“Me too” social science is not fighting inequality

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by Kevin T. Leicht

Sociology is at risk of losing what credibility it has because we have latched onto ways of studying inequality that are not suited to new economic arrangements.

What are those ways? They started as truths that now represent half-truths or worse – we just repeat them and think we’re doing something to produce insights into how inequality is produced and maintained.

We can’t end inequality by closing group gaps

Let’s start with the most basic of these habits and beliefs – The belief that most social inequality is tied to race and gender. Empirically this is not true and it hasn’t been for at least thirty years.

There is far more social inequality within demographic groups than there is between them.

There is overwhelming evidence to support this claim. The ratio of mean household income in the top 5 percent to the mean household income in the bottom 20 percent within racial groups has grown from 4 to1 to 11 to 1 from 1970 to 2014. Gini ratios – a common measure of income inequality – have increased uniformly for all racial/ethnic groups and converged. From 1970 to 2014 gender and racial gaps in income have been closing. Gender gaps have closed in part because men’s real earnings have fallen, not because women’s earnings have risen.

We can’t educate our way out of the inequality

But this isn’t the only bad habit we’ve fallen for. We’ve also been sucked into the myth that extreme inequality is mostly about educational opportunities.

Most thoughtful people think an educated populace is a good thing for a variety of reasons. But will greater access to educational opportunities reduce extreme inequality? It’s difficult to see how.

More education without a series of other structural changes won’t do much to combat the inequalities we see.  There are several reasons for this.

There is more income inequality among people with college degrees than there is between people who have college degrees and those that don’t. The value of an educational credential is tied to the number of people who have it. Do college degrees fetch premiums because of what the college educated know or because of their relative scarcity? We don’t know for sure.

Some of the “educational gap in income” (especially for men) is happening because incomes for men with high school educations and less are dropping like a rock, not because the college educated are making more money. And there is quite a bit of evidence that college educated workers are replacing non-college educated workers at jobs that are not more skilled – college educated people are being hired because they’re available. And increasing educational access to new groups will simply lead to new activities by advantaged groups to distinguish themselves (e,g, the spread of expensive unpaid internships).

In the end, labor markets can treat educated workers just as badly as uneducated workers. There is no magic educational formula that gets rid of inequality by promoting more education for those that don’t have it in the absence of creating labor market institutions that create stable employment at decent wages.

We can’t end inequality through sensitivity training

Yet another myth is that social inequality occurs via interpersonal interaction and the accumulation of social slights.

While it is true that social slights and micro-aggressions are interpersonally harmful, the social segregation that has accompanied the creation and maintenance of extreme inequality suggests that most social inequality now is produced through total social exclusion.

In most social situations, we interact with people that are not really very different from us. They all have PhD’s, MBA’s, JD’s, or they are welders, construction workers, secretaries and office assistants.

Those who happen to be considered for high status roles are from such a select group that the remaining social slights they experience are at the end of a long selection process they’ve already benefitted from. Walter Benn Michaels (an English Professor from the University of Illinois-Chicago!) has a great sarcastic quote that represents this situation perfectly: “Why …that diversity training was money well spent! It will teach men who make $1.5 million dollars a year how to treat women who make a million dollars a year so that they too can make $1.5 million dollars a year!”

“I’m alienated by micro-aggressions at Yale” is not the basis for a viable, long-term social movements frame to change how a system of inequality works, no matter how alienating the immediate experience was.

We can’t diversify our way out of inequality either

Finally, we have what might be the biggest myth of all – the myth that the majority/minority society has a means of creating a more just economic system.

Most of the American poor are white and, in an economy where eighty percent of the population is economically stagnant or downwardly mobile most of the downwardly mobile for the foreseeable future will be white.

The statistics on this, especially post-2008, are startling. From 2000-2014 the increase in the number of white people classified as poor almost surpasses the number of African Americans and Latinos classified as poor altogether. Further, there are eight poor white people for every ten Hispanics and Latinos of any social class. And this isn’t going to change for the next thirty-plus years.

I think I know where Donald Trump supporters come from.

But we can focus on jobs and money

What’s to be done about this? We need more focus on the basics of how institutions work to create basic inequalities in jobs and money.

People who have stable jobs and make decent wages tend to be able to construct whatever social and sexual identities they want to have. Those without those things can rarely accomplish this no matter how respected we may make them feel.

An unjust economic system that rewards rent collection, tax avoidance, hoarding of public goods, the creation of private substitutes for public goods, and the automatic passing on of advantages from one generation to another will not change substantially by making CEO’s, corporate board members, Chief General Counsels, Chief Financial Officers and Hedge-Fund Managers more demographically diverse. Nor will inequality decrease by sending more African Americans to Harvard.

“Me too” social science and social policy does little to fight inequality. The real question is, are we ready to meet the challenge?

Kevin T. Leicht is Professor and Head of the Sociology Department at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

6 comments
  1. “The statistics on this, especially post-2008, are startling. From 2000-2014 the increase in the number of white people classified as poor almost surpasses the number of African Americans and Latinos classified as poor altogether. Further, there are eight poor white people for every ten Hispanics and Latinos of any social class. And this isn’t going to change for the next thirty-plus years.

    I think I know where Donald Trump supporters come from.”

    While I agree with and appreciate much of the post’s analysis, Trump’s base is not primarily made up of poor white voters (which is what the last sentence seems to imply). Trump’s base in the primary was not the white working class and certainly not white people living in poverty. From 538:

    “The median household income of a Trump voter so far in the primaries is about $72,000, based on estimates derived from exit polls and Census Bureau data. That’s lower than the $91,000 median for Kasich voters. But it’s well above the national median household income of about $56,000. It’s also higher than the median income for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters, which is around $61,000 for both.”

    And a large N Gallup analysis (as reported in WaPo) found:

    “Among people who had similar educations, lived in similar places, belonged to the same religion and so on, those with greater incomes were modestly more likely to favor Trump.”

    As much as narratives like “What’s the matter with Kansas?” try to link the white working class with GOP success, it remains the case that support for the GOP increases with income – and support for Trump particularly. Trump is the not the candidate of poor white voters.

  2. Diane Pike said:

    I have seen colleagues be upset by this argument, but I think Leicht is correct and we are spending limited resources on things that are not working toward the claimed goal. Leicht’s argument is not popular with some. We would be well advised to take it seriously.

  3. Reblogged this on Critical Transitions and commented:
    In late spring 2016 I joined the “Beijer Young Scholars”, a vibrant group of PhD students and junior postdocs that gathered in a small island in the Stockholm archipelago to think about inequality and the biosphere. Discussions were heated, disagreements were common, from what the concept means from different disciplinary lenses, how to measure it, how to approximate or even define a research problem, and how to be aware of our own prejudices when we approach the topic. Yet it has been a rewarding learning experience that I hope will continue to provide sources of inspiration, healthy disagreements and skepticism. A note on myths of inequality for future conversations were found on a blog by Kevin Leicht, Professor of Sociology at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. That’s why here are his words reblogged:

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