For the first time since 2006, the Census finds a .5 percentage drop in the poverty rate, with children and Hispanics seeing the biggest declines. Before taking these encouraging statistics at face value, it is important to put them into context. Briefs produced by the Stanford Center on Poverty and Equality and the Center for American Progress outline important factors that often get ignored when focusing on the poverty rate alone, including the consistent struggle for young adults and minorities to find work and the ever-increasing working poor that often get left out of the poverty conversation entirely.

The high poverty rate among young adults is cause for concern. Experiencing poverty in early adulthood has been found to hinder future earnings, especially within minority populations. Young people may stay hungry if our definition of poverty doesn’t grow up with them.
While the poverty rate may have dropped slightly, this is largely due to the increase in the working poor. Millions of families are trapped in the middle, earning just enough to be considered above the poverty line but making far from enough to be considered economically secure. Poverty among working adults is linked to a broader decline in labor unions.
Most of the discussion around the poverty rate centers on what David Cotter calls “person poverty” as opposed to “place poverty.” In his analysis of Census data, Cotter finds that, regardless of any individual characteristic, households in rural America are more likely to experience poverty than their metropolitan counterparts.

Our partner Scholars Strategy Network has tons of great briefs on this issue, including this one on the need for a more comprehensive measure of poverty.

Miley Cyrus’ VMA activities recently hit the news again – but this time it wasn’t for twerking. Instead, Miley took the spotlight off herself and put it on the issue of homeless youth. Passing her award acceptance on to 22-year-old Jesse Helt, a formerly homeless youth, Miley brought attention to severe social inequality across the U.S. The move raised over $200,000 for Los Angeles homeless youth. However, sociologists show that increasing media awareness of a stigmatized group can have both positive and negative consequences.

Regardless of Miley’s intentions, her effort to give voice to the homeless population is a step in the right direction. Sociologists show that increased awareness of and contact with stigmatized populations can help decrease that stigma.
The media also plays a large role in which issues get deemed “social problems”—problems we feel responsible for helping to fix. Positive media attention given to homelessness at the VMAs, while fleeting, may have some positive impact on social perceptions of homelessness.
However, raising awareness of what many see as a deserving segment of the homeless population—white, healthy, homeless youth—may also detract from what many sociologists call the “undeserving poor.” This equally important group of minority populations and welfare recipients will have a much harder time finding its way into an awards show.

The recent Hobby Lobby, and subsequent Wheaton College, Supreme Court rulings that exclude organizations with “sincere religious objections” from the Affordable Care Act’s birth control mandate have raised a plethora of fears and heated commentary about access to birth control, women’s rights, and the slippery slope of religious exemption. Sociological research, however, suggests that this ruling’s infringement on access to reproductive services and women’s rights is far from straightforward.

The language of birth control mandates varies by state, and the more ambiguously worded the mandate, the less likely there is to be a challenge. Instead, it is the more precisely worded statutes that have prompted court cases, as they allow for less interpretation and compromise.
The moral framing of religious exemption cases is key to making them effective. When actors frame an issue in moral terms, as opposed to scientific or technical, their arguments are usually too divisive to be completely adopted, however, they are often able to thwart their opponents by defining an issue in ways that make it difficult for legislators to support progressive causes.
A woman’s access to birth control is not only influenced by her insurance policy or the religion of her employer. Race, class, and cultural understandings of what it means to be a “responsible reproductive subject” all play a role in why women seek reproductive services such as birth control, infertility treatment, and abortion, as well as which services they are more likely to have access to.

For more on the Hobby Lobby decision and the history of birth control in the U.S., check out these great pieces by fellow sociology bloggers families as they really are and Girl w/ Pen.

The 1990s saw a surge in student activism surrounding labor issues, most prominently in campaigns against sweatshop labor for cheap clothing. College students around the country held sit-ins and rallies protesting companies like Nike and Gap that were in many ways credited with those companies improving their labor policies. Forever 21—a popular retail chain targeting youth and student shoppers—recently opened a new outlet with even cheaper clothes that has the media revisiting the 90s’ protests. According to an article in The New Yorker, “the grand opening of F21 Red, however, was marked not by picketers but by customers who lined up early for gift cards. What changed?” This question brings up a broader sociological question of how and why student and youth populations participate in activism, as well as how this might be changing.

The student activism in the 90s was not solely spurred by a common cause against sweatshop labor amongst students. Instead, this spike in activism was in many ways led and organized by already formed networks of labor activists that intentionally targeted students. Further, the successes were limited, and the movement did little to affect perceptions of cheap labor overall.
Activism and its outcomes are influenced by local and historical context. Sociologists have found that while today’s youth cohorts are participating in protests and other forms of traditional activism less than their parents, they are participating in alternative, more individualized forms of activism like petition signing and volunteering. They argue that what it means to be a “good citizen” is changing and that younger generations are driving this change.

Mila Kunis recently announced that she will be giving birth naturally, saying “I did this to myself – I might as well do it right.” By “natural,” Kunis means that she will be using a midwife when she gives birth and opting out of the hospitalized, medically-induced birthing experience that dominates in American society today. Kunis is just one, albeit highly publicized, instance in a larger move away from the hospitalized birthing experience to “home birth.” However, this shift is not without its conflicts, and Kunis’ statement that natural birth is “doing it right” points to deeper societal perceptions of the right way to give birth and how those perceptions of what is “natural” might be changing.

