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March 3, 2014

The Grapes of Wrath Symposium at UC Davis

The UC Davis Department of Theatre and Dance will host The Grapes of Wrath Symposium on Friday, March 7, to explore John Steinbeck's work directly as well as the larger social, cultural and historical issues it raises, while celebrating this 75th anniversary year since the publication of the epic novel.

The symposium, open to the public and free-of-charge, will be held in Lab A at Wright Hall from 10:30 a.m. to 5:45 p.m.

Participating UC Davis scholars include Sasha Abramsky, author of "The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives" (one of the New York Times 100 Most Notable Books of 2013), who is a freelance journalist and part-time lecturer in the University Writing Program and research affiliate with the Center for Poverty Research.

Abramsky discusses contemporary poverty and the new Dust Bowl of Texas and New Mexico, the dislocation that water shortage causes, and how policies post-1930s have limited agricultural calamity. Marianne Page, professor of economics and deputy director of the Center for Poverty Research, joins Abramsky to discuss how poverty policies deal (or don't) with issues specific to rural areas.

Professor Eric Rauchway, history department, is discussing the Great Depression as a background context. Matthew Stratton, assistant professor of English, will be talking about changes between the play and the novel, and W. Scott McLean, lecturer in comparative literature, examines how some of Steinbeck's issues influenced later song writers.

Professors Philip Martin, chair, UC Comparative Immigration and Integration Program, and Lisa Pruitt (School of Law) will discuss rural poverty in Oklahoma/Dust Bowl and in the Central Valley, then and now, including efforts to prevent indigents from entering the state in the 1930s. They will also touch on the similar (and different) stresses of rural poverty in the 21st century.  Kathy Olmsted, professor of history, talks about labor politics in the 1930s in relation to Steinbeck.

The symposium, open to the public and free-of-charge, will be held in Lab A at Wright Hall from 10:30 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. A complete agenda is available at theatredance.ucdavis.edu.

What: The Grapes of Wrath Symposium featuring UC Davis scholars explores Steinbeck's work directly as well as the larger social, cultural and historical issues it raises.
Where: Lab A, Wright Hall, UC Davis
When:  Friday, March 7, 10:30 a.m.-12 noon.; 1:30 p.m.-5:45 p.m.
Unticketed, free-of-charge
Agenda: http://arts.ucdavis.edu/pod/grapes-wrath-symposium

March 30, 2013

Imploring the Ivy League to Attend to Rural Strivers

One of the most e-mailed items in the New York Times for the past day or so has been Claire Vaye Watkins "The Ivy League Was Another Planet." (The alternative headline is "Elite Colleges Are As Foreign as Mars.") In her op-ed, Watkins recounts her journey from nonmetropolitan Pahrump, Nevada to college at the University of Nevada, Reno. Her story is that of a kid from a working class family in "rural" Nevada (her description; technically, Pahrump is not rural because, though unincorporated, its 2010 population is more than 35,000) who didn't know about colleges or how to pick one.  Lucky for her, Watkins went on to get an MFA from Ohio State and is now an assistant professor of English at Bucknell.

Watkins writes of getting her wake-up call about dramatic variations in educational resources when she was a high school senior, vying for a prestigious state-funded scholarship. That's when she met a peer from a Las Vegas high school who attended a magnet school, took college prep courses, had a tutor, and had spent time abroad.  The variations in resources, she realized, were based on geography:  he was an urban kid and she was a rural one.  But they were also based on class.  She doesn't specify the background of the Vegas teen, but she mentions that her mother and step-father had not gone to college.  I note that Pahrump's poverty rate is a fairly steep 21.1%.  Just 10.1% of residents there have a bachelor's degree or better, compared to about 30% nationwide.

Even after meeting the privileged teen from Vegas, however, Watkins didn't know what she didn't know.  She remained ignorant of the world of elite colleges, a sector that represented the "other planet" or "Mars" of the headline.  Instead, Watkins applied to UN Reno, she explains, because she had once taken a Greyhound bus to visit friends there. As Watkins expresses it, when poor rural kids apply to college (which, I might add, is altogether too rare), they typically apply to those institutions to which they have been "incidentally exposed."

Commenting on what admissions deans at elite schools might do to reach out to high-achieving, poor rural kids--whom they purport to be interested in for reasons of diversity and excellence--Watkins suggests, tongue in cheek, that they do "anything." More specifically, Watkins cleverly contrasts Ivy League efforts to recruit rural kids, which might be characterized by the terms "zip" and "nada," with military efforts to recruit the same kids, which might be characterized as "fulsome" and "robust." Guess who's winning that contest? The military, of course.  Here are just a few of the points Watkins makes:

  • No college rep ever showed up at Pahrump Valley High school, while the military brought a stream of alums through there on a regular basis.
  • The school devoted half a day each year to ensuring that every junior took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB); that test was free, while taking the ACT and SAT was  not.  
  • "But the most important thing the military did was walk kids and their families through the enlistment process."

Watkins closes by noting that elite colleges need to do more to reach those she calls "the rural poor," concluding that, until they do, "is it any wonder that students in Pahrump and throughout rural America are more likely to end up in Afghanistan than at N.Y.U.?"

The jumping off point for Watkins' op-ed is a recent paper by two profs (from Harvard and Stanford, no less), Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery, "The Missing 'One-Offs':  The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low Income Students."  That paper was publicized in the Times last week-end in David Leonhardt's story, "Better Colleges Failing to Lure Talented Poor."  The summary and conclusions of the Hoxby and Avery paper do not talk in terms of rural-urban difference in relation to these missing "one-offs."  (They do, however, employ a tiny bit of geographical nuance in Table 9, listing two categories of "rural" students, those near an urban area and those far from one). Instead, Hoxby and Avery focus on the benefits to students of being in "geographic concentrations of high achievers."  They write in their abstract, for example, that these high-achieving students who fail to apply to elite schools

come from districts too small to support selective public high schools, are not in a critical mass of fellow high achievers, and are unlikely to encounter a teacher or schoolmate from an older cohort who attended a selective college.  

And where might those students be?  mostly in rural schools.  For folks like Watkins, it isn't hard to read between the lines and see that the high achievers most likely to slip between the cracks are kids in rural schools.    

All of this brings to me my own experience.  Like Watkins, I can see that many of the "missing" students Hoxby and Avery are talking about are rural.  My own K-12 school in rural Arkansas had an enrollment of about 400--and no counselor whatsoever to advise on college admissions. The first Ivy League graduates I ever met were professors at the University of Arkansas. I was there because, like many who Hoxby and Avery studied, I assumed it was the best bargain for me.  I didn't apply elsewhere.

I have to trust that the numerous people reading Watkins' tale will believe her revelations of her naiveté regarding college.  I certainly hope so, though I have been struck over the years at how many people are incredulous at my similar tale.  How, they marvel, disbelief in their voices, could you not have known to go to a "good school"?  People of privilege can find it remarkably difficult to believe that other people could really not know the things that are the very intellectual and emotional wall-paper of a life of privilege.

