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Posts Tagged ‘class’

Loss of Economic Exceptionalism

One of the key dimensions of “American Exceptionalism” is the idea that America is the land of opportunity more than any other. We would like to believe that American children who are raised in the meanest conditions are likelier to move up in the world than are children elsewhere. Yet, as of today, the U.S. does not provide more upward mobility than other nations do; if anything, young Americans’ economic fortunes are more tied to those of their parents than is true in other western nations. So, where did this image of exceptional mobility come from?

Two economists, Jason Long and Joseph Ferrie, published a study this summer in the American Economic Review that creatively brings together some 19th-century data to argue that there was a time when the U.S. was exceptionally open – or, at least, more open than Britain was. Two pairs of sociologists wrote critical comments on the study (here and here). Yet, even with the controversy, there is a lesson to be learned.

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The Verdict on Class and Voting

Guest post by Michael Hout*

Early in 2012, sociologist Michael Hout addressed, in a guest post on this blog, the assertion that the Republican party had become the party of the white working-class. He pointed out that, while the GOP had gained adherents across all classes in the last few decades, its supporters remained distinctively upper- rather than lower status. “You can see it in the polls; you can see it in the policies.”  With the 2012 results in, we can now see it in the votes.

Class issues stood out more in the 2012 presidential election than in previous ones, even more than in 2008. The campaigns invoked, as always, issues of all sorts, but seldom in American politics are the issues of class so prominent as they were this year.

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Governor Romney’s personal wealth and how he accumulated it were issues that fellow Republicans raised during the primaries. Once Romney was the nominee, President Obama’s campaign defined Romney as a member of the “one-percent” — among the handful of Americans so rich they prosper while others struggle. A clandestine video surfaced in which Governor Romney identified 47 percent of Americans who “believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.” Seconds later on the same video he said, “My job is not to worry about them.” The challenger’s remarks allowed the President to add “uncaring” to the charge of unfair privileges.

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Clothes Make the Common Man

About a year ago, popular writer and high-society socialite Danielle Steele announced that she was departing San Francisco, throwing out this complaint as she left: “There’s no style, nobody dresses up – you can’t be chic there.” Nostalgia columnist Carle Nolte agreed: “There was a time when people thought it was important to dress well in this city . . .  Men wore a suit to work, or a sport coat. Women wore heels and dressed for success. . . . Now San Franciscans, men and women, wear jeans to work, rumpled shirts, running shoes, flip-flops, baseball caps. When they go out on the town they look even worse.” Steele and Nolte have a point.

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The picture above, the Giants’ Polo Grounds in early 1900s, can be contrasted with the picture below, the Giants’ AT&T Park in the early 2000s. One notices the new informality of the clothes (and the new logo’ed gear, and the women, and the small children).

blackex2001

The greater informality of middle-class people in public life can probably be rooted in the 1960s. I recall the shock some people had that young men walked about in their tee-shirts and then in their tee-shirts with slogans printed on them. But the concern about clothes and what clothes say about American culture, the connection between evolution of clothing and the evolution of our democratic sensibilities, has a long history. What we wore always said something about who we, as a people, were.

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Explaining Poverty (Again)

Charles Murray – a Ph.D. in political science who objects to being labeled a sociologist (I’ll sign on to that) – has been back in the news, with his latest effort to offend liberals by explaining why the poor are poor.

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In the 1970s (Losing Ground), the poor were poor because the welfare system bred dependency. In the 1990s, they were poor because they were of genetically inferior intelligence (The Bell Curve; colleagues and I replied to that argument in this book). In the 2010s, Murray tells us that the poor are poor because the 1960s counterculture undermined their self-discipline (Coming Apart).

Wrong, wrong, and wrong again.Three strikes.

This link is to my column in the latest Boston Review discussing the general resurgence of cultural explanations for who are the persistently poor.

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The Working Class’s Party

Guest Post by Michael Hout*

New York Times columnist David Brooks recently declared that the GOP is the party of the white working class. This boldly erroneous assertion motivates sociologist Michael Hout to clarify the connection between class and political affiliation:

Smithsonian

The United States has more economic inequality than any other rich country and yet surprisingly lacks a coherent language for talking about class. Conversations quickly bog down in definitions. What distinguishes one class from another? Differences of wealth? Income? Possessions? In a recent New York Times column, David Brooks suggested that class is a combination of education and race – as others have (e.g., here)  — but Brooks moved the conversation to new ground with these three sentences:

The Republican Party is the party of the white working class. This group – whites with high school degrees and maybe some college – is still the largest block in the electorate. They overwhelmingly favor Republicans.

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Degree Inequality

It is now generally understood that economic inequality has expanded greatly since about 1970. (Well, there are exceptions. For a couple of decades, some commentators denied that economic inequality was growing, claiming that it was all a statistical illusion. A few holdouts against reality may remain.) Now the debate has shifted to what – if anything at all – should be done about inequality.

UC Berkeley

Most of that discussion has been about income inequality. Between 1979 and 2007, the one-fifth of American households with the highest income experienced a roughly 100% increase in their annual, inflation-adjusted, after-tax income (280% [!] for the highest one percent of households); the middle one-fifth got about 25% more income; and the poorest one-fifth got about 15% more (see pdf). For wealth – property, stocks, and the like – the gap is enormously greater and has also widened over the last few decades (see Ch. 6 here).

Less discussed is the widening college degree gap. Yet its implications go considerably beyond money, to widening differences in life experiences and ways of life. (I draw in particular on the work of my colleague, Michael Hout, notably here [pdf], and on two books we wrote together, here and here.)

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In the Part 1 of this post, I asked whether Americans were increasingly dividing along the “culture wars” battlefront – an impression one would certainly get from media coverage of politics over the last decade or two. The research shows that, while the political class has become more polarized in the last generation, average Americans have not. On the so-called values issues, with the possible exception of abortion, Americans cluster around the middle, not in two opposed camps, and that middle has moved a bit to the left.

Source: Pepperdine Univ.

If the “culture wars” description of a fragmenting America is not accurate, does that mean that there are no growing divisions? Not necessarily. Here, I consider three deeper cleavages among Americans: by immigration status, by race, and by class (especially, by education).

(I draw largely on this 2009 article and chapter 9 of Century of Difference.)

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