Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Improving schools

Finding ways to significantly and sustainably improve the effectiveness of public schools in high poverty areas is one of the most urgent problems facing us -- particularly when we aim to reduce the inequalities that exist around race and poverty in our nation's cities. New thinking about schools and curricula has given rise to some practical strategies for achieving this kind of improvement.

For example, the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University is a particularly creative place for using research and development to find replicable ways of improving school success in high-poverty areas. Here is the mission statement for CSOS:

The Center for Social Organization of Schools (CSOS) was established in 1966 as an educational research and development center at Johns Hopkins University. The Center maintains a staff of full-time, highly productive sociologists, psychologists, social psychologists, and educators who conduct programmatic research to improve the education system, as well as full-time support staff engaged in developing curricula and providing technical assistance to help schools use the Center’s research. The Center currently includes the federally-supported Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed At Risk, and the Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships. link
The Talent Development Middle Grades Program (link) is one of the promising efforts that have been spearheaded by CSOS. This program attempts to implement school-level programs that substantially change the odds for the middle grade students who are at risk for dropping out. And the alarming fact is that likely high school dropouts can be identified by the sixth grade, based on factors such as attendance, poor academic progress, and behavioral problems. So reversing these factors early is key to improving high school completion rates six to eight years later. Mentorship for students, professional development for teachers, close teamwork within schools among teachers and principals, implementation of a challenging curriculum for all students, and extra-help labs to help students stay on track are the key strategies that work, according to CSOS research. School organization and climate are critical factors, and they can be addressed through district-level reform efforts (link).

What are the interventions that are shown to be effective? The CSOS Talent Development High Schools Program (link) provides quite a bit of useful research and program reform recommendations. Here is the mission statement for this program:
The Talent Development High School Model is a comprehensive reform model for large high schools facing serious problems with student attendance, discipline, achievement scores, and dropout rates. The model includes organizational and management changes to establish a positive school climate; curricular and instructional innovations to prepare all students for high-level courses in math and English; parent and community involvement to encourage college awareness; and professional development to support the recommended reforms.
The program reform model highlights curricula with high expectations, extended class periods, formal extra help programs, professional development and teaming for teachers, and family and community involvement.

Another important current initiative -- also inspired by research at CSOS -- is the Diplomas Now initiative that is underway in partnership with CityYear, Talent Development, and Communities in Schools. This program is a response to the severe high school dropout crisis our nation faces, especially in high-poverty cities. Here is a description of this program:
  • Diplomas Now pairs evidence-based, comprehensive school reform with national service teams to provide tutoring, mentoring, monitoring and engagement activities at the required scale, and integrated student supports for the highest need students.
  • Diplomas Now unites three organizations – Talent Development, City Year and Communities In Schools – each one with years of experience in youth service and third-party evidence of impact on helping students succeed. The Philadelphia Education Fund also serves as a national training and technical assistance partner. The partners complement each other and also collaborate well with local education reform efforts.
  • Diplomas Now works closely with school administrators and teachers to identify off-track youth and develop, implement and sustain comprehensive, targeted and customized strategies to get them back on track. Diplomas Now is deliberately designed to incorporate, complement and accelerate the impact of other promising and innovative efforts that aim to boost post-secondary success.
There are a number of promising initiatives underway across the country that are aimed at achieving significant and sustainable improvement in K-12 learning outcomes. It is important that schools find the partnership they need from government and foundations to implement the ideas that work. The Obama administration has committed quite a bit of energy and funds to this effort; let's hope that it pays off throughout urban America.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Health and mortality inequalities in the US

How unequal are we when it comes to inequalities of health and mortality? Richard Florida (CreativeClass) points to an important new study on this question by public health researchers at Harvard and UCSF. (This is one of many items that Florida references in his Twitter feed -- it's certainly worth following. This bears out the academic value of Twitter!) The study is "Eight Americas: Investigating Mortality Disparities across Races, Counties, and Race-Counties in the United States". And the answer the researchers provide to the question above is -- very. The study is worth reading in detail.

