Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Wealth And Poverty In The USA

Some economic news and analysis making the social media rounds:

I. On poverty:

The majority of poor people in the US are white and suburban. With non-Latino whites making up 64% of the general population, which is highly suburbanized, this shouldn't come as a surprise. Yet putting a white face on American poverty clashes with prevailing attitudes that strongly associate poverty with non-whiteness, and whiteness with wealth. While the assumption that (most) communities of color are generally poorer than their white counterparts is an accurate reading of racial gaps in wealth, it fails to capture the sharp polarization of wealth in American society as a whole.

Thinking of poverty as simply a minority issue obscures the nature of class conflict in our society. The poor person racializied as white and the poor person racialized as a person of color have more in common than they imagine. Realizing this disrupts the expectation that the laboring classes will remain divided among themselves and in thrall to the political, economic and cultural interests of the elite - an identification that is at odds with our own possibilities of freedom. Looking at poverty holistically shows us who our natural allies are and that economic deprivation must be looked at through the lens of both race and class.

Doctoral candidate Kara McGhee discusses the rise in suburban poverty rates, whose yearly growth rate now outpaces those in urban centers (though urban poverty is still higher in general).

"Poverty in Suburbia: The Rise of the Outer City Poor" - Kara McGhee, Sociological Images
Poverty’s expansion to the suburbs is a symptom of an increasingly unequal society. The geographic isolation of the suburban poor in the inner and outer rings of suburbia troubles the validity of the claim that poverty moved to the suburbs. More accurately, people are getting poorer and more people live in the suburbs—or areas now designated as such. It’s plausible that economic inequality and leapfrog developments have changed the sociogeographic landscape. Low-income earners are displaced to the outskirts of the city (inner-ring of the suburbs) due to gentrification, and the rural poor are now more easily counted among the suburban poor due to suburban sprawl. Whatever the case, suburban poverty presents unique challenges to policy makers because federal antipoverty resources are tailored for densely populated urban areas. The stereotypical images of inner city poverty and suburban affluence are the ultimate fiction.

II. On wealth:

Science is showing that the wealthy are stingy and less compassionate, and that they steal twice as much candy from children. No surprise there. Yes, it takes money to make money but being wealthy isn't just about making money, it's about hoarding money.

PBS's fascinating segment on the psychology of the wealthy (linked to below) shows us that what the poor lack in financial assets they make up for in a heightened awareness of suffering and a deepened sense of cooperation (humanity's best asset and what's enabled our success as a species on earth).

Probing the "wealthy mind" (like we did the so-called Arab mind, right? not!) is important because these are the people holding disproportionate sway over the direction of our lives. We should get inside the minds of the folks marching through the halls of private and public power and discover how wealth influences their behavior, choices, appetites, inclinations etc. Just as the nature of "whiteness" is scrutinized when studying the mechanics of racial domination in a white supremacist society like our own, so too must the nature of wealth be examined when seeking to understand a capitalist society based on gross inequality where an exceptional minority control the vast majority of wealth. What is the cast of mind behind the policies engineering such a flawed system?

"The Psychology of Wealth" - Gwen Sharp, Sociological Images (VIDEO, PBS)
As this video clip explains, having wealth appears to affect us in a number of ways. Having more tends to make individuals feel entitled to even more; research shows they feel less generous and more entitled to take resources (such as candy they have been told is for children coming in later), more willing to cheat, and more accepting of unethical behavior. Privileged individuals — even those whose privilege is just having Monopoly rules rigged to ensure they win in an experiment — tend to believe they deserve their privilege.

What is it that wealth does to people? On Thursday's Making Sen$e segment, Paul Solman traveled to the University of California, Berkeley, to examine the connection between wealth and happiness. His report on the psychology of wealth, which appears above and is slated to air on PBS NewsHour Friday, shows that people who feel less well-off, whether in real terms or in simulated settings, tend to act more charitably.

III. On the prestige economy:

We are in trouble. Here's where the American Dream betrays the myth of equal opportunity. Whole generations, not just those on the racial and economic margins, are paying the price for our growing plutocracy.

