by Christine Williams

I was recently on a plane and sat next to a young woman who was returning to college for her sophomore year. During the flight, she pulled out a sandwich shop’s menu and started putting the names of sandwich combinations on index cards. Naturally, I asked her what she was doing and she said that she was starting a new job at a fast-food restaurant chain the next day. She was studying to make a good first impression.

But after talking to my seatmate, I am convinced that these jobs are a bad choice for college students today. The young woman told me that she depended on her job to make ends meet. Her college expenses were beyond her family’s means.

Jobs in the fast-food industry are a common choice for college students. For many, including me, it is their first job experience.

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by Lata Murti

My eight-year-old daughter received the classic Hasbro Game of Life as a holiday gift this past year.  What caught my attention right away while playing the game with her were the salaries.

All the “College Careers” – those requiring a college degree – started at $80,000 each payday, with teachers making a whopping $100,000 each payday!  I saw on the box that kids chose the careers for this latest version of the game, and I began to wonder if they chose the salaries too.  That might explain the inflated salaries.

After all, in a culture and society that often asks kids to imagine what they want to be when they grow up but seldom how much they want to make, how would a kid determine the salaries of common careers?

For that matter, how does an adult determine the salaries of common careers?  Pay secrecy – or a taboo against revealing one’s salary – is the norm in both US institutions of employment and US society at large.

Indeed, although U.S. employers cannot legally prohibit employees from discussing their pay, many employers implement a formal or informal policy against employees discussing their salaries.  Such policies help employers maintain complete control over wages, thus preventing employee demands for higher pay and wage equality, according to a 2015 study by Jake Rosenfeld and Patrick Denice, two of the few sociologists to study pay secrecy.

In other words, pay secrecy is essential to capitalism, which, at its core, is about unequal wages.

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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.

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by Barry Eidlin

One of the few bright spots amidst otherwise distressing news on growing inequality in the U.S. has been the success of efforts across the country to raise the minimum wage. While congressional gridlock has kept the federal minimum wage frozen at $7.25 since 2009, twenty-nine states have raised their minimum wages on their own, including in conservative “red states” like Arkansas and Nebraska. Additionally, several municipalities have raised their minimum wages even further, with cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles reaching as high as $15.00/hour in the coming years.

Many of these minimum wage hikes were the result of ballot initiatives, which voters approved in most cases by wide margins. Polling data shows that roughly three-quarters of Americans favor raising the minimum wage by up to 50 percent.

More broadly, there has been a wholesale shift in the terms of debate surrounding the minimum wage. Whereas the debate two years ago was over President Obama’s proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10.10/hour (an increase of nearly 40 percent), today the target number has shot up to $15.00. Mainstream Democrats like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo support that target, along with those further to the left like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

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“The basic income approach is absolutely essential, but it is not part of the social democratic tradition. Think about it. The post-war consensus was all about national insurance, it was not about basic income. Now, either we are going to have a basic income that regulates this new society of ours, or we are going to have very substantial social conflicts.”

— Yanis Varoufakis, The Economist, March 31st 2016



[Ed note: Eduardo Porter of the New York Times recently wrote a column entitled “A Universal Basic Income Is a Poor Tool to Fight Poverty,” based on dodgy accounting and weak rational choice reasoning. Matthew Yglesias addressed the dodgy accounting over at Vox. On Porter’s argument that UBI would provide a “disincentive to work,” innumerable sociological studies have demonstrated how work can provide a fundamental source of meaning, purpose and intellectual stimulation; UBI would empower workers in the labor market so they feel less financial pressure to accept bad jobs and can thus pursue more meaningful work.

Porter also seems to think that the idea for UBI was created by Silicon Valley tech gurus and he argues that the idea is “poorly thought out.” In response, I reached out to an early and long-time champion of UBI, Belgian philosopher and political economist Philippe Van Parijs, professor at the Faculty of Economic, Social and Political Sciences of the University of Louvain. He kindly allowed me to repost this article from Social Europe. For more in-depth arguments, readers may consult the following works on basic income by Van Parijs: A Basic Income for All,” Redesigning Distribution, Real Freedom for All, and What’s Wrong with a Free Lunch-Matt Vidal]

by Philippe van Parijs

The idea of an unconditional basic income is in fashion. From Finland to Switzerland, from San Francisco to Seoul, people talk about it as they have  never done. Twice before, basic income was the object of a real public debate, albeit briefly and limited to one country at a time. In both episodes, the centre left played a central role.

The first debate took place in England in the aftermath of World War I. The Quaker and engineer Dennis Milner managed to get his “state bonus” proposal discussed at the 1920 Labour Party conference. It was rejected, but prominent members of the party kept defending it in the following years under the label “social dividend”. Among them were the Oxford economist and political theorist George Cole and the future Nobel laureate James Meade.

The second debate took place in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Another future Nobel laureate, James Tobin, advocated the introduction of a “demogrant”, along with Harvard economist and best-selling author John Kenneth Galbraith, also on the left of the Democratic Party. Persuaded by them, Senator George McGovern included the proposal in his programme during his campaign for the nomination as Democratic presidential candidate, but dropped it in the last months before the 1972 election which he lost to Richard Nixon.

The current, far longer and increasingly global debate originated in Europe in the 1980s. Interest in basic income arose more or less simultaneously in several countries and prompted the creation of a network (BIEN) that now has national branches in all continents. This time, however, the social democratic left is not exactly at the forefront, far less than the greens, for example, or than some components of the liberal right and the far left.

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In September last year the G20, including the US and UK, signed the Ankara Declaration that explicitly and formally recognised the importance of job quality. The Declaration committed the governments of the advanced economies to strengthening job quality as a route to achieving strong, sustainable and balanced economic growth that might also deliver inclusiveness and improved standards of living.

This declaration forms part of a trend in which supranational and inter-governmental organisations such as the OECD and European Union have introduced a number of initiatives to promote job quality and its economic and social benefits. The background is often concerned about the effects of the global economic crisis but in the context of recognising that there is no necessary clash of policy outcomes in wanting both more jobs and better jobs.

These international initiatives are welcome but need to translate into national government actions. However at national government level the explicit championing of job quality is less obvious.

The Scottish Parliament is bucking this trend.In 2015 it established an Inquiry into Work, Wages and Wellbeing that explicitly sought to understand the social, economic and health impacts of precarious employment, and which, at its heart, had an overt concern with the quality of Scottish jobs.

The Inquiry has just published its report: Taking the High Road. Borrowing directly from the arguments outlined in the introduction to Are bad Jobs Inevitable? by Françoise Carré and her colleagues, it recommends that the Scottish Government paves the high road and blocks the low road.

The Scottish Government wants to improve job quality by raising and setting employment standards, with a key role to be played by public agencies. It also wants better research on job quality, the monitoring of job quality and the development of a fair work index for Scotland.  The full report can be found here.

Image: Joe Diaz via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

randyAcademic readers will recognize not only the name but also the many scholarly contributions of Randy Hodson, who passed away a little more than a year ago. Remembrances, both personal and intellectual, have circulated intensely since Randy’s death, but until now they have been limited to the oral tradition. With the publication of the most recent edition of Research in the Sociology of Work, all that has changed.

In this brief article I want to provide an overview of this volume, in effect providing an invitation for readers to engage the articles therein.

Edited by Lisa Keister and Vincent Roscigno, the volume carries the hefty title A Gedenkschrift to Randy Hodson: Working with Dignity. And indeed, this is a hefty collection, for it contains much that leverages Hodson’s contributions, extracts their value, and leads the field forward in much the way that he would have hoped. This is must-reading for sociologists of work.

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