The authors analyze mortality statistics by county, and they break the data down by incorporating racial and demographic characteristics. The data groups fairly well around the eight Americas mentioned in the title:

Here is how they describe their findings:

The gap between the highest and lowest life expectancies for race-county combinations in the United States is over 35 y. We divided the race-county combinations of the US population into eight distinct groups, referred to as the “eight Americas,” to explore the causes of the disparities that can inform specific public health intervention policies and programs.
And here is their conclusion:
Disparities in mortality across the eight Americas, each consisting of millions or tens of millions of Americans, are enormous by all international standards. The observed disparities in life expectancy cannot be explained by race, income, or basic health-care access and utilization alone. Because policies aimed at reducing fundamental socioeconomic inequalities are currently practically absent in the US, health disparities will have to be at least partly addressed through public health strategies that reduce risk factors for chronic diseases and injuries.
For example, their data show that "the life expectancy gap between the 3.4 million high-risk urban black males and the 5.6 million Asian females was 20.7 y in 2001." This is an enormous difference in longevity for the two groups; and it is a difference that tags fundamental social structures that influence health and risk across these two populations.

Here is a time-series graph of the behavior of longevity for the eight Americas:
So what are the factors that appear to create these extreme differences in mortality across socioeconomic and racial groups in America? They consider health care access and utilization; homicide; accidents; and HIV as primary potential causes of variations in mortality for a group. Most important of all of these factors for the large populations appear to be the health disparities that derive from access and utilization. And here they offer an important set of recommendations:
Opportunities and interventions to reduce health inequalities include (1) reducing socioeconomic inequalities, which are the distal causes of health inequalities, (2) increasing financial access to health care by decreasing the number of Americans without health plan coverage, (3) removing physical, behavioral, and cultural barriers to health care, (4) reducing disparities in the quality of care, (5) designing public health strategies and interventions to reduce health risks at the level of communities (e.g., changes in urban/neighborhood design to facilitate physical activity and reduce obesity), and (6) designing public health strategies to reduce health risks that target individuals or population subgroups that are not necessarily in the same community (e.g., tobacco taxation or pharmacological interventions for blood pressure and cholesterol).
These findings are squarely relevant to the healthcare debate currently underway in the United States. The country needs to recognize the severity of the "health/mortality justice" issue, and we need to reform our healthcare system so that these disparities begin to lessen.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Obama and the cities

photo: Cabrini Green housing project, Chicago (now demolished)

Is the Obama administration doing enough to address the problems of urban poverty and lack of opportunity for poor people in cities?

The situation of poverty, inequality, and deprivation in most of America's cities is severe. Wherever regional studies of health status have been carried out, inner cities show up as abnormally unhealthy populations. Unemployment rates in large cities are generally significantly higher than state and national averages. High school completion rates are lower -- often shockingly lower. Housing stock and neighborhoods are in poor condition. Fresh fruits and vegetables are difficult to come by -- because large grocery stores have often moved outside city limits. And all of this implies that the overall quality of life for the poorest half of most urban populations in the U.S. is low. (Here is a 1988 publication on estimates of urban quality of life -- the most recent I can find!)

There is no doubt that President Obama is aware of the gravity of the urban crisis. He knows Chicago intimately, a city that reflects many of these life-limiting circumstances for several million poor people. And his speech of July 18, 2007 reflects an acute understanding of the problem and a commitment to help the country address the crisis. But the question still needs asking: in the first six months of the Obama administration, has there been enough attention given to the problems of cities in America? And so far, the answer seems to be "no."

These are problems that demand federal solutions. States are generally fiscally unable to take the steps that would significantly improve the economic prospects for urban people in Cleveland, Oakland, Miami, Detroit, or Hartford. And all too often state legislatures are dominated by an anti-urban bias that makes significant state investment unlikely in any case. But cities represent a national crisis, not simply a regional crisis. As Richard Florida emphasizes (CreativeClass), cities are potentially the source of the greatest resources of creativity and growth that the country possesses. But too many American cities are hobbled by concentrated poverty, failing schools, corrupt city administrations, and zero-sum politics, with predictable results. The new businesses, technology innovations, and high-end service providers that should be the basis of revitalization of America's cities are simply not showing up downtown. There is very, very little progress in quality of life for the poorest 60% of people living in cities across the country.

Moreover, it needs to be recognized that a central part of this puzzle has to do with race. American cities seem to have become machines for reproducing poverty among African-Americans, Latinos, and other minority populations. Far from being a post-racial society, our cities threaten to become a permanent location of racial disadvantage. Residential segregation, discrimination in employment, and a public education system that is sharply racialized in effect seems to create a set of interlocking institutions that make it all but impossible to narrow the race gap -- in income, quality of life, health status, or education.