"Study: 30-somethings worse off than their parents' generation" - Terrell Brown, CBS
WELLFLEET, Mass. - Americans in their 30s are the only age group in this country worse off than their counterparts three decades ago. A recent study by the Urban Institute shows the net worth of today's 30-somethings -- adjusted for inflation -- is down 21 percent from what 30-somethings enjoyed in 1983.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Think Inside The Box, Baby

Unreal. Absolutely unreal. I had a hard time believing this as I read it. No system is perfect, but policy this smart is a great place to start:

- Helena Lee, BBC

For 75 years, Finland's expectant mothers have been given a box by the state. It's like a starter kit of clothes, sheets and toys that can even be used as a bed. And some say it helped Finland achieve one of the world's lowest infant mortality rates.


"There was a recent report saying that Finnish mums are the happiest in the world, and the box was one thing that came to my mind. We are very well taken care of, even now when some public services have been cut down a little," she says.


Testimonial: Mark Bosworth Finland

My partner Milla and I were living in London when we had our first child, Jasper, so we weren't eligible for a free box. But Milla's parents didn't want us to miss out, so they bought one and put it in the post.

We couldn't wait to get the lid off. There were all the clothes you would expect, with the addition of a snowsuit for Finland's icy winters. And then the box itself. I had never considered putting my baby to sleep in a cardboard box, but if it's good enough for the majority of Finns, then why not? Jasper slept in it - as you might expect - like a baby.

We now live in Helsinki and have just had our second child, Annika. She did get a free box from the Finnish state. This felt to me like evidence that someone cared, someone wanted our baby to have a good start in life. And now when I visit friends with young children it's nice to see we share some common things. It strengthens that feeling that we are all in this together.

A little Finnish baby in a box enjoying its safety security blankie.

All in this together? Did you hear that? A sense of social cohesion and unity? Magic. Well done Finland.

Kenya's “Mutumia”

- Wambui Mwangi

Wambui Mwangi writes a compelling piece at The New Inquiry (of course) entitled "Silence Is a Woman." It's a studied assault on the continuities of imperial systems of control in Kenya, namely indigenous and colonial forms of patriarchy and ethno-supremacy. By recounting the long and storied history of Kenyan women's resistance against these forms of domination, Mwangi carves out new spaces of imagining, justice and moral responsibility, or "structures of feeling" as coined by cultural critic Raymond Williams.

I highly recommend taking the time to read the whole thing. It is both a formidable assault on patriarchy - its unique perversions of power - and a lyrical description of the postcolonial condition. I love how she moves effortlessly between poetic and institutionalized language, making both serviceable to higher social ends like political empowerment and freedom. 

This metonymic association between “Kenya” and “Kenyatta” is no accident. The first president gave himself that name. He was also the author of Facing Mount Kenya, which he wrote as his doctoral dissertation in anthropology and in which he examined at scholarly length the working of Gikuyu society and cultural practices. This work is so iconic in post-colonial Gikuyu culture that now it does not so much describe as generate Gikuyu identity. In the Gikuyu language of Jomo and Uhuru Kenyatta’s core supporters, “mutumia” is one of the generic words for a woman. The literal translation of “mutumia” is “the silent one” or “one who does not speak.”

Continue reading.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Kendzior Keeping It Real

Here's a healthy, heaping dose of Sarah Kendzior for ya'll.

Kendzior writes about the plight of the millennials, the so-called lost generation, and what their condition signals for the larger economy and the American dream. She interrogates these issues as an intellectual and publicly engaged anthropologist, meaning, she's a rare breed. Kendzior represents the power and promise of anthropological work when it sheds its inter-disciplinary insecurities and engages the public on important issues affecting our lives.

Anyone concerned with addressing the major concerns of human history and society through socially committed critique will find in her work a focused passion worthy of emulation. An enemy of conformity, I'm sure Kendzior would insist you follow your own path. But you get what I mean. She's a role model, and that's cool.

"The millennial parent"

In today's society, opportunity is open to competition - but it's a pay-to-play game which excludes many.

