Finally Reading [Sociology Books]

Health insurance rip off lying FDA big bankers buying
Fake computer crashes dining
Cloning while they're multiplying
Fashion shoots with Beck and Hanson
Courtney Love, and Marilyn Manson
You're all fakes
Run to your mansions
Come around
We'll kick your ass in

Postby Merciel » Tue Jun 26, 2018 12:09 am

More than most, this is a book where I really don't have any idea how interesting this subject matter is to people and would appreciate anybody who wants to comment re: middle-class reinvestment in formerly underfunded public schools, urban renewal v. gentrification, etc. There's a lot going on here and it's interesting to me, but god only knows whether that's true for anyone else. Anyway!


Although the CCD and Philadelphia School District come in for a fair amount of criticism in Cucchiara's book, it's far from evident to me that they (or the affluent parents who enrolled in the marketed schools) made anything but the best available choice given the constraints under which they were working.

There's a great deal of literature establishing that neighborhood gentrification does not lead to public school improvement when the gentrifying families are able to opt out of their local neighborhood schools. See, e.g., ... y-schools/

"“There are many ways to opt out of the neighborhood schools and gentrification has a limited effect on public schools,” said Mincere Keels, a University of Chicago professor who focuses on race and inequality.

“Many of the policies of urban education are focused around bringing upper-income families back into the public school system based on the assumptions that they will come into these neighborhoods and invest in the neighborhood schools and revitalize both the neighborhoods and schools,” she said. “But families that move into neighborhoods that are low-income often opt out of the neighborhood schools and these higher income families take their individual household resources with them and contribute them to” other schools. [...]

The researchers found that middle class residents who chose to move into low-income, segregated areas either did not have kids, sent their children to private schools, or utilized public schools “choice” policies that allowed students to attend wealthier, whiter schools outside of the neighborhood.

In fact, “school choice” is often a hallmark of cities looking to entice white and middle-class residents. City officials strike a Faustian bargain with gentrifying parents that if they agree to buy into lower-income, segregated neighborhoods they need not send their children to the same under-resourced and struggling schools as their neighbors. Instead, Keels said, city officials set up elite, un-zoned public schools — often with strict admissions criteria –that educate the children of gentrified. [...]

So what, then, can be done? Keels said instead of funneling resources to elite choice schools, districts should bolster neighborhood schools and market them as heavily as they do other schools. But more importantly, districts need to adopt policies that break up the high concentrations of poverty that plague many schools and disperse disadvantage more evenly across schools."

See also: ... ls/408568/

"A recent article in U.S. News concurs with this assessment, claiming that “gentrification is leaving public schools behind.” Likewise, a report on underperforming San Francisco public schools from earlier this summer in The Atlantic notes that many if not most urban institutions are “left to flounder,” remaining segregated, low-quality “Apartheid schools,” even while gentrification changes other aspects of the neighborhoods around them.

The exceptions—the public schools in gentrifying neighborhoods that happen to be doing well according to official rankings—seem to be those that compete with charter and private schools by becoming magnet schools or starting gifted-and-talented programs. Brooklyn’s PS 8, for instance, was “failing” only 10 years ago, but after remaking itself as a magnet school has become one of the borough’s most sought-after elementary schools. Likewise, PS 9 recently added gifted-and-talented and foreign-language programs. It now has an above-average proportion of white students relative to its district, and there is a waitlist for its Pre-K program."

That's pretty much exactly what the CCD did, and that's the outcome it had for the marketed schools. So, as far as I can see, that's the least bad alternative available to the various players in this scenario: they invested in the neighborhood public school, and they kept it open to everybody in the catchment zone.

This does, of course, tie into the "middle class saviors rescue poor city school!!" narrative, but... that is, at least in part, because there's a hefty dose of truth to that narrative.
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Postby Merciel » Wed Jun 27, 2018 1:46 am

Marketing Schools, Marketing Cities, Pt. 2:

Here there's a survey of (semi-)recent Philadelphia history, its decline through the '80s and '90s, and urban revival attempts, mostly starting with the Rendell and Street administrations. In the '90s, private business improvement associations like the CCD began to rise to "provide services or improve the appearance of downtown areas" rather than relying on over-extended and cash-strapped municipal entities to do so. They gained traction throughout the '90s and were showing real signs of success by the early 2000s, particularly in Center City.

While often successful in revitalizing select neighborhoods, such organizations (called BIDs) seldom directly benefit entire cities. "They are suffused with market discourse and driven by market logic. From a BID's perspective, residents and visitors are 'customers' whose business they seek and whose living, working, and shopping experiences they strive to make as pleasant as possible. [...]

BIDs' prominence and power have opened the door to new partnerships and ways of funding and coordinating urban development. [However,] as areas served by BIDs become more attractive to tourists and professionals, they become less accessible or affordable for the rest of the population. As a result, BIDs can exacerbate social and economic disparities between the neighborhoods they serve and those that, lacking sufficient resources to support a BID, fall further behind."

Cucchiara then shifts to focusing on the Philadelphia public schools, which mirrored the city's general decline with pockets of semi-success, including the "Big Three" elementary schools in Center City (Meredith, McCall, and Greenfield). However, "even in the most successful schools, resources and facilities were still below many parents' expectations. This dearth of resources fed skepticism among middle-class families about the wisdom of sending their children to a neighborhood public school."

Some numbers about Philadelphia's demographics and student population follow. In 1963, Philly's public school enrollment was 48% white; by 2004, it was 14% white (and that was mostly concentrated in a few areas: Center City, the Northeast, and Germantown/Mount Airy). It was also a lot poorer, owing to the erosion of manufacturing industries and white flight (which later expanded to middle-class flight generally, as wealthier black families also left). 71% of the students were "low income" in the 2004-2005 school year.

As the city tax base shrank, the city became less able to fund its schools, and since the state legislature in Harrisburg has not always been favorably disposed toward sending money to its two main cities (owing to the rural/urban, red/blue political split in PA, which is quite pronounced), this left the school system so broke that in 2001, Philly came very close to privatizing its sytem and handing it over to a for-profit educational management group. Public outcry prevented this from happening (and resulted in the formation of a School Reform Commission) instead, but it was a close call and contributed to a general public sense that the Philly school system was a staggering disaster.

This led to the appointment of Paul Vallas, a pragmatist reformer, as district CEO. "The school district moved toward the creation of educational markets in the city," meaning both an expansion of charter schools and an aggressive marketing push toward the schools perceived as good enough to be turned into magnets.

To do that, Vallas had to change everything from the schools' academic reputations and reputation "as plagued by high levels of violence" to "the undeniable shabbiness of Philadelphia's school buildings," which were often "grand and old," but had been marred by lack of maintenance over the decades, lack of playgrounds, graffiti, unsightly metal grates over the windows, etc. As a result, over 70% of Center City students attended private or parochial schools (and this number still hovered around 40% when the "expanded Center City" area, including the peripheral neighborhoods of Fairmount, Bella Vista/Queen Village, and Graduate Hospital, was considered).

Let's pause here for an important bit of context: Most Philadelphia public schools, then and now, serve low-income neighborhoods and have all the problems associated with that (low academic achievement, high teacher turnover, high rates of behavioral and disciplinary incidents). Most of the parents in those neighborhoods would desperately like to get their kids somewhere else with better opportunities.

During this period, the "Big Three" Center City schools served an intermediate demographic. In 2004-2005, their enrollment was 42 to 46% low income (vs. 70+% district-wide) and 39% to 62% black. This was a considerably wealthier and whiter population than the district average, but considerably *less* white and wealthy than the neighborhoods they were supposed to be enrolling from.

The reason for the disparity is that so few Center City parents sent their kids to public school that all three schools were under-enrolled, allowing them to accept transfer students from other neighborhoods outside the catchment lines. While these schools were considered less desirable relative to private or parochial schools for wealthy parents, they were *extremely* desirable from the perspective of lower-income families trying to get the best opportunities for their kids.

For me, reading this section, it really struck me that this is an instance where stratification hits hard and early, resulting in neighborhood and transfer parents (as Cucchiara labels the two groups) having somewhat conflicting interests.

The Big Three schools start enrolling in kindergarten. But already, even that early, rich kids and poor kids are on divergent tracks, with one group slightly (though only slightly, in kindergarten) ahead of the other. The neighborhood parents, with an eye on their kids' ability to compete with private and parochial school students, push continually for acceleration, enrichment, and advancement. The transfer parents, whose kids often have some catching up to do (especially if they transfer in at later grades, when their previous, bad schools have slowed down their learning more significantly), are generally happy with the status quo (which doesn't leave their kids so far behind) and/or want more supportive services for the kids who need extra help. With limited resources to cover all those needs, this sets up an inevitable tug-of-war.

Given that the school system and CCD are both actively trying to recruit more wealthy parents, however -- and the fact that these are all neighborhood zoned schools where the transfer students are only allowed to enroll if there are free spaces not taken by neighborhood kids -- you can guess which way this tug-of-war ends.
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Postby Merciel » Thu Jun 28, 2018 10:40 pm

Marketing Schools, Marketing Cities, Pt. 3:

I'm going to shortchange the remainder of _Marketing Schools, Marketing Cities_, but I do want to hit the key points before moving on. So here's the ultra condensed version:

"Like deciding where to buy a home, the decision parents make about where to send their children to school is a critical moment in the social reproduction process, with parents attempting to choose schools that will advance (or at least maintain) their children's class status. [...]

Administrators involved with the [Center City Schools Initiative], as well as parents hoping to increase middle-class participation in the schools, had to convince skeptical parents that [McCall] and the other Center City public schools were deserving of their trust. They had to show that, unlike other "inner-city" Philadelphia public schools, these were up to the task of preparing middle- and upper-middle-class children for future success. [...]

The campaign to attract Center City families to [McCall] touched upon two underexplored tensions operating at the school and in the broader education and policy fields. The first is the tension between the well-established benefits of economic integration and the negative framing of low-income families inherent to economic-integration discourse and policies. The second is between the intimacy and sense of community implied by the notion of the "neighborhood school" and the accompanying exclusion of those who are not part of the neighborhood. In both cases, what is often seen as socially and educationally beneficial also involves significant marginalization."

For context, McCall serves two main neighborhoods in Philadelphia: Chinatown (which is much like any other major city's Chinatown: mostly Asian, lots of first- and second-generation immigrants, wide range of economic statuses but generally tilting toward lower-income overall) and Washington Square/Society Hill (where 72% of the population has a bachelor's degree or higher, and the median home value was about $450K in 2002 and over $1M by 2008). The marketing initiative targeted Washington Square families exclusively, since the Chinatown families weren't going anywhere regardless.

The marketing push involved a combination of school resources (adding a playground and attractive landscaping, holding meetings where administrators assured parents that they'd be responsive and accessible), CCD marketing pushes (improving the website, branding Center City schools as distinct from the rest of the Philadelphia system, distributing a flyer highlighting an attractive upper-middle-class white father and child framed against a diverse schoolyard, with text touting the benefits of being able to walk your kid to school, catch a school play during your lunch break, "personally introduce" the cultural offerings of the city to your kid, etc.; as Cucchiara points out, this assumes a parent with the interest in such cultural activities, the money to participate in them, and the autonomy to ditch work and see a kindergarten musical at lunch), and parent-to-parent social efforts (one mom threw a cocktail party at her spacious and elegantly appointed home, inviting several notable guests and effectively flexing her social capital to reassure prospective parents in her peer group that yes, McCall attracts an upper-class demographic).

This push was extremely successful, and once the school attracted a critical mass of neighborhood students, it -- like the other Center City public schools profiled in this book -- drove up property values in the neighborhood and drew so many neighborhood students that transfer students were crowded out. (Greenfield, which serves an even wealthier neighborhood than McCall, still loses enough kids to private school that a few transfers can get in there. It is impossible for transfers to get in at the other two schools now, and Meredith is struggling with overcrowding due to its popularity.)

From the city's perspective, the school-marketing initiative was a clear success. The targeted schools became significantly more popular in their neighborhoods and did, in fact, help retain a substantial number of middle- and upper-middle-class families who might otherwise have moved to the suburbs in pursuit of better schools. Property values within the catchment zones went up, benefiting those homeowners and shoring up the city's tax revenues. Lower-income students who lived within the catchment benefited from the social, financial, and cultural capital that the Washington Square parents could share. Parents in adjacent neighborhoods, seeing the success that the "Big Three" Center City schools had, decided to employ similar strategies in their own neighborhood schools, and as of this writing are showing strong signs of improving those schools along a trajectory similar to that discussed here.

The main downside is, again, that the transfer students got pushed out by increased neighborhood demand (although, to the extent that their own neighborhood school might be improving or they can transfer into another school on a similar upward trajectory, they aren't locked out of options altogether). And while they were there during this marketing push, they were subjected to constant reminders that they, and their families, were of diminished status relative to the neighborhood parents.

In closing, Cucchiara notes that the only urban public school systems that have been able to effect widespread socioeconomic and racial integration are the ones that also encompass the surrounding suburbs. Most cities (like Philly) have county lines that are coterminous with the city boundaries, so they aren't able to capture the suburbs and it's relatively easy for people who work in the city but don't want to enroll their kids in city schools to cross the county line and escape the system. Without any ability to capture suburban schools, the best alternative that's realistically practical and politically palatable for most urban districts is to do what Philly did: improve neighborhood schools one by one, keeping them open to all kids in the neighborhood, and try to draw in a critical mass of families who can use their own private resources to bolster a public good.

With that, we'll leave this book behind. I think it's primarily valuable for showing us a detailed case study in how market logic can conflict with democratic equity, how improving a public good can result in locking some parts of the public out of accessing that good, and how the ideal of racially and economically diverse public schools runs aground on the hard realities of the society we actually live in. But there are definite glimmers of hope, and while this model of school improvement has some obvious limitations and drawbacks, it also appears to be quite successful within its scope.
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Postby Merciel » Fri Jun 29, 2018 2:30 pm

Squeezed, Introduction:

Today we'll start on Alissa Quart's just-released _Squeezed_, which looks at how people in formerly middle- and upper-middle-class occupations can barely make ends meet. Sometimes this is because their jobs don't pay enough (adjunct professors, school teachers, journalists); sometimes it's because the costs of a middle-class life have risen so high that you can pull down a household income well into the six figures and still have a hard time covering the basics.

This book has been attracting a lot of attention because it highlights a number of factors that are highly relevant to a lot of people's lives right now, and that's good. Unfortunately it's not as strong as I would have liked it to be; Quart isn't an especially great prose stylist and her argument structure is often less-than-optimally organized. The book suffers whenever Quart gets derailed talking about her own problems (what's probably a praiseworthy attempt to relate to her subjects and dispel the cloud of shame around poverty by talking frankly about her own situation instead often comes off as self-absorbed), there are a ton of paragraphs that are just, like, CITATION NEEDED, and every time she tries to coin a new phrase it's simultaneously clunky and cutesy and wince-tastic all the way through. Also, Quart takes a bunch of gratuitous shots at Trump, which is annoying because it's generally peripheral to whatever argument she's trying to make and therefore doesn't exactly bolster her position as an accurate and nonpartisan observer.

Because there's a lot of good material here and I am highly sympathetic to these arguments, I would really have preferred if they'd been presented in a stronger form. This is the equivalent of reading a clumsy brief on an important issue and just sort of wincing all the way through: you're glad somebody raised the argument, but god *damn* you wish it had been done better.

That bit of editorializing aside, let's get to the summaries.

Quart introduces her book through the story of Michelle Belmont, a married woman who is retraining for a new career and saddled with six figures of school debt when she has a baby. There are some complications with the birth (the baby was 10 pounds 13 oz.) and her baby needs some additional care; her husband's insurance is crappy and doesn't help much. Meanwhile, their rent is going up, and it's not long before the Belmonts are paying off Credit Card A with Credit Card B with Credit Card C, their debts rising ever faster around them.

Quart writes: "_Squeezed_ is the story of this psychological and socioeconomic predicament. Being squeezed involves one's finances, one's social status, and one's self-image. The middle class I refer to in these pages is a group defined by more than just money: it also leans on credentials, education, aspiration, assets, and, of course, household income. In the United States, the middle class is a group of working people who, according to a May 2016 Pew survey, with a yearly household income for a family of three ranging from $42,000 to $125,000 in 2014, make up 51 percent of U.S. households. Michelle Belmont and her family were in the middle class, and they were squeezed.

The middle-class families running furiously and breathlessly just to find themselves staying in place are a large and varied coterie. It includes highly educated workers like lawyers, professors, teachers, and pharmacists, professionals who never expected to be in this situation -- often feeling cast aside by a system that seems stacked against them. Their prospects for the future, given the rise of robots and automation within their professions[,] are likely to dim even further.

According to a Washington Post/Miller Center poll, 65 percent of all Americans worry about paying their bills -- as the parents I've interviewed, murmuring anxiously at their dining room tables, can attest. One reason for this anxiety is that middle-class life is now 30 percent more expensive than it was twenty years ago; in fact, in some cases the cost of daily life over the last twenty years has doubled. And the price of a four-year degree at a public college -- one traditional ticket to the bourgeoisie -- is nearly twice as much as it was in 1996. The cost of health care has almost doubled in that twenty-year period as well. And rent, not to mention homeownership, has also become substantially more expensive [...]