So where is the Federal agenda for urban transformation? One of President Obama's priorities is education reform for K-12 schools, and this is certainly relevant and important as a means of addressing poverty and racial inequalities. But it isn't enough. Somehow we need initiatives that will change the game for the tens of millions of disadvantaged children and young people in American cities; that will give them the opportunity to gain the education and skills that will allow them to find their place in a vibrant economy; and to reduce the unacceptable but persistent inequalities of basic life prospects that our cities still create for so many Americans.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Twitter in Thailand

I've been following the twitter feed on #redshirt for a week now (since April 11, the day the red shirt demonstrators invaded the Pattaya resort hosting the ASEAN meeting). (See an earlier post on the civil unrest there.) It's been truly fascinating in many ways.

(It's a big disadvantage, of course, not to be able to read Thai; so there is a segment of the feed that I can't address at all.)

Here are a few things I've gathered in the week of reading. I've become familiar with a couple of voices -- bangkokbill, andrewspooner, anitchang, smartbrain, piriya ... I've learned a bit about the timing of events in Bangkok during the Sunday and Monday showdown with the government. I've probably gotten a bit of the flavor of the issues and emotions that divide the contending protest movements, red and yellow. I got some useful links to valid news and academic sources on the conflict.

And I've viewed the controversy about who is REALLY dominating the twitter feed -- yellow shirts or red shirts. Andrew Spooner is out front in asserting that yellow shirts are spinning the facts in the twitter feed; others characterize him as "pro-red shirt" and biased in that direction. It's gotten a bit personal -- maybe it's a good thing Spooner is off on a travel article assignment. But actually -- I'm not seeing the evidence of bias that Spooner sees.

Another interesting aspect of the feed -- there are only a few eye witness real time comments from the streets -- certainly few compared to the ongoing commentary by the regulars. And there appear to be no real time reports from participants -- red shirts or conceivably cops and soldiers.

The biggest issues of debate that people are clashing about on twitter are important ones. Did the government use more force than necessary? Were there more deaths than the four that were reported? Were more bodies secretly taken away? (This is a persistent theme in Spooner's postings.)

And second, how does the "street" feel about the demonstrations? Is there more support for the yellow shirts and the current government, or is there mass support for the red shirts and Thaksin? Are the red shirt demonstrators mostly concerned about democracy and social progress, or are they dupes of Thaksin's party?

Spooner makes what sounds like a valid point about access -- it makes sense that poor people who might support Thaksin are less likely to have access to twitter and the Internet. But since you can tweet straight from a cell phone, this doesn't seem to be much of a barrier. There are a lot of cell phones in Bangkok!

What never really gets addressed directly is the extent of mob violence exerted by red shirts on several occasions last weekend: the invasion of Battaya, invasion of the ministry of interior, smashing of the vice minister's car and serious beating of the official himself, and the burning of numerous buses. All of this is well documented in the press and on YouTube -- but almost never mentioned in the twitter polemics.

And of course there's the mysterious assassination attempt on the life of a former official, Sondhi, who was a prominent figure in the yellow shirt demonstrations in the fall -- some mention of this shooting on the twitter feed but no real news.

What is truly fascinating about the demonstrations in Bangkok this past week, and the twitter feeds that emanated as a result, is what it suggests about the future. Imagine that 10% of demonstrators contribute comments and feelings every few hours; imagine the freelance commentators and partisans are putting in their interpretations; and imagine the parties and the government make an effort to chime in and provide spin, interpretation, and misinformation. This would be a torrent of as many as four thousand tweets an hour for an extended time -- perhaps 350,000 tweets to make sense of in a week. What a data-rich cacaphony for the journalist, the sociologist, and the intelligence analyst to try to make sense of. Thailand 2009 isn't the twitter revolution -- but maybe the next one will be.

Monday, April 6, 2009

What's next?

We've seen several waves of hardship for working families in the past eight months in many parts of the U.S.: mortgage foreclosures, job losses, reduction of hours of work, and pressure by employers on health benefits. And state governments around the country are under huge fiscal pressure, leading them to attempt to cut support for social programs and important social services. And many of those governments are themselves laying off state workers. So there is already an unprecedented level of economic and personal distress in the country.

But no one seems to think that we've seen the worst this recession has to offer. So what's next?

One part of the story seems pretty clear. There will be more layoffs, more plant closures, and more business bankruptcies in the coming six months. So more families will suffer the pain and dislocation of job loss. The national unemployment rate is officially estimated at 8.5%, and economists expect it to rise above 10%. This means another two million job losses in the coming year or so. And each unemployed person affects several around him or her -- dependent children, spouses, college-age children, even aging parents. That amounts to several million more people about to be affected. (Here's a link to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.)

