital to plan and attend a weekend in D.C. Of course, there were many—millions, in fact—who did not go to D.C., but who showed support in sister marches around the country and globe. For many, their lack of attendance in D.C. could be due to the same barriers that perhaps inhibited many from attending the Inauguration. For others, their participation was possible because demographics likely to participate in Women’s Marches – LGBTQA+ folks and people of color – are more likely to reside in urban communities. But to compare these attendance rates without talking about class, and without talking about the mobilization of white women, muddies the realities of who is ready and willing to act at more local levels.

While the Women’s March may have kicked off a movement that has the tools in place for success, we need to remember that Trump’s path to success was unpredicted. To take his inauguration attendance numbers to mean that his initial supporters have changed their minds or that Trump has lost political support would be a potentially grave mistake. To take what is now the largest protest in U.S. history as evidence of mass, continued mobilization, that may also be inaccurate. White women are just starting to show up—will they continue to do so? In talking about the intersections of class and race, we remember who is able to mobilize and show support when, and we must bring these intersections to the fore in future conversations about mobilization and activism.

Sarah Diefendorf is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Washington. Her research centers on sexuality, gender, and evangelical religious groups. You can follow her on Twitter here.

Emily Kalah Gade is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Washington. Her research centers on political violence, civil resistance and militancy.

Originally posted at the Contexts blog.

Among the many forces contributing to the surprising Trump election was the shift of many White working class voters to vote for the upstart candidate. For years, these working-class families had been hurting; their incomes stagnated, good jobs became hard to find, and their health suffered. More importantly, entire working-class communities declined. It was not just personal economic misfortune, it was a class.

The problems of the White working class were not unknown, but they were not often addressed very directly. Sometimes, the most common advice was they should get more training or send their kids to college – advice that could sound more like a middle-class put-down than a realistic policy addressing their problems. But, for the most part, the working class was just ignored, a neglect that made them ripe for Trump’s appeals. This neglect was a general cultural phenomenon; a Google ngram count of the phrase “working class” in American books shows a spike in the Depression Thirties and an even stronger growth from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s. But after the mid-1970s, there is a steady decline, implying a lack of discussion just as their problems were growing.  The implicit message seemed to have been that their problems didn’t matter.

vanf1

U.S. sociology was not immune from this broader cultural trend. A count of the frequencies of “working class” in the titles or abstracts of articles in the American Journal of Sociology and the American Sociological Review shows a quite similar if even more dramatic pattern: rapid growth in the 1960s, peaking in the 1959-1969 period, a steady interest for the next two decades and then an abrupt decline beginning in the 1990s. These articles on the working class were not insignificant; even through the 21st century, the authors include a number of ASA presidents. But overall, working-class issues seem to have lost their salience, as if even American sociology was also telling them that they didn’t matter.

vanf2

Perhaps the Trump election, which was in part a symptom of this neglect, may also produce its cure. Election post-mortems in the media have focused more attention on the white working class than they have received in years.  Academe may soon follow.  Arlie Hochshild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, and, in political science, Katherine Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment, are encouraging signs. But Trump was certainly dangerous medicine for what ails our professional discourse.

Reeve Vanneman, PhD is in the sociology department at the University of Maryland.

Originally posted at Reports from the Economic Front.

Defenders of capitalism in the United States often choose not to use that term when naming our system, preferring instead the phrase “market system.”  Market system sounds so much better, evoking notions of fair and mutually beneficial trades, equality, and so on.  The use of that term draws attention away from the actual workings of our system.

In brief, capitalism is a system structured by the private ownership of productive assets and driven by the actions of those who seek to maximize the private profits of the owners.  Such an understanding immediately raises questions about how some people and not others come to own productive wealth and the broader social consequences of their pursuit of profit.

Those are important questions because it is increasingly apparent that while capitalism continues to produce substantial benefits for the largest asset owners, those benefits have increasingly been secured through the promotion of policies – globalization, financialization, privatization of state services, tax cuts, attacks on social programs and unions – that have both lowered overall growth and left large numbers of people barely holding the line, if not actually worse off.

The following two figures come from a Washington Post article by Jared Bernstein in which he summarizes the work of Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman. The first set of bars shows the significant decline in US pre-tax income growth.  In the first period (1946-1980), pre-tax income grew by 95 percent.  In the second (1980-2014), it grew by only 61 percent.

income-trends

This figure also shows that this slower pre-tax income growth has not been a problem for those at the top of the income distribution.  Those at the top more than compensated for the decline by capturing a far greater share of income growth than in the past.  In fact, those in the bottom 50 percent of the population gained almost nothing over the period 1980 to 2014.

The next figure helps us see that the growth in inequality has been far more damaging to the well-being of the bottom half than the slowdown in overall income growth.  As Bernstein explains:

The bottom [blue] line in the next figure shows actual pretax income for adults in the bottom half of the income scale. The top [red] line asks how these folks would have done if their income had grown at the average rate from the earlier, faster-growth period. The middle [green] line asks how they would have done if they experienced the slower, average growth of the post-1980 period.