You know our economic straits are dire when perseverance is no longer a survival strategy but a mode of privilege. With a single anecdote Kendzior captures the precariousness defining the millennial experience:

I have a friend who was the first in his family to go to college. He grew up poor in the rural Midwest and earned his BA from a top school in the region. But when the recession hit in the early 2000s, he could not find a job. He decided he needed more training and applied to graduate school. When Harvard accepted him, he was thrilled. Within one generation, his family's highest level of education went from a high school diploma to an Ivy League degree.

A Harvard education was supposed to provide opportunity. But with the degree came debt. Now in his early 30s with children of his own, my friend's social mobility has stalled. He wants his sons to have the same quality of education he did, and the professional advantages that came with it. But he does not see how this is possible. When his sons are old enough for college, he will still be paying back his own student loans. With wages stagnant and tuition fees well outpacing inflation, there is little chance he will be able to afford their education. His children will be back where he started. Mobility was a mirage.

"It kind of sickens me to think I might have to say to my kids, 'Hey, I went to Harvard but you can't'," he said. "The whole thing is turned inside out. People imagine that you are supposed to build legacies around things like that, and instead they can't go there because I did."

My friend is part of the so-called millennial generation: young adults born roughly between the late 1970s and the late 1990s. While the start and end dates of the millennial generation are up for debate - and the idea of inherent generational traits is dubious - people of this age group share an important quality. They have no adult experience in a functional economy.

As someone who graced her way through grad school (while birthing and raising children), Kendzior isn't afraid to tell us academia is a Ponzi scheme before it's a meritocracy (itself an elitist concept because it assumes everyone has equal access to the tools needed to succeed). She clearly critiques a system like academia because there's value in that critique; what Kendzior is battling isn't the idea of higher education but its corruption. 

Now onto your second question — what are you going to do with that? First of all, higher education and the economy are both such disasters that you cannot assume any major or degree will guarantee you a good, secure life. STEM, liberal arts, law – no profession is safe. Industries are disappearing or being restructured out of existence. Practical training you get in college will likely be useless ten years from now. There are no safe bets.

So what is the point of an education? The point is to think critically, become an informed citizen, gain some specialized knowledge, gain broader insight into the world, and communicate well. Some people will say they don’t need to go to college to do this. I actually agree with that. But since college is a prerequisite for most jobs, you might as well get a solid education.

As a UN internship mistakenly goes up for auction, focus must be given to the nature of unpaid UN internships. 

Seeing unpaid work as a form of "charity to the powerful," as Kendzior argues, is to see it as a form of servitude, a knid of modern bondage with the rich and well-connected as overlords. When will we fully own ourselves and the value of our labor? 

The United Nations is far from the only organisation refusing to pay its interns. Most human rights, policy and development organisations pay interns nothing, but will not hire someone for a job if they lack the kind of experience an internship provides. Privilege is recast as perseverance. The end result hurts individuals struggling in the labour market but also restructures the market itself.

Unpaid internships lock out millions of talented young people based on class alone. They send the message that work is not labour to be compensated with a living wage, but an act of charity to the powerful, who reward the unpaid worker with “exposure” and “experience”. The promotion of unpaid labour has already eroded opportunity – and quality – in fields like journalism and politics. A false meritocracy breeds mediocrity.

Worst of all, unpaid internships in policy and human rights send the message that fighting poverty, inequality, and other issues of injustice is something that only rich people should do. Qualities that should be encouraged in society– like empathy and the willingness to stand up for others – are devalued when ordinary people are told that they literally cannot afford to care.
What happens to the American Dream deferred? The UN internship auction – whatever it may actually entail – is in the end a good thing, because it made plain a system of privilege and bias few want to acknowledge. Economic discrimination is often not visible. Nor are the people it leaves behind. 

What a relief it would be if every unpaid internship was an auction – if instead of a vague line about how the intern must “cover their own costs”, the organisation would tally up those costs and see who is able to pay them. The rest of us could watch, from the sidelines, as bias long denied plays out in public, as wealth morphs into merit before our eyes. Let them do their bidding in the open, and show us what it costs to succeed.