It also seems likely that many more people will lose their homes through foreclosure. (Here's a recent map of mortgage delinquency rates based on data compiled by the New York Federal Reserve Bank.)

It would take more of an expert than me to try to guess what surprises await us in the financial sector -- how many more failed banks, how long the credit drought will continue, how much resistance distressed home mortgage holders will meet in efforts to renegotiate their loans and try to keep their homes. But it doesn't seem likely that banking and finance have seen the worst yet.

We can pretty well predict that services and support for urban poor people will diminish further, as state budgets contract along with the economy. And public health experts can probably estimate the effects that contraction will have, on the health and nutrition status of poor communities. And what happens to whole communities when unemployment benefits begin to run out? How will food pantries and private services cope with increasing urgent need?

And what about worker militancy? Isn't it somewhat surprising that there hasn't been more of an organized reaction in the United States to all these shocks by the ordinary people who are experiencing them? Is it possible that this passivity and acceptance will begin to change as the months of hardship wear on into years of reduced quality of life?

The photos above are from the 1930s, the period of the Great Depression. The point here isn't that we're approaching a similar time. It is simply that economic hardship is real, and it forces new kinds of social action and private strategies of self-preservation.

I suppose the hope everyone shares is that the economy will reignite. Demand will begin to recover; businesses will start to rehire workers; new investments will be made that result in productive innovations. And public revenues will begin to recover as well, as family incomes, business profits, and property values start to recover. So we'll be able to pay for the social services we want and simple fairness demands.

Somehow, though, that recovery seems a long way off.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Anti-NATO protests in Strasbourg

There are organized and escalating protests taking place against the NATO summit in Strasbourg this week (news; news; Aljazeera report). Calls for protest have come from anti-war and leftist organizations throughout Europe, and there is rising concern in the French and German press about the possibility of violence in the streets. These concerns are realistic, since clashes between demonstrators and police have taken place already in the past twenty-four hours.

These protests are separate from those taking place in London at the G20 meetings, and there appears to be an escalating cycle of violent clashes between demonstrators and police and security forces. Various European anti-war organizations have been mobilizing to bring their supporters to Strasbourg -- for example, see this website for Manchester Stop the War Coalition and this call for action from Americans for Peace and Justice (posted in Italy).

What is the composition of the protest movement in Strasbourg today? It would appear to be largely organized by anti-war and pacifist groups; groups who are opposed to European involvement in Afghanistan; some groups protesting the recent war in Gaza; and, presumably, a scattering of anti-globalization and anarchist groups from various parts of Europe. Anti-NATO demonstrations have taken place with some regularity in a variety of locations in Europe in the past year.

President Obama will be visiting Strasbourg and Baden-Baden this week for the NATO conference, and security in the city is very intense. The French public is very tuned into the developments that are taking place in the city. There will be a great deal of American and European attention to his visit. It is very striking, though, that there is virtually no coverage of the protests and clashes that are currently taking place in Strasbourg in the American press. The New York Times appears not to have covered the story, though it has covered the NATO conference itself.

It would be very interesting to use the tools available on the web to do a sociology of the protests taking place today, based on the links it is possible to discover among organizations through websites and calls for mobilization. Sidney Tarrow is one of the contemporary social scientists who has made a substantial effort to provide detailed analysis of the networks and organizations that have converged in anti-globalization protests in the past decade or so (The Global Justice Movement: Cross-national And Transnational Perspectives).

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Unemployment across the US

There is a good interactive map of unemployment rates at the county level across the US in the March 29 New York Times. Here is a snapshot, but be sure to visit the Times site for the interactive version. The map is based on January 2009 data, and it represents a national rate of unemployment of 8.5%. But there is a tremendous range across regions and counties.

There are many noteworthy details on the map. Northern California and Oregon somewhat surprised me; Harney County, Oregon, has a rate of 19.7% unemployment, and Trinity County, California, has a rate of 20.9%. These are staggering numbers for these locales.

My own state, Michigan, has a very wide range of unemployment rates across both rural and urban counties. Wayne County, home of the city of Detroit, has a relatively high rate of 14.2%, and Genesee County, home of Flint, also has a high rate (14.8%). (By comparison, Onondaga County, home of Syracuse, New York, has a rate of 7.4%.) Several Michigan counties with mid-sized cities show relatively low unemployment rates: Washtenaw County (Ann Arbor), Kalamazoo County (Kalamazoo), and Kent County (Grand Rapids) have relatively low rates (7.3%, 8.4%, 9.8%). But several other counties in the state show rates in excess of 18%: Cheboygan County (21.8%), Baraga County in the Upper Peninsula (23.4%), Sanilac County (18.9%), and Iosco County (18.5%). What this shows is that the unemployment crisis is not evenly distributed across the state or the region; some counties are much more seriously affected than others. And some of the highest rates are in counties with agriculture and extraction as primary industries -- manufacturing counties in Michigan are generally in the middle rank.