But there is another, related problem:  poor rural kids and the diversity they represent often go unvalued by educational decision makers.  Because these rural kids Watkins is talking about are often white, they don't appear, at first blush, to represent diversity.  Plus, I find privileged whites are just as uncomfortable around working class whites as they are around people of color--maybe more so in this day and age.  That discomfort--unmitigated by the need be politically correct because no PC imperative exists regarding poor whites--may deter the privileged from reaching out to recruit poor whites.  After all, as Watkins points out, it's not like these elite colleges are hurting for applicants.

Finally, privileged metropolitan and cosmopolitan types tend to hold the limitations of rural education against those who are products of it, discounting what these kids have achieved because of the absence of AP classes, the right extracurricular activities, and such.  (Read more here and here).  I recall being on the selection committee for the first round of elite Sturgis Fellows at the University of Arkansas in the late 1980s.  When I spoke up for a candidate with what I considered to have stellar credentials, a professor on the selection committee quickly countered by noting that the student was from a rural school, suggesting that the student's achievements had to be kept in proper perspective--namely that s/he had not been subjected to true intellectual rigor.  I recall meekly pointing out that I, too (then the University of Arkansas's undergraduate valedictorian) was the product of a rural school.  What was I?  chopped liver?  or just an anomaly?  I'll never know how the selection committee saw me.  But perhaps because I protested so meekly, my comment--and the outstanding rural candidate--got no traction.  All of that inaugural group of Sturgis Fellows, as I recall it, were from sizable high schools.    

Cross-posted to ClassCrits, UC Davis Faculty Blog, and SALTLaw Blog.    

February 14, 2012

The Devastating Disconnect between Rich and Poor

The Occupy Wall Street movement has drawn national attention to economic inequality, and several new studies and a book just published also invite us to consider the acuteness of this inequality, as well as its causes and/or consequences.   These publications all highlight education, to one degree or another, as a key indicator of class and class mobility.

The New York TimesNPR and the Los Angeles Times all ran features this week on Charles Murray's new book, Coming Apart:  The State of White America, 1960-2010.  Murray, labeled "a libertarian social scientist" by NPR (and worse things by other liberal pundits), is a controversial figure due in large part to his co-authorship of The Bell Curve.  In that 1994 book, Murray described  a "cognitive elite" who, he argued, get ahead in large part because of their superior IQs.  The controversy was understandable given his assertion that whites tend to have higher IQs than African Americans and some other minorities.

I want to focus here, however, on some of the less controversial information featured in Coming Apart. By this, I mean to steer clear of the book's commentary on values and related suggestions for remedying the problem.  (I do, however, recommend Paul Krugman's op-ed and Nicholas Confessore's review, both of which offer incisive observations regarding those aspects of the book).  Also, to be clear, I have yet to read the book and so rely here on characterizations from media reports.

Murray asserts that class divides us more than race or ethnicity.  Having expressed my desire to avoid controversy, I acknowledge that this may be seen as a controversial assertion if it is read as claiming that we are in a post-racial era.  Nevertheless,  less controversial sociologists such as UC Berkeley's Claude Fischer and Oberlin's Greggor Mattson made similar assertions in their 2009 article in the Annual Review of Sociology, "Is America Fragmenting?"  Plus, the burgeoning significance of class is a common theme among recent studies.  I do not believe we are in a post-racial era, but I am deeply concerned about the ways in which class divides and the consequences of those divisions.

To continue on the sensitive topic of race for a moment, I note that Murray explains his focus on class divisions among whites in order "to concentrate the minds of my readers" whose "reflexive response" to the discussion of the various social problems discussed in the book might be to assume that these problems exist only within minority communities.  Murray says he wishes to make the point that these are white problems, too.  (I have made a similar argument in asserting that if we want to understand how severe a handicap class can be, we might best look at whites--even white men--those privileged on the basis of race and gender yet struggling for economic security and upward mobility). The final chapter of Murray's book apparently shows how the impact of this class divide  among whites holds true across other racial and ethnic groups.

Murray emphasizes differences between what he calls the "new upper middle class" and the working class.  The way Murray slices and dices class, the former are 20% of white adults, and the latter constitute 30%.  The media coverage I have consumed does not indicate the income levels associated with these groups, nor does it indicate clearly whether Murray is focusing on the top and bottom segments of the white adult population or whether there might be a group below this "working class," such as the 15% or so of Americans living in poverty, or a group above the upper middle class, i.e., the very rich, the 1%.

Murray's depiction of these two groups focuses on educational, cultural and lifestyle differences between them.  (Read more here and here on the link between the cultural  and the material in relation to class).  Here is an illustrative quote from the NPR story:

Over the past 50 years the two groups have branched away from each other culturally and geographically. The "educated class," Murray tells NPR's Robert Siegel, has developed distinctive tastes and preferences in a way that is new in America, evinced in everything from the alcohol they drink and the cars they buy to how they raise their children and take care of themselves physically.

Added to that, spatial segregation has resulted in "ZIP codes that have levels of affluence and education that are so much higher than the rest of the population that they constitute a different kind of world," he says.

The economic and social balkanization is potentially very pernicious.

Murray asserts that even going back to 1923, an era of "great social and religious division," successful people tended to have working-or middle-class roots.   They thus had some shared experiences.  Now, however, many decision makers are "second or third generation affluent," leaving them completely out of touch with the working class experience.

"The people who run the country have enormous influence over the culture, politics, and the economics of the country. And increasingly, they haven't a clue about how most of America lives. They have never experienced it."

Murray contrasts the present situation with Eisenhower's 1952 cabinet, sometimes referred to as "nine millionaires and a plumber."  Murray points out that those millionaires were mostly the sons of farmers and merchants and thus had not grown up in affluence.  Compared to President Obama's cabinet, which is highly diverse in terms of gender, race and ethnicity, Eisenhower's cabinet reflected greater socioeconomic diversity.  (I have written about this here).

I have noted other contexts in which we see this evidence of this disconnect and its harms.  One is in the judiciary, as expressed by Judge Alex Kozinski in his 2010 dissent in Pineda-Moreno:

There’s been much talk about diversity on the bench, but there’s one kind of diversity that doesn’t exist: No truly poor people are appointed as federal judges, or as state judges for that matter. Judges, regardless of race, ethnicity or sex, are selected from the class of people who don’t live in trailers or urban ghettos. The everyday problems of people who live in poverty are not close to our hearts and minds because that’s not how we and our friends live.

617 F.3d 1120, 1123 (9th Cir. 2010).

Another context in which we see evidence of upper middle class obliviousness to the working class (and to their own class privilege) is in elite higher education admissions.  A prominent recent study shows that admissions officers tend to hold against applicants their high school work experiences, labeling working students as "careerist."  Instead, admissions officers look for the sort of enrichment activities, e.g., international travel, music and arts training, associated with affluence. This suggests to me that admissions officers at posh colleges and universities know nothing about and therefore have no appreciation for the working class experience.  Needless to say, those admissions officers are also aggravating the class divide which Murray describes because they exclude those who could bring much needed socio-economic diversity to these career-making institutions.

