Palaces For The People

I’m two-thirds through Eric Klinenberg’s excellent book Palaces For The People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, And The Decline Of Civic Life. The book jacket explains what Klinenberg means by “social infrastructure” and why it matters:

“Klinenberg believes that the future of democratic societies rests not simply on shared values but on shared spaces: the libraries, childcare centers, bookstores, churches, synagogues, and parks in which crucial sometimes life-saving connections, are formed. These are places where people gather and linger, making friends across group lines and strengthening the entire community. Klinenberg calls this the ‘social infrastructure.’ When it is strong, neighborhoods flourish; when it is neglected, as it has been in recent years, families and individuals must fend for themselves.”

Klinenberg makes a particularly strong case for public libraries. If I was Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, or Jeff Bezos, that’s where I’d focus a significant portion of my philanthropy.

Where I’m at currently in the book, Klinenberg is drawing on Jeff Wiltse’s social history of municipal swimming pools in the United States which I may have to read next. Wiltse offers searing reminders of our longstanding struggles with racism. For example, he recounts the story of a Little League Baseball team in Youngstown, Ohio, that celebrated its city championship in 1951 at a beautiful municipal pool in South Side Park.

The team had one African American player, Al Bright, and lifeguards refused to let him past the perimeter fence while the other players swam. When several parents protested, the supervisor agreed to let Al ‘enter’ the pool for a few minutes, but only if everyone else got out and Al agreed to sit inside a rubber raft. While everyone watched, a lifeguard pushed Al around the pool shouting, ‘whatever you do, don’t touch the water!”

Wiltse adds:

“This was not an isolated incident, nor was it restricted to certain parts of the United States. Two years later, in 1953, the great African American film star Dorothy Dandridge dipped her toes in the swimming pool at the Last Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas, which welcomed her as a performer but banned her, and all other blacks, from the water. The hotel responded by draining the entire pool.”

These mind-numbing historical anecdotes aside, Palaces For The People is a hopeful work.

In the United States, there are two fundamental problems with implementing the convincing road maps that Klinenberg and other social scientists outline for safer, healthier, more vibrant communities. Everyone’s ingrained individualism coupled with many people’s refusal to acknowledge that publicly funded government programs often make significant contributions to the common good.

 

 

The Great Marriage Divide

The GalPal and I enjoyed a fun-filled 25th anniversary last Wednesday. We celebrated by bicycling the Burke-Gilman trail in Seattle, kayaked on Lake Union, took in the King Tut Exhibit, ate at the China Outpost as directed by the Principal, and swam in Lake Washington. More fun than a couple should be allowed to have in one day. Congratulations to my best friend for putting up with me for a quarter cent.

Speaking of marriage, sobering sociology compliments of the New York Times.

Primary point—Across Middle America, single motherhood has moved from an anomaly to a norm with head-turning speed.

Key excerpts:

The economic storms of recent years have raised concerns about growing inequality and questions about a core national faith, that even Americans of humble backgrounds have a good chance of getting ahead. Most of the discussion has focused on labor market forces like falling blue-collar wages and lavish Wall Street pay.

But striking changes in family structure have also broadened income gaps and posed new barriers to upward mobility. College-educated Americans . . . are increasingly likely to marry one another, compounding their growing advantages in pay. Less-educated women . . . are growing less likely to marry at all, raising children on pinched paychecks that come in ones, not twos.

Estimates vary widely, but scholars have said that changes in marriage patterns — as opposed to changes in individual earnings — may account for as much as 40 percent of the growth in certain measures of inequality. Long a nation of economic extremes, the United States is also becoming a society of family haves and family have-nots, with marriage and its rewards evermore confined to the fortunate classes.

“It is the privileged Americans who are marrying, and marrying helps them stay privileged,” said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University.

About 41 percent of births in the United States occur outside marriage, up sharply from 17 percent three decades ago. But equally sharp are the educational divides . . . . Less than 10 percent of the births to college-educated women occur outside marriage, while for women with high school degrees or less the figure is nearly 60 percent.

Long concentrated among minorities, motherhood outside marriage now varies by class about as much as it does by race. It is growing fastest in the lower reaches of the white middle class — among women . . . who have some postsecondary schooling but no four-year degree.

While many children of single mothers flourish (two of the last three presidents had mothers who were single during part of their childhood), a large body of research shows that they are more likely than similar children with married parents to experience childhood poverty, act up in class, become teenage parents and drop out of school.

Sara McLanahan, a Princeton sociologist, warns that family structure increasingly consigns children to “diverging destinies.”

Whether and whom to marry are the most monumental of decisions, yet most people make them when they’re young and aren’t entirely sure about what they want to do for a living, or how to manage personal finances, or solve conflicts peacefully, or parent.

And through a steady stream of romantic comedies, Hollywood promotes the idea that love and marriage are equal parts physical and emotional. In nearly complete contrast, the New York Times journalists imply love and marriage is a practical partnership, one where two incomes and two parents are needed to successfully manage a household and reliably raise children with promising life prospects.

The stats are depressing and another reason I suppose to go to college. Of course though, finishing college and then marrying is no guarantee that anyone will make it twenty five years. That takes perseverance, commitment, bicycles, and kayaks.

The Burke-Gilman trail

The Achievement Gap—Turns Out Family Income Trumps Race

Increasingly, the widening gap between rich and poor is in the news. Despite the complexity of the problem, and the fact that inequality has steadily worsened over time, expectations for solving the problem unfairly rest on teachers. Teachers are expected to help African-American and Latino students achieve at similar levels as white and Asian-American ones so that we can compete in the global economy and maintain our standard of living. The repeated refrain to teachers is “close the achievement gap”.

