An illustration of economic inequality in the United States
Tags: capitalism, class, economic sociology, inequality, knowledge, class analysis, ideology, wealth, 06 to 10 mins
Summary: With an impressive suite of illustrations, this viral video takes viewers through the findings of a 2011 study conducted by Dan Ariely and Michael Norton, who asked respondents two basic questions. First, they asked people to report what they thought the ideal distribution of wealth in the United States should be, then they asked them how they thought wealth was actually distributed. The results suggest that, on average, Americans believe economic inequality is greater than what is ideal—i.e., the wealth gap is too large. The researchers then presented the actual distribution of wealth in the United States and compared it with both the ideal distribution and respondents' estimate of the actual distribution, and based on this comparison, it seems reasonably clear that while Americans may believe the wealth gap is too large, they are tragically misinformed about just how large it actually is. How is it that Americans are unaware of the magnitude of this inequality? Ariely and Norton do not provide an answer, but the question is worth pursuing. Consider the fact that publics have long proven a capacity to know about a wide range of phenomena that is effectively invisible. For instance, most people in the United States know about the dwarf planet Pluto, despite never seeing it with their own eyes. Thanks in large part to the mainstream media and the reverberations of social media, people in New Mexico and Montana know about the recent Boston Marathon bombings and can even recount vivid details about the event, even if they have never been to Boston and have no intention of ever visiting. But unlike Pluto and the tragedies of distant cities, the telltale signs of inequality are everywhere. In Boston, New Mexico, Montana, and virtually every other point on the map, one can find poverty within a few miles or blocks of obscene wealth; yet the true magnitude of U.S. inequality eludes most Americans. This video is not merely useful for wrapping one's head around the extent of inequality in the United States—that the top 1% holds 40% of the nation's wealth—it is also a useful segue into a discussion that connects the material facts of economic inequality to the ideological forces that ensure it remains uninterrogated. Explaining how a system of economic inequality persists requires more than simply identifying the disparities; it also requires an explanation about how publics remain relatively unaware of these disparities. For a similar analysis in a PBS clip, see here.
Submitted By: Lester Andrist
Tags: capitalism, class, economic sociology, inequality, marx/marxism, organizations/occupations/work, political economy, contingent work, cooperatives, flexible labor, temp work, 21 to 60 mins
Summary: Contingent workers include part-time work, independent contractors, self-employed, agency temps, and on-call workers. In this segment of MSNBC's Up with Chris Hayes, Hayes discusses contingent work with his four guests from academia and worker advocate groups. After a brief introduction, the video focuses on contingent labor in the economy today (2:16-10:59) and moves to a more critical conversation of possible alternative worker organizations (11:00-25:24). It notes that contingent workers comprise 30% of the American workforce, which has increased dramatically in the last 10-20 years. It includes both low-skilled labor (e.g. janitors) and high-skilled labor (professors, computer engineers), who usually do not receive overtime pay, unemployment benefits, health care, etc. While some workers might prefer this relationship, it is mostly capitalists that benefit from this arrangement and the guests discuss the role of power in shaping contingent labor. They argue that business owners strive to maintain a flexible workforce, avoid providing benefits, and workers have much less bargaining power (through unions) today and have little control over this relationship. In the second portion of the segment, the guests discuss the desirability of this model and possible alternatives, especially worker cooperatives. The guests differ on if they see an inherent tension between employers and contingent labor, and viewers may reflect on how they believe work should be organized. If you prefer alternative arrangements, how would we get there? How does contingent labor fit into Marx's theory of capitalism and worker resistance?