Meanwhile, the ongoing decimation of unions and employees' rights continues, with pensions and minimal benefits fading. Unstable working hours are increasingly common too, making child care, always a high personal expense for families, all the harder to arrange and even more expensive while further testing family cohesion. And the squeeze on the middle class has an element of gender bias too. It's no accident that many of the people you'll meet in this book are female. [T]here is one quite simple reason: motherhood is a disadvantage in the work world, with mothers statistically earning less than their male or childless peers. [...]

Like the classic precariat, the Middle Precariat has lost the narrative of their lives and futures. Who are they and what will they become? Their income has flatlined. Many are 'fronting' as bourgeois while standing on a pile of debt. [...] The middle class is endangered on all sides, and the promised rewards of belonging to it have all but evaporated."
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Postby Merciel » Sun Jul 01, 2018 12:45 am

Squeezed, Part 1:

The first chapter of _Squeezed_ looks at the costs of pregnancy and parenthood in the workplace. Pregnancy discrimination is rampant and often quite open; expecting mothers are pressured in ways both subtle and overt to hide their condition, and expecting fathers are pressured to minimize their use of paternal leave, if it's even available to them.

(Quart theorizes that this is part and parcel of a "caregiver penalty" that devalues emotional labor and time spent caring for others as weak and in opposition to being a good little worker drone. I think she's right, but I also think this is one of the many, many areas in which _Squeezed_ offers an irritatingly superficial analysis that assumes both prior knowledge and agreement on the reader's part, so jumps across actually bolstering its arguments with data or even logical point-by-point development.)

Economic data shows that much of the gender gap in pay is explainable by a motherhood penalty; mothers are offered lower starting salaries than their childfree peers and not given raises at the same rate, are likelier to be laid off, tend not to be promoted or given demanding assignments, and are generally stereotyped as not being that interested in the job and therefore not worth investing time or career opportunities in.

(Quart doesn't really hammer home as much as she might have that this is *entirely* discriminatory, i.e., not borne out by the numbers. The data actually shows that for many mothers, especially in white-collar occupations, productivity and creativity go up. It's the same as any other tale of diversity in the workplace: the more diverse viewpoints you have, the more perspectives you get on a problem and the more comprehensive a solution becomes, so it's actually advantageous for employers, especially but not only in creative-class occupations, to seek out moms as contributors. I suspect that the reason for this silence in the book is that Quart wants to reject market logic as a metric for valuing people altogether. That's fair, but I hate to see any valid argument ignored, and the argument from self-interest is extremely valid in this instance.)

Anyway, back to the book: despite the lack of support and rampant discrimination, most women have to work whether they want to or not, because paid parental leave largely doesn't exist in this country (only 13% of private-sector workers get paid family leave of ANY kind, however short or partially paid), and very few families in America today can afford to rely on a single income (and that's assuming a two-parent household, even as the number of single-parent households climbs steadily). This is despite the lack of support for working parents' child care (which we'll get back to), and also despite the steadily mounting data showing the importance of kids' first three years in later development.

The upshot is that many women put off having children, reduce the number of children they have, or otherwise make family planning decisions influenced by economic discrimination. And when they *do* have children, they pay a significant penalty simply for pregnancy and motherhood. Child care, and schooling, become additional costs that we'll get to down the road.

The second chapter, "Hyper-Educated and Poor," looks at people who have advanced degrees and yet, between massive student debt and underpaid jobs, are desperately poor.

The most dramatic examples are adjunct professors, who may get paid a few thousand bucks per class taught, with no benefits, no job security, and frequently late pay. We follow one adjunct who earns a little over $4K per class (which is actually on the high side) and never makes more than $24K per year. She relies on Medicaid and food stamps, is behind on her rent, and is the primary caregiver for her disabled son, whose benefits also aren't anywhere near enough to survive on. With $55 in the bank and about $3K in credit card debt, she doesn't see any way to survive.

Quart writes: "She [the professor, Brianne Bolin] didn't expect to become an academic star -- Eastern Illinois wasn't the University of Chicago -- but she did assume that she'd have a steady job with adequate pay. [She said:] 'I thought, at thirty-five, I'd have clothes without holes in them and money in the bank, but I shop at Goodwill exclusively. I wear Banana Republic $5 suit jackets that wear out quickly because they've already been worn so much beforehand. My dreams did this to me. It's not a shameful thing, although I wonder if there is something wrong with me.

Much political rhetoric these days is devoted to the importance of broadening access to college -- and there *is* plenty of evidence that a degree improves financial prospects -- but in the post-crash world of today, a good education may not keep you from hovering near the poverty line. [...]

Many of [Quart's interviewees] told me that their parents were more economically comfortable than they were, even though their parents often had far fewer educational attainments. Whenever I talked to these Middle Precariat parents, I also heard the ring of self-blame and ridicule. Was it a sin to have pursued a high-minded profession and to want nice things? They felt like it was."

From here, Quart reviews the structural issues that have left adjuncts so open to abuse. Essentially, an entire generation of people was told to "do what you love," and this left an oversupply of people with their credentials without an equivalent increase in market demand. (Although colleges and universities have expanded, they've mostly expanded in STEM rather than the humanities, and most of the increase in tuition rates has gone to increased administration, new dorms, new lab facilities, and basically everything other than paying adjuncts more, even though adjuncts shoulder much of the actual teaching load at most schools.)

This problem isn't unique to academia, although adjunct professors are probably the most extreme example of a disparity between stellar credentials and poverty-level wages. Virtually every creative profession has suffered: writing with the advent of self-publishing and digital piracy; music with piracy and streaming services that pay fractions of pennies per play; art and photography with the broad democratization of art forms that has every amateur thinking they're as good as a pro, and increasingly inexpensive, high-quality equipment (especially digital cameras) that greatly lowers the barriers to entry for an enthusiastic and talented amateur.

People in these professions are relatively easy to squeeze because (a) the idea that you should "do what you love" is easy to use as a justification for lower wages -- you're doing what you love! it's fun! you don't *need* to get paid a lot to have a rewarding job!; (b) it's also easy to say "that's not a *real* job, you don't deserve to get paid like it is"; and (c) the actual metrics for what constitutes being good at your job are pretty squishy. It's relatively easy to tell when somebody's a bad doctor (if all your patients die, you *probably* suck), but less easy to tell when somebody's a mediocre songwriter.

It's never been particularly easy to make a living in either arts or academia, apart from a very small minority of superstars. But these days, it's virtually impossible. Technology and, somewhat perversely, the increasing popularity of those fields (and thus the broadening access that unpaid amateurs have to professional-grade equipment and distribution) have made it harder to earn a middle-class income "doing what you love."

FOOTNOTE: Incidentally, opening the book with a discussion of pregnancy discrimination as topic #1, and then hopping to adjunct professors as topic #2, is illustrative of why I think this book is suboptimally organized.

IMO it would have been better to open with an overview of relatively universal structural factors: the rising cost of student debt, the rising cost of rent, the rising cost of healthcare, the widespread erosion and devaluation of various traditionally middle-class professions. *Then* tack on the secondary concerns (did you want to raise kids in spite of all this? HAHA NO! THE MARKET HATES PARENTS) and more specialized fields (*speaking* of student debt, what you get in exchange for your greatly jacked-up tuition is a bunch of classes taught by broke-ass adjuncts dependent on food stamps and Medicaid and definitely not able to devote their full attention to your education!).

But nope, instead we're doing it this way.
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Postby Merciel » Tue Jul 03, 2018 2:22 am

Squeezed, Part 2:

Chapter 3 looks at the costs of child care, both financial and otherwise (stress caused by scrambling to meet daycare dropoff and pickup deadlines, guilt over having to use daycare in the first place, fear of missing out in the child's early life, potential adverse effects on early childhood development if the child care isn't of good quality, etc.). We visit a 24/7 day care, where strapped parents drop their kids off as needed for irregular, round-the-clock shifts.

Quart talks about the factors that have contributed to this frenetic need: the disempowerment of unions and accompanying erosion of the standard 40-hour work week; the constant hustle demanded by the gig economy, overseas clients, and the 24-hour online shopping and shipping schedule; the fact that wages have largely not kept up with inflation, and many parents work low-paid service jobs (and many are deliberately given only 29 hours per week, which keeps them "part time" and not entitled to full-time benefits, and also forces them to scramble for second jobs, also part-time). All of this requires parents to spend more hours per day working to meet basic needs, and all of it leads to a world in which 24-hour daycares are a thing.

The day care providers are strapped and scrambling too. The particular day care that Quart visits is run by an older black couple who would like to be retired, but can't afford to stop working. Most day cares are run by minorities, and most are run by women, and they too are drastically underpaid, despite the high cost of daycare for the people utilizing it. The only people in this system who are getting rich are the people who own the companies that schedule the parents for those crazy shifts; everyone else seems to be steadily getting poorer.

Quart writes: "The culture of erratic and endless work afflicts so many of us -- both faltering middle-class parents and the professional caregivers who make it all possible as they work in homes or day cares for little more than minimum wage from morning to night. These parents and caregivers coalesce like nesting dolls in a symbiotic relationship as they try to adjust to the horrifying, fresh element here: just-in-time work."

(editorial sidenote: NESTING DOLLS DON'T COALESCE, YOUR SIMILE SUCKS. It pops up several times in the book, though, so evidently Quart was quite fond of that particular analogy. Personally, if I were writing this thing, I would have gone with the human centipede. It's a much better simile.)

Anyway from there we (finally) get into a discussion of the extreme costs of child care, which can drive dual-income professional parents to beg for money on GoFundMe so they can keep working, and which is almost totally unsupported by federal funding, in contrast to every other civilized nation on the planet.

Quart makes the interesting assertion that the '80s Satanic panic around day cares "stemmed from a reactionary fear of feminism and of women working outside the home," and that this is linked to why conservative-leaning administrations won't pay for day care: it encourages "the dissolution of the traditional family, with mothers waiting at the school gates for pickup and fathers home by six, taking their seat at the head of the table."

However, I have no idea whether that assertion is actually borne out by contemporary sources or Quart just made it up, because CITATION NEEDED.

This is a very frustrating book sometimes.

Chapter 4 looks at poor rich people, i.e., people who pull six-figure incomes but feel poor compared to their tech bro neighbors: "Mr. and Ms. Jones of the Bay Are ask: 'Am I doing as well as my neighbors?'"

I'm really not sure what this chapter is supposed to be about. The first part is just like "these people feel sad because they compare themselves to their insanely rich neighbors!" which, uh, world's smallest violin? But then Quart starts talking about how even people who pull six figures can't afford to raise families in expensive cities (day care is expensive, rent or mortgages are crazy, private school is crazier still), which strikes me as the *actually* interesting part of the argument, and I don't even know why she opened with the other stuff (and apologized for it several times) first.

Then we hear from a bunch of people who aren't actually rich and are in fact poor despite their hefty-on-paper incomes, because of massive student debt or paying for a child's college tuition (tuition has skyrocketed in the past 20 years, as mentioned in the previous summary) or because they had health problems and couldn't work for a while. Which, again, is way more interesting than the stuff we started with. There is a real argument to be made about the lack of security and general precariousness that attends even the well-educated and formerly successful.

But instead of spending any time on *that,* we segue to a discussion of lawyers who went to crappy for-profit law schools (they exist, just as for-profit schools exist at every other market segment) and, upon graduating, can't get good jobs because (a) nobody takes their expensive but crappy degree seriously; and (b) automation has killed a bunch of the entry-level attorney jobs like doing doc review (we'll get back to this).

Finally we return to the supposed theme of the chapter, which is that if you live in a good neighborhood in an expensive city and you are not yourself filthy rich, you may be inclined to feel bad about yourself because many of your neighbors will (appear to) be filthy rich. But it's SO HARD to find a way out of this problem because that's where the good jobs are!!

seriously wtf even is this argument

you might as well argue that social media is part of the "squeeze" because looking at people's curated aspirational feeds makes you feel bad too

oh wait that IS an argument in a later chapter of this book, looooolll

FOOTNOTE: Anyway to the extent that there's a point to the "not-as-rich people feel bad!!" anecdotes, I think it's supposed to be that the internalized shame and discontent of feeling inadequate next to the rich people is a factor in why not-as-rich people are unwilling to talk openly about their situations (which are very common situations!) and that contributes to people's inability to recognize the structural forces pushing at them. Because nobody talks about it openly, everybody feels like being (sort of) poor is a personal failing caused by individual choices, and most people don't realize how extremely common their situation is.

That would be a good point to make in this chapter, and to her credit Quart does mention it a couple of times, but then it gets buried under mounds of other unrelated stuff.
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Postby Merciel » Wed Jul 04, 2018 1:31 am

Squeezed, Part 3:

Chapter 5 looks at some of the barriers preventing working-class people from ascending into the middle class; these barriers also operate as chutes that can slide middle-class people down to poverty. We follow Blanca, who was a nurse in Paraguay but can only find work as a nanny in the U.S., as she wrestles with whether to bring her son over to the U.S. in search of upward mobility or leave him in Paraguay.

This is one of the better chapters, as Blanca and her son are immensely sympathetic characters and their experience forces a semblance of organization on Quart's account (although she still manages a bunch of embarrassing digressions, incl. explaining the concept of cultural capital as "the ten Louis Vuitton bags in your closet," which... no).

Anyway, the upshot is that public schools --> state college --> good job used to offer a fairly straightforward road up to the middle class, and now it doesn't. Now you need to either be rich enough to buy a house in a good district, or you need to navigate a bewilderingly complicated array of charter schools, transfer programs, and admissions exams, which is *so* complicated that it's spawned an industry of "public school consultants" like Joyce Szuflita, who charges $400 to 500 for a single lunch meeting to explain prospective public school choices (and how to get into them) to college-educated parents entering the system. Then, even if you clear that hurdle, state schools aren't anywhere near as affordable as they used to be, and good jobs are harder to get.

The prospects for a working poor single mom like Blanca trying to do the best for her son are, accordingly, dim -- and that's even before factoring in the language barriers, cultural unfamiliarity, and flat-out racism that hold them back. (They do end up getting lucky on a couple of fronts -- Blanca upgrades from working as a nanny to becoming a live-in caregiver for another family, resulting in better pay, and her son gets into a pretty good school with a decent commute from their home, but we never find out what the ultimate outcome might be.)

Chapter 6 looks at how middle-class incomes haven't kept pace with the rising costs of everything from housing to health care, particularly in sectors like public school teaching that haven't gotten raises in far too long (as we know from, among other things, the widespread teacher strikes this year). We follow one public school teacher who can't make ends meet even with his salary and his wife's, and who has to drive for Uber on his nights and weekends to get by. (There's a nice little dystopian side note about how Uber marketed "Uber Educators" as, specifically, teachers moonlighting as drivers; ostensibly this was to create some kind of wholesome middle-class patina over the company, but obvs. it's pretty gross to turn someone's desperation into your marketing gimmick.)

Quart theorizes that men are particularly vulnerable to the identity loss that comes with slipping down the class ladder, and that "the loss of such an identity spells the loss of hope and faith in the future." There's the kernel of an interesting argument here, but it doesn't really go anywhere.

The conclusion is that Uber and Airbnb can serve as temporary floats (with considerable costs), but we should probably pay teachers more. Yeah, we should probably pay teachers more.

Chapter 7 looks at "The Second Act Industry: Or the Midlife Do-Over Myth," which examines inspirational speakers, self-help seminars, "career navigators," and all the other grifters in the business of selling desperate people This One Weird Trick To Reboot Your Career.

This is a big business. A surprising (to me) 17.5% of student debt is held by people who are over 50, both because in many instances it seriously does take that long to pay off your college and grad school debts, and because a lot of people go back to college in an attempt to retrain for a new career after their first shot gets automated, downsized, or just plain age-discriminated out of existence.

Unfortunately for the hopeful, this industry is mostly the domain of snake oil peddlers and for-profit scammers. They are not generally successful in getting people into new jobs, and this is basically because it is very, very hard for an individual person to push back against the structural forces of age discrimination, industry-wide changes, and (usually, because it's most often minorities and women who find themselves in this precarious position) race and sex discrimination.

There are some potential benefits to career change interventions, but they're more like the benefits of going to therapy (learning to recognize and break depressive cycles and self-sabotaging habits, understanding that this is generally not your fault and self-blame isn't helpful, taking a more realistic view of the situation and the available options) than any kind of get-rich-quick result. For the most part, the most useful thing to know about these seminars and coaches is that they are a boondoggle, and they take money from people who don't have a whole lot to spare.
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Postby Merciel » Wed Jul 04, 2018 11:49 pm

Squeezed, Part 4:

Let's finish this thing.

Chapter 8 looks at struggling middle-class families that have gone back to the very old strategy of taking on boarders to defray housing costs. This has the slightly different spin of sometimes involving "co-parenting," in which unrelated parents (mostly single parents, but sometimes couples) share a house and divvy up child care duties to lessen the burden.