The greater controversy associated with Murray's book is that he makes culture (a euphemism for laziness, lack of discipline) a culprit in the decline of the working class, while ignoring structural changes that have undermined their economic stability.  On this point, I tend to agree with Frederick Lynch, who reviews the book for the Los Angeles Times.  Lynch points out that Murray's focus on culture obscures something else:  "The destruction of values, economic sectors and entire occupational classes by automation and outsourcing."

But those aspects of globalization aren't all that Murray overlooks, as Lynch observes:

Murray inexplicably ignores a long line of studies showing that 21st century elites are post-American "citizens of the world" and that they're too busily involved with building a new global economy to know — or care about — what happens to less fortunate people in their own or others' nation-states.

The disconnect between rich and poor is not grounded merely in difference, it is grounded in disinterest at best, disdain at worst.

On the heels of this burst of media attention to Murray's book comes a story in Friday's New York Times headlined, "Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor, Studies Say."  In it,  Sabrina Tavernise reports on several recent studies which document and analyze burgeoning education inequality between upper and lower  classes--and also how these inequalities transcend race and ethnicity.  Tavernise describes how the "gap between rich and poor students has grown substantially" in recent decades, while the gap between white and black achievement has narrowed during the same period.  She discusses a number of studies by researchers at Stanford, Michigan, Chicago, UCLA, and the University of Pennsylvania, among others.

One study, forthcoming in Demography, found that "in 1972, Americans at the upper end of the income spectrum were spending five times as much per child as low-income families" but that gap had widened to nine times as much in 2007.  The comment of one author of that study, Frank Furstenburg, suggests that the divide is cultural as well as material: “The pattern of privileged families today is intensive cultivation.”  (I am reminded of the distinction that Joan Williams describes in her 2010 book between parenting styles of the affluent and the working class, the former fostering self-actualization and the latter self-discipline).

The gap between rich and poor is also reflected in college completion rates.  A University of Michigan study considered two cohorts of students.  Students in the first were born between 1961 and 1964, and students in the other were born between 1979 and 1982.  Among upper income students, college completion rates were high for both generations, but they increased significantly over time.  About a third of the upper income students in the first cohort completed college, but more than half of the latter cohort did so.  Among low-income students, however, the rates of college completion were much, much lower--at 5% for the earlier cohort, 9% for the latter.

Most studies that Tavernise discusses suggest that lower-income children and youth are held back educationally by a combination of the fiscal and cultural consequences of being lower income.

One thing increasingly clear from our nation's newfound attention to class divisions is that the divide is grounded more in educational disparities than in any other single factor, e.g., income, parental occupation.   Educational access is thus critical to class migration--to access to the rarefied upper middle class.  Yet other studies remind us that--contrary to assertions like that of Murray that the cognitive elite get ahead because of their high IQs--"wealth, race and schooling are more important to the inheritance of economic status, but IQ is not a major contributor."  (Bowles & Gintis 2002).  Other studies tell us that income is a better predictor of college completion than are test scores.

These studies highlight another cost of the class divide: precious human capital.  And that loss should concern every American in this highly competitive, global economy.

Here's a provocative piece about the class divide in the particular context of fine dining--the affluent diners on one side of the kitchen door, the working class kitchen staff on the other.  It also features the story of restauranteur Barbara Lynch's class migration; she grew up the daughter of a taxi driver.

Cross-posted to ClassCrits and SALTLaw Blog.

June 12, 2011

Downsides to Class Privilege? Hardly a Trend

Two recent news reports from very different parts of the world shared this theme: Affluence can have its drawbacks.

The first story was Michael Wines, “Execution in a Killing that Fanned Class Rancor,” which reports the execution of the son of an affluent Chinese businessman and military official. The son, Yoa Jiaxin, stabbed to death a “peasant” woman last fall. Jiaxin had struck the woman, who was cycling, with his vehicle, but she suffered only minor injuries. When Jiaxin realized that she was memorizing his license plate number, however, he attacked her with a knife.

Wines provides some class context for what happened next:

The crime had fanned deep public resentment against the “fu er dai,” the “rich second generation” of privileged families who are widely believed to commit misdeeds with impunity because of their wealth or connections.

Jiaxin later said that he “feared the woman, a poor peasant, would ‘be hard to deal with’ should she seek compensation for her injuries.”

But the victim’s husband fought back, refusing to accept the $6,900 a court ordered in compensation, “calling it ‘money stained with blood.’ He pledged to delay [his wife’s] burial until her killer was executed. A Shanghai lawyer later donated 540,000 renminbi, about $83,300, to her survivors after pledging to pay one renminbi for each message sent to the husband over Sina Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter.”

Of course, these events, which some are calling “Internet-style mob rule,” raise serious concerns about the rule of law in China. One well-known blogger went as far as to invoke the Cultural Revolution, asserting that it was started in response to “this kind of leftist behavior.”

The second story illustrating the negative consequences of being a silver-spoon kid is more uplifting.  That's because the privileged kid in question, Chris Romer, son of former three-term Colorado governor Roy Romer, lost only a political race and not his life. Kirk Johnson reported this week on Michael B. Hancock’s victory over Romer in the Denver mayoral race. The story’s headline, "Message of Survival Won Denver Race for Mayor," suggests the role of class in the election’s outcome.  Here’s an excerpt detailing Hancock's background:

In running for mayor of Denver, a position he won overwhelmingly on Tuesday, Mr. Hancock told a family story so powerful, almost Dickensian in its poverty and hope — he and his twin sister were the youngest of 10 children raised by a single mother in Denver, part of that time in public housing — that the theme of adversity overcome became the heart of the campaign.

“We’ve come from difficult situations, we’ve faced serious challenges, but yet we’re still here,” said Mr. Hancock, 41, in an interview on Wednesday, talking about his seven surviving siblings, all of whom, he said, got involved as volunteers on his behalf, along with their mother, Scharlyne Hancock, 72, who made calls to voters for weeks.

Mr. Hancock will become Denver’s second African-American mayor (the first was Wellington Webb, elected in 1991), but supporters of both Hancock and Romer suggest that class played a greater role than race in the election’s outcome.  Johnson writes:

[B]ecause Mr. Romer and Mr. Hancock had few policy disagreements, supporters in both camps said the race inevitably turned on style, likeability and the power of a compelling story.

* * *

So, the Chinese story smacks of class warfare, while the  Denver story may simply affirm our attachment to the American Dream, rags-to-riches storyline.  Aspects of both stories are heartening in that working class and poor folks found access to power of different sorts.  I daresay, however, that “affluence as liability” is hardly a trend.  Nor do stories like Hancock’s election or “justice” for the Chinese peasant’s family suggest any real mitigation of the day-to-day hardship of deprivation and insecurity endured by the world’s working class and poor.

Cross-posted to SALTLaw.blog and ClassCrits.

