A shopping cart full of groceries viewed from above. Eddie Welker via flickr, CCO.

The Wall Street Journal recently interviewed Estefani Iraheta, a mother of two who requested donated food from her local Salvation Army when the pandemic hit. Every time she goes to pick up the canned food and staples, more people are waiting in line with her, seeking food for their families. As of August 2020, an estimated 12 percent of U.S. households, or roughly 1 in 8 U.S. households, did not have enough food within the last week; for U.S. households with children, nearly 20% stated they did not have enough food the previous week. 

Food insecurity refers to inconsistent access to sufficient, nutritious food that is necessary to live a healthy life. While hunger is a related issue, food insecurity is fundamentally about a lack of household resources. And the COVID-pandemic has worsened U.S. food insecurity by increasing unemployment, raising food prices, and closing schools. 

Schools are a vital institution, not only for learning but also for access to social services, including regular meals. From kindergarten to college, many schools offer a dependable source of community support and reliable access to food. Even before the pandemic, however, food insecurity has been a critical issue for U.S. students. In recent years, researchers have investigated how educational institutions handle this issue.
More recently, scholars have focused on the prevalence of food insecurity among college students, who are often viewed as a privileged group. In particular, research has devoted attention to how colleges do, or do not, address food insecurity.
Food insecurity is only one consequence of a larger societal issue: poverty and precarity in the United States. In 2019, approximately 34 million Americans were living in poverty, or 10% of the U.S. population. It’s important to recognize that poverty is structured not just by income, but by race, gender, citizenship, and other factors. Here are some key sociological resources on the experience of living poverty in the United States.

For more news coverage on food insecurity during the COVID-19 crisis in the United States, view The New York Times’ recent article and photo essay.

Image: Black and white photo of a jail cell, bars in the foreground. Image via pixabay, CC0. In many states people convicted of a felony lose their right to vote.

The election results are more or less in, along with a slew of disinformation about alleged voter fraud. You’ve probably head of #StoptheSteal, a viral-hashtag linked to groups claiming that the election results are inaccurate or illegitimate due to voter fraud. We at TheSocietyPages have published multiple articles and posts pointing to social science research demonstrating that voter fraud is not a big problem in the USA. Following the events of the last few weeks, we decided to provide you with an updated refresher of work in this area.  It documents that voter fraud is virtually non-existent, and that if there are problems related to voting and voters in the USA, they have more to do with suppression and disenfranchisement. 

Across a variety of social science fields, data and research in the last decade shows that voter fraud is extremely rare in the USA. Some scholars estimate the level to be less than one-thousandth of one percent of all votes (i.e less than  0.001%), and that number is actually considered high by other scholars! Furthermore, of the few instances that could qualify as “voter fraud,” most involve issues of individual registration or ballot damage. There is no evidence of systemic, malicious attempts to subvert the results of the election. Indeed, the existing system of voter registration, as well as processing, counting, and sorting ballots, has been validated by extensive  quality-control checks and fraud-prevention procedures. It will be a while before social scientists publish research about the 2020 election, but this author is willing to bet that findings will continue to illustrate a lack of voter fraud in the USA. Remember that the Federal Elections Commission has already stated that the 2020 election was one of the safest, most-secure elections in recent history.
There is a real voting-related issue in the USA that goes unnoticed: voter disenfranchisement and voter suppression. In the past decade, the right to vote has come under attack in ways that are both typical and novel. For example, in many states people convicted of a felony lose their right to vote, even after their prison sentence is completed. This is a long-standing legal norm, but in recent decades, the population of incarcerated Americans has skyrocketed within a criminal justice system already rife with racial inequalities. Today, millions of Americans have been effectively barred from democratic participation, and a disproportionate number are Black, Hispanic, or Native-American.
Relatedly, voter suppression has grown throughf stricter ID laws, de-registration of voters, and other bureaucratic obstacles that make it harder for people to vote, even people who have voted in many elections beforehand. As the research below shows, voter suppression works in ways that skew the American electorate on racial and partisan lines, meaning the votes being cast are not truly representative of the American population.

Ideally, our society would take the energy spurred by the fantastical, imaginary arguments of the #StoptheSteal campaign and instead address the very real issues that compromise our democracy, taint the voting process, and unduly impact election outcomes. The research cited above suggests that removing obstacles to voting would increase individual political participation and general voter turnout; if we’re in pursuit of an ideal democracy, shouldn’t such issues be at the forefront?

Image: Three white-appearing healthcare workers, “Thank you – You are our heroes” courtesy of 18371568 via pixabay CC0.  This imagery suggests our heroes are white, even though around 25% of nurses in the U.S. are people of color. Furthermore, signage that says we “thank our heroes” does not match up with how frontline workers have been unsupported by leadership. Images like this mask structural inequality (pun intended) under the guise of all being “in this together.”