Most of these families are minorities, since they don't have as much family wealth to fall back on as their white counterparts do, but also I suspect if Quart had looked at white people then it would just have been called a commune and she wouldn't be able to pretend that this was an "ingenious experiment" instead of an old, old strategy used by all sorts of people whose income can't keep up with home costs.

Among these people (AWKWARD SEGUE ALERT!!) is a journalist whose career, along with those of thousands of other journalists suffering from the decline of their industry, is steadily eroded by pay and benefit cuts before she finally gets laid off altogether. She can't afford the medications that her 12-year-old son needs, and has to use less effective drugs with more side effects instead, because that's what her state version of Medicaid will cover. She ends up taking on a roommate to help pay the bills.

We get a brief look at the downward trajectory of journalism as a middle-class profession (which would be a really interesting story in itself) before Quart suggests that reporters "are emblematic of the crushed middle class of the future" (an interesting suggestion, but if you're going to assert that middle-class occupations generally are going to be devastated in the future by the loss of 20th-century print ads and subscriptions, then CITATION NEEDED) and then hops on over to talking about trade-and-barter systems, incl. reciprocal childcare networks, that have started to fill in the gaps left by the splintering of traditional family networks and middle-class parents' inability to afford nannies or paid day care.

Then Quart talks about how she wishes *she'd* had a co-parent because she can "remember feeling emotionally wracked, physically stitched, and undone when my daughter was very small," which... seems... not relevant to the thesis here? Especially when she adds that she was drawn to the idea of co-parenting "not [...] from economic desperation" but because she "yearned to experience the warmth" that co-parents* expressed. Sure, let's romanticize poverty, that's a great way to convey how bad it is.

(* -- notably, the co-parent who said this later moved out and got a "swankier" apartment in Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA, with her kids. Post-move, she and Quart share a moment commiserating about how material goods can't buy happiness, which Quart felt "was talking directly to my private self," and then the book continues talking about people who can't buy material goods.

At this point I kind of want to punch somebody.)

Chapter 9 talks about TV shows featuring disgustingly rich people and the supposedly new and unique phenomenon of viewers who long for "escape into screen worlds oozing with disposable income." Also there is some discussion about how "Facebook is the devil" (<-- actual quote). This is posited as a phenomenon exposing deep class anxieties and status insecurities that are somehow novel to the present day. There's probably a Vulture writer who could pull a good piece out of this material, but Chapter 9 of this book is not it.

Chapter 10 looks at the expanding reach of automation, which is not only displacing workers from factory floors, but beginning to erode job security for nurses, pharmacists, accountants, and attorneys, among others. Here we finally get some discussion of automated doc review and how the drudge work of sorting through giant piles of paper looking for relevant keywords is increasingly within the ability of AI to perform far more quickly and efficiently than any recent law school grad can hope to match.

This is not a new topic. Lots of smart and well-informed people have been thinking and writing seriously about it for years. You will not find much improvement on their efforts in this book. What you will find instead is a superficial butchering of them. There is also an earnest argument "Why shouldn't we be Luddites?" because that is definitely a winning position right there.

Also there is some discussion of UBI as a way to support workers displaced by automation (and as a way to shore up social stability generally), but instead of talking about the conflicting policy imperatives implicated by various UBI proposals, we are treated to Quart reminiscing about how her "daughter attempted to breastfeed in the manner of either an inconsolable alcoholic [ed. note: what] or a small (and very pretty) pig rooting for truffles [ed. note 2: WHAT]" and how UBI would have made her life much easier then.

yeah okay, thanks

THE END, thank sweet baby jeebus. Next up we're going to do Thomas M. Shapiro's _Toxic Inequality_, which is the not-stupid version of looking at the forces creating inequality in America and what we can actually do to stop them.
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Postby Merciel » Fri Jul 06, 2018 12:24 am

Next up on our Facebook Amateur Sociology Project is Thomas M. Shapiro's _Toxic Inequality_ (2017), which is a really excellent book that distills a *ton* of sociological and economic research into a concise, readable form ( < 300 pages!). Shapiro is a professor of public policy at Brandeis who's spent 40 years studying how race and wealth intersect to create and perpetuate inequality, and his deep knowledge of the subject comes through clearly in this book.

Although Shapiro's focus is specifically on race and inequality, his book ends up being extremely relevant to the erosion of the American middle class across the board, because basically what's happening now is that the same factors that have always held back minorities (especially blacks) are now widening their reach to drag down the once-secure white middle class too. Everything is still worse for black people, but it's no longer limited to them; *everyone* who isn't a 1%'er (yes, this includes the upper middle class and their kids too) is at risk now.

Shapiro finished writing this book in mid-2016, before the Presidential election, but everything that's happened since then has only accelerated and exacerbated the problems that he identified (and, to the extent that Obama-era policies were ameliorating these problems, the Trump administration has been systematically hacking away the guardrails and safety supports that helped prop up the faltering middle class in the wake of the Great Recession, as we will see).

It's kind of a depressing read, in that it's a sober, thoroughly grounded, wide-ranging, highly convincing description of a massive social and economic problem that, in 2016, America voted to make way the hell worse. As a deeply knowledgeable expert who committed his life to these issues, Shapiro was involved in designing policies to rectify inequality both at the state and (under Obama) federal level. And... now, not so much. So in the context of 2018, this is just like a huge "damn, here's another self-inflicted shotgun blast to the face that people voted for two years ago."

But it's also kind of heartening, in that it's a very clear distillation of complex problems into an explanation that's easy to understand without feeling dumbed down. Shapiro's a very good teacher and he really lays out the evidence in a way that leaves you feeling like, okay, the problem is huge and its roots run deep, but I get it now and I see what we need to do and it's going to be a ton of work but it's not impossible.

It's a great book. You should read it. Everybody who cares about economic policy or racial justice or just plain "how do we un-screw the world so my kids won't have to live in a cardboard box on the street in 20 years" should read it. I'll do my best to hit the key points in summary form, but this is one like _Evicted_ where I am just not going to be able to do justice to the full strength of the book, and you really ought to read it on your own.
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Postby Merciel » Fri Jul 06, 2018 12:37 am

Toxic Inequality, Introduction:

In which Shapiro sets out the scope of his project:

"[Patricia Arrora's] was one of 187 families across the United States that we interviewed [in 1998] in hopes of learning how differing wealth resources shape the plans, opportunities, and futures of individuals from different walks of life. We wanted to understand how people chose schools for their children, decided where to live to best accommodate their family's needs, and planned to achieve economic mobility. We were also eager to learn about the different pathways that lower-income families and families of color must take as they strive for better lives. [...]

Between 1998 and 2010, when we conducted our first follow-up interviews, the Great Recession hit hard. [...] By 2012, those who had been children when we conducted our first set of interviews were now young adults finishing high school, planning for college, entering the workforce, or starting families of their own. The parents we spoke to in 1998 were now in a position to tell us how their plans had worked out and how their resources had affected their own mobility and that of their children. [...]

The interviews underlined how we must understand economic and racial inequality in tandem, how vast wealth disparities and racial injustice do real harm to individual families, and how powerful institutional forces, rather than individual choices, distinguish those families who get ahead from those stuck in place or falling behind."

Shapiro then offers a profile of Patricia Arrora, a black single mom who grew up hard in the poverty and violence of Watts. In 1998, she had just gotten off welfare, thanks to the economic boom of the late '90s, which pulled her into the workforce. She'd taken computer classes and had just gotten hired for a job that paid slightly under $20K/year (in 1998 dollars), "and Patricia had no financial wealth: no savings, stocks, bonds, property, or car, and certainly no pension or other retirement plan. But for Patricia, this job represented a huge and proud step up."

In 1998, she was living in subsidized rental housing (which enabled her to save money to move up and out of that distressed neighborhood; note the overlap with _Evicted_ in that having a diminished rent burden made all the difference in Patricia's life). In 2003, using HUD's Family Self-Sufficiency program, she was able to make a down payment on a modest home in a slightly better Los Angeles neighborhood. In 2006, she leveraged her equity in that home (thanks to LA's hot housing market at the time) to buy a bigger, newer home in Inland Empire. Throughout this time, Patricia continued to work hard, advancing in her career until she was pulling a middle-class income of $50K/year.

However, the housing crash and Great Recession dealt her a major setback. Patricia had married a man with a good union job, but he lost his job in the 2008 downturn and remained out of work in 2010. Patricia's house was underwater, with a mortgage greater than the home's post-crash (and, in 2010, still-dropping) value. She was struggling to pay the mortgage on a single income, was relying on credit cards to pay her bills, and was hoping to get some relief through a government-sponsored loan modification program. Meanwhile, her neighborhood was deteriorating, with many homeowners walking away from their mortgages and letting their homes go into foreclosure. Shapiro notes that the abandonment of Patricia's neighborhood, with "'for-sale' signs on about every third house" and "dried-up and unkempt lawns throughout," provided a stark physical illustration of the "broad destruction of family wealth in the Inland Empire" caused by the crash.

(Here there's a side observation that "[t]he high number of foreclosures in the neighborhood was not a matter of chance": most of these homebuyers were black or Hispanic, and had been deliberately targeted for predatory subprime loans. When they lost their homes and all their equity, Wall Street firms swooped in to buy the properties at a pittance and rented them out to less stable, more transient people, again echoing much of what we saw in _Evicted._ Both coming and going, minority home buyers and renters were cheated; Countrywide Financial Corporation, Patricia's lender, admitted to cheating 450,000 mostly minority customers, for which they were slapped with a loltastic $1M fine.

Additionally, we learn that Patricia's neighborhood was being poisoned by toxic runoff from the Stringfellow Acid Pits and seven other major polluters which the EPA had cited for contaminating the local drinking water with industrial waste.)

Against this backdrop, Patricia told her two daughters (one a strong student and athlete, the other hampered by medical problems that kept her GPA hovering around a 2.0) that "because she couldn't afford to take on any additional debt, they would have to get scholarships and financial aid to continue their education." This made their road to college much harder than it might have been (and it's not at all clear that her younger daughter ever went).

Nevertheless, her family made it. She kept her job, and they kept afloat. By 2015, Patricia had paid off her credit card debt. Her family's government-modified mortgage had become stabilized at a level they could pay. Their neighborhood rebounded, and her home value recovered, although many of her former neighbors who didn't have enough wealth saved to weather the crisis lost everything. Compared to what she saw happening all around her, Patricia felt "really fortunate and blessed," and she was optimistic about her daughters' chances.

But it's crucial to note the factors that pushed the ups and downs of her life story. Without much in the way of personal or family wealth to cushion her from the blows of fortune, Patricia is reliant largely on her own skills, a hefty measure of luck, and government intervention (rent subsidies, low-income homeowner supports, mortgage loan modification, and the EPA forcing industrial polluters to clean up the water). Absent those protections and supports, she could never have made it, because corporate interests saw her as a target to be preyed upon, not a citizen to protect or a valued customer to court.

That has, to our country's shame, long been the lot of minorities in America. What's changing is that those government protections are now being stripped from *everyone,* and the 99% is looking more and more like a target to exploit in the same way. Nevertheless, Shapiro stresses, race is still a key factor in the discussion: "the trends toward greater income and wealth inequality are converging with a widening racial wealth gap." He argues that "[f]ailure to tackle the nexus of race and wealth will lead, at best, to only small ameliorations at the worst edges of inequality."

This is really important not only because addressing the racial wealth gap is key to social equity and the right thing to do from a standpoint of basic fairness, and not even only because it's the right thing to do from a standpoint of economic efficiency and genuine meritocracy (so much wasted potential blighted by racial poverty!), but because it's crucial to recognize both what this is and what it isn't.

The racial wealth gap is real. Everyone knows it, whether they want to admit it or not (and whether they want to blame it on racist stereotypes or not). *Misunderstanding* the gap -- its causes and consequences, and the policies that might effectively address it -- leads to false explanations and misguided solutions "that [do] nothing more than pander to racial, ethnic, and class fears." What Shapiro proposes is not blunt-force redistribution, however, but a series of policies that would shore up supports for *everyone* facing economic insecurity, while also effectively redressing some of the lingering harms of past discrimination by dismantling the mechanisms through which they still work today. (We'll get to the policy stuff in a lot more detail later.)

Shapiro closes the introduction by setting out the list of topics he wants to discuss: (1) how families accumulate wealth and how its absence turns minor problems into huge crises and narrows opportunity; (2) homes and communities, and inequality between neighborhoods; (3) inequality in the workplace (meaning the wide divide between good jobs with benefits and bad jobs with unstable hours and no frills, and what that means for who gains and loses wealth); (4) the effects of inherited wealth; and (5) how government policies increase inequality by shoveling money toward the already-wealthy and disproportionately burdening everyone else. Then, in closing, there's a (very dense) chapter of proposed solutions.
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Postby Merciel » Sat Jul 07, 2018 3:24 am

Toxic Inequality, Ch. 1 Pt. 1:

Shapiro opens his discussion by making two really important points: (1) that "wealth provides life-changing opportunities, advantages, and protections for some, while its lack poses constant, challenging barriers difficult to overcome through hard work or doing the right thing, like saving for a child's education"; and (2) "[o]ur thinking about inequality is regularly a snapshot of a given moment. Yet thinking about differences in inequality's trajectories over time is crucial to understanding its impact on families and society."

I'm going to spend a little time underlining this because I think it's crucial to understanding this topic, and because it's a realization that I came pretty late to myself.

Wealth isn't about being rich in the way you see it on TV. It's not about flashy cars or fancy clothes or lighting coke-filled cigars with $100 bills. It can be *also* that, but honestly if that was all that "wealth" amounted to, the sociology of inequality would probably not be a thing, because that kind of spending is highly transitory. It doesn't compound into lasting advantage or disadvantage, and it doesn't really skew the equality of opportunity for anyone else.

The real importance of wealth -- and, on the flipside, the real harm caused by its lack -- is that having it allows you to seize opportunities and buffer yourself against harms, while *not* having it can make it impossible for you to take advantage of chances to get ahead, and can make it equally impossible for you to avoid being devastated by misfortune. These advantages and disadvantages accumulate over time and compound each other, especially since over the past 35-ish years (basically since the ascendance of Reagan conservatism, with its combination of market ideology and low-key racism) those advantages and disadvantages have gotten more and more tightly knotted together.

If you have money, you can more easily afford to go to college (so if you're a B student, good enough to do the work but not exceptional enough to win a bunch of merit scholarships, you can afford to pay the ticket price). You can afford not to work during college and, potentially, during internships. You can thus increase your chances of landing a good job after graduation. A good job brings good benefits: better health care, paid vacation and sick leave, flexible hours, higher-achieving colleagues (who may become your friends and possibly networking connections), the satisfaction of spending your time on stimulating and worthwhile work.

If you have money, you can also afford to buy a nice house in good condition in a desirable neighborhood. It will be safer, which makes it much less stressful and a much more pleasant environment to spend time in. Not only will it more likely be walkable, but you'll have amenities you *want* to walk to: better grocery stores selling healthier and tastier food, probably a choice of gyms and/or outdoor recreation, maybe some intellectually stimulating cultural resources. Your children's school will be better, and their friends are more likely to be good peer influences than dangerous ones. And so on, and so forth.

All these things compound one another. In the nice neighborhood, you can more easily get physical exercise, and you're more likely to find a version that appeals to you, whether it's walking around your safe streets to visit your beautiful parks and chic cafes, or trying spin class, Pilates, hot yoga, Crossfit, and the climbing gym (all of which you can afford!) until you finally find something that you like enough to do regularly. Your environment is less stressful and dangerous, your diet is better, and your job pays for regular preventative care and checkups.

The upshot is that life is easier, risks are lower, and what hardships *do* befall you are buffered. For example, as a rich person with the above-listed advantages, you're less likely to get sick in the first place than a poor one. But then, if you *do* get sick, you can more easily afford to take time off work and you have better health care and your baseline health is better and you have the time, money, and educational savvy to keep up with whatever treatment regimen you're given.

Minus the money to get to college or buy the nice house, however, life looks very different. Disadvantages build on disadvantages, and very quickly a small problem can snowball into a setback that ruins your entire life and takes your family down too.

*That's* why wealth matters, and why the sociology of inequality is a thing. If America afforded basic opportunities to all its citizens, and some minimal guarantee of safety and security, then everyone really might have a fair shot to rise as far as their merits could take them. But our society does not do that, and in fact penalizes the poor for even trying.

Shapiro illustrates one facet of this problem through Cindy Breslin, a single black mom whose 5-year-old daughter very much wants to become a doctor, and is bright enough to do it. Cindy, who has a learning disability, lives in a rough area on welfare. Via extreme self-sacrifice, she's saved up $1000 toward her daughter's future education. But in many states, Shapiro notes, this asset would be held against Cindy, and might even be reason to cut back her already-scanty welfare benefits on the grounds that if she's saved a thousand bucks, *clearly* she's bilking the taxpayers. (Recall Larraine from _Evicted_, who deliberately didn't save money because if she crossed the $2K asset threshold [which she misunderstood to be $1K, making her life even harder], her benefits would be cut. In Larraine's case, her daughters were grown and out of the house, and her dilemma was hers alone. Here, we see how that same policy can hold down entire families.)