May 23, 2011

False Dichotomies of Class (Part II): Material versus Cultural

I responded last month to Martha McCluskey’s ClassCrits post, “Class as a Category of Vulnerability and Inequality.” In that initial response, I asserted that progressives need not choose between advocating mobility (the upward variety!) and advocating mobilization (collective action, labor rights) when it comes to class. I called the tension between mobilization and advocating class mobility a false dichotomy. This post takes up another issue that arose from the initial conversation: is class material or is it cultural? More precisely, will attending too much to the cultural aspects of class cause us to lose sight of its material aspects and consequences?

Of course, class has both material and cultural components—no doubt one of the reasons we increasingly refer to it as “socioeconomic status” or “SES.” I believe we must take both seriously in our efforts to empower the working class and poor. As with my prior post, I take the white working class as my starting point for several reasons. One is that I don’t hear socially conscious progressives pushing for a bifurcation that separates the material from the cultural with respect to minority groups. The other is that focusing on working class and poor whites permits us to see class more clearly. If we are looking at the group which enjoys the greatest racial privilege, we will not be tempted to collapse the class problem into the racism problem. We thus have a distinct opportunity to see just how powerful class disadvantage is. This tack it is not intended to discount the ways in which racial disadvantage exacerbates class disadvantage.

Thinking about class as culture implicates identity, and some have challenged class as a basis for identity, especially among “lower classes.” John Guillory wrote in 1993:

Acknowledging the existence of admirable and even heroic elements of working-class culture, the affirmation of lower-class identity is hardly compatible with a program for the abolition of want.

First, note that even Guillory implicitly links culture (“lower-class identity”) to the material (“abolition of want”). Second, while Guillory’s assertion may be somewhat true regarding those most materially deprived—the poorest among us—it overlooks the fact that many working-class whites are proud of that status. Jim Webb has observed, for example, that rednecks “don’t particularly care what others think of them. To them, the joke has always been on those who utter the insult.” If they suddenly got rich, they would not necessarily shed their cultural trappings. Nor would they shrug off all of the socialization and habits of their childhood and youth. Consider the “Beverly Hillbillies” as a vivid (if imperfect) illustration of the point. As many scholars have observed, class is inextricably linked to consumption, and consumption implicates not only money, but also spending priorities and taste.

Significantly, scholars have observed that culture varies more along racial and ethnic lines among the “lower” classes, while culture becomes more homogeneous as you work your way up the class hierarchy. In other words, the upper classes—regardless of race or ethnicity—tend to be more culturally like each other than they are like those of their same race or ethnicity who fall below them in the class hierarchy. This, too, is evidence of the symbiotic relationship between the cultural and the material. Given the link between being lower class on the one hand and manifesting cultural differences attributable to race/ethnicity on the other, denying cultural aspects of class for working class and poor whites seems tantamount to denying their personhood. It also overlooks a whole lot of sociological literature that sees cultural and material aspects of class as entangled.

In fact, a feedback loop exists between the material and the cultural in a range of contexts. June Carbone illustrates this in relation to family types in a forthcoming article.  Education is another context in which the two are intertwined: the working class are less likely to seek higher education and may scoff at its value in part because they know (or believe) they cannot afford it; they see it as beyond their reach.  Young people from working class families are thus far less likely than the children of professionals/the managerial class to get college degrees, which contributes to the financial insecurity of the former and keeps them in the working class.

Martha McCluskey’s post about cultural and material aspects of class arose from my discussion of Joan Williams’s new book, Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter.  The book is the subject of a colloquy in the Seattle University Law Review, in which Laura Kessler suggests that Williams pays too little attention to the material aspects and consequences of class by virtue of attending too much to its cultural aspects. To this, Williams responded as part of the colloquy:

Does a focus on how class is manifested as cultural difference entail overlooking the structuralist-materialist dimensions of class? Not at all: I am a material girl. But here’s the fascinating thing. Since 1970, Republicans have adopted policies that have radically increased inequality of incomes and eviscerated the economic stability of Americans who are neither rich nor poor with those very Americans’ political support.

* * *

All this is to say that, although I am a material girl, I recognize that we do not live by bread alone. Dignity and meaning-creation are equally important. So it is possible to connect with people whose economic interests do not in sync with yours if you connect with the symbols and the values that give dignity and meaning to their lives. That’s what the Republicans have done, and I propose that Democrats follow the same path.

To be clear, acknowledging culture does not let the state off the hook. In my earlier post, I discussed the role of the state regarding the increasing immobility of the working class. The state also plays roles in relation to a conception of class that attends to culture. One such role should be to prevent discrimination. Mitu Gulati and Devon Carbado have argued that anti-discrimination law should protect the "fifth black woman," the one with dreadlocks and African garb. They have asserted that whites are not faced with her dilemma—to pass or not—but they are wrong. Whites, too, must behave and dress in certain ways in order to "pass" successfully in settings where power (and wealth!) resides, e.g., elite universities, graduate and professional schools, large law firms, corporate America, middle and upper echelons of government.

Williams’s survey of ethnographic studies of the white working class suggests that turning away from working class habits, manners, and attitudes is necessary for class migrants to, well, migrate—to ascend the class ladder. They must do this in order to succeed and thereby to enhance their material well-being. Williams reports some comments made by class migrants during her book tour, noting that “they expressed anxiety that their migration in to the elite would leave them alienated from the values they grew up with and still hold dear.” At the same time, they worried that the working-class values engrained in them would inhibit “their ability to move up” and “attain professional success.” Williams was reporting there about class migrants of color, but it is high time we acknowledge that white class migrants are similarly hamstrung.

All of this points to the wrongheadedness of trying to bifurcate the cultural and material when we think about class. Clearly, each has a significant influence on the other, and we should reject a dichotomy between the two as false.

Cross posted to SALTLaw Blog and ClassCrits.

April 25, 2011

Elitism and Education (Part IV): Admission Office Bias Against Rural Students?

In a prior post about Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford’s book, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life, I mentioned Ross Douthat’s assertion that “the downscale, the rural and the working-class” whites were most disadvantaged in elite college admissions. In this second installment about the book and Douthat’s 2010 column comments on it, I want to discuss the rural issue, which Douthat characterizes as bias against rural or “Red America.” Douthat wrote:

“[W]hile most extracurricular activities increase your odds of admission to an elite school, holding a leadership role or winning awards in organizations like high school R.O.T.C., 4-H clubs and Future Farmers of America actually works against your chances.”

In his response to Douthat’s initial column, Espenshade clarified that rural-oriented extracurriculars are not the only ones whose value is discounted by admission offices. Espenshade wrote:

“These extracurriculars might include 4-H clubs or Future Farmers of America, as Douthat mentions, but they could also include junior ROTC, co-op work programs, and many other types of career-oriented endeavors. Participating in these activities does not necessarily mean that applicants come from rural backgrounds. The weak negative association with admission chances could just as well suggest that these students are somewhat ambivalent about their academic futures.”

As a related matter, Espenshade clarifies that applicants from “Red” states have better odds of getting into an elite university than those from more populous states, many of which are “Blue.”