A quick visual inspection suggests that Michigan and South Carolina are the states with the highest proportion of high-unemployment counties; California and Oregon are also clearly on the high end of the unemployment crisis.

The tool also allows the user to select for rural, manufacturing, metropolitan, and "housing bubble" counties.

I suppose that the central truth that this map supports is the fact that the employment crisis has affected regions and economic sectors very differently -- across large regions and within states. So here, as with so many social variables, it is important to disaggregate the national and state data, to get a better idea of the range of effects a given economic circumstance is creating for individuals and families.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Impact of the crisis

We're now months deep into a financial-economic-employment crisis across the country, and it's especially severe in Michigan. What are some of the real impacts of this economic downturn on ordinary people?

The most visible impacts are on jobs and homes. Michigan's unemployment rate has increased sharply in the past three months, to a current national high of 11.6 percent in January. There have been large layoffs in the auto-related industries in the state, and non-automotive businesses are now reducing their workforces as well as a result of reductions in business and consumer spending. Restaurants, retail shops, law firms, and accounting firms are eliminating positions, so job insecurity extends across the blue collar and white collar spectrum.

The loss of jobs feeds into a worsening mortgage foreclosure crisis in Michigan. Even before the surge on job losses Michigan had a high rate of troubled mortgages. That number now threatens to increase as a result of families' loss of income, though there are a variety of new measures designed to help families to hold onto their homes.

A measure of the social distress for families in Michigan is the volume and nature of 2-1-1 calls that have been received over time. (2-1-1 is a growing national service in many areas that provides referrals to agencies and other resources for families and individuals facing difficult issues.) The United Way of Southeast Michigan provides detailed reporting of the volume, subjects, and demographics of its callers (link), and the results over the past 12 months are striking. Calls received in January 2009 are up by 30% compared to January 2008, at 22,518. The top five services for which referrals were provided included utility assistance, food, housing, temporary financial assistance, and employment. And emergency food providers such as Gleaners report a sharp increase in the amount of demand for their services in the past six months.

So how about the 80-85% percent of Michigan families who are still employed? (In addition to the 11.6% of people who are officially unemployed, there is a population of "hidden" unemployed people who are not counted in the official unemployment figures.) How has the crisis affected the majority who have not lost their jobs? It's pretty clear that just about everyone in Michigan has been affected by the crisis. Anxieties about retirement investment accounts are at the top of the list -- especially for people in their fifties or older. But a second major anxiety stems from job insecurity. With all the bad economic news, whose job will be the next to go? There is worry too about employers' health benefits -- will these benefits continue in their current form in the current economic environment? And these anxieties have led people to rethink their spending and consumption habits -- leading, of course, to less demand in many sectors and perhaps another round of job reductions. Sales tax collections in Michigan fell by 18% in February from January; this is a direct indication of sharply reduced consumer spending (link). (Here is a report from the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank describing recent trends in Michigan retail sales.) And major purchases like automobiles and trucks seem to be on hold -- witness the roughly 50% drop in demand for cars and trucks in recent months.

Another hardship that many families are experiencing is the frozen credit market and the stagnant home sales performance. Families who need to sell their homes are finding that there are few prospective buyers. And families looking to buy a home or a car may have substantial difficulty in finding a lender to provide the mortgage or car loan.

Add all these problems to a chronic American issue -- the lack of medical insurance for upwards on 50 million Americans -- and you have a rising financial and personal crisis for thousands of households in Michigan: how to pay for medical treatments when health benefits go away, or when you don't have insurance at all. Unreimbursed care has increased sharply in hospitals in Michigan, resulting in severe financial pressures and the need for further cost-cutting; health systems in Michigan are currently laying off workers to adjust their budgets to current revenues.

So the impact of the current recession is sharply differentiated between people who have lost their jobs and those who haven't. The first group is in serious, daily distress, having a hard time keeping their families provided with the necessities of life. The second group probably divides into segments with different levels and kinds of anxiety -- those who have realistic fears of losing their jobs in the next wave of layoffs, those who are concerned that they may lose lose benefits or wages in the next year or so, and those who are anxious about the