Shapiro writes: "Families struggling with poverty are discouraged, even penalized, for investing and saving to give their kids a brighter future. For well-off families, the same act is a marker of good parenting, even incentivized by our tax system. Some families are rewarded while others are punished for saving for a child's higher education."

A few years later, Cindy's aspirations for her daughter are largely destroyed. Her welfare benefits can't keep up with inflation, and have in fact been cut due to welfare reform, leaving her unable to cover her bills. Her fiance, an Army vet, dies, and "Cindy spent most of her savings to bury the man she was about to marry, a war veteran whose army benefits did not cover a proper funeral." Her daughter is severely injured in a car accident, and Cindy can't afford physical therapy or expensive rehab sessions, so her daughter remains in lasting physical pain (which effectively puts her out of school and makes it unlikely she'll even graduate high school), *and* Cindy gets maxed out on high-interest credit cards just to afford what few medical expenses she can.

This is one way in which the legacy of racism gets passed down, generation to generation. "[A]ccess to the kind of wealth that allows one to make a down payment on a modest home, attend two years at a community college, or start a business -- about $14,000 -- is vastly unequal. Less than half (46 percent) of all U.S. families and only about one in five African American and Latino families have adequate financial wealth for these kinds of mobility opportunities."

These are structural barriers. It wasn't for any lack of discipline or merit that Cindy and her family failed to get ahead. Government policies set (and cut) her welfare benefits, structured the incentives that either made it possible or impossible to save for her daughter's education, determined whether or not to pay for her veteran fiance's funeral, and chose to stick Cindy with medical bills that she couldn't possibly pay.

Next (still in Ch. 1), Shapiro considers "some of the ways that wealth, or the lack thereof, impacts black middle-class families." We will get to that next time.
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Postby Merciel » Mon Jul 09, 2018 12:16 pm

Toxic Inequality, Chapter 1 Part 2:

The next part of this chapter looks at the Johnsons, a middle-class black family that struggles to hang on to their niche in the face of strong headwinds. Michelle, the wife, grew up "in segregated Florida, living in a black neighborhood across the tracks from an affluent white neighborhood she didn't dare visit. She was one of the first African Americans in her junior high school. Her high school memories include being chased home from school by some white boys and thinking she was ugly because no one wanted to date a black girl."

In 1974, Michelle graduated with a history degree and $10K in school debt (high by the standards of the day), since her parents, who had only high school educations, gave her a strong work ethic and drive to succeed, but couldn't help her much with school costs. While teaching junior high, she met and married Kendrick Johnson, who worked in the broadcast industry. They moved to LA, where Kendrick had a good job opportunity, but (in part because of racism) it was hard for Michelle to find a teaching job that paid decently, so she "reluctantly stayed at home to take care of her two children. She was substitute-teaching while looking for a full-time teaching job when we met her in 1998."

By 2010, Kendrick was earning $110K/year, but his high pay didn't come with any benefits: no health care (which the family badly needed because their 17-year-old daughter had a neuropsychiatric disorder), no pension, unsteady hours and variable pay. Their older daughter had just graduated college, which also siphoned off money, and they were trying to help out "less fortunate family members, particularly their aging parents, who had had only limited opportunities to build wealth themselves." Accordingly, the Johnsons "struggled to convert Kendrick's income into economic security or wealth."

When Kendrick got laid off, he and Michelle had to cash out his retirement account and all their savings to get by while he was out of work. He eventually found a new job on the East Coast, clear across the country, and moved there to take the position. Meanwhile, Michelle relocated to her parents' house in Florida with their two daughters because she couldn't afford to maintain a separate home in LA any longer. Most of Kendrick's income went to "supporting the family and paying off debts incurred from [their younger daughter's] medical condition. Kendrick told us how he lived out of his car for two years and showered at hotels. Michelle was still unable to re-enter the paid workforce, as [their daughter] was being bullied at school and the local school system in Florida did not have the resources, expertise, or inclination to meet her special education needs."

By 2012, the Johnsons were "slowly recovering financially," but the stress of separation and tight finances had essentially destroyed their marriage. Now in their late 50s, they still didn't have much saved for retirement or other major expenses that might arise in the future.

Shapiro writes: "[The Johnsons] faced major barriers that many white families do not. They confronted economic challenges with only the small safety net of their limited personal wealth, and they were responsible for taking care of an extended family that lacked similar assets. Michelle's story is one of successes based on merit and newly opened opportunities. But in a turn familiar to many American families, it is also a story of being knocked off track too easily due to lack of wealth. Unemployment, medical emergencies, disability, decimated savings, tuition costs, depleted retirement accounts, a job far from home, homeschooling out of necessity, family stress, and [marital] separation -- all have held her and her family back and derailed their dreams."

To the extent that these are purely economic challenges, they're likely familiar to anyone who comes from a poor family background. But black (and Hispanic) families are much likelier to have that background, due to the legacies and continuing effects of institutional racism.

Before moving on to a detailed examination of the major structural factors in familial wealth acquisition and retention, Shapiro notes: "By design, we interviewed parents of young children because this life phase is so crucial for family development. Understanding wealth acquisition, utilization, and depletion in families raising children is important for two critical reasons. First, parental wealth while children are growing up foreshadows how well they will do in their adult lives. The parents' well-being and the child's future opportunities are contingent on wealth accumulated during the child-rearing years, which generally coincide with adults' high earning periods. Second, wealth accumulated by adults during these years forms the foundation for what they will have to draw upon later in their own lives, during retirement or when they are less able to work to generate income."

Shapiro then discusses the immobility of wealth in the U.S., which is reaching ever-higher levels. It is harder and harder to get ahead if you're poor, and it's harder to drop out of the top (nearly impossible to drop out if you're at the very top).

These effects are not race neutral. The class ladder's rungs are greased if you're black, making it harder to climb up and easier to fall down. Due to both the historical and continuing effects of racism, "African Americans tend to get blocked at the bottom, while whites at the top stay put. [...]

Not only are black families much more likely to be stuck at the bottom of the income and wealth ladders, but between generations they also have a harder time moving ahead of their parents' family income and wealth than do whites. Whites are twice as likely as blacks to leave the bottom rung over a generation [...] And African Americans are less likely to pass along earned status to the next generation: the adult children of most well-off African Americans are downwardly mobile in relation to their parents' wealth holdings.

The magnitude of wealth accumulated over the life course also differs by race." From 1984 to 2013, white families accumulated wealth three times as fast as black families. By the time the same families were in their sixties by 2013, the white families held seven times as much wealth.

Along every major dimension of wealth-building or -depletion -- property value/home equity, neighborhood quality, non-disrupted work history, job benefits (such as health care, pension, etc.), being able to participate in a "web of wealth" with family and friends willing to help out in moments of crisis or opportunity -- black families are disadvantaged.

"Black families were more likely to confront a range of different negative life events, from unemployment to a health crisis. To cope with the loss of income that typically resulted from a negative life event, families usually drew on saved financial assets. But many families were not then able to go back to building wealth or even to maintain a new, decreased level of wealth. Often, their savings were not sufficient to manage the crisis, and families then became vulnerable to a spiral of continuously decreasing assets, especially if they had few to start with."

Debt is a major killer: "Families we interviewed had debts of many kinds: credit card balances, payday loans, mortgages, health-care debt, student loan debt, and car loans." High-cost debt (i.e., high interest rates), more than the actual amount owed, was the main determinant of whether the holder would be able to get out of the hole, and black borrowers were more likely to be given high-cost loan terms.

And welfare programs, which were critical to moving families like the Arroras out of poverty into the middle class by giving them a chance to save and build assets, have come under steady attack, driving more people into penury from which neither they nor their children may ever escape.
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Postby Merciel » Thu Jul 12, 2018 1:43 pm

Toxic Inequality, Chapter 2 Part 1:

"[N]eighborhoods in the United States are not created equal. As in St. Louis, although perhaps not always in as stark a fashion, dividing lines of color and wealth across the country are the living legacies of segregation, redlining, discriminatory local ordinances, steering by realtors, private disinvestment, and public policy choices. Adding to residential segregation, neighborhoods are becoming increasingly segregated by the quality of the resources and opportunities they offer. At the same time that income and wealth inequality has reached historic levels, the chasm between high- and low-opportunity neighborhoods has widened. Instant communication and social media connections cannot span our growing physical, social, and opportunity divides.

As the high- and low-opportunity divide sharpens, and as low-opportunity areas become more numerous, more families are living in concentrated poverty. The interview team witnessed this growing trend among the families in Boston, Los Angeles, and St. Louis. Since 1970, the number of high-poverty neighborhoods in the United States has tripled, and the number of poor people living in them has doubled."

[Note: The disparity between the number of neighborhoods and the population links, in part, to the spread of rural poverty and the brain drain back to the cities. As young people with promise depart from declining towns and leave increasingly concentrated poverty behind, the number of neighborhoods in poverty rises faster than the total population living in those neighborhoods. The same thing happens to cities in decline, but during the past 15 years or so it's been faster in suburban and rural areas. Most of the few neighborhoods that managed to reverse their decline were in revitalizing, i.e., gentrifying, urban areas.]

"Due partly to the Great Recession, 5 million more Americans lived in highly distressed neighborhoods in 2012 than did so before 2006. [...] While living in poverty is difficult and challenging anywhere, it is made worse when a large fraction of one's neighbors are also poor.

Fewer than one in ten high-poverty neighborhoods in 1970 cut their poverty rates by more than half by 2010. Three times as many neighborhoods are joining the ranks of high-poverty neighborhoods than are escaping this sort of distress, indicating that we are headed in the wrong direction. Economically segregated neighborhoods inhibit family economic mobility more than inequality, per se.

The double whammy here is that individual and location-based inequality are integrally connected, and both are increasing. Understanding neighborhood inequality is critical to deepen[ing] our understanding of wealth, poverty, and chances for mobility not because neighborhoods group families economically but because opportunities, networks, and services pass advantage and challenges along."

Shapiro looks at the Andrews family, a middle-class black family that sets its roots down in a poor, segregated neighborhood of St. Louis when Rachel Andrews, then a 23-year-old fresh out of graduate school, buys a once-beautiful but badly dilapidated three-story brick house for $1500 in the late 1970s. She spends years fixing it up, starting by hanging a front door in its gaping, empty doorway. She and her family then also dig in deep in their neighborhood: anchoring community associations, boarding up vacants and cleaning up empty lots with her own hands, fighting the city government to secure basic municipal services, setting up a neighborhood watch. In 2007, she starts a tutoring program that dramatically improves math and language scores for kids who are failing in the local (and essentially segregated) public schools. (Her own daughter, however, goes to the city's academic magnet school, which is public, highly selective, and consistently ranked one of the best in the nation.)

Through the tireless efforts of Rachel Andrews and neighbors like her, their desperately blighted neighborhood starts turning around. By 2010, it's slowly attracting new residents, mostly young families with low to moderate incomes, with a diverse mix of races and immigrants. The value of the Andrews family home rises to about $160K, a substantial appreciation over $1500, but a relatively low return on the decades of toil that went into the building and its surroundings.

Shapiro notes that "for the Andrews family, pioneering in a low-opportunity neighborhood lacking support structures came with heavy, hidden costs that the majority of middle-class and professional families never have to shoulder." In thanks for her 40 years of hard work and the benefits she brought to her community, Rachel Andrews nets a much smaller financial gain than she would have gotten if she'd chosen to buy in an already-thriving upper-middle-class area.

For Rachel, all this work and sacrifice was worthwhile, as it made a significant difference in the lives of others and gave her a meaningful life: "God blessed me with tools and talents... I've always felt that I should share what I have. I've never been without... I can only imagine. [...] If there's something that I can give and I can be of service, I am."

But for every success story like the Andrews', there are many others that don't end so well, as Shapiro's next case studies in this chapter show. And it's worth asking whether the Andrews should ever have had to be in a position where trying to help out their neighborhood involved so much individual sacrifice. Why did we, as a society, allow that neighborhood to fall into such decline in the first place? And why are we allowing so many others to fall into the same pit?

We all understand how perilous a bad neighborhood can be, and how many people have to make it their life's work to turn even one such neighborhood around. Against this inspirational story of success, it's worth remembering how many others fall, and how our society's policies push them down.
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Postby Merciel » Thu Jul 12, 2018 4:06 pm

Toxic Inequality, Chapter 2 Part 2:

Shapiro looks at a poor black family trapped in a black neighborhood and the severely diminished opportunities available to them and their children for escape. This section is a story we've all heard many times, but what Shapiro wants to look at is "how seemingly abstract explanations like residential racial dynamics, active real estate churning, and tipping points can affect a family's arc and contribute to toxic inequality and the racial wealth gap." In other words, how do structural forces grab hold of black families and pull them back down to situations like that?

To illustrate this point, he turns to the Medinas, a middle-class black family striving to attain the American Dream for themselves and their children. In 1998, they buy a home in Spanish Lake, a municipality in northeastern St. Louis County. Their home is "spacious, with a wide-open kitchen, and in the family's price range." The mother, India Medina, describes the neighborhood as "really good, with a professor and his kids living next door," and with a diverse racial mix. However, "the neighborhood changed quickly after the Medinas moved in."

Although both the Medinas and their neighbors likely enjoyed living in what they considered a "diverse neighborhood," as Shapiro observes, "[d]iversity as defined by whites, as opposed to members of other racial or ethnic groups, involves a much lower percentage of minority group members living in their neighborhoods and attending their schools. The number of black residents at which African Americans consider a neighborhood diverse far exceeds the threshold at which most whites consider the proportion out of balance and decide to exit."

This is what happened in Spanish Lake, where "the neighborhood tipped from owners to subsidized renters, from white to black." By 2010, there was "hardly any diversity left, and now most of the community's residents, like the Medinas, are black. Alongside this demographic transformation, the Medina family's home value sank quickly from $100,000 to $70,000. [...] When we asked about the money the family had put into the house, India said, 'Oh, yeah. Yeah, we can't get our money out of this house now.' The Medinas contemplated following the white flighters who had departed before them."

What white flight began, corporate speculators finished. "Private equity firms, hedge funds, real estate investment trusts, and other institutional investors [...] snapped up properties as housing prices fell as much as 35 percent from the 2006 peak and rental demand rose as a result of the almost 5 million owners who had gone through foreclosure since 2008. Blackstone and others transform hamlets like Spanish Lake from communities of owner-occupied homes into blocks of renters and absentee landlords." The upshot is that "communities where the Medinas and families like them had hoped to lay the foundation for getting ahead have instead become low-opportunity areas."

To escape, the Medinas will have to sell their current home at a loss -- destroying a significant portion of the family's wealth -- and try to find a home in a more expensive neighborhood, straining the family's resources at the same time that they're being depleted and running the risk that the same cycle will start over again once they've purchased a foothold on the next rung up. This is an explicitly racial dynamic, and it disadvantages blacks more than any other group.

Ferguson, the birthplace of Black Lives Matter, followed a similar trajectory from the late '90s to the 2010s, transforming from majority white to majority black, with a drop in average income and a major rewriting of the social contract: "As Ferguson became blacker and poorer and opportunities for its residents diminished, the old-guard city leaders increasingly raised revenue [via pressuring police to write more tickets and extract more court fees, which went straight into the municipal cash pool] from those who could least afford to contribute."

Discriminatory policing (which has been well documented in Ferguson) is another avenue along which structural forces press disproportionately hard on poor minorities. Yet another is discriminatory foreclosure, which is also well documented in Ferguson: "even high-income African American and Hispanic/Latino borrowers were more likely to go into foreclosure in the wake of the recession, controlling for key financial variables. Studies examining communities like Prince George's County, Maryland, show that the foreclosure crisis devastated many previously upwardly mobile African American and Hispanic/Latino families and, as a consequence, distressed many communities of color. Borrowers of color disproportionately received mortgages on predatory terms that studies have shown made foreclosures more likely." Again and again, racial dynamics interlock with economic forces to hold back minorities.

And the costs are ever increasing:

"As neighborhood opportunity segregation widens and hardens, the rewards or disadvantages of community location become more visible. Families we spoke to like the Medinas seemed to understand this dynamic implicitly, and if they had the financial resources, most intentionally sought better-resourced and higher-opportunity locations. But most families who want to move to these neighborhoods find the costs prohibitive as access typically requires home ownership."

Shapiro then looks at some wealthy communities and their efforts to "protect their competitive advantages" by wielding state power to shut out others. He uses the example of Orinda, California (median home price $1.25M, median income $164K, 82% white), which Forbes "named the second-friendlest town in America in 2012." In 2014, Orinda's public school district hired a private detective to determine that a 7-year-old Latina schoolgirl, the daughter of a wealthy Orinda family's live-in nanny, didn't actually reside in their school district. The school expelled her.

"[A]lthough she stayed with her mother in the community where her mother lived and worked, because Vivian and her mother could never live in Orinda on her own, Vivian was seen as a trespasser, poaching a community resource to which she was not entitled." After massive public outcry, the school district relented and permitted Vivian to stay, but one can hardly doubt that the case had a chilling effect on others in similar situation, or that it left some scars on this second-grader and her mother.