“Compared to otherwise similar applicants from California, those from Utah are 45 times as likely to be admitted to one of our elite colleges or universities. The advantage for applicants from West Virginia or Montana is 25 times greater, and nearly 10 times greater for students from Alabama. Because top private schools seek geographic diversity, and students from America’s vast middle are less likely to apply, it stands to reason that their admission chances are higher.”

This part of Espenshade’s response essentially skirts the rural issue by ignoring the fact that entire states are not rural, even if they are popularly perceived as “Red.” In short, Espenshade gets the scale wrong. If the goal is geographic diversity beyond a very superficial level, we should be considering not an applicant’s state of origin, but rather county of origin. I would guess that those being admitted from Montana are far more likely to hail from Billings, Bozeman, Missoula or Kalispell, less likely to have grown up in Columbus, Harlowton, Derby, or Plentywood. As Douthat points out, admitted Alabamans hardly represent meaningful geographic diversity and do nothing to enhance socioeconomic diversity if they are products of elite institutions such as Indian Springs School in Birmingham, which is a feeder institution to the Ivy Leagues. Further, Salt Lake City, Montgomery, and Charleston are metropolitan areas, not exactly the hinterlands.

Returning to the finding regarding the impact of rural-type extracurriculars, I find it problematic for several reasons, even with the career-orientation spin that Espenshade puts on it. My annoyance is attributable to my own education in a poor rural school where—guess what?—the only extra-curricular activities were Future Homemakers of America, Future Business Leaders of America (we learned typing and two-column bookkeeping, not portfolio management), a science club (this, ironically, although the school’s science curriculum was so limited that it offered chemistry and physics only on alternate years), basketball, and cheerleading. In the nearly three decades since I graduated, the school has acquired an ag/vo-tech shop program, begun participating in Future Farmers of America, and expanded its sports offerings. In just the last couple of years, it has added music/band. Apparently, only the last of these curricular changes makes students there any more appealing to elite college admission officers.

At the risk of taking this too personally and thus undermining my argument, I’ll continue to use myself as an example. As a high school senior, I applied only to the University of Arkansas, where I was admitted and given a scholarship based strictly on “the numbers.” Had I known I “should” apply to an elite college and done so, I apparently would have looked incredibly uninteresting to those making admission decisions—even though I had held leadership posts and won awards in all of my school’s organizations, participated in 4-H (a community activity, not a school one), and had a 4.0 GPA (no AP courses on offer). My ACT score that was probably in about the nation’s top quartile (no prep course—didn’t know they existed and would have had to travel hours to reach one).

I’m hopelessly biased, of course, but I think I was a pretty interesting 17-year-old—regardless of how this dossier might have looked to an elite college. Certainly I was ambitious, but because my parents were working class, I had very limited knowledge of how to get ahead in the world, and my high school did not then have a counselor. In terms of diversity of life experience, I would say I offered a great deal to the nation’s elite colleges.

As a white class migrant in academia, I suspect I am relatively rare—especially among my generational cohort. As a rural, working-class student with promise, however, I am sure that my 17-year-old self was/is not alone. How many such working-class white students—especially rural ones with credentials that are even less cognizable to and appreciated by admission officers—might get ahead and achieve their potential if they had the sort of opportunities and encouragement that gets them in the pipeline to an elite college (or, for that matter, any college)? We must ask the same question re: working class minority students, of course, but at least we know that elite college admissions officers are on the lookout for them. Those same admissions personnel don’t appear to be looking for—or perhaps even to know how to identify—working-class whites, rural or not. Read more here. If they do, they appear to dismiss them as uninteresting or unworthy, using the euphemism “career-oriented.”

Justice Powell wrote of the value of diversity in Bakke v. University of California Regents (1978):

“[A] great deal of learning occurs informally. It occurs through interactions among students of both sexes; of different races, religions, and backgrounds; who come from cities and rural areas, from various states and countries; who have a wide variety of interests, talents, and perspectives; and who are able, directly or indirectly, to learn from their differences and to stimulate one another to reexamine even their most deeply held assumptions about themselves and their world.”

Ironically, Powell was quoting a Princeton University admissions officer, who is also quoted in Espenshade and Radford’s book. In Bakke, Justice Powell also referred to diversity as a “tenet of Harvard College admissions,” writing:

“Fifteen or twenty years ago … diversity meant students from California, New York, and Massachusetts; city dwellers and farm boys; violinists, painters and football players, biologists, historians and classicists; potential stockbrokers, academics and politicians. The result was that very few ethnic or racial minorities attended Harvard College. In recent years, Harvard College has expanded the concept of diversity to include students from disadvantaged economic, racial and ethnic groups. Harvard College now recruits not only Californians or Louisianans, but also blacks and Chicanos and other minority students.

***

[T]he race of an applicant may tip the balance in his favor just as geographic origin or life spent on a farm may tip the balance in other candidates’ cases. A farm boy from Idaho can bring something to Harvard College that a Bostonian cannot offer. Similarly, a black student can usually bring something that a white person cannot offer. The quality of the educational experience of all the students at Harvard College depends in part on these differences in the background and outlook that students bring with them.”

Thus, the rural-urban axis was at one time prominently recognized in relation to diversity, and the rural-urban divide has only become more marked in the several decades since Bakke. Yet Espendshade and Radford’s study suggests that elite college admissions offices know precious little about the far rural end of the rural-urban continuum. They don’t seem to know, for example, that extra-curricular activities are extremely limited at many rural schools, and they tend to put those that are mostly available in the death knell category: “career-oriented.” Admission officers are perhaps not aware of the impact of spatial inequality and isolation, rural poverty, and other aspects of rural disadvantage (e.g., limited curriculum) on students’ lives, as well as on their college aspirations and applications. Or, maybe they are aware are and just have a “too bad,” “tough break” attitude.

If geographical context is beyond the knowledge of those assessing the presumably rare applications from rural students—those effectively denying these students access to elite education and its apparently snowballing benefits—how can the expansive view of diversity endorsed by the Bakke Court be achieved? Just as admission offices seem to know little of the realities of white working class, so they know little about the rural sub-set of that group. This blind spot seems to me one more reason that elite colleges should affirmatively seek to admit rural and other white working class youth. If we don’t facilitate their class migration, how are we going to know what we know—and what we don’t know—about the lived realities of these socially and spatially removed groups?

Cross posted to ClassCrits Blog, SALTLaw Blog, and Legal Ruralism.

April 17, 2011

Elitism and Education (Part III): Working Class Whites and Elite College Admissions

(Parts I and II of this series appeared in August, 2010 here and here.)

Ever since Ross Douthat discussed No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life in a July 2010 column, I’ve been fretting about some of the book’s findings.  This 2009 book discusses the authors' exhaustive study of college admissions, with particular attention to elite colleges.  Among the conclusions of Princeton sociologists Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford is that whites and Asians needed higher grades and SAT scores to gain admission, while blacks and Hispanics were favored in the admissions process.  Stated thusly, I am not troubled by the finding.  But then Douthat makes a related point, about the consequences of this fact on “lower-class” whites:

For minority applicants, the lower a family’s socioeconomic position, the more likely the student was to be admitted. For whites, though, it was the reverse. An upper-middle-class white applicant was three times more likely to be admitted than a lower-class white with similar qualifications.