Submitted By: Paul Dean
Tags: class, economic sociology, inequality, absolute mobility, american dream, income mobility, relative mobility, stratification, 00 to 05 mins
Access: Pew Video
Summary: Mobility is a difficult concept to both define and conceptualize because people’s movement up and down the socio-economic ladder must be assessed both in relation to a point of origin, and measured across time. This video from the PEW Economic Mobility Project helps us overcome this difficulty by providing visual animations that depict income mobility. It looks at how absolute mobility (when a person earns more money in inflation-adjusted dollars than their parents did at the same age) and relative mobility (a person's rank within the income distribution as a whole) work—while also highlighting how both types of movement relate to American Individualism. It shows that the US is doing well in absolute mobility, but not relative mobility. When explaining relative mobility, the video highlights “stickiness at the ends” by showing how there is a great deal of movement in the middle classes—but the poor and the wealthy at the top and bottom of the social hierarchy tend to experience little if any movement both within, and across generations. Towards the end, the video uses two escalators to outline an especially difficult premise; the possibility that individuals and families can simultaneously experience upward absolute mobility and downward relative mobility.
Submitted By: Jason T. Eastman
Lynn Marie Smith of AFT-Michigan at a protest rally
Tags: capitalism, class, economic sociology, inequality, organizations/occupations/work, benefits, exploitation, jobs, part-time employment, profit, 00 to 05 mins
Summary: Written and performed by Lynn Marie Smith of the labor union organization AFT Michigan, this catchy song (sung to the tune of Stevie Wonder's "Part-Time Lover") addresses the plight of the part-time worker. Everyone agrees we need more jobs, but is part-time employment the answer? Some people may just need extra money for a short time, or can only work part time due to other responsibilities; for these people, part-time work is a boon. However, for many other workers, part-time jobs are a trap. In fact, a growing employer practice is to require part-time workers to have around-the-clock availability. And if such workers cannot report for duty when called, or are even found to have another job, they may be terminated. One of the biggest financial problems with part-time employment is that such workers not only may make less, but also may not qualify for benefits. And with the new health care provisions that will be enacted under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (i.e., "Obamacare"), there appear to be clear incentives for employers to increasingly transform jobs from full-time to part-time status. Indeed, a recent article by Furchtgott-Roth of the Manhattan Institute suggests that employers could theoretically reduce their cost-per-labor-hour by half should they go to an all part-time workforce in order to minimize mandate penalties. Yet, there is already evidence that shifting to part-time workers may generate backlash. For example, in anticipation of health care insurance changes that became effective January 1, 2013, Darden Restaurants, owner of Olive Garden and Red Lobster, announced in October that it would be moving even more of its 185,000 employees over to part-time status, despite the fact that about 70 percent were already part-time. However, citing adverse public reaction leading to lower sales in test market areas, Darden just announced that it was suspending such efforts for now. Another example is the coordinated strike for better wages and solidarity in New York of fast food workers in November 2012. This clip addressing the plight of the part-time worker can be used to initiate class discussion on how shifting work arrangements in the new service economy create precarious job situations for many American workers. Further, viewers can be encouraged to consider implications of these shifting arrangements for worker benefits and job satifaction. (Note: A version of this post originally appeared on SoUnequal.)
Submitted By: Marta Gordon & Michael Miller
Tags: capitalism, class, corporations, inequality, economic sociology, organizations/occupations/work, 21 to 60 mins
Summary: Although The American Dream says that hard work will lead to wealth and success, it doesn't seem to apply to most of Americans. Indeed, the smallest economic returns go to those generally laboring the hardest of all: the working poor. Billionaire Thomas Peterffy argues in his anti-Obama ad that America's rich will lose motivation to work if they are required to pay more taxes. But while preaching the value of hard work, he fails to note that the rich have virtually monopolized income gains in recent years. Reflecting on the unequal opportunity for financial security that the class structure presents, the late Beth Shulman, in her 2005 book, The Betrayal of Work, was one of the first to examine the diminishing well-being of the working poor. The above clip features Shulman's interview on PBS's NOW, and at about the 12:20 mark, she observes that while worker productivity has grown significantly, higher incomes have not trickled down to those in the bottom reaches of the American class structure. Indeed, she notes in this 2007 interview that "The top 1% is garnering 80% of income gains" (Note that today the top 1% is garnering over 90% of income gains, according to Emmanuel Saenz). With this being said, how is it possible for most American workers, and particularly the poor, to sustain their dream of a better life when their incomes remain so low and stagnant that they continue to struggle just to get by? (Originally posted on SoUnequal).