This was not a one-off incident: "In 2011, for instance, Kelley Williams-Bolar, an African American single mother, was arrested, charged with felony larceny, and sent to jail for stealing resources from Copley Township school district in Ohio, all because she sent her two daughters to the predominantly white suburban public school without meeting the township's residency requirements. The Williams-Bolar family lived in an Akron, Ohio housing project, where the dearth of good schooling options spurred Kelley to ask her father to use his address to enroll her children in his local school instead. Her children attended the school for two years until the school district filed criminal charges against her. As in Orinda, the school district spent thousands of dollars to hire a private detective to stop her from 'stealing an education.' [...]

Stories like Kelley's reflect parents' high aspirations for their children and the lengths they will go to in an attempt to secure access to neighborhoods and schools that poise their children for a brighter future. [...] The Orinda and Copley Township resource hoarding reinforces the importance of place and wealth to opportunity. As toxic inequality rises, we will see more and more such conflicts, with all of their fraught racial politics. The California and Ohio cases serve as cautionary tales that inequality has become so toxic that crossing lines between poor and rich, between high- and low-opportunity neighborhoods, especially when it involves families of color, is potentially criminalized as a way to protect privilege."
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Postby Merciel » Sat Jul 14, 2018 12:36 pm

Toxic Inequality, Chapter 3 Part 1:

This chapter is probably the most broadly applicable to why the middle precariat is a thing now. The tl;dr is that a bunch of good jobs with benefits evaporated in the Great Recession and the jobs that replaced them are mostly unstable, low paying, and devoid of the benefits that would let anyone build a stable life on them, let alone try to get ahead in the world. This is not how things used to be, and it's why so many people correctly feel insecure about their socioeconomic position and that of their kids in the years to come.

"Today, the quality of work and the benefit structures and wealth-building pathways that jobs provide diverge sharply along lines of occupation and employment sector. Increasingly, there are two classes of jobs -- those that build and preserve wealth and those that keep working families stuck in place. Jobs in the first category usually provide higher incomes and regular employment, but they also offer benefits such as paid sick leave, dependent care, health care, and structured savings or retirement plans, all of which have become keys to family prosperity.

Jobs on the other end of the spectrum don't just provide lower wages and less regular work; they also offer none of those keys. For example, about two of every five workers (39 percent), when sick, must either go to work regardless or stay home without pay and risk losing their jobs; 87 percent of high-wage workers have paid sick days, but only one in five low-wage workers does. Consistent work, job flexibility, and work-based resources and benefits enable families to build and protect wealth -- but only some jobs provide what can be called 'employment capital.'

Employment also widens the racial wealth gap. The pathways to well-being and wealth that jobs offer diverge along racial lines, and access to employment capital differs depending on race. Black families are more vulnerable than white families to disruptions in employment and continue to be concentrated in jobs that pay less and offer fewer wealth-building opportunities. This, in turn, undermines their prospects for building wealth over the life course."

From here, Shapiro compares two families with roughly equivalent skillsets and compositions. The Ackermans are a dual-income white family with a household income of $83K in 1998 and three kids. In 1998, "[t]hey held a few stocks and mutual funds, had a savings account, owned a boat, and were vested in workplace pension plans, all of which brought their financial assets to about $90,000, not including their home equity." (They also own "a modest three-bedroom brick house in a new development.")

In 2010, their eldest child is in a good college and his two younger sisters are about to head off to college too. The Ackermans' family income has risen to about $125K, and their assets have increased to about $368K, again not including the value of their home. A large part of this is because Allison Ackerman's employer "provided a robust benefit package, including pension and health-care plans" and assistance with her kids' college tuition. Later that year, however, David Ackerman was laid off from his job and remained unemployed for half a year before getting a new position with less pay and considerably fewer benefits.

As a result of David losing his job and securing a new position that wasn't as good, the Ackermans had to tighten their belts and reduce their living standards to get by. Their neighborhood also declined from solidly middle-class to what David termed "middle working class." Shapiro notes that "[t]oday, it is both harder to get into the middle class and harder to stay there than at any time since World War II. [...] The Great Recession accelerated a major shift toward middle-class insecurity, one that the Ackermans experienced personally."

Nevertheless, "[f]or all the difficulties they faced in the wake of the Great Recession -- temporary job loss, lowered wages, and a slumping neighborhood -- in real ways the Ackermans represent a model of family well-being and success in passing opportunities and social status along to their children. Quality jobs that provided access to employment capital were crucial. Such jobs, however, have become more the exception than the rule among American workers."

By comparison, the black middle-class Medina family (previously introduced as the homeowners in Spanish Lake whose house lost a third of its value due to white flight and real estate speculators taking down their neighborhood) did not have such benefits, despite having comparable skill sets, because "they worked for a series of small organizations and firms at lower-paying jobs that did not provide the same sort of ample health insurance, structured and matched retirement plans, and financial support for children's postsecondary education." They pay substantially more for health insurance, and what they get isn't as good. Their employer doesn't contribute to their retirement accounts. There's no help with the children's school tuition.

Moreover, because they have few other assets to tap, the Medinas end up drawing on their retirement accounts to cover unexpected shortfalls during tough times, which gets them hit with tax penalties and leaves less for their future old age. They have only $12K saved by 2010, against the Ackermans' $368K. Their college-age daughter, Tina, isn't headed to postsecondary school, because the parents can't afford to help pay for tuition. Despite being academically comparable to the Ackermans' son Peter, Tina goes to work as a hotel receptionist after high school, and her mom figures that's going to be about it for her career trajectory.

Shapiro summarizes: "Similarly educated, with similar skills and similar ambitions, the Ackermans and the Medinas were nevertheless divided by vast differences in wealth accumulation, retirement security, and life chances. The Ackermans help illustrate the kinds of work situations that provide employment capital and thereby enable opportunity and mobility; the Medinas suggest what is missing in work situations that make well-being more contingent and fragile. Today, fewer and fewer families have access to opportunities like those the Ackermans enjoyed. And they and the Medinas are both part of a larger trend in the United States toward employers and corporations hollowing out good, middle-income jobs and hence the middle class."
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Postby Merciel » Sun Jul 15, 2018 12:11 pm

Toxic Inequality, Chapter 3 Part 2:

Shapiro considers the effects of the Great Recession on the overall labor landscape: it accelerated pre-existing trends with the upshot that most of the jobs that were lost in the recession were mid-wage (paying about $13 to $27/hour in 2008 dollars) and carried at least some health, family, and/or retirement benefits, while most of the jobs gained in the recovery were in food service or retail, pay about $12-16/hour, and have no benefits.

"The declining share of middle-income jobs since the 1970s reflects a polarizing labor market that puts little value on routine work but offers ever-bigger rewards to those with specialized knowledge and skills. From the end of World War II to 1973, employers shared huge gains in productivity somewhat equitably, resulting in the doubling of American living standards; since the early 1970s, however, they have uncoupled the productivity-to-wages nexus.

Between 1979 and 2013, productivity grew 64.9 percent, while annual inflation-adjusted income for 80 percent of the workforce grew just 16 percent. This loss of shared prosperity for the many did not affect the few as they commandeered greater incomes at the top of the ladder -- the top 1 percent gained 174 percent, and the next 19 percent of highest incomes flourished by 58 percent. Productivity grew eight times faster than typical worker paychecks, and living standards for most workers stagnated."

[Notes: (1) I really want to underline that 64.9% productivity gain vs. 16% income gain, because you can quibble about exactly how productivity translates to profit (it's an imperfect measure and varies by industry/occupation), but however you dice the numbers, the irrefutable fact is that workers have pretty much been getting shafted by not getting anything close to a fair cut of what they're earning for their employers; and (2) that 174% income gain for the 1% grossly, grossly understates how much they're actually capturing, because that is only *income* and not *wealth.* We'll get to the wealth part later; the important thing to note for now is that paycheck income is a relatively small part of the puzzle, and even then it's unfair.]

"Family strategies to compensate for blocked growth in living standards include working more hours and deferring retirement, working more than one job, combining regular jobs with self-employment, and sending additional family members into the paid workforce. As a result, families have increased their on-the-job working hours significantly since 1970, working 14.5 percent more hours each week, or eleven additional weeks each year, in an effort to keep pace.

The increased work time is greater in families with lower-paying jobs. The additional hours come largely from people working more than one job and from women entering the paid workforce. [...] Such a increase in family work hours can erode the quality of family life, even if family incomes keep pace."

I want to underline that point too, because I think it's really critical to push back on the idea that people are poor because they don't work hard enough. In actuality, most people -- from the upper middle class to the middle precariat to the working poor -- are working SO MUCH that it's straining their marriages (or preventing them from getting their relationships to the point where marriage is even feasible), forcing them away from being engaged parents, and otherwise actively undermining all the stuff that "family values" GOPers are nominally supposed to care about.

Having a stable two-parent household is not a magic cure-all for poverty. It can *help,* in that having two paychecks generally tends to help you be less broke. But it can also hurt (when you're dependent on an abuser's paycheck to avoid eviction, how easy is it to kick out the abuser? We saw again and again in _Evicted_ how poverty trapped people in abusive relationships), and more importantly for present purposes, it gets the causation backwards.

It's not that a happy marriage makes you less poor. It's that being poor tends to wreck your marriage. It's tough to keep a relationship going when you're both working 70 hours a week on crazy shifts at separate jobs. Add financial stress and possibly parenting stress on top of that, and welp.

Anyway, back to the book: the rest of this chapter is pretty widely known stuff so I'm going to just hit the broad points. Most jobs without benefits were traditionally clustered in occupations disproportionately filled with minorities (especially black people and Hispanics), which saddled them with a disadvantage going back generations, but those jobs are rapidly becoming the norm for everybody in the current employment landscape.

College for everyone is a partial solution but an imperfect one, because a college degree doesn't guarantee a job with benefits. What would guarantee a job with benefits would be (drumroll, please!) requiring jobs to carry benefits. (I'm reading another whole book on this subtopic right now, which I might summarize later if it turns out to seem worthwhile.) But, to the extent that there are only a small and finite number of good jobs to go around, then sending everybody to college is just going to sharpen competition for those jobs and won't actually help any more people (it might even make them worse off, if it loads them down with school debt but doesn't result in better jobs).

Shapiro also reviews the research on employment discrimination against blacks, e.g., the widely discussed study that showed that having a "black sounding" name on a resume drew dramatically fewer interviews than having a "white sounding" name. Whites with criminal records got more interviews than blacks with clean records. And since black men, especially, are disproportionately saddled with criminal records, that's a double disadvantage which effectively knocks them out of the labor pool for all but the riskiest, most unpleasant, and worst-paying jobs.

Unemployment is more frequent and longer lasting for minorities (in part because they tend to be employed in occupations that are more sensitive to economic downturns, in part because of discriminatory factors like those noted above). They tend to have weaker informal social networks for learning about job openings and getting those jobs.

And, again, these disadvantages compound. If you spend your life working a dangerous, physical job with no retirement benefits, you're likely to be pushed out of work at an earlier age (it's a lot harder to be a roofer than an office drone at age 68), you're likely to have more health ailments and they're likely to be more serious ones, you're less likely to have a retirement fund or pension to lean on, and thus your kids are more likely to have to support you for more years with bigger bills, possibly just when they're trying to get their own kids off to a strong beginning.

Shapiro closes this chapter with a pretty good shot at David Brooks, one of my own favorite perennial dumbass punching bags:

"New York Times columnist David Brooks asks three questions that he suggests account for success or failure in life. Are you living for short-term pleasure or long-term good? Are you living for yourself or for your children? Do you have the freedom of self-control, or are you in bondage to your desires [ed. note: huge lol on the Freudian wording there, Brooksy my boy]?

Whether or not one thinks these are the right questions to ask, one thing is abundantly clear: the Ackermans and Medinas live their lives by the same answers, but without substantial changes to our contemporary employment landscape, the worlds of Peter Ackerman and Tina Medina will only grow further apart."

That is a significantly more restrained response than David Brooks has ever deserved, but it does get the point across.
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Postby Merciel » Thu Jul 26, 2018 9:24 am

Toxic Inequality, Chapter 4 ("The Inheritance Advantage"):

It won't be news to anyone that, in the aggregate, white families have a tremendous advantage over black families when it comes to inheritance and the benefits of compounded family wealth. Because most of the information in this chapter just reinforces that central fact, and I'm assuming that nobody who reads these summaries really needs to be told that "yep, white families as a group have a lot more money to pass down to their kids, and this gives their kids a bunch of advantages in life," I'm going to shortchange this chapter a little. It's important material, it's just not really a newsflash.

Key points:

"An examination of inheritance among blacks and whites suggests the powerful legacies of racial injustice in America. Inheritance is a linchpin of toxic inequality, for it is a phenomenon in which America's history of racism collides with the indisputable reality of inequality today. Historically, African Americans were systematically denied possibilities to build wealth, even as government policy delivered copious and bountiful wealth-building opportunities to some whites. [...]

This inheritance divide is a major driver of the growth in the racial wealth gap, because inherited wealth accumulates and compounds over time. Among the nearly half of white households receiving financial transfers, the median amount was $83,692. By contrast, among the one in ten African American households receiving a financial transfer, the median amount was $52,240. Not only were African American families four times less likely to receive a financial transfer, but when they did, the median amount was $30,000 less than for white beneficiaries."

The second major point is that not only are black and Hispanic households less likely to receive money from family (either as living transfers or inherited wealth), but they're much more likely to be called upon to *give* money to less fortunate relatives when possible. White people are much more likely to be part of a "web of wealth" in which more affluent friends or family can give them money to help them take advantage of opportunities or avoid disaster; black people with even a small amount of money are much more likely to be called upon to help out needy kin.

Most of these transfers are relatively small: "measured in the tens or hundreds of dollars and generally consumed, not saved or invested. Our family interviews clearly indicated that these sorts of transfers are most often intended to cushion unforeseen and immediate economic hardships." They don't, in other words, generally pay for a nephew's college tuition or help a grandkid get work by buying him a car. But they erode people's ability to pay for those big things later by continually sapping their ability to invest in big future moves with small immediate transfers.

This gets more pronounced at higher rungs of the economic ladder: "While white college graduates report significant economic assistance from their parents, black college graduates tell a *giving* story as opposed to a *receiving* story. Among blacks, 45 percent gave to parents in need compared to 16 percent of whites. In sum, inheritance and other transfers from family members were one crucial reason that college-educated white families gained wealth between 2007 and 2013, while college-educated black families lost wealth during the same period."

Shapiro closes by noting that inherited wealth is directly antithetical to meritocratic ideals, and yet its influence is only getting stronger year by year. (Again, he was writing before the Trump administration, but one imagines he would have some choice words to say about this government's policies, written expressly by racist plutocrats for racist plutocrats to cement exactly the injustices he advocated against.)
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Postby Merciel » Tue Aug 07, 2018 5:41 pm

Toxic Inequality, Ch. 5 ("The Hidden Hand of Government"), Pt. 1:

Shapiro writes: "US government policies are a major driver of toxic inequality, privileging those who have wealth already, making its accumulation harder for those who lack it, and allowing living standards to fall for families who get by on paychecks alone. Federal tax expenditures and other provisions of the tax code disproportionately benefit wealthy home owners, workers with employer-sponsored retirement plans and generous employer-subsidized health coverage, heirs to large estates, and students at affluent private colleges -- even as government investments that support typical Americans are curtailed. Direct government policies or programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, unemployment insurance, and health care have been intensely debated in the public sphere, while tax code provisions and tax expenditures receive far less attention."

He turns to the example of Lindsay Bonde to show how hidden federal policies shaped the life of one woman. Bonde grew up poor and white in a predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhood in Boston. She worked fulltime as an adult educator with other part-time gigs for extra money. In 1998, she considered herself working poor, with a net financial wealth of $25K. She'd recently separated from her common law husband but shared a house and family expenses with him, and she aimed for her three kids to do better than she herself had.

In 2010, Bonde was divorced, had a life insurance policy and modest stock market investments, and had seen her savings dwindle to about $3K, which was less than her credit card debt. Her three kids were grown, out of the house, had graduated from college, and were working good jobs.

Bonde's financial trajectory peaked in 2007, when she was making $47K/year at her job and had about $75K in saved wealth (including her share of the home equity). However, that same year, she was diagnosed with osteoporosis, had spinal surgery, lost her job of 22 years, and could no longer climb the stairs to the part of the house that she still shared with her ex-husband. She was forced to sell her share in the home and use the money to buy a cheaper place that could accommodate her limited mobility. With her income shredded and medical costs rising, Bonde turned to credit cards to stay afloat, and was forced to drain her savings and investment accounts to pay medical bills. Her main hope, in 2010, was to "remain independent and not to become a drain on her children's resources."

Shapiro notes that a major factor in Bonde's slide from the middle class was the cost of her medications, which are "more expensive in America than in any advanced country," due largely to "the effective influence of the pharmaceutical industry on policy and rules." Medicare pays more for drugs than it has to because the rules that negotiate its plan prices were written at the behest of the pharma industry, preventing it from using its buying power to negotiate lower prices. As a result, the pharma companies profited, but "the high cost of essential medications quickly exhausted Lindsay's life savings, built from twenty-two years of hard work."