Douthat goes on to explain that this failure to admit more working- and other “lower-class” whites may be “a money-saving tactic.”  Specifically, “Espenshade and Radford suggest that these institutions, conscious of their mandate to be multiethnic, may reserve their financial aid dollars ‘for students who will help them look good on their numbers of minority students,’ leaving little room to admit financially strapped whites.”

Douthat characterized this as “unsurprising,” noting also that the “downscale, the rural and the working-class” whites were most disadvantaged in the admissions process.  I will discuss the “rural” part of his assertion in a future post, but for now I want to focus on the working-class white part, geography aside.

I initially blogged last summer about Douthat’s column on my Legal Ruralism Blog here, but I was a bit skeptical of his summary so I ordered the Espenshade and Radford book.  By the time it got to me, the NYT had published Espenshade’s response to the Douthat column.  An excerpt follows:

We find that applicants who demonstrate a strong commitment to career-oriented extracurricular activities while in high school have a slightly lower chance of being admitted to a top school.  This outcome affects only students who have won awards or assumed leadership positions in these activities, not those known for their extensive involvement.

I do not understand the distinction Espenshade is making between leadership and awards on the one hand and extensive involvement on the other.  I would expect the two to go together, and I am unclear as to why winning awards and being a leader would be looked on less favorably than extensive involvement. In any event, Espenshade continues:

These extracurriculars might include 4-H clubs or Future Farmers of America, as Douthat mentions, but they could also include junior ROTC, co-op work programs, and many other types of career-oriented endeavors.

Espenshade thus challenges Douthat’s association of these activities with rurality.  Espenshade asserts instead that such activities “could just as well suggest that these students are somewhat ambivalent about their academic futures.”

This is consistent with what Espenshade and Radford say in their book, presenting the “bias,” if you will, as one against students whose interests run to what they characterize as “career-oriented.”  In a somewhat similar vein, they find that holding a part-time job during high school also hurts one’s admissions prospects.

In response to Espenshade’s clarification, Douthat points out the difference between admissions and acceptances, stating:

It’s a question of admissions offices looking at students who went to the effort of applying to elite schools (an act that already suggests a strong interest in an academic future of some sort) and downgrading their chances, for whatever reason, because they excelled in ROTC or the 4-H club or a co-op work program.

While I found Espenshade’s clarification helpful and agree that Douthat initially failed to provide adequate context, I tend to agree with Douthat’s point that the current system is not achieving optimal diversity.  If we really want diversity, shouldn’t we admit proven high school leaders with good grades and such, regardless of the nature of the extra-curricular activities in which they demonstrated their leadership?  I also must admit that I’m not really sure what sort of high school activities do not look “career-oriented.”  (But maybe that comment reflects both my age and my place of origin …)  It is, after all, high school.  Perhaps involvement in the arts or some such seems more impressive and more academic?  But opportunities to participate in the “right” enrichment activities may not be available in all schools or all communities.  Further, working class families may not be able to afford the costs associated with participation of some enrichment activities, just as educational travel may be beyond their reach.

In addition, it seems just plain wrong to me to hold against an applicant the fact s/he held a part-time job.  Where I come from, a part-time job is a reflection of industry, not lack of ambition.  (It is also often a reflection of need.)  I suppose, however, that more affluent parents discourage their children from working for pay because it diminishes the time they would have to invest in their studies and in the “right” extra-curricular and enrichment activities.  (For a fascinating discussion of the different child rearing priorities and practices of the white working class compared to the professional/managerial class, read the “Learning Class at Your Mother’s Knee” section of Joan Williams’ 2010 book, Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter.)

Some aspects of the Espenshade and Radford study fly in the face of the pervasive notion that we are a nation in which social mobility is attainable for everyone, including working-class whites--indeed, maybe especially for them because they enjoy white privilege.  Maybe the lesson is that lower/working class folks are only supposed to ascend the socioeconomic ladder one rung at a time.  It’s OK if working-class whites get to college—maybe we even want them to—but perhaps we think they do not belong at elite colleges.  Maybe an elite education is actually a rung or two farther up the ladder, rungs reserved for a future generation, for the kids or grandkids of the generation that first makes it to college.

It nevertheless saddens me that this thwarting of class mobility for working-class whites is partly a consequence of the absence of admissions officers who actually know something about working-class families, not only their fiscal limitations but also the ethic of industry associated with them.   Otherwise, why would career-oriented activities be held against these students who—by engaging in such activities—may be hedging their bets in the event they don’t “make it” in higher education or, as the case may be, even get admitted to elite colleges.

Must everyone who gets into an elite college be either pre-ordained by (1) circumstances of birth into relative affluence or (2) the all-too-rare and lucky racial or ethnic minority who gets an affirmative action slot?   To my mind, the tunnel vision of elite college admissions officers is one more reason to be concerned about the relative absence of class migrants—including white class migrants (read more here)—from influential positions, including the ranks of college admissions officers.

Cross-Posted to ClassCrits Blog and SALTLAW Blog.

April 12, 2011

False Dichotomies of Class (Part I): Mobility versus Mobilization

Martha McCluskey wrote a couple of weeks ago on the ClassCrits Blog about some questions regarding class that arose at Martha Fineman’s recent workshop, Masking and Manipulating Vulnerabilities, at Emory Law School.  To summarize, McCluskey asked whether it is “problematic to analyze class as a category of inequality without directly engaging questions of labor rights?”

The genesis of that conversation at Emory was my speculation regarding the reasons for resistance to class analysis regarding whites and, by extension, resistance to the vulnerability paradigm.  Like my other recent work on class, my comments at Emory  focused on class mobility and did not engage issues of collective mobilization.  I thus believe the clear answer to McCluskey’s question is “no.”  Class mobility (think class ascension, although the sad trend these days is downward mobility) and class mobilization (as through unionizing and labor rights) seem to me different paths to empowerment of the working class and poor.  I see these as able to reside comfortably, side-by-side, on parallel tracks.  Indeed, now that McCluskey (echoing others at the Emory workshop) has voiced this issue, I find myself surprised that we do not see more law professors writing about class (im)mobility in a way that separates the issue from racism. That is, I am concerned that socially conscious progressives see challenges to upward mobility as stemming primarily, even solely, from bias against minorities.  If this is the case, we are failing to see that whites, too, are increasingly victims of the inequality gap and its attendant barriers to upward class migration.

We socially conscious progressives are attuned to the need to achieve higher educational attainment for racial and ethnic minorities.  We understand the need to facilitate their class ascension, to integrate more of them into the professional/managerial class, to bring them to the big table of law- and policy-making, in part so that we can benefit from what they know from personal experience.  Affirmative action programs have long been aimed at this outcome—and rightfully so.  We don’t just talk about unionizing minority populations, which presumes that they will stay working class, albeit in a materially more comfortable way.  We talk about diversifying the pipeline into the upper middle class, a/k/a the professional/managerial class.  We grieve the fate of minority children who could have become our political and business leaders—if only they had enjoyed something approaching equal opportunity.