Submitted By: Tara McQuay
Tags: capitalism, class, economic sociology, inequality, marx/marxism, political economy, social mvmts/social change/resistance, theory, class consciousness, exploitation, hegemony, ideology, 00 to 05 mins
Summary: Disney's Pixar film, A Bug’s Life, follows the life of a young ant, Flik, who leads a rebellion against greedy grasshoppers that feed on food harvested by the ants. In this clip, Hopper, the head Grasshopper, berates one of his minions for suggesting that the grasshoppers give in to the demands of one ant. Hopper points out that one ant's actions may be miniscule in effect, but several ants acting in unified collective action can overthrow the entire system that allows the grasshoppers to live such a comfortable life of abundance. This clip can be used to stimulate discussion on several Marxian theories and concepts. For example, given that the grasshoppers rely on the surplus of the ants' labor to maintain their own way of life, it illustrates Marx's theory of exploitation. But as Hopper notes here, "those puny little ants outnumber us 100-to-1, and if they figure that out, there goes our way of life." So if the ants were to recognize their class interests in this system, thereby attaining class consciousness, they would be likely to organize and fight back against the exploitative grasshoppers. He further notes "it's not about food, it's about keeping those ants in line." Viewers may reflect on what Hopper means by this. Specifically, the grasshoppers cannot give in to one ant's demands and believe they are entitled to the food they harvested. They have to keep the ants from recognizing their right to the food, and therefore must maintain ideological control (i.e. belief in ideas that support the ruling class) over the oppressed ants. The film clip can also be used in illustrating social movements and inequalities in general because it provides a cogent example of collective agency and its possible relationship to individual resistance.
Submitted By: Chris Hardnack
Tags: economic sociology, inequality, methodology/statistics, organizations/occupations/work, prejudice/discrimination, race/ethnicity, affirmative action, field experiment, hiring, institutional discrimination, labor market, racism, stratification, 00 to 05 mins
Access: no free online access (but currently available on netflix); YouTube preview
Summary: In this clip from Freakonomics (start 13:50; end 17:30), economist Sendhil Mullainathan discusses his (and co-author Marianne Bertrand's) 2004 field experiment that examined racial discrimination in the labor market (article here). They sent out 5,000 resumes to real job ads. Everything in the job ads were the same except that half of the names had traditionally African-American names (e.g. “Lakisha Washington” or “Jamal Jones”) and half had typical white names (e.g. “Emily Walsh” or “Greg Baker”). As they illustrate, people with African-American-sounding names have to send out 50% more resumes to get the same number of callbacks as people with white-sounding names. In the video, everyday people also discuss how others make assumptions about a person's race based on their name. This is important to understanding how racial stratification is reproduced through the labor market, and explains part of the racial gap in income. This study is further supported by Devah Pager's (2003) classic audit study, where she documented similar effects of racial discrimination through in-person applications. These studies also highlight the importance of affirmative action policies in attempting to level the playing field (although Bertrand and Mullainathan's study showed federal contractors did not favor applicants with African-American sounding names). The video can also be used in a methods class to illustrate field experiments. Note that this is the second post on The Sociological Cinema, which draws from the film Freakonomics.