Shapiro next looks at the Otises, a married couple earning $80K in household income per year. Post-deductions, the Otises pay $11.5K/year in federal income tax. However, if they were earning the same amount of money from invested capital (which, at the time of Shapiro's writing, would mean they had somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.6M invested to net $80K/year in capital gains), they would pay only $765 in taxes on that -- a difference of over $10K.

Because "[p]ublic and political attention is still riveted on income," the fact that the tax code heavily favors the already-wealthy goes largely unnoticed. At the same time, payments made to the truly needy are endlessly scrutinized.

This isn't new. The next part of the chapter traces how governmental policy has always shaped wealth accumulation and favored some groups over others, from land grants in the 1800s (which straight-up told white people they could seize land from Native Americans and the government would ratify those seizures) and the National Housing Act of 1934 (which formed the modern mortgage and home-building industries, and also systematically excluded non-whites) to the permissiveness shown to the secondary mortgage market, which enabled the housing bust of 2007 and destroyed many (mostly minority) families' fortunes.

However, because these policies have largely benefited the white and middle-class majority, they've mostly escaped scrutiny. (This is changing as the [white] middle class becomes more aware that they're winding up on the wrong side of the deepening inequality divide, but for a long time most people didn't really notice because it's much easier to notice when you're *not* getting a benefit than when you are.)

It's also the case that only spending programs get annual debate as part of the federal budget process. Tax *reductions,* which operate mostly to favor the wealthy, are a much lower-profile part of the budget and rarely come in for debate. Thus, Shapiro writes, these deductions "are far more removed from the democratic process than spending programs and are thus harder to reform."

We're in kind of a weird historical moment now because a lot more people are waking up to the drivers of inequality and are becoming aware of how that plays out in their own lives, and also because the unusually slapdash and transparent cash-grabbing of the 2017 tax "reform" cast a spotlight on some of these practices. And hey, it turns out most people don't like it when you shovel tax money toward the rich!

What remains to be seen is what they'll do about it.
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Postby Merciel » Fri Aug 17, 2018 11:48 am

Toxic Inequality, Ch. 5 Pt. 2:

Other mechanisms through which the government redistributes wealth upward include:

(1) Our old friend the mortgage interest deduction! 86% of its benefits flow to the top 10% of taxpayers, with the top 1% getting a little over $6K apiece on average, while a middle-income household who qualifies for the deduction at all gets an average of $183. (Notably, $6K isn't even that much money if you're in the top 1%, so it's not like these people would miss it.)

However, that $183 number is more than a little misleading because middle-income households typically don't itemize their federal tax deductions (only 35% of households in the $62K/year bracket itemized their deductions), which means they don't get the mortgage interest deduction at all. On top of that, middle-income households are substantially more likely to rent, in which case they get nothing, *and* the mortgage interest deduction is tied to your tax bracket, with higher brackets getting larger deductions. The upshot is that even if they had mortgages for exactly the same amount, "someone with $150,000 in income in the 28 percent tax bracket could get a bigger deduction than someone with $80,000 in income in the 25 percent tax bracket."

ALSO you can claim the deduction on your first TWO houses, so if you happen to have two houses with a combined mortgage of $1M, then you can really max out your subsidy.

Truly, we demand far too much of the rich.

(2) Retirement accounts! Shapiro is quick to note that using tax incentives to nudge people toward saving for retirement is not a bad thing; however, it is currently an *unfair* thing, because these vehicles are not available to people who don't work at jobs offering them:

"Inclusive, employer-sponsored, mandatory, and matched savings vehicles for retirement indeed ought to be encouraged by government policy and supported with public resources, for they can help move typical American families forward and bolster economic security. The problem, again, is that right now the supporting mechanism [...] mostly benefits those working at large organizations, and, as we have seen, minorities, women, immigrants, and low-paid workers are less likely to find jobs with such employers."

So, here, the problem isn't that the idea is bad, but that it's not widely or equally available.

(3) Health insurance! The main point here is that if your employer pays for your health insurance, then they pay with pretax money, and again, that is a benefit that flows mainly to people who have good jobs with big employers (not to mention the considerable value of having good health insurance in the first place). So, as with retirement savings, it's a good idea that's unequally distributed, and that inequitable distribution exacerbates inequality.

(4) The estate tax! While most people (correctly) think that the estate tax is a great idea and we should go back to it, because WHAT THE HELL, DYNASTIC WEALTH IS UNAMERICAN, it's worth underlining just how rare and dopey this whole thing even is:

"[O]nly 18 in every 10,000 deaths involve estates large enough to fall within the current estate tax provisions [and this was the 2015 number!! BEFORE 2017's tax ripoff!!], and a small band of America's richest families leads the charge to repeal it. Nine families owning approximately $137 billion in assets have lobbied directly on the estate tax in the last few years; one estimate holds that they would save between $25 billion and $55 billion, depending on how significantly the tax rate was reduced."

Meanwhile we have military families getting poisoned by lead-filled housing because apparently we can throw away $25-55 BILLION DOLLARS making the likes of Betsy DeVos richer (she really needs that 12th yacht, y'all! What, you want her to be happy with a mere TEN $40M yachts? Now down to NINE?! come on), but we can't scrape together the money to, like, not poison toddlers living in base housing. Cool, cool.

Incidentally, as a footnote, in 2001 the cutoff for the estate tax was $675,000, and money above that threshold was subject to a 55% tax rate. Now the cutoff is over $11M (doubled since 2017, because the GOP is the party of fiscal prud... ahahahaaa, no, I can't even type it) and the top rate is 40%.

no surprise inequality is running the way it is, amirite

(5) Capital gains tax and the "step up" rule, which locks together nicely with the estate tax. Shapiro explains this as follows:

"[S]omeone who inherits an investment that has appreciated in value since the day it was first purchased pays taxes only on proceeds that accrue from the day that person receives the asset and only if he or she sells it. [...]

Say your saintly and visionary grandmother invested $1,000 in Microsoft in 1986. After multiple stock splits, this investment would have netted around $575,000 in 2015. Had your grandmother died that year and sold the stock the year before her death, $574,000 in gains would be liable for capital gains tax. But if she did not sell and instead bequeathed the stock to you when she passed away, and if you sold it immediately, you would pay no capital gains tax because it had not appreciated over its value when you took ownership."

This, obviously, operates as a tremendous tax giveaway that primarily benefits the superrich.

(6) Higher education! Public expenditures supporting state universities and community colleges have dwindled, and the value of Pell Grants to individual students has declined dramatically over time (although for some reason we've been able to continue channeling a ton of money to garbage for-profit schools, which makes you wonder if MAYBE the goal is to enrich private operators and not so much educate the public), with the upshot being that costs are shifted primarily onto students and their families. College has, as a result, become vastly less affordable for the middle class (and an outright lol if you're actually working class or poor and trying to get ahead).

At the same time, tax-exempt status operates as a massive subsidy to elite educational institutions with large endowments. The upshot is that we, the American public, pay $4,000 to support a kid going to Cal State Fullerton, but $63,000 in subsidies for a kid going to Stanford. A student at New Jersey's state flagship, Rutgers, gets about $12K in taxpayer support; a kid at Princeton gets over $100K. (Bonus insanity is that most of those kids still have to pay exorbitant tuition on top of that subsidy, so even *they* don't get a free ride. Nobody does!)

Shapiro closes the chapter by noting, in dry understatement, that "federal policy privileges already-amassed wealth [...] and helps the wealthy maintain wealth over time and pass it along to their children. Meanwhile, it actively disadvantages those without any or much wealth and those who earn a living from paychecks alone. These policies have helped spawn the era of toxic inequality, producing a mounting racial wealth gap and historically high levels of wealth and income inequaity."

And, again, this was all written before 2017's tax changes. It is much worse now.
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Postby Merciel » Sun Aug 19, 2018 2:41 pm

Toxic Inequality, Ch. 6 ("Forward to Equity"), Pt. 1:

This chapter is dense with policy prescriptions, which are uncommonly detailed and well-thought-out (you'd think that would be common for books of this sort, but it isn't). Shapiro's an actual expert in his field and has spent decades trying to convince governments to do these things, and it's simultaneously inspiring and frustrating to read through his policy prescriptions, see how good they are, and realize that we are just collectively too dumb, shortsighted, and/or greedy to make these seemingly basic investments in improving the quality of our shared society.

But anyway. Here's the thesis for this chapter:

"Social institutions and government policies indisputably bend individual life trajectories and tend to lock children into the race and class status of the families they were born into -- but that doesn't mean there's no hope for change or that only a few individuals will ever achieve uphill moility against steep odds. Starting with the lives, challenges, and needs of real families, we can build an agenda for significant reform that can turn the tide against toxic inequality.

For toxic inequality is not inevitable or intractable; nor is it unpredictable. It results from the rules and choices that structure America's economy. Since the early 1970s, corporate interests have dominated the writing of these rules, and the result is a weakened economy in which prosperity is hoarded and most families struggle to achieve or maintain a middle-class lifestyle, while a tiny elite amasses an increasing share of the nation's wealth. [...]

As a result, the American public pays higher prices for medicine, Internet services, food, airline tickets, and banking services than citizens of other advanced nations. Recent legislation has abated some health, safety, and environmental standards. American workers have fewer leave days and paid holidays as well as fewer benefits than counterparts in advanced economies. It is more difficult to organize a union. Bankruptcy laws have been modified to allow corporations to close down more easily, with fewer obligations to workers and communities. Meanwhile, homeowners burdened with mortgage debt and graduates with student debt face years of payments and threats to their credit histories. [...]

[However, given the history of our nation and long-standing inequities], moving forward in a purely color-blind fashion with bluntly universal policies is inadequate and will only sediment racial inequality deeper in American society. Instead, any agenda for change must recognize that the means of achieving shared public goods will differ according to context and constituency. Creating inclusive retirement security for all, for instance, requires targeting the populations and communities that lack access to structured accounts at their workplaces. [...]

In sum, two principles must anchor an agenda for change for America's families: namely, wealth-building and racial justice."

From here, Shapiro moves into discussions of concrete examples that show how these principles might look in practice. He points to the U.S. Treasury Department's 2015 launch of myRA retirement savings accounts: federal retirement accounts available to households with incomes below $131K ($193K for couples) who do not have access to employer-sponsored retirement accounts. Qualified people can save up to $15K/year in myRA accounts. Contributions can be taken from paychecks, bank accounts, or tax refunds. Workers contribute money after income taxes are paid, and any investment gains and withdrawals are then tax-free.

This program is facially race neutral: anyone who qualifies is free to participate. But the *effects* are not race neutral, because households with incomes below the threshold who do not have access to employer-sponsored accounts are more likely to be black and Hispanic. (The penalty-free withdrawal provision is also made with such homes in mind, since such homes are less likely to have other wealth buffers and more likely to have to draw down retirement accounts to cover emergencies and family crises.)

Thus, the myRA program operates simultaneously to help *all* qualifying households, thereby shoring up public prosperity broadly, and to close a significant part of the wealth gap dividing white and minority households. It does this in a politically palatable fashion, because it's essentially just allowing people to save their own hard-earned money for their own retirements, and it reduces likely future expenditures that the general public might otherwise have to pay to support families forced into penury in retirement age.

It's just a really good, sensible, well-designed program. NOT SURPRISINGLY, the Trump administration is currently in the midst of privatizing it and selling the accounts to a profit-driven company (who will then start charging program participants various administration and withdrawal fees that were not part of the original design), a change which will take effect at the end of this month.

So, once again, we have a good and effective policy program getting sold to the vultures, to the detriment of the taxpaying public, because that's what *actually* happens when you "run government like a business."

In the next episode we'll consider some of Shapiro's other policy suggestions.
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Postby Merciel » Fri Aug 31, 2018 10:29 pm

Toxic Inequality, Ch. 6 Pt. 2:

In defining good policies to address economic inequality and racial injustice, Shapiro sets forth the following requirements, which he sees as essential:

(1) The policy should be evaluated not on universal *eligibility* but on universal *goals,* i.e., once we decide on a desirable outcome, the policy should be geared toward making sure as many people as possible can reach the final outcome. For example, if our goal is universal pre-K, then we should recognize that it's going to take different approaches to get differently situated people to that place, and we should be flexible in accommodating those needs so that everyone can reach the finish line despite the greater obstacles that some have to hurdle to get there.

(2) The policy should be affordable. This isn't a tough one: we can easily cover equitable, prosperity-building investments in our citizens by, you know, not just forking all that money over to corporations and 1%'ers (or, as Shapiro puts it in more precise terms, "$400 billion on individual wealth-generation provisions in the current [2015!!] tax code"). But a politically sound policy should, in addition to that, result in greater net gains for society than it costs in up-front investments (this also isn't hard, Shapiro's just noting that it's an important policy consideration, as no one wants to outright throw money away).

(3) We should distinguish between policies that improve economic mobility and policies that push in the direction of greater equity. These aren't always the same thing. For example, programs that subsidize homeownership and move people out of distressed communities into more stable communities give those people a shot at upward mobility, but they don't help the community that was left behind, and they don't automatically increase equity across the board (they *can,* but if they do it's mostly a byproduct, since the focus of those policies is to improve mobility for individuals).

Another example is a children's savings account (CSA) which allows poor people to save money for their kids without, e.g., cutting into their welfare eligibility by counting as "assets" that the adult can tap. (There are potentially more elaborate versions too, for example you could set it up so that individual inputs were matched by government inputs, like employer-matched retirement savings accounts, but I don't know how widespread those are.) This has been shown to greatly benefit families that have the initiative to use them, but it's another individually focused measure that improves individual and family mobility without doing much to solve bigger problems of equity.

Such programs are important and effective for the people they help, but Shapiro cautions that we should not mistake them for broader-reaching solutions to narrowing the wealth divide.

(4) Ambitious policy innovations should be future-proof, meaning that they "cannot be at the mercy of changing political winds and shifting fortunes." Given what we've seen from the most recent administration, I don't think I need to explicate too much on that one.

(5) Finally, policy articulation is critical. By this, Shapiro means that programs should work to reinforce each other and should be designed with an awareness of the bigger picture and how all the pieces fit together, rather than being myopically focused on a single issue and potentially undercutting or conflicting with other initiatives. So, for example, if you're going to encourage CSAs to get more non-rich kids into college, you also need to take steps to ensure that colleges don't just hike their tuition rates to capture the gains without actually improving outcomes.

"As the families highlighted in this book suggest," Shapiro writes, "any agenda for change must strengthen housing and community stability for families, emphasize quality jobs with higher wages and benefits, ensure retirement security, provide quality education, encourage savings, and reform tax policy to foster both equity and mobility."

(I thought I'd finish this book with this post, but this is pretty long already so I'll wrap it up next time.)
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Postby Merciel » Sat Sep 01, 2018 8:35 pm

Toxic Inequality, Ch. 6 Pt. 3:

Shapiro breaks down his policy proposals into big-picture issues that need to be addressed and then specific solutions for those issues, which I'm going to condense into outline form:

I. Strengthen Housing and Community Stability for Families

A. Forestall impending foreclosures (which disproportionately affect minority borrowers) by means of principal reductions and loan modifications through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; HAMP was a good model because it "reduced mortgage payments by adjusting interest rates, extending loan terms, and reducing or forbearing principal."

B. Reform the mortgage interest deduction (various proposals here: capping the deductible, changing the deduction into a credit [which would be a much bigger benefit to lower-income households]), and subject home sales over $500K to capital gains taxes on the amount exceeding $500K.

C. Encourage home ownership among lower-income families (again, various proposals ranging from first-time homebuyer tax credits to a Homestead Act that would give government-backed, low-interest mortgages to people moving into homes that had been foreclosed due to proven mortgage fraud).

D. Create a renter's tax deduction (this already exists in some places like MA, but should be national).

E. Actually enforce existing protections against racial segregation in housing, like the 1968 Fair Housing Act. The laws already exist and are effective when given teeth, but they depend on federal agencies to enforce them, since individual victims can rarely muster the resources to prove their cases.

II. Create Quality Jobs with Higher Wages and Benefits

A. Increase federal hiring and spending on infrastructure projects to get more people working for fair wages (and also to invest in everything from better roads and bridges to better public transit options, rural internet access, airports, etc.). We have a lot of things that need doing and a lot of workers who need jobs with good wages, so this seems like a no-brainer.

B. Encourage and protect defined benefit plans (i.e., pensions) for both private sector and public sector employees.

C. Ease legal barriers to unionization and impose stricter penalties on illegal anti-unionization tactics. Shapiro argues that unions are best positioned to identify and address many of the worker-abusing policies that modern corporations employ (everything from defining employees as "subcontractors" to avoid paying benefits to just-in-time scheduling that wreaks havoc on their lives), but the unions need to be strong enough to win those fights.

D. The federal government should be stricter about only handing out contracts to companies with stronger worker-protecting policies, and which pay decent wages.

E. Raise the minimum wage. The Fight for $15 is a good start, but should also push for better benefits wherever feasible.

F. Enforce existing laws against discrimination in hiring and labor conditions. Again, we have a lot of good laws on the books, but they often get ignored.