We have seen many things described as “unprecedented” as the year 2020 has steamrolled over many of us. Among them, the pandemic has given the world an unprecedented illustration of U.S. racial inequalities. For example, Black people are more likely to die from COVID-19 infections than are people in any other racial group, and this is true even after controlling for income, housing conditions, and underlying health conditions. Yet not all Americans are able to see the racial inequalities that have been unmasked.

Sociologist and race scholar Eduardo Bonilla-Silva insists that the key to understanding race and racism in the United States is understanding how colorblind ideals shape Americans’ thinking and public discourse. Examples of what Bonillia-Silva calls color-blind racism are phrases such as “We are all in this together” or “Covid is the great equalizer” because they serve to draw attention away from the racial disparities that are otherwise so persistent and pronounced.

Color-blind racism is named after the hypothetical White observer who says they “do not see color” while they, simultaneously, fail to see existing racial inequalities. In other words, colorblind framings mask deep, structural inequalities. People may feel like they are saying unifying things with these tropes, but this sort of “all in this together” messaging serves to hide the structural nature of racism.

Even more, colorblind racism tends to minimize racism itself and, when confronted with racial injustices, constructs and accepts elaborate race-based explanations for racial inequality. For example, within a color-blind racism frame, Latinx workers might be said to be paid less than White workers because they do not work as hard, are unreliable as workers, or are less qualified. And White workers are said to get more raises because they are smarter and work harder. With racial blinders on, anything that results from structural causes is explained by deficiency in the minoritized party, and coincidental superiority in the privileged party. This negates the structural origins of inequality and allows the status quo to continue.
In terms of the COVID-19 mortality rate, the sometimes spoken explanation (i.e. 1, 2, 3) is that Black people must be weak, prone to illness, or make unhealthy choices in general. That shift in focus, from talking about racial inequality in the mortality rate associated with a virus to, somehow, talking about Black people as deficient, weak, sick, and making poor choices, illustrates how color-blind racism is alive and well amidst this pandemic. Colorblind racism serves as a mask, preventing the public from seeing the structural causes of health disparities experienced by Black people and other people of color.
Three generations of an Asian family sit together on a couch, smiling up at a camera. Image via Anton Diaz, CC BY-NC 2.0.

With new covid cases at an all-time high, coronavirus is front and center in the minds of many Americans. The Centers for Disease Control also recently published a report that indicates that household transmission of covid is frequent between both adults and kids. With the rise in covid infection, and concern for household transmission, it is worth thinking about who lives together under one roof and why. In particular, who lives in intergenerational houses where young people might expose older adults to the virus?  And how might larger groups of people living together increase the chance of virus spread? Sociological research offers a number of ways to think about the reasons that intergenerational families live together that can inform our answers to these questions and help frame public health responses.

Pew Research center reports that a majority of young adults are living with their parents for the first time since the Great Depression. Over the previous century and a half less and less young people have lived with their parents. However, research shows that intergenerational bonds are of increasing importance. Older adults live longer, increasing the length of shared life among parents and kids, and grandparents and grandchildren. Young adults, particularly in the middle-class, also need to rely on their parents’ financial support through a longer period of “transitioning to adulthood” that includes getting a college education. With a weak labor market, and many college courses online, it is no surprise that many young adults are remaining or returning home.
Although, overall, many more young adults are living with their parents, at least temporarily, there are important racial and ethnic differences in intergenerational households. White families are more likely to offer intergenerational financial support while Black and Latinx families are more likely to help family members by providing housing or help with childcare or caregiving, for instance. Immigrant families are also more likely to live in intergenerational households.

In the context of covid, living in intergenerational families can seem risky. These living arrangements can put older adults in closer proximity with young people who may be leaving home to work each day. However, overall, intergenerational residence patterns are a way that families can share resources and develop resilience in the face of limitations. For immigrant families intergenerational living arrangements can help create networks of support that ease the transition to a new country. For racial minorities living together can be a way to pool money and provide support in the face of structural barriers such as disproportionate poverty or poor health.  The widespread unemployment and disability brought on by the covid-19 pandemic makes these networks of support more crucial than ever.

Firefighter captures an image of a wildfire. Image via creative commons, CC PPM 1.0.

The 2020 wildfire season is the worst on record, with blazes ravaging portions of California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado.