Why, then, do we pay so little attention to class mobility among poor and working class whites?  Why would we limit ourselves to working for their mobilization—as in unions—rather than their upward mobility? Perhaps we have taken for granted white folks’ ability to transcend class boundaries because whites are not the victims of racism.  To quote Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus:  Dispatches from America’s Class War, we’ve been snookered by the “myth of the power of white skin.”  That is, we may buy into the “unspoken belief that if a white person does not succeed, his or her lack of success can be due only to laziness.”  We recognize racism as among the many factors that impede class mobility for racial minorities, but we don’t credit the structural barriers—or cultural bias against poor whites (see here and here)—when assessing the prospects of working class whites.  Yet many poor and working class whites face the same sorts of structural and cultural obstacles that burden minorities:  crummy schools, inadequate health care, a dearth of educated role models in their communities, and low expectations.

Yes, tragically, racism is alive and well in this country.  But minority status is not the only force that holds back working class young people who have the sheer native ability and ambition to get a college degree—or even go well beyond it.  Socially conscious progressives are smart enough to know this, but I see very few acknowledging it.  Which brings us to the State, hardly an innocent bystander of the “class war” to which so many insist on turning a blind eye.  To pick up Martha McCluskey’s metaphor, of course the different classes are not just layers in a cake with as much do with one another as with the cake pan (a/k/a the State).  No, the inferior education, health care and other dwindling supports to which the working class have access directly implicate the State and its grossly uneven distribution of resources.  Relying on local funding (as opposed to state and federal funding) of myriad services is just one component of this.  As President Obama recognized in his 2010 State of the Union address, “the success of our children cannot depend more on where they live than on their potential.”  Yet sadly it often does.  Read more here and here.    

I admit that I’m interested in class (im)mobility in part because I’m a “class migrant,” one “born and raised working class, who join the upper-middle class through access to ... education” (quoting the definition from Joan Williams’ recent book).  But the struggle for class ascension isn’t only supported by anecdote.  Data indicate that upward mobility for the working class is declining—at least as measured by higher education attainment.  In 1970, 61% of college students were the children of parents whose highest education level was a high school diploma or less—that is, they were “first-generation college.”  By 1990, that figure had fallen to 41%, and in 2000, only 22% of those who attended college were the first generation in their family to do so.  Even taking into account the role played by the rising percentage of people (parents) with college degrees over those three decades (though it remains less than 30%), the data suggest that the working class kid who gets to (let alone through!) college is increasingly rare.  Structural impediments bear a significant part of the blame.  Most obviously and recently, these include dramatically higher tuition for tertiary education, even at state colleges and universities.

In any event, I don’t see how this focus on class (im)mobility—which has both material and cultural aspects (as I shall discuss further in a future post)—precludes attention to organized labor.  I’m all for unionizing those who will remain in the working class, and I would hope that nothing I say be used to naturalize constraints on workers’ power to act collectively.  However much we increase mobility for some, we will always have workers with us, but they need not be poor.  Clearly, collective action is necessary to improve their material circumstances.

But focusing only on organizing the working class is arguably an insult to the extent that it objectifies and distances “them” from “us,” compartmentalizing them below us in the class hierarchy.  To focus exclusively on unionizing the working class overlooks the potential and desire of some to transcend class boundaries (as through higher education) and join the upper middle class.

Surely we want white class migrants among our ranks—just as we want class migrants from minority groups—sitting at the “big table” at which social progressive brainstorm problems, set priorities, and formulate solutions. I am convinced that they (we) could teach us (you) a few things.  Class migrants can remind those in power what generations of them have known:  like the racial privilege enjoyed by those of us who are white, our class privilege causes us to take too much for granted—and it tempts us to take too much individual credit for our own professional and material success.

Cross-posted to ClassCrits, SALTLaw Blog, and Legal Ruralism

April 3, 2011

Widening Spatial Inequality and What to Do About It

Wealth and income inequality have been getting a lot of attention in recent months--at least in the New York Times. Op-Ed columnist Bob Herbert has been especially persistent about keeping the topic on readers' radar screens; read some of his columns here, here, here, and here. Paul Krugman, Frank Rich, and Robert Frank have had a say, too. Wealth inequality was also the subject of a "Room for Debate" feature a few weeks ago.

But geographic analysis of inequality has been little examined in the mainstream media until The Economist Magazine ran a couple of stories about uneven development and spatial inequality in the March 10, 2011 issue. The first "Internal affairs: The gap between rich and poor regions widened because of the recession," analyzes various nations' spatial inequality as measured by income and GDP. This analysis shows that Britain is the nation with the widest geography-based income gap: the per capita GDP is nine times greater in central London than it is in some Welsh regions. The smallest regional spreads, on the other hand, were in Italy and Germany, where "incomes in their most affluent areas are [nevertheless] almost three times those of the poorest." The United States falls at the British end of the spectrum, coming in second for inequality across regions among the nations studied. The District of Columbia, for example, is five times as rich as Mississippi. Further, the situation has worsened in the past few years.

Between 2007 and 2009 real GDP per head in the five richest states actually rose by an average of 2%, but fell by 3% in the five poorest. Both groups outperformed the national average, a fall of more than 4%. (The biggest slumps, both by more than 10%, were in Michigan, the eighth-poorest state, and in Nevada, site of the biggest house-price crash.)

The Economist notes that this is merely a continuation of a long-standing trend, and it attributes the phenomenon, in part, to the "dependence of poorer states on manufacturing, which has suffered big job cuts over the past decade." The feature concludes that "the income gap between richer and poorer areas is likely to widen further as government-spending cuts disproportionately hurt less prosperous parts."

One of the story's big attention getters is its comparison of GDP among regions and cities of different nations.

[O]ver a quarter of regions in Britain and Italy and one-tenth of those in Germany will this year have a lower GDP per head than the municipality of Shanghai. All the American states remain richer, but Shanghai looks set to overtake Mississippi by 2015; within ten years half of all the states, including Florida, Michigan and Ohio, could have a GDP per head lower than Shanghai and Beijing.

If the comparison were at the scale of the county rather than that of the state, these Chinese cities would no doubt be shown well out-pacing our nation's persistent poverty counties.

The second Economist feature on spatial inequality, "Gaponomics," takes up the question of what should be done to respond to this problem, particularly in the context of Britain. Instead of investing in particular regions or giving tax breaks to "enterprise zones" in these downtrodden areas, The Economist offers this proposal:

[M]ake it easier for people to move. Given inherent gaps in regional productivity prospects, there is a case for boosting mobility from declining regions to prospering ones. In Britain the main problem is the fetish for home-ownership and high house prices in the south-east, partly the result of severe shortages of supply. Easing planning restrictions below the Watford Gap would be a better way of helping Britons than propping up the north.