III. Ensure Retirement Security.

A. Expand and strengthen Social Security by, e.g., "lifting the cap on wages taxed, flattening benefits for high earners, and gradually increasing the payroll tax by 1 percent over 20 years," and also reinstating programs that have been cut back over the years, such as the survivor's benefit that allowed some students (SUCH AS PAUL RYAN) to attend college on the government dime after their parents died. Shapiro also suggests instituting credits for workers who "take time out of the paid workforce for caregiving purposes," since those workers tend to lose out on retirement benefits during the years they couldn't pay in.

B. Institute universal matched retirement accounts for people who don't have access to workplace retirement plans.

IV. Provide Quality Education

A. Provide universal pre-K.

B. Revamp public school funding by using statewide formulas (and/or nationwide ones) to even out disparities in property tax contributions from specific localities. Some states already do this, and it seems to be a politically viable compromise that evens out the worst disparities in school funding while preserving the benefits of neighborhood schools.

C. Limit tuition increases at public and private universities via attaching tuition-control measures to federal research grants and other funding streams.

D. Restore adequate funding to public universities, both directly as greater flows of tax money, and indirectly via bolstering the value of Pell Grants to low-income students.

E. Expand debt assistance programs by increasing debt forgiveness and forebearance programs, expanding loan modification, and allowing more graduates to use income-based repayment plans.

F. Expand tax credits for education expenses, and make them partly refundable so that lower-income families have broader access to higher education.

G. Increase access to children's savings accounts, perhaps even with federal seed money or "baby bonds" attached, so that lower-income families have a vehicle to put money aside and accrue interest from the beginning of their children's lives, and an incentive to push them onward (studies show that having even a few hundred bucks in a college savings account greatly increases the odds that a family will send a kid to college).

V. Reform Tax Policy

A. Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which is proven to be one of the most effective tools for lifting working families out of poverty.

B. Expand the estate tax. Its current state is inexcusable and expanding it would be completely painless for the vast, vast majority of people in America. And the ones it would hit can well afford some pain.

Shapiro closes his book with a rousing call to action, an invocation of the many ways in which toxic inequality poisons people's lives and locks children onto their parents' trajectories, and generally makes a lie of the American Dream, and -- finally -- a series of observations on how investing in our people would make America a better, fairer, and vastly more prosperous nation.

It all seems extremely sensible to me, but of course we rocketed in the other direction a year and a half ago, and now we will have vastly more work to do to fix these things. But, at least, this book provides a pretty helpful blueprint for some of the ways we might get there.
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Postby Merciel » Sat Sep 22, 2018 3:53 pm

Recently I read Keith Payne's _The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Live, Think, and Die_, which is a really interesting work of applied psychology that looks specifically at how inequality makes *everybody* sicker and unhappier, even if you're not actually poor. Study after study has shown that even middle-class and outright rich people in highly unequal societies are less healthy and happy than objectively poorer people in more equal societies, and Payne's book is an examination of why, exactly, we feel status anxiety and what that does to us in the context of great inequality.

This close focus can cause the book to feel a little bit frustrating at times, because occasionally I felt that Payne was conflating the external hazards of American poverty with the psychosocial hazards of status anxiety (sure, our poor people might have smartphones, and they're generally not literally dying of starvation in the streets, but poor Americans really are at much greater risk of dying from everything from street violence to pollution-induced ailments to untreated but not necessarily lethal conditions because consistent medical care is out of reach, and those are problems caused by straight-up lack of money, not the subjective experience of inequality).

But, with that quibble out of the way, it's a thought-provoking and persuasively grounded book that answered a lot of questions that had been nagging at me (for one: what's the deal with people being way more susceptible to insane conspiracy theories these days? turns out a big and plausible part of the answer is "inequality"!), and gave me new insights into things I had not previously considered. (For instance: UBI is going to need to take some of these issues into account if we want it to ameliorate, e.g., the "deaths of despair" that left-behind white Americans have been inflicting on themselves. UBI, in and of itself, is unlikely to address the psychological root causes pushing people toward those forms of self-destruction, but Payne's book offers some glimpses of solutions that might.)

I'm debating whether I want to do a full summary series on the book, but even if I don't get around to that, I do want to pull a few thoughts from its closing chapter. Payne argues (persuasively, I think) that reducing inequality is, at this point, a public health measure: if we want to save lives and make those lives longer and healthier, we need to do something here. Collective action is necessary.

But, in the meantime, there are also cognitive choices we can make as individuals to blunt the impact of these forces. For example, focusing on gratitude for what you have, and measuring your situation downward against those less fortunate, rather than continually comparing yourself upward to those who have more (although Payne points out that upward comparisons can also be useful when you need motivation to work harder or achieve more, particularly if you have the benefit of a realistic comparison and, above all, can see *how* the other person did what they did. This is why it's so useful for underprivileged kids to see someone like them succeeding: it shows them that it's possible, and how, exactly, it can be done).

Another strategy is to compare your current self with your past self: "If you have overcome important challenges over the course of your life, then comparing your present to your former self has the advantages of comparing both upward and downward at the same time." You can be grateful that you have improved on your past self's flaws or disadvantages, then acknowledge (and be motivated to continue) that upward trajectory.

It's also useful (particularly for those who are more affluent) to be mindful of "good fortune and dumb luck" that helped lift the way to success, as a way to remain humble and combat the sense of entitlement that can come with success. (A lot of evidence shows that rich people tend to conflate their wealth with general superiority in matters of judgment, ethics, and intellect, and they're usually wrong about that, sometimes to Betsy DeVos levels of inability to grasp their own incompetence.)

Finally, he outlines a simple exercise:

"Take a moment to think about a value that you cherish. You will likely come up with one that you have in common with nearly everyone else. You will probably focus on one that is personal, that connects you to loved ones or an idea larger than yourself. It will probably have little to do with climbing a social ladder.

Studies show that this simple exercise of focusing on what matters most can have remarkable effects on experiences of inequality. First, it makes people care less about what others think of them. [Psych study summary here, upshot of which is that people who spent a few minutes thinking about a "personally essential value" before entering the experiment then placed less value on luxury brands and also had reduced levels of stress hormones while being evaluated by other people.]

[S]pending a few minutes writing about cherished values also made people less impulsive and more likely to delay immediate gratification for longer-term benefits."

Payne then summarizes a series of psych experiments showing that (a) students who did this exercise significantly closed racial GPA gaps (establishing, in part, that they were more resistant to negative stereotypes); (b) poor people were more inclined to sign up for benefits programs and more likely to complete the enrollment process; and (c) asking people to focus on empowering moments when they felt "successful and proud" improved their ability to act in more rational, beneficial ways rather than self-destructive ones.

In typing all that out, I feel self-conscious about spending so much time and wordspace on something that smacks so strongly of self-help. But I also think that in a society where inequality is so glaring and has such detrimental effects, there's probably some utility in understanding the mechanisms by which that happens and then consciously trying to counter them. And when the most popular course that my school ever offered was the one on how to be happy, well, maybe these things aren't quite as obvious as they seem.
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Postby Merciel » Wed Oct 03, 2018 4:21 am

The Broken Ladder, Ch. 1 ("Lunch Lady Economics"):

Payne's book begins: "I learned I was poor on the new lunch lady's first day at work." Because his family was low income, Keith Payne qualified for free lunch growing up; however, until fourth grade, he didn't really know what that meant, because the old lunch lady swiped everyone through the same way and didn't distinguish between the lunch money kids and the free lunch kids. The new lunch lady, however, didn't know which kids paid and which didn't, so she had to ask each time -- and that was how Payne realized that whether or not you had to pay for lunch was a distinguishing factor.

He writes: "The moment when I realized what my free lunches meant is still with me, and I can feel the heat in my face as I recount it. Though my family had no less money than the day before, that moment changed everything for me.

I began to notice differences between myself and my classmates. Despite the fact that we all wore the same uniform, the kids who paid for their lunches seemed to dress better. Was it the shoes? They even had better hair. [...] We had all grown up within a dozen miles of one another, but the free-lunch kids had our parents' Southern drawls. The lunch-money kids had the generic voices of newscasters, from everywhere and nowhere at once. [...]

Suddenly a new social ladder stretched out before me, above me. Its rungs were marked with shoes and hair and accents, telegraphing a code I was just learning to decipher. It did not matter that nothing in my circumstances had changed but my perspective. Now I was, in fact, poor.

If you are used to thinking of wealth and poverty purely in financial terms, the way an accountant would, my response makes no sense. My insight did not change my parents' income. It did not change our monthly expenses. It changed nothing in the world, except for me. But by redirecting my attention and altering my perceptions, my thoughts, and my actions, it changed my future."

Payne then introduces the concept of the Status Ladder: "Imagine that the people at the top of this ladder are the best off. They have the most money, the best education, and the highest-paying jobs. The people at the bottom are the worst off. They have the least money, the lowest levels of education, and the most menial jobs, if they have jobs at all. If you were to assess your own economic position with respect to that of other people, which of the ten rungs would you place yourself on?"

What's interesting about the Status Ladder is that, Payne writes, "[w]e should be able to perfectly predict where a person would place himself on the ladder if we knew his income, his level of education, and the prestige of his job." But we can't. We can't even come close. Only about 20% of a person's answer is predictable by external, objective metrics. Many people who are objectively rich put themselves on low rungs. Many people who are objectively poor put themselves on high rungs.

Although the Status Ladder is entirely based on people's self-perception and has only a weak correlation with external, material metrics, it is nevertheless highly predictive of certain bad life outcomes: "If you place yourself on a lower rung, then you are more likely in the coming years to suffer from depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. The lower the rung you select, the more probable it is that you will make bad decisions and underperform at work. The lower the rung you select, the more likely you are to believe in the supernatural and in conspiracy theories. The lower the rung you select, the more prone you are to weight issues, diabetes, and heart problems. The lower the rung you select, the fewer years you have left to live."

What's so striking about this result is that "these things are more likely to happen to you if you *feel* poor, regardless of your actual income." We know that poverty correlates with many of these problems, for a host of well-documented reasons. But setting those external factors aside, people's self-perceptions are also highly predictive of these concerns.

Payne then runs through a bunch of studies demonstrating, in various ways, that people are completely terrible at evaluating how good they are at anything. People who were surveyed while hospitalized for car accidents *they caused* consistently rated themselves as above-average drivers; felons in prison consistently rated themselves as above-average in kindness, morality, and honesty; almost everyone rates themselves as "more objective and less biased" than average. People want to think of themselves as better than average, and of others as worse (most clearly demonstrated by how much people delight in tearing down celebrities for inconsequential flaws).

Status seeking has deep, deep roots. Payne summarizes a bunch of primate studies showing that monkeys are obsessed with status (also porn: "There was only one thing that the male monkeys [in one such experiment] wanted to see more than the celebrity monkeys, and that was the genitalia of female monkeys") and get upset when they're cheated out of what they feel is their fair social due. Toddlers, being basically monkeys, react much the same way to experiments in unfairness.

Next, Payne talks about the history and development of economic inequality in human society, and how this squares with what people intrinsically feel is fair. He discusses John Rawls's "veil of ignorance" concept, which basically comes down to: you're in a spaceship and you crash-land on a strange planet with no idea what position you will occupy in that planet's society. If you have to pick blindly (i.e., if you have to make this choice independent of any self-interested bias), do you want to live in a high-inequality society or a more equitable one?

In one such experiment where people were polled about what level of inequality they wanted to live in, overwhelmingly, people voted for (a thinly disguised) Sweden. They didn't want to live in a perfectly equal society -- most people felt that there should be some allowance for especially clever or hard-working people to earn more, and for lazy shirkers to get less -- but basically nobody picked the level of inequality that the U.S. had. But 92% of Americans chose Sweden, where the wealthiest 20% of the population had about 30% of the wealth, and the bottom 20% had about 10% (guess how much wealth the bottom 20% of the population has in the U.S.? 0.1%! ONE-TENTH OF ONE PERCENT!!).

The chapter closes by noting that the specific focus of this book is not precisely about material inequality, but about how the experience of living in a society with high and glaring levels of inequality shapes our subjective perceptions of who we are and how we live.

This book isn't about material deprivation. It's not primarily about actually *being* poor, although there is some overlap in causes and consequences. It's about what it does to you when, because there's always a bigger mansion and a shinier car on the next gated community's hill, you're forever in the position of subjectively *feeling* poor.
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Postby Merciel » Wed Oct 17, 2018 2:50 pm

The Broken Ladder, Ch. 2 ("Relatively Easy"), Pt. 1:

(remember how I was supposed to be summarizing this book? yeah, I almost forgot too.)

Chapter 2 begins by comparing the official poverty line ($23,850/year for a family of four at the time of this writing) to what most Americans consider "the smallest income that would allow a family of four to get by," which was $58K in 2013.

However, what people considered "poor" and "rich" varied depending on their own economic position: "Households earning less than $30,000 said it took about $44,000 to get by, but those earning $75,000 or more said it took at least $69,000 to do so." Meanwhile, the median answer for what qualified as "rich" was $150K/year, but this also varied depending on the respondent's income: "For most people, being rich seems to mean making about three times as much as they actually earn."

"So," Payne asks, "who is really poor, and who is not?" He notes that most families below the American poverty line have televisions, microwaves, air-conditioning, and cellphones; by comparison, Thomas Jefferson, one of the wealthiest and most powerful citizens of his day, had none of these things. Thus, "as the historical perspective makes clear, poverty and wealth are always relative to what other people have in a particular time and place." (Adam Smith is cited for a similar proposition: in his day, "a creditable day-labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt," and the inability to afford this shirt, which custom decreed a basic social necessity, was therefore a defining line for poverty.)

We then go through a long series of visual illusions (like the infamous checkerboard shadow illusion) and various psych experiments meant to trick people's ability to gauge how much they've eaten by changing their plate size, or deceiving their ability to gauge weight by having them lift much heavier or lighter objects immediately before the test weight. The upshot of all these experiments is that our brains are wired to judge things by comparing them to their surroundings, so if you change the surrounding reference points, it's pretty easy to throw off the accuracy of human judgment. The second point here is that there's no objective metric for what counts as "enough," socially speaking; it's all variable and subjective.

(At this point Payne pauses to describe all the people who are sitting in his local coffeeshop at the moment he's typing this paragraph on his laptop, then says "If you walk into any coffee shop like this one, it seems a fairly straightforward task to guess people's social class." I'm still confused about the point of this illustration, because all the coffeeshop patrons seem to be of the same college-town coffeeshop upper-middle class, and I have no idea how this slots into the "judgment by comparison" thesis when THEY'RE ALL THE SAME DEMOGRAPHIC. I dunno, I didn't get it.)

Then he moves on to talking about how one day, his 3-year-old daughter came home from day care and, looking at a recent group photo of her day care class, unerringly "labeled [the kids] 'rich' if their parents were professors or physicians, and 'poor' if their parents were students or staff members." There were 15 kids in the class, and she categorized them all accurately by that criterion. Thus, we're shown that social sorting (and its accompanying pressure) starts very young. (However, as with all social developments, this is variable based on the individual and peer group; recall that Payne himself was not aware of these distinctions until his fateful lunch money day in fourth grade.)

Payne summarizes another series of psych experiments to the effect that it's very easy for most people to evaluate other people's social class based on about 30 seconds of observation, and also that "[o]ne of the most reliable findings of social science is that if you consciously think about a person who is clearly superior to you in some respect, it makes you feel worse about yourself than if you had never given that person any thought. Likewise, if you think about someone who is inferior to you in some way, it makes you feel better about yourself by comparison."

This works even when the exposure is unconscious, e.g. in one experiment, participants who were subliminally exposed to the name "Michael Jordan," and were then asked to rate their own athletic skills, rated themselves worse than another group who were subliminally shown "Pope John Paul" instead, and who then thought of their own skills as better.

In real life, Payne writes, the same effect occurs when you flip past a Tiffany ad in the magazine you're idly browsing, or when a Porsche drives by the coffeeshop. These exposures may be registered only unconsciously, but they can foment a sense of gnawing insecurity and discontent. In this way, even without realizing that we're *doing* any comparison, exposure to inequality can make us much less happy. (In reading this section I was reminded of all the well-established studies that women's magazines with airbrushed models make real women feel massively unhappy with their actual appearances by comparison, which is entirely intentional because then they can sell you stuff to "fix" the problem they created. Same effect, different context.)

Humans are so attuned to status that it can break economic models. Standard economic theory, Payne writes, posits that "people will be more satisfied when they make more money, and when they work fewer hours for it." But, in fact, this is not true: a major, now-famous study showed that "the people in the top fifth of earners were slightly less satisfied than those in the bottom fifth, and the number of hours worked made little difference in their satisfaction." What mattered most for people's happiness level was their *relative* income: the actual pay didn't matter, and the number of hours worked didn't matter; what mattered was who was paid better than their peers in the same profession.

(NB: That particular survey was taken in England, and it's pretty old at this point, dating to well before the gig economy and irregular service-sector hours became widespread. I expect there would be a much larger happiness effect from having stable work hours, and *reasonable* ones, if you surveyed American households today.)