In early October, California officials reported that more than 4 million acres burned across the state this year, more than doubling the previous yearly record from two years ago. The August Complex fire alone surpassed one million acres – larger than the entire state of Rhode Island. Recently, The Cameron Peak Fire became the largest blaze in Colorado state history. The ramifications of these fires go beyond charred grounds, with almost 40 people killed, thousands of homes and billions of dollars in property burned and millions of people exposed to hazardous pollution levels.

A story that is often untold, and lies at the center of these fires, is the story of the men and women putting out the blazes. These firefighters battle long hours, low sleep and high stress. They can even lose track of time when the sun is obscured by smoke.

Research has found that these firefighters struggle with their psychological well-being, leading to increased depression, anxiety, suicidal tendencies and other mental health concerns. Firefighters are exposed to high-risk, low-control situations and regularly deal with death, including the suicide of other firefighters. 
Researcher Matthew Desmond paid his way through college while fighting fires in Arizona. He returned to the profession for some of his early sociological work, finding that firefighters often do not associate their careers with risk – “Risk? What risk?” – and that organizations recruit firefighters by downplaying the risk they will face in the field.
Other research has explored the intersection of punishment and rehabilitation among those in California’s prison fire camps. The findings point out that the fire camps are simultaneously prisons and nonprisons, and those participating are both inmates and heroes.

Election Day is right around the corner. In this #TSPClassic Collection, we review several oldies-but-goodies about voting and elections. These include pieces on historical and contemporary patterns in voter turnout,  and the evolution of voter laws in the USA.. We also take stock of how political participation and democracy itself goes beyond just voting on Election Day.

Who Votes and Why?

A woman holds up a ballot. Image via flickr, CCO.

Who people vote for, and why they vote for them, is an important element of studying elections and political participation in social science, That doesn’t mean you can convince everybody on the other side of the political aisle to vote for your preferred candidate. This Sociological Images post considers the growing field of cognitive sociology to explain why voter choice and voter preferences are complex and hard to change.

A common question in American politics is whether people will vote: what motivates some people to vote regularly in national and local elections versus others who don’t really vote at all? This Soc Images post describes the answers people give when asked why they didn’t vote? This can range from personal attitudes such as opinions about the candidates on the ticket and or a general disinterest in politics. A lack of voter turnout can also be explained by barriers in the process including registering to vote, finding time to vote, and even dealing with bad weather on Election Day. Importantly, voter patterns differ by demographics. As described by this Soc Images post and this TSP Special, there are clear differences in voter registration and turnout among people of varying races, education, gender, and other differing backgrounds. This research question has been studied at length for decades, and considering such findings over time reveals important trends. This post from Sociological images discusses how voter turnout has both grown and dipped over the 20th and early 21st centuries. 

Gender is an important element in studying voter patterns, turnout, and political impacts during election season. Indeed, the stories of radicalism, feminism, and the women’s suffrage movement were important historical moments when key ideas about democracy and equality developed. These ideas shape how we think about voting, identity, and activism today, as described in this Soc Images post. This is particularly relevant in recent decades as more female politicians are represented in major races and as social conversations, norms, and understandings of gender evolve. This Council on Contemporary Families post breaks down the nuts and bolts of gender, voting, and the 2016 election, which point to interesting directions for for future research down the road; how will gender shape the 2020 election?

Voting in the 21st Century: A New Era of Oppression?

Protests against gerrymandering in front of the Supreme Court. Image via Flickr, CCO.

Voter suppression is on the rise in the USA, which is ironic given the prevalence of “Get Out the Vote!” messaging. Social scientists have investigated voter restriction laws, legislation, and policies implemented in the 2000’s and 2010’s  as a new chapter in America’s troubled history with voter suppression and voting right’s restriction. As described by this TSP Special, we’re over fifty years past the Voting Rights Act, yet voter suppression seems to be gaining momentum in recent years. History is indeed repeating itself as shown in this Soc Images post about voter suppression in the past and in the present.

Voter suppression can happen at the level of large locales or entire states. “Gerrymandering” is a process in which electoral maps are redrawn to favor one party over the others; the name is inspired by a salamander-shaped picture of a district which politicians had  redrawn so that voters from one region would cancel out others. Regardless of political affiliation or partisanship, we should all be concerned by the very real threat that Gerrymandering represents to our democracy, voting, and election outcomes, as explained by this TROT post and this Soc Images post.

One important dimension of voter suppression is felon disenfranchisement, wherein Americans convicted of a felony lose their right to vote. In recent decades, legislators have created new laws which expand the definition of felonious crimes; this has developed alongside other inequalities in policing, incarceration, and the criminal justice system. Thus, felon disenfranchisement represents an important product and driver of contemporary inequalities in the USA that unfold on racial and class lines, as described by several different #TSPClassics. TSP Editor Chris Uggen has been a major contributor to this area; his and colleagues’ research shows that millions of American votes have been lost to felon disenfranchisement, as discussed on The Sentencing Project.