The media often frames this increase in home births as potentially dangerous and problematic, but women were giving birth at home long before they started going to hospitals. The medicalized model of childbirth is a fairly recent product of a larger shift in societal acceptance of professional science over local knowledge.
This “medicalization of childbirth” has huge impacts on how society, and women themselves, see women’s bodies and safety. Sociologists argue that this increased medical monitoring during pregnancy is a form of social control that constrains women both physically and emotionally.

For a great history of homebirth and the reproductive rights movement, check out Christa Craven’s 2010 book Pushing for Midwives: Homebirth Mothers and the Reproductive Rights Movement.

The Food and Drug Administration recently proposed a slew of changes to the nutrition labels on packaged foods. The first to be made in over 20 years, these changes will include placing a bigger emphasis on total calories and added sugars as well as highlighting certain nutrients, such as Vitamin D and potassium. They are also proposing to make changes to the serving size requirements, making them more “realistic” about what portions of a product people actually consume in a single sitting. The purported goal of these changes is to help consumers “make healthy food choices”, but sociologists show that these choices are not necessarily available to everyone.

The media, as well as most consumers, see diet and eating habits as a personal choice. However, research shows that not all consumers are financially, or even geographically, able to make conscientious decisions about the calories they consume.
The choices made at the federal level about dietary guidelines and labeling are not just about making sure we all get the right amount of Vitamin D. The food industry is a profit-making business just like any other, and its influence on government nutrition policies runs deep.
The media coverage of this proposal is largely positive, framing it as a step towards curbing America’s “obesity epidemic”. This kind of media coverage furthers the intense stigmatization of obese people and reinforces norms that equate thinness with moral virtue and social worthiness.

For more on culture and obesity, check out Abigail Saguy’s “Office Hours” interview where she discusses her book What’s Wrong with Fat?


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As e-cigarettes are fairly new to the market, there is little research on their long-term effects, but their recent popularity has sparked debates about their use and regulation—are they healthier than combustible tobacco, should they have the same restrictions in terms of age and public use, and are they a “gateway” to real tobacco for teen smokers? While a majority of the e-cigarette conversation focuses on whether they are better for you, the desire for healthy lungs is not the only factor contributing to these debates. The e-cigarette debates are the newest chapter in a long history of substance use regulation that is as much about social stigma as public health.

These debates are also influenced by social factors such as unemployment, youth populations, political battles for and against government regulation, and a much broader, but more subtle, process of stigmatization when cigarette smoking— which was once perfectly acceptable in society—slowly slides out of favor.
As smoking loses favor in public opinion, so do smokers. While these debates are about health on the surface, the underlying message to smokers is that they are deviant. Research has found that smoking, and substance use in general, occurs in higher numbers among lower income and minority groups, revealing much deeper power dynamics influencing smoking policy and the public image of smokers.


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Saturday Night Live has recently been criticized for lacking racial and gender diversity in both cast and crew. This is not a new problem, but the debate was reignited when Kenan Thompson, one of only two black cast members, stated in an interview that there were currently no black women on the show because “they never find ones that are ready”. Always quick to turn controversy into a joke, a recent SNL sketch had actress Kerry Washington playing a range of black women, mocking their own lack of diversity. Then, a little over a month ago, SNL hired Sasheer Zamata, the first black female cast member in five years. While the speed at which the show is addressing their lack of diversity is commendable, SNL’s diversity problem cannot be solved by a single hire, and the controversy illustrates that what gets deemed “entertaining” or “funny” is about more than the quality of the joke. In reality, deep-seated assumptions about race and gender strongly influence who shows up on your television screen every night.

Women face ongoing inequality in film and television production jobs, and while the rates of occupational segregation for women of color have fallen since the 1940s, their decline has stagnated since 2000.
However, even as minorities gain access to white-dominated mediums, they struggle to control the way their culture is portrayed and perceived, as the media often perpetuates inaccurate representations of minority groups.
The SNL controversy is one example of the much larger cultural norm of marginalizing and stereotyping black women, whose misrepresentation in American society is a problem that runs much deeper than their perceived sense of humor.


Hanukkah starts tonight! Last month the first comprehensive study of American Jews in over ten years found a drastic decrease in Jews who identify with Judaism for religious reasons and an increase in those who identify with Judaism for ethnic or cultural reasons. While this can in some ways be explained by the overall decrease in religiosity among younger Americans, a sociological understanding of these findings would also look to the interaction between ethnicity and religion.

Ethnic identities are constructed by ethnic groups, but also by external forces such as the economic and political climate the ethnic group inhabits.
The lines between ethnicity and religion are often blurry and the phenomenon of identifying with a religious or ethnic group for purely symbolic reasons is not new.
The opposite is also true – holding beliefs without being a member of any particular church or religious group is on the rise.

In a confusing twist of legal back and forth, some of the strictest abortion regulations in the country have taken effect in Texas. The state’s proposed abortion restrictions, including limiting medication-induced abortions and requiring abortion doctors to have admitting privileges to a nearby surgical center, were initially struck down by a district court because the restrictions would effectively deny women the right to abortions. A full appeal will be heard in January, but these restrictions have caused a third of the clinics in Texas to stop offering the service until then.

While this is a legal battle on the surface, the debate surrounding abortion stems from longstanding and deeply conflicted cultural norms regarding sexual behavior, the care of children, family structure, and gender roles in society.
Despite variations in state restrictions on abortions, legislative restrictions have very little impact on a state’s abortion rate.