Next up, we'll look at how these effects ripple from individuals across societies.
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Postby Merciel » Fri Nov 09, 2018 4:58 am

The Broken Ladder, Ch. 2 Pt. 2:

I've been meaning to get back to this book because I think it has some good insights into where we are today, so let's hop back on the wagon.

This part of the chapter looks at the societal repercussions of glaring inequality: "If the brain depends on relative comparisons for even the most basic perceptions, then it must also do so with respect to affluence. And if our brains and bodies are attuned to relative comparisons, then the degree of inequality around us -- not just our actual wealth -- must play a key role in every area of life where wealth and poverty matter."

Payne spends a while discussing the research of epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, who attempted to discern the relationship between societal wealth and societal ills: "They included homicides and violent crime, school achievement and dropout rates, teenage births, life expectancy and infant mortality, obesity, mental illness, and more -- exactly the kinds of issues that are worse among the poor."

What they found was that in developing countries with a high level of material poverty, there was indeed a strong correlation between average income and social ills. However, when they narrowed their focus to only economically developed nations, the results got much weirder, with rich, middle-income, and comparatively poor developed nations scattered all over the place.

However, when Wilkinson and Pickett mapped *inequality* rather than absolute wealth or poverty, the shapeless cloud snapped into a clear pattern. Countries with high levels of inequality -- regardless of whether the average wealth was high (U.S.), moderate (U.K.), or low (Portugal) -- had high rates of social ills. Countries with low rates of inequality -- Japan, Sweden, and Norway -- are clustered at the bottom of the graph with very low rates of social ills, even though Sweden's average income in 2009 (around $26K) was much lower than Norway's (around $38K).

The same pattern holds true for states within the U.S.: "it was the more unequal places that had higher rates of problems, and, again, the effect of inequality was greater than the effect of average income. This explains why rich states, like California, are clustered in the same area as poor states, like Alabama, and why poor states, like Iowa and Utah, are grouped with rich states, like New Hampshire."

There is, to be sure, a strong secondary effect of poverty, but there's only a clear trendline when you map for inequality rather than income. It's also consistent even after adjusting for income: "a middle-class individual in high-inequality Texas will tend to suffer more health and social ills than a middle-class individual in low-inequality Iowa."

Payne talks about his experience of Durham, where he and his wife experienced continual mental whiplash as they traveled from pockets of great affluence to great poverty, and back again, often within the space of a few blocks. Initially, looking at the stats of crime rates and school achievement, he "assumed that Durham was a poor city. But, in fact, its average income is slightly higher than that of Columbus [where he had previously lived]. What differentiates the two cities is that economic inequality is much higher in Durham. It is home to more poor people, but also to more millionaires."

He concludes: "I didn't understand at the time that inequality affects not only the poor, but the whole range of people living in areas beset by it. From an economist's point of view, poverty is very different from economic inequality. Poverty concerns what a person has or lacks, while inequality describes how money is distributed, charting the distance between the haves and have-nots. [...] Our relentless social comparing means that our own worth is never truly separate from that of the haves and have-nots around us. When the rich get richer, everyone else feels poorer.

That tendency helps explain why places with high inequality, where stately homes and luxury cars butt up against desolate streets, somehow increase the squalor in everyone's lives."

In the next chapter, he'll take a stab at explaining how this happens, by showing "how inequality changes the ways people think and act."
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Postby Merciel » Fri Nov 09, 2018 11:02 pm

The Broken Ladder, Ch. 3 ("Poor Logic"), Pt. 1:

Payne opens this chapter by recounting the life history of Jason, who grew up working tobacco fields, doing the hard and dangerous work of chopping stalks and hanging them up in huge warehouses to dry. Then he moved into auto body work, again near-ruining his body with hard work, but saving and scraping and borrowing a final $80K to open his own shop after years of working for others. When the shop went under, he found himself deep in debt with no apparent way out.

He turned to manufacturing meth. For a while he was flush, but eventually he got busted, spent eight years in prison, and was released in his 40s, with "less to show for his hard work than on the day he first set foot in the tobacco field."

Payne pauses here to discuss the low wages of most drug dealers (about $3.50 an hour in the early 1990s, comparable to the federal minimum wage at that time) and the extreme hazards: "Seven percent of the gang members were killed each year, on average. That is many times higher than the mortality rate among U.S. soldiers serving in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan."

After reviewing the social hazards that disproportionately plague the poor, Payne notes that "where you choose to attribute cause and effect in the stories of these individuals reveals a lot about how you see the world. Many will see young men like Jason and J.T. as responsible for their own problems. Others will focus on their lack of opportunity, due to factors like poverty or poor schools."

Humans are hardwired to look for causation in individual qualities, so attributing life outcomes to individual traits is where we usually start: "And surely there is some truth to the character flaw theory, given that a brilliant person with an iron will is more likely to succeed than someone with low intelligence and poor self-control."

However, people often fail to account for situational factors at all. This is the fundamental attribution error: weighing individual characteristics as the *only* factor of importance and failing to grant due weight to external factors. Payne summarizes some of the psych research and then observes: "The fundamental attribution error applies in lots of contexts. The college graduate is smart. The drug addict is weak willed. The person shopping with food stamps is lazy. One reason it is so prevalent is that it is simply easier to think about people than situations. Later studies found that the tendency to neglect the situation was worse when people were distracted by doing a second task at the same time as they made their judgments. In other words, you are more likely to be blind to other people's situations when you are rushed, busy, under-rested, or overburned. It takes a little extra work to consider [external factors]."

Payne then reviews the alternative extreme, which is that outcomes are determined *entirely* by situational factors: "The poor are more likely to commit crimes because they lack more legitimate prospects to earn a living. Poor children do badly in school because schools in poor areas have less money to hire top teachers and their parents have less time to spend helping them with homework. The lack of steady, well-paying jobs means that couples are less likely to marry and form stable families. And poor people have more health issues because they lack nutritious food and access to good medical care. The poor are ultimately no different in their values or behaviors than the middle class. In short, poor environments cause poor outcomes[.]"

Payne finds flaws in both of these views. The problem with the fundamental attribution error is obvious. But the purely environmental explanation is flawed as well: "as anyone who has lived in both poverty and affluence can attest, people *do* think and act differently in those very different worlds."

One difference is that people raised in poverty tend to discount the future as uncertain and, rather than "invest[ing] in the miracle of compound interest" or making longterm school and career plans, focus on the present. This behavior is rooted in animal responses to conditions of scarcity and uncertainty: creatures that live with lots of predators or little food tend to mature faster, reproduce younger, and die earlier.

There's a semi-horrifying fruit fly experiment in which researchers killed 90 percent of a fruit fly population twice a week for four years, such that "the probability of surviving 1 week as an adult was P = 0.01." As a result of this extreme pressure, the fruit flies began reproducing at younger ages, and the females laid more eggs. Those who could -- and did -- reproduce faster at younger ages simply left more descendants behind.

Based on this research, psychologists Margo Wilson and Martin Daly began examining the ages at which women hit puberty and had children in Chicago's neighborhoods (which were useful to study because Chicago had clearly defined and economically segregated neighborhoods located in sufficient geographic proximity that you could knock out environmental factors and focus on the socioeconomic ones).

Their research bore out the fruit fly hypothesis: not only did women have more children and at younger ages in poorer neighborhoods, but girls actually reached puberty and began menstruating earlier. In other words, it wasn't merely people's choices that were affected by their living conditions, but their actual biology. Thus, "[b]y the mid-2000s, it was clear that girls raised in harsh, poor, or chaotic conditions reached puberty earlier than those raised in more stable homes."

(It's going to take a couple of chapters before we really dig into the physical effects and get into *why* this happens -- the second part of this chapter is more on psychological effects -- but spoiler: stress and its resulting hormonal cascades can really do a number on your body!)
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Postby Merciel » Sat Nov 10, 2018 11:02 pm

The Broken Ladder, Ch. 3 Pt. 2:

"Even short-term feelings of affluence or poverty can make people more or less shortsighted." A psychology experiment "ask[ed] research participants a long series of probing questions about their finances, their spending habits, and even their personality traits and personal tastes. They told participants that they needed all this detailed information because their computer program was going to tell them [...] a score that indicated how much money they had compared to other people who were similar to them in age, education level, personality traits, and so on. In reality, the computer program did none of that, but merely displayed" a completely random result that told half the participants that they had more money than average, and half less.

The psychologists then asked various money-related questions (would they rather have less money right away, or larger returns later?) and/or offered the participants $20 with a chance to gamble it against the computer for, basically, double or nothing. Participants who had been made to feel poor were more likely to gamble (80% vs. 66%) and tended to pick shorter-sighted strategies, while those who were made to feel rich were less inclined to gamble and more inclined to take the longer view. The remarkable thing about these experiments, Payne writes, is that it did not take a lifetime of being raised in poverty or affluence to meaningfully change people's behavior: a single 20-minute psych experiment produced a marked difference in behavior.

Payne then circles back around to the drug dealers, and why some might choose to accept that gamble: "The rank-and-file gang members did not look at one another's lives and conclude that this was a terrible job. They looked instead at the top and imagined what they could be. Despite the fact that their odds of success were impossibly low, even the slim chance of making it big drove them to take outrageous risks."

Poverty intersects with risk-taking in another way: economists' expected utility model falls apart when faced with the exigencies of real life. "Imagine what you would do if you owed a thousand dollars in rent that was due today or you would lose your home. In a gamble, would you take the 90 percent chance of winning $500, or the 40 percent chance of winning $1000?" Most people would take the latter, because even if you win $500, it doesn't solve your actual problem. "Although it is irrational from the expected utility perspective, it is rational in another sense, because meeting basic needs is sometimes more important than the mathematically best deal."

Researchers then began looking at how this line of research intersected with inequality. They used fake investment games, in which participants were asked to make a series of gambling decisions (such whether to pick as a 100% chance of winning 15 cents vs. a 10% chance of winning $1.50). Although the actual rates of success didn't vary much in this game, sometimes people were told that top performers won just a few cents more than the lowest-performing players, and other times they were told that top performers won dramatically more than the lowest-performing players, who walked away with almost nothing.

When participants were told that results didn't vary much, they were generally satisfied with their own performance and howevermuch money they'd made, assuming it to be near the average either way. However, when participants were told that there was a wide variation in outcomes, they told the researchers that they would need much more money to be happy with their own results, and they chose much riskier gambling decisions: "simply being aware that there was a big gap between the winners and losers made the Unequal group take more chances. This experiment provided the first evidence that inequality *itself* can cause risky behavior. [...]

In other words, by causing riskier decisions, inequality led to greater differences between the haves and have-nots [because in the Unequal group, a few people won big, but most players lost everything; in the Equal group, people tended to play conservatively and most took the smaller but sure bets]. Inequality, in effect, bred even greater inequality."

Another experiment looked at risky behaviors in everyday life, using the frequency of Google searches for terms like "lottery tickets" and "payday loans," or "morning-after pill" and "STD testing," as rough approximations of how many people were engaging in risky behaviors. Obviously there are lots of reasons people would Google those terms for unrelated reasons, but "[o]n average, if there are more people involved in sex, drug, and money risks, you would expect to find more of these searches."

What they found was that inequality was a strong predictor of risk taking, which in turn was a strong predictor of health and social problems. The risky Googling index did indeed show strong links to both state inequality (even after adjusting for the average income in each state) and reported rates of life problems. Payne writes: "These findings suggest that risky behavior is a pathway between inequality and bad outcomes in everyday life."

Thus, although individual traits can and do determine the outcome of individual lives to some extent, it is also true that highly unequal places will, over a population level, result in worse aggregate outcomes: "In part, this will occur because bad things are more likely to happen to [people] in unequal places. And in part, it will occur because the children raised in unequal places will behave differently."

Payne closes the chapter by returning to the example of Jason, the tobacco worker --> auto body repairer --> meth manufacturer, "who is not just another subject in my studies. He is my older brother."

Payne tells an anecdote about, as a teenager, going on a long drive with his brother to pick up some title documents for a car Jason wanted to sell. During the drive, Jason veers off the highway to avoid congested traffic, takes out a marijuana pipe to smoke while driving, and ruminates on the uncertainty of his life (at that point, he had launched his auto body shop but was uncertain whether it would survive the year). "'I'm never gonna have nothing,' he said. 'So I gotta do what I'm gonna do now.'"
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Postby Merciel » Wed Nov 14, 2018 1:06 am

The Broken Ladder, Ch. 4 ("The Right, the Left, and the Ladder: How Inequality Divides Our Politics"), Pt. 1:

This chapter begins with the historical roots of "right" and "left" as applied to the French court in Versailles, then moves into a discussion of the terms as they apply in America today, noting that "It is not always obvious why a particular issue lines up with the liberal or conservative perspective. Why should someone who support a woman's right to have an abortion also want to raise taxes on people with high incomes? Why should the same person who believes in the right to own assault rifles also distrust the scientific findings on climate change?"

Payne breaks down the distinctions broadly as "Conservaitves are [...] sensitive to threats to social order, be they external (rival armies) or internal (potential revolutionaries). Civil order is difficult to achieve, and conservatives believe we should work to safeguard it. That usually means trusting in traditional ways of doing things that have been tested by time. If that means forgoing some opportunities to improve society by changing its rules, it is a price worth paying."

Conversely, liberals "tend to view some aspects of society as working well and others as working poorly. Established ways of doing things have led to both, so they are not especially impressed with tradition and feel compelled to change the things they think are dysfunctional. They tend to have more confidence than conservatives in the power of human reason to find rational solutions to problems."

The second major distinction Payne draws is that conservatives and liberals differ in "their willingness to accept inequality." So, basically, the two axes of difference are "tradition versus change" and "hierarchy versus equality," but there's no intrinsic reason that those axes have to be coupled (and, indeed, they often aren't; as a counterpoint, in post-Soviet Russia, the conservatives were the ones who longed for a society that was more equal and less staggeringly unequal).

He spends a few pages describing a murmuration of starlings -- the seemingly mystical way that thousands of birds can coalesce into a flock and move as a whole across the sky. (We'll get back to this later. At this point in the chapter it's not clear why a flock of starlings is relevant.)

Next up, Payne talks about his personal reactions to being accosted by a homeless person asking for change. Some days he's sympathetic, seeing a blameless victim of circumstance. Other days he's annoyed, seeing someone who may have had a bad run of luck in the past, but is doing nothing to better his lot today. "Sometimes," he writes, "I have both of these reactions in the span of an hour."

The reason, probably, is linked to the notion of an "ideological toolbox": "We think of our political beliefs as a stable set of principles supported by a solid foundation of logic and facts. But in fact they are more like an assortment of tools that we choose among depending on the demands of a particular moment. Sometimes the ideological principles we turn to depend on what we have been thinking about lately."

This is not always something with an obvious connection. The concept of "accessibility" is that "the mind keeps recently used ideas at the forefront of consciousness so that we can access them easily at a moment's notice. Accessibility does not follow rules of logical consistency. If I show you the words 'ocean' and moon,' then ask you to name a good laundry detergent, you are likely to say 'Tide.' It doesn't matter that the laundry detergent is logically unrelated to oceans and moons. Having used an interconnected web of ideas recently, you are more likely to travel along that network in the future."

(Hang on to that idea. We'll get back to it in a bit.)

Another important point is that our political beliefs are not as solid or logical as most of us would like to believe. In one notable Swedish experiment, people were asked to take a survey on twelve politically divisive issues, indicating how much they agreed or disagreed with each question, how likely they were to vote for the political parties, how sure they were about their opinions, and how engaged they were with politics.

The researchers took down their answers, then switched the participants' clipboards with a different clipboard that had diametrically reversed answers for half the questions (and the same answers as the original for the other half). The subjects were then given back their surveys and asked to explain why they expressed the opinions they did for each subject.

47% of the subjects who received reversed answers did not notice any changes at all. Of the other 53%, most only noticed one or two changes. Only one person in the entire experiment was suspicious that the researchers had switched his answers. "The rest said that they had misread the question or accidentally mismarked the wrong answer. When they discussed their answers, subjects who failed to observe the switch gave perfectly reasonable arguments for positions they hadn't originally taken."

Not only this, but when asked how they planned to vote after explaining these positions, the survey participants "shifted their voting intentions significantly in the direction of the reversed answers. Bizarrely, these shifts were just as strong for those who expressed great certainty in their vote at the start of the survey as for those who were more tentative. The shifts were equivalent for those highly engaged in politics and the disengaged; for liberals and conservatives; for men and women; for young and old."

And the phenomenon is not limited to political preferences. The team "has repeated the same sleight-of-hand experiments using many kinds of preferences, from moral principles to attractiveness ratings of photographs to the taste of jam and tea. In every case, a large percentage -- typically between 50 percent and 80 percent -- fail to notice the switch and go on to give plausible-sounding reasons for choices they did not make."

The upshot of these studies is that "in at least some cases, the reasons we articulate to explain our decisions are not the real basis of those decisions." This isn't to say that people have *no* guiding principles or lasting political opinions, but that such principles "are, at best, just one source of information that shapes our political beliefs at any moment."
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Postby new blood, old hat » Wed Nov 14, 2018 1:12 am

This rules and is a good thread, thank you
i was just going to suggest that maybe everybody should cool out maybe
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