Voter disenfranchisement has taken on a new face, as described in this post from Soc Images.  As Scholar Strategy Network explains, seemingly-innocent but problematic methods of voter suppression include the passage of voter ID laws and other individual requirements. These laws require voters to have financial resources and access to public institutions such as a local DMV. These requirements disproportionately affect racial minorities, the poor, the elderly, and other groups in the USA who already experience structural inequalities. Voter ID laws, as explained here by Soc Images, represent another chapter in voter suppression which thusly works to prevent people from accessing their right to vote.

Scholars in sociology and beyond have raised concerns about the recent growth of voter suppression and its consequences. Learn about the many dimensions of social science research on voter suppression from this post by Scholars Strategy Network’s research compendium. Voter suppression is a fundamental attack on the rights of citizenship and the pursuit of specific laws and rules that  make it harder to vote is often a targeted  strategy to prevent certain populations from voting. This post from Scholars Strategy Network presents research on politicians’ and policymakers’ attempts to suppress the vote of racial minorities.

Voter suppression has not waned in the twenty-first century. Most scholars agree that the problem has only gotten worse in  recent years. An important consequence of ongoing voter restriction is the distortion of the electorate. This means that rather than representing the general American population, the electorate is whiter and more conservative, as described by this Soc Images post. As described in this TROT post, the racial, class, and other inequalities heightened by voter suppression mean that gaps in who can vote have tangible, direct impacts on elections, politics, and policy.

“Democracy:” Elections and Beyond

Image from the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C. Image via Flickr, CCO.

Voting is a cornerstone of our democratic state and is the primary method by which the average citizen can impact politics. And yes, your vote matters!  This post from Sociological Images discusses how voting relates to public policy and how voter turnout predicts how public policies unfold. As described in this post from Cyborgology, elections and voting represent an important symbolic, social ritual for the fulfilment of democracy.This post from Feminist Reflections, aptly titled “When Women Roar,” considers gender in the 2016 election and politics as related to pop culture and equality in representation. 

Voting and election day can tell us a lot about our society; elections and voting are snapshots of social change and progress, as described by this TSP Special about the intersections of professional sports league, profits, and politics. We should remember, however, that being an involved citizen goes beyond Election Day. Social movements and activism are important parts of the democratic process and social change in a democracy, as described by this TSP Special. As we move forward, we should remember that voting is only one way to participate in democracy That being said, the right to vote–which some people take for  granted–has been increasingly restricted in recent years via several forms of voter suppression. We must continue  academic research and provide critical solutions to tackle this source of inequality and threat to our democracy.  We could also expand access to voting by modernizing   voter registration and voting as described in this post from SSN.  And, as many of us vote remotely during COVID, it’s important to reiterate that voter fraud is not a major issue in the USA, as described by this TSP Teaching post. Social science can help us move towards a future  with increased voting access and voter participation.

Police form a line in riot gear. Violence against citizens by police is often perceived as legitimate. Image via Flickr.

Can your country be a criminal? Until recently, the legal answer has often been no. Today, sociologists answer: it depends. For instance, this past summer, the federal government resumed executing death row inmates, and more recently, officer-involved shootings have drawn attention to how police officers are entrusted with violent force as part of their duty to protect and serve the people. In many circumstances, these killings are defended as legal or legitimate forms of violence. But many other kinds of killing, such as genocide or murder, are not.

Early sociologist Max Weber argued that countries have historically been defined by the power and right to exercise “legitimate violence,” or violence that is normalized and legal. Although they are entrusted to use violence  to protect their citizens from violence, countries routinely use violence against their own citizens.
Legitimate violence, often carried out by a country’s police forces or military, is typically reserved for those that are marginalized or alienated.  When a nation commits violence against criminals, those who present security risks, or even those whom we fear, it is often accepted  as a “reasonable” use of force.  Some scholars argue that most forms of police violence, in particular, are difficult to recognize as anything but legitimate and necessary for protection. For example, we often presume that police violence is committed against criminals, in an effort to protect innocent citizens.
It wasn’t until WWII and the Holocaust that the international community questioned a nation’s right to perpetuate violence against its people. For example, Hitler’s murderous campaign against the Jews and other social outcasts was, in fact legal, as genocide was not yet a crime. A state’s right to legitimate violence has only diminished with the recent development and globalization of human rights.