The difference between the top two lines is the price these bottom-half adults paid because of slower growth. The larger gap between the middle and bottom line shows the price they paid from doing much worse than average, i.e., inequality… That explains about two-thirds of the difference in endpoints. Slower growth hurt these families’ income gains, but inequality hurt them more.

inequality-versus-growth

A New York Times analysis of pre-tax income distribution over the period 1974 to 2014 reinforces this conclusion about the importance of inequality.  As we can see in the figure below, the top 1 percent and bottom 50 percent have basically changed places in terms of their relative shares of national income.

changing-places

The steady ratcheting down in majority well-being is perhaps best captured by studies designed to estimate the probability of children making more money than their parents, an outcome that was the expectation for many decades and that underpinned the notion of “the American dream.”

Such research is quite challenging, as David Leonhardt explains in a New York Times article, “because it requires tracking individual families over time rather than (as most economic statistics do) taking one-time snapshots of the country.”  However, thanks to newly accessible tax records that go back decades, economists have been able to estimate this probability and how it has changed over time.

Leonhardt summarizes the work of one of the most important recent studies, that done by economists associated with the Equality of Opportunity Project. In summary terms, those economists found that a child born into the average American household in 1940 had a 92 percent chance of making more than their parents.  This falls to 79 percent for a child born in 1950, 62 percent for a child born in 1960, 61 percent for a child born in 1970, and only 50 percent for a child born in 1980.

The figure below provides a more detailed look at the declining fortunes of most Americans.   The horizontal access shows the income percentile a child is born into and the vertical access shows the probability of that child earning more than their parents.   The drop-off for children born in 1960 and 1970 compared to the earlier decade is significant and is likely the result of the beginning effects of the changes in capitalist economic dynamics that started gathering force in the late 1970s, for example globalization, privatization, tax cuts, union busting, etc.  The further drop-off for children born in 1980 speaks to the strengthening and consolidation of those dynamics.

american-dream

The income trends highlighted in the figures above are clear and significant, and they point to the conclusion that unless we radically transform our capitalist system, which will require building a movement capable of challenging and overcoming the power of those who own and direct our economic processes, working people in the United States face the likelihood of an ever-worsening future.

Martin Hart-Landsberg, PhD is a professor emeritus of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

1Will Davies, a politics professor and economic sociologist at Goldsmiths, University of London, summarized his thoughts on Brexit for the Political Economy and Research Centre, arguing that the split wasn’t one of left and right, young and old, racist or not racist, but center and the periphery. You can read it in full there, or scroll down for my summary.

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Many of the strongest advocates for Leave, many have noted, were actually among the beneficiaries of the UK’s relationship with the EU. Small towns and rural areas receive quite a bit of financial support. Those regions that voted for Leave in the greatest numbers, then, will also suffer some of the worst consequences of the Leave. What motivated to them to vote for a change that will in all likelihood make their lives worse?

Davies argues that the economic support they received from their relationship with the EU was paired with a culturally invisibility or active denigration by those in the center. Those in the periphery lived in a “shadow welfare state” alongside “a political culture which heaped scorn on dependency.”

Davies uses philosopher Nancy Fraser’s complementary ideas of recognition and redistribution: people need economic security (redistribution), but they need dignity, too (recognition). Malrecognition can be so psychically painful that even those who knew they would suffer economically may have been motivated to vote Leave. “Knowing that your business, farm, family or region is dependent on the beneficence of wealthy liberals,” writes Davies, “is unlikely to be a recipe for satisfaction.”

It was in this context that the political campaign for Leave penned the slogan: “Take back control.” In sociology we call this framing, a way of directing people to think about a situation not just as a problem, but a particular kind of problem. “Take back control” invokes the indignity of oppression. Davies explains:

It worked on every level between the macroeconomic and the psychoanalytic. Think of what it means on an individual level to rediscover control. To be a person without control (for instance to suffer incontinence or a facial tick) is to be the butt of cruel jokes, to be potentially embarrassed in public. It potentially reduces one’s independence. What was so clever about the language of the Leave campaign was that it spoke directly to this feeling of inadequacy and embarrassment, then promised to eradicate it. The promise had nothing to do with economics or policy, but everything to do with the psychological allure of autonomy and self-respect.

Consider the cover of the Daily Mail praising the decision and calling politicians “out-of-touch” and the EU “elite” and “contemptuous”:2

From this point of view, Davies thinks that the reward wasn’t the Leave, but the vote itself, a veritable middle finger to the UK center and the EU “eurocrats.” They know their lives won’t get better after a Brexit, but they don’t see their lives getting any better under any circumstances, so they’ll take the opportunity to pop a symbolic middle finger. That’s all they think they have.

And that’s where Davies thinks the victory  of the Leave vote parallels strongly with Donald Trump’s rise in the US:

Amongst people who have utterly given up on the future, political movements don’t need to promise any desirable and realistic change. If anything, they are more comforting and trustworthy if predicated on the notion that the future is beyond rescue, for that chimes more closely with people’s private experiences.

Some people believe that voting for Trump might in fact make things worse, but the pleasure of doing so — of popping a middle finger to the Republican party and political elites more generally — would be satisfaction enough. In this sense, they may be quite a lot like the Leavers. For the disenfranchised, a vote against pragmatism and solidarity may be the only satisfaction that this election, or others, is likely to get them.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.