Posts Tagged ‘poverty’

Of Places Past

We have become more aware that Americans’ chances of upward economic mobility have for decades been a lot lower than Americans imagined, that being poor or rich can last generations. Efforts to explain that lock-in have pointed to several patterns, from the intergenerational inheritance of assets (or debt, as the case may be) to intergenerational continuity in child-rearing styles (say, how much parents read to their children). In such ways, the past is not really past.

Increasingly, researchers have also identified the places – the communities, neighborhoods, blocks – where people live as a factor in slowing economic mobility. In a post earlier this year, I noted a couple of 2008 studies showing that growing up in poor neighborhoods impaired children’s cognitive skills and reduced their chances to advance beyond their parents. In this post, I report on further research by NYU sociologist Patrick Sharkey (see links below) suggesting that a bad environment can worsen the life chances not only of a child, but that of the child’s child, an unfortunate residential patrimony.



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American Dream, Twisting

A political solicitation from the Democrats that I just got reads, “We have to do everything we can to make sure that [the] opportunity to pursue the American dream is still possible today.” The 2012 Republican platform highlighted its program for “Restoring the American Dream.” “The American Dream” seems often under threat and just out of grasp.

(Those three words, by the way, emerged as a catchphrase only in the 1930s. Now, the Library of Congress lists 900 book titles using it, the first published in 1934, Religion and the American Dream, and the last, scheduled for 2014, Between Islam and the American Dream.)

Mark Rank, Thomas A. Hirschl, and Kirk A. Foster have a book coming out next spring, Chasing the American Dream: Understanding What Shapes Our Fortunes, which helps clarify what average Americans hear when they hear the words, “The American Dream.” The book also helps clarify why so many Americans feel that the dream is drifting out of reach. Whether Americans attain that dream, Rank and colleagues say, is increasingly subject to — borrowing from Bob Dylan — a “simple twist of fate.” And finally, the forthcoming book may also help clarify why Americans are not politically mobilized to save that Dream.


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As we approach the “Season of Giving,” when Americans are particularly inclined by the Christmas spirit – and also by the looming deadline for tax-deductible contributions – to share with the needy, we again consider the American way of helping the poor. This time last year, I noted some of the peculiarities of the American way of private charity: how arbitrary it can be, how dependent on the tastes of individual givers, how much it is a matter of noblesse oblige rather than human rights. A post a couple of years before that pointed out that government care for the unfortunate has been grudging and judgmental going back to colonial times, although it became more expansive over the generations. Here, I focus on Americans’ distinctive principle that needy recipients must be deserving of help, on our disdain for The Undeserving Poor (the title of Michael Katz’s important historical study.)

Source: AARP

Source: AARP

The impetus for this post is the dust-up, at least in the liberal blogosphere (e.g. here), around a comment by Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) on food stamps. When challenged on Facebook by a constituent to defend the Christian morality of his vote for cutting the program, Cramer’s posted reply was to cite 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” Cramer also asked, “When did America become a country where working for benefits is no longer noble?” Whatever the substantive concerns around the food stamp program (e.g., here) and whatever the facts about recipients working – by far most of the able do indeed work – a question arises: Why do we care if they work?


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More Inequality Updates

Last week, I was fortunate to be in the audience when about 20 experts came together to report on new research on and new ideas about American economic inequality. The occasion for the conclave was to celebrate the roughly 40-year anniversary of the path-breaking book, Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America and celebrate as well the career of its lead author, Christopher “Sandy” Jencks. The arguments and evidence of the 1972 Inequality are, of course, dated. But its questions and analyses set an agenda for the following four decades, including much of the work presented at the conference.

Christopher Jencks (source)

Christopher Jencks

This post briefly reports a few of the findings and insights some of the speakers provided. They make us think harder about how inequality is growing, the various (often non-obvious) dynamics involved, and the ways inequality is itself fueling further inequality. (An earlier update on inequality research is here.)


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To the Poorhouse

As the presidential campaigns turns into the home stretch, we realize that we have not heard much about the poor and policy toward the poor. The problems of the middle class – including their fear of joining the poor – is everyone’s focus; that’s where the votes are. But arguments about policies toward the poor will return; the controversy is an American perennial.

Boston Almshouse 1825 (source)

Central to the contentiousness is figuring out what the key principle of American poverty policy ought to be: Is it Christian charity, which implies simply feeding the hungry and clothing the naked? Or, is it moral rehabilitation, which implies teaching the poor “to fish” for themselves and letting those who won’t learn sink? Or is it economic efficiency, which implies keeping the poor alive but at minimum cost to the taxpayer?

Two recent papers in The Journal of the Early Republic illuminate these concerns in an era when assistance to the poor was much more constricted, more focused on the very worst off, more punitive, and concentrated on placing the poor in their own, collective home: the almshouse.


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Slavery’s Heavy Hand

In an earlier post, I mused about the notion of the “heavy hand of history,” the idea that long-past conditions pull us in certain directions even generations after the fateful events. One of the very earliest users of the phrase, in 1944, was an eminent psychologist who was trying to understand the situation of African Americans 80 years after Emancipation.

Slave Family 1862_LC-USZCN4-280

Now, a just-published study reinforces the point, showing that the deeper a southern county’s immersion in slavery in 1860, the greater the black-white inequality in that county in 2000.


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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.

D. Lange_ loc 83-G-44035

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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