Both police violence and mass violence committed by states against their own populations are beginning to be understood as crimes. Internationally, we have seen this with the creation of the International Criminal Court. Closer to home, we see this with the calls to prosecute police officers who have engaged in police brutality. Yet many forms of violence committed by the state are still perceived as legitimate, despite the fact they involve the same type of violence. For example, intentionally targeting and killing a civilian may be labeled an illegal crime against humanity or the legal result of a capital criminal prosecution.

Covid-19 may be bringing long-term changes to workplaces and leisure activities as people become more attuned to potential infectious disease. But our shock, surprise, and general inability to deal with the virus also tells us something about how much our relationship with disease has changed. 

Graph showing the birth rates, death rate, and total population during each of the 5 stages of epidemiological transition. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

What scientists call the “epidemiological transition” has drastically increased the age of mortality. In other words, in the first two phases of the epidemiological transition lots of people died young, often of infection. Advancements in medicine and public health pushed the age of mortality back, and in later phases of the transition the biggest killers became degenerative diseases like heart disease and cancer. In phase four, our current phase, we have the technology to delay those degenerative diseases, and we occasionally fight emerging infections like AIDS or covid-19. Of course, local context matters, and although the general model above seems to fit the experience of many societies over a long period of time, it’s not deterministic. 

Inequality

Even before the epidemiological transition, not everyone had the same risk of contracting a deadly infection. Data from the urban U.S. shows that the level of mortality experienced by white Americans during the 1918 flu (a historic level considered to be a once-in-a-lifetime event by demographers), was the same level of mortality experienced by nonwhite Americans in every county in every year prior to 1918. 

Rise of new infectious diseases

Clearly, as we are seeing today, the epidemiological transition isn’t a smooth line. There is also considerable year-to-year and place-to-place variability, and new diseases can cause a sharp uptick in infectious disease deaths. For instance, the emergence of AIDS in the 1980s was responsible for a rise in infectious mortality and demonstrated the need to be prepared for new diseases. 

In just a few short weeks, covid-19 became a leading cause of death in the United States. The pandemic is a reminder that despite all of our health advances we aren’t beyond the disruptions of infectious disease, despite the broader long-term shift from high rates of childhood mortality to high rates of degenerative disease among elders.

A woman helps an elderly man get up from his chair
Photo by Brian Walker, Flickr CC

When we talk about work, we often miss a type of work that is crucial to keeping the economy going and arguably more challenging and difficult than ever under conditions of quarantine and social distancing: care work. Care work includes both paid and unpaid services caring for children, the elderly, and those who are sick and disabled, including bathing, cooking, getting groceries, and cleaning.

Sociologists have found that caregiving that happens within families is not always viewed as work, yet it is a critical part of keeping the paid work sector running. Children need to eat and be bathed and clothed. Families need groceries. Houses need to be cleaned. As many schools in the United States are closed and employees are working from home, parents are having to navigate extended caring duties. Globally, women do most of this caring labor, even when they also work outside of the home. 
Photo of a woman cooking
Photo by spablab, Flickr CC
Globally, women do most of this caring labor, even when they also work outside of the home. Historically, wealthy white women were able to escape these caring duties by employing women of color to care for their children and households, from enslaved African Americans to domestic servants. Today people of color, immigrants, and those with little education are overrepresented in care work with the worst job conditions. 
In the past decade, the care work sector has grown substantially in the United States. However, care workers are still paid low wages and receive little to no benefits. In fact, care work wages are stagnant or declining, despite an overall rise in education levels for workers. Thus, many care workers — women especially — find themselves living in poverty.  

Caring is important for a society to function, yet care work — paid or unpaid — is still undervalued. In this time of COVID-19 where people are renegotiating how to live and work, attention to caring and appreciation for care work is more necessary than ever.

Astrological signs from alchemical text entitled “Opus medico-chymicum” published in 1618 by Johann Daniel Mylius, via Wikimedia Commons.

Astrology is on the rise, and a recent New Yorker article argues that 30% of Americans now believe in astrology. This spike in belief has been tied to astrology’s popularity on the internet and social media. Astrological apps like Co-star and Align have gained traction, achieving millions of downloads a year, and mystical services more generally are generating 2.2 billion annually. But why is astrology on the rise? And what does sociology have to say about its practice? 

During the 1970s, astrology was marginalized and socially stigmatized — considered part of the American counter-culture. The rise of religious nones and the “spiritual but not religious” category have led scholars to consider how belief systems once considered to be alternative may be becoming more mainstream. Scholars have found that even spiritual beliefs that are not part of organized religion may be highly organized in generating meaning and community, particularly in unsettled times. Given stressors like global warming, economic instability, and the recent COVID-19 pandemic, millennials may be turning to belief-structures once considered to be alternative to find community and to grapple with uncertainty.