Submitted By: Paul Dean
Tags: class, economic sociology, inequality, intersectionality, race/ethnicity, great recession, wealth, 00 to 05 mins
Summary: This CBS news report shows dramatic wealth inequalities across race, and how the inequalities have increased dramatically during the Great Recession. Like Oliver and Shapiro's classic book, Black Wealth/White Wealth, the report documents that in 1995, the median white household had a net worth 7 times larger than black and Hispanic households. Citing Census data analyzed by the Pew Center, the video shows that in 2010 white households ($113,000) now have 18 times the net worth of Hispanics ($6,325) and 20 times the net worth of African-Americans ($5,677). It notes that part of this growing difference is that the net worth of most racial minorities is found in their homes, while whites are more likely to also own financial assets. The news team argues that this asset allocation explains why white wealth has rebounded significantly from its recent losses and increased the wealth divide. While this is true, they largely miss other important factors. For example, Melvin Oliver's 2008 report found that African-Americans were the subject of systematic predatory lending during the housing bubble that led to the Great Recession. He noted that "minorities were steered away from safe, conventional loans by brokers who received incentives for jacking up the interest rate" and that their mortgages had "high hidden costs, exploding adjustable rates, and prepayment penalties to preclude refinancing." This not only lead to a drop in the value of minority wealth, but actually stripped much of their assets as borrowers who defaulted on their loans. The video closes by saying "experts say it could be a decade before the wealth gap closes," although they do not cite any experts that say this. Viewers may question the optimism of this prediction and reflect on why it is likely to take much more than a decade for something like wealth (which is passed down from one generation to another) to be more equitably distributed across race. The video is a great accompaniment to the readings linked to above, and perhaps even this comedic video from Chris Rock on race and the differences between being rich and wealthy.
Submitted By: Paul Dean
Johnny and George look for a piece of the "American Dream."
Tags: children/youth, class, economic sociology, immigration/citizenship, inequality, rural/urban, american dream, class mobility, inner-city, poverty, 06 to 10 mins
Summary: This video from The Boston Globe tells the story of two young brothers trying to overcome difficult barriers to achieve the "American Dream" (read associated article here). Johnny and George live in Dorchester, MA, a Boston crime and poverty "hot spot." In addition to their economic issues, they face many family challenges (e.g. their father committed suicide 3 years ago, and their mother has a disability preventing her from working outside of the home). As the older brother notes, the most challenging thing is probably "living every day without our dad and with a single parent, who can barely afford to give us any of the resources we need." But while people in such neighborhoods are often depicted as being hopeless, Johnny and George are very hopeful and seek a better life. They work hard to achieve grades at the top of their classes, earn their own spending money through tutoring, and have received help from a local mentor and non-profit organizations. Viewers might reflect on how Johnny and George's story reflects the "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" ideology of the American, but that everyone needs help to do so. Despite their challenges, they see themselves as more fortunate than many others. How does the class structure shape an individual's ability to live a successful life, and what types of social and economic resources are necessary to help those less fortunate in attaining it? What is the effect of this ideology on society? Given that the boys are Vietnamese, viewers should also be cautioned away from explaining their situation with the "model minority" myth, which obscures the struggles of many impoverished Asian immigrants. Viewers may also be interested in this documentary on social class, the challenges of living on minimum wage, and George Carlin's critique of the American Dream.
Image by Yoon S. Byun/Boston Globe
Submitted By: Cathryn Brubaker, PhD
Tags: class, consumption/consumerism, culture, economic sociology, knowledge, social construction, theory, aesthetic, bourdieu, elite, seinfeld, taste, 00 to 05 mins
Summary: In his often densely worded prose, Bourdieu discusses how those in power define aesthetic concepts such as taste. Referring to surveys of French citizens from different economic and educational backgrounds, he shows how social class tends to determine a person's likes and interests, and how distinctions based on social class get reinforced in daily life. He observes that even when the subordinate classes may seem to have their own particular idea of good taste, "the working-class 'aesthetic' is a dominated 'aesthetic' which is constantly obliged to define itself in terms of the dominant aesthetics..." In this clip, a wealthy businessman (Elaine's boss) is observed eating a candy bar using a knife and fork. Elaine tells her friends about this unusual behavior, but George sees it as being "proper" or culturally polished. He later eats his candy bar the same way in a public place. As more people see this behavior, more people begin practicing the behavior. This spreading cultural practice illustrates how the society, and conceptions of proper behaviors, are shaped and dominated by the social elite.
Submitted By: Julie C.
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