As a ruralist, I am immediately suspicious of policies that would aggravate uneven development. Among other things, they ignore those who will remain immobile and inevitably left behind. They also ignore attachment to place as an aspect of the political economy of rural areas in particular.

This story's second proposal is far more palatable: invest in education because it results in "the single biggest reward" for the nation--even if northerners then move south with their enhanced human capital. (Regarding the latter, I am reminded of this book on the rural brain drain).

Back in the United States, a recent New York Times editorial echoes the second of these ideas in relation to New York's funding scheme for education. In "Rich District, Poor District," the editorial staff consider how two of the state's school districts will fare under the Cuomo budget: "Ilion in the economically depressed Mohawk Valley, and Syosset, a wealthy town in Long Island’s Nassau County." Needless to say, it's not a pretty picture. Here' a summary:

The cuts would scarcely affect wealthy districts that rely primarily on local taxes to support lavishly appointed schools. But they would be catastrophic for impoverished rural districts that have been starved of state aid for decades and are still reeling from cuts levied last year .... Already struggling to furnish even basic course offerings, the poorest districts would need to cannibalize themselves to keep the doors open and the lights on.

As the editors express it, the $1.1 million cut Ilion is being asked to take to its $25 million budget "would not even come to a rounding error in the state's richest districts," like Syosset, which is being asked to absorb only a $1.4 million cut to its $188 million budget. But the New York Times editors aren't just arguing that school funding should be more equitable because "it's the right thing to do," they make an argument grounded in economics: Depressed regions like that around Illion "stand[ ] little chance of attracting high-skill jobs if [their] schools are allowed to deteriorate."

Going back to The Economist articles for a moment, I noted that enhanced investment in education is one reason for the income convergence across Germany, even as spatial inequalities become more acute in other nations. The story describes "huge national and European Union funds for infrastructure, R&D and education, as well as the transfer of some manufacturing jobs from factories in the western states to the east." For some reason, Germany sees reasons to take care of its citizens where they are--not to create incentives for residents of the less affluent East to move West. I'd like to know more about those reasons because I suspect they go beyond a sentimental desire to permit people to stay where they are and the attractive orderliness of a more evenly populated. I am guessing these policies are based in part on economic calculations about the value of existing infrastructure and human capital in the historically deprived East. Better understanding those reasons might inform debates in the United States about why regional development and reducing spatial inequalities--not fueling them--makes good sense from myriad perspectives.

Some of my writings mapping the sociogeographic concept of spatial inequality onto legal conceptions of (in)equality are here, here, and here.

Cross-posted to SALTLaw.blog, ClassCrits, and Legal Ruralism.

October 18, 2010

A return to the "culture of poverty," with nary a mention of the rural variety

A headline in today's NYT proclaims, "'Culture of Poverty,' Once an Academic Slur, Makes a Comeback." Journalist Patricia Cohen writes of a new (or renewed) academic turn to discussions of poverty in relation to culture, and she recalls a time when such discussions became politically incorrect.

The reticence was a legacy of the ugly battles that erupted after Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant labor secretary in the Johnson administration, introduced the idea of a “culture of poverty” to the public in a startling 1965 report. Although Moynihan didn’t coin the phrase (that distinction belongs to the anthropologist Oscar Lewis), his description of the urban black family as caught in an inescapable “tangle of pathology” of unmarried mothers and welfare dependency was seen as attributing self-perpetuating moral deficiencies to black people, as if blaming them for their own misfortune.

Cohen then goes on to report recent events (e.g., the 2010 meeting of the American Sociological Association and a special issue of The Annals, the journal of the American Academy of Political and Social Science) which suggest an academic turn back to thinking about poverty in relation to culture.

Cohen quotes Robert Sampson, a Harvard sociologist who explains that culture in this context means "shared understandings." He continues:

“I study inequality, and the dominant focus is on structures of poverty” ... But he added that the reason a neighborhood turns into a “poverty trap” is also related to a common perception of the way people in a community act and think. When people see graffiti and garbage, do they find it acceptable or see serious disorder? Do they respect the legal system or have a high level of “moral cynicism,” believing that “laws were made to be broken”?

I find it interesting (albeit not terribly surprising) that Cohen's story focuses entirely on urban poverty. The photos and textual illustrations--like that of Sampson--are all drawn from urban contexts. Cohen does not use the words "rural" and "nonmetropolitan" even once.  She uses the phrase "persistent poverty" several times, yet among counties that the federal government designates as "persistent poverty" (meaning 20 percent or more of their populations were living in poverty over the last 30 years, as measured by the 1970, 1980, 1990, and 2000 decennial censuses), 340 of 386 such counties are nonmetro (with populations under 100,000 and the single largest urban cluster with fewer than 50,000).  Surely these, too, are places where poverty and culture are intertwined.

Dean Joliffe of USDA Economic Research Service wrote in a 2004 issue of the agency's Amber Waves publication:

Persistent poverty is also more pervasive in the most rural areas, as seen in the share of counties that were persistently poor—4 percent of metro counties, 13 percent of micropolitan counties (the more urbanized nonmetro counties), and 18 percent of noncore, nonmetro counties (the most rural of nonmetro counties). (For more information on these classifications, see “Behind the Data” in Amber Waves, September 2003.)

A strong regional pattern of poverty and persistent poverty also emerges. No persistent-poverty counties are found in the Northeast, and only 60 of the nonmetro persistent-poverty counties are in the Midwest and West. The remaining 280 nonmetro persistent-poverty counties are in the South, comprising 25 percent of the total nonmetro population there. Furthermore, the nonmetro South, with over 40 percent of the U.S. nonmetro population, has a significantly higher incidence of poverty. Poverty estimates for 2002 indicate that, in the South, 17.5 percent of nonmetro residents were poor compared with 14.2 percent of all nonmetro residents. Understanding differences in poverty between nonmetro and metro areas of the U.S. is important to understanding differences in well-being across these areas and can help inform the policy dialogue on poverty reduction strategies.

If sociologists and policy makers are re-thinking the role of culture in relation to poverty, they should consider how rural sub-cultures--and not only urban ones--evolve in the context of and in response to entrenched, inter-generational poverty.

Dr. Jennifer Sherman's, Those Who Work, Those Who Don't: Poverty, Morality and Family in Rural America (2009) is a book that does just that. Sherman's book is an ethnography of a small logging community in northern California in the wake of economic restructuring associated with the northern spotted owl's designation as an endangered species. While Sherman does not endorse a "culture of poverty" in the sense of suggesting that poverty persists because poor people are lazy (quite the contrary--see pp. 185-86), she does describe a rural culture that is shaped by entrenched economic distress across a community. One aspect of the relationship between poverty and culture in some rural contexts is the turn to morality and the focus on family values as a way of differentiating among people in the context of a largely homogeneous community, where few other bases for distinction exist. We need more work like Sherman's--work that attends to rural difference and observes it with compassion--to inform policymakers' responses to entrenched poverty and its relationship to place and culture.

Cross posted to Legal Ruralism and SALT Law Blog.