Now social scientists are finding gaps in academic achievement are tied much more significantly to differences in family income.

As reported on in the New York Times recently.

Researchers are finding that while the achievement gap between white and black students has narrowed significantly over the past few decades, the gap between rich and poor students has grown substantially during the same period.

Sean F. Reardon, a Stanford University sociologist, is the author of a study that found that the gap in standardized test scores between affluent and low-income students had grown by about 40 percent since the 1960s, and is now double the testing gap between blacks and whites.

In another study, by researchers from the University of Michigan, the imbalance between rich and poor children in college completion — the single most important predictor of success in the work force — has grown by about 50 percent since the late 1980s.

The changes are tectonic, a result of social and economic processes unfolding over many decades. The data from most of these studies end in 2007 and 2008, before the recession’s full impact was felt. Researchers said that based on experiences during past recessions, the recent downturn was likely to have aggravated the trend.

Nevermind that the problem is complex and it’s completely unrealistic to expect teachers to close the achievement gap on their own. If you’re a teacher expect the “close the achievement gap” mantra to be updated.  In the updated version teachers will be expected to help students from poor, mostly single parent homes (or series of apartments or homeless shelters) achieve at similar levels as middle-income and well-to-do students.

Rolling the Dice

As noted Monday, in the U.S. today, the top 20% most wealthy citizens own 84% of the wealth and the top 1% own 50%.

Is that sustainable?

I wouldn’t think so, but the “have-nots” haven’t taken to the streets yet and serious crime is down in most major metropolitan areas. And curiously, quite a few of the eighty percenters are opposed to increasing the taxes of the top twenty percenters. In fact, I’m guessing a lot of the TEA Party is made up of bottom eighty percenters.

Maybe they see themselves joining the top twenty percenters sometime soon. Recent research would suggest they’re delusional because social mobility is extremely low in the U.S. right now, even lower than in most other developed countries in Western Europe. Our perception of our country as a bastion of social mobility is not even close to reality.

Maybe the top twenty percenters have cast some sort of Nancy Grace, sports, reality-television based spell on the bottom eighty percenters that keep them from asking questions about equality of opportunity let alone agitating for a saner redistribution of wealth. Just keep watching Survivor Nicaragua, Monday Night football, and wondering whether Lindsey Lohan is in or out of jail and don’t worry about our proportion of wealth.

How else can you explain a situation where four people say to sixteen, we’ll take 8.4 of every 10 units of housing, health care, vacations, dining out, cars, insurance, savings, etc. and the sixteen of you figure out how to divide up the remaining 1.6 units.

How long can this go on? What eventual ripple effects can we anticipate from this growing gap between the “haves” and “have-nots”?

What’s Your SSQ?

Social science quotient.

Probably not as high as it could or should be because we’re shaped by Ron and Don.

The “Ron and Don Show”  is a popular Seattle-area radio program on 97.3 FM that I occasionally tune into during NPR fundraising campaigns and sports talk commercial breaks.

Their success isn’t accidental, it rests on great names, radio voices, personalities, energy, chemistry, and pacing, all topped off with a laser-like programming focus on whichever individual is deemed most interesting each particular day: the barefoot bandit from Whidbey Island, the Bellevue City Council person who got mauled by a black bear, the police officer charged with deadly force, the college student that committed suicide.

Ron and Don hammer away at each individual’s story for hours on end and we eat it up because we always have been and always will be suckers for detailed stories well told. Even better when the stories are somewhat sordid and make us feel better about our lives.

But we’re out of touch with the effect of the Ron and Don-like media shining its spotlight so continuously and narrowly on individuals.

The cumulative effect is we’re utterly unable to think sociologically about pervasive patterns and themes among groups. Put differently, we can’t take stories of individuals and extrapolate about what they do and don’t represent in terms of larger social scientific trends.

We’re intellectual weaklings.

Here’s two non-Ron and Don stories from last week that I offer as a social science quotient quiz. Determine your “SSQ” by using a scale of 1 to 10. Assign yourself a “1” if these findings completely surprise you, a “10” if you were already familiar with the studies and the findings, and “2’s” through “9’s” for points in between.

Story one is available here. An excerpt:

Harvard and Duke Biz school professors Michael Norton and Dan Ariely asked over 5,000 Americans about US wealth distribution and how it should look if things could be changed.

“Respondents vastly underestimated the actual level of wealth inequality in the United States, believing that the wealthiest quintile (20 percent) held about 59 percent of the wealth when the actual number is closer to 84 percent.” Studies show current US wealth inequality is near record highs, with the top one percent of Americans estimated to hold around 50 percent of the nation’s wealth.

Story two—available at Slate.com.

The U.S. imprisons more people in absolute numbers and per capita than any other country on earth. With 5 percent of the world population, the U.S. hosts upward of 20 percent of its prisoners. The country’s incarceration rate has roughly quintupled since the early 1970s. In 1980, one in 10 black high-school dropouts were incarcerated. By 2008, that number was 37 percent.

For extra credit, submit your score via the comment section.

If our scores are low, as I presume they will be, it’s not Ron’s and Don’s fault. They don’t have a dog in the “individual versus collective thinking” fight I’m outlining. All they care about is that more listeners tune into them than NPR and sports talk. And their winning formula elevates the individual at the expense of social scientific understanding because we tune in and don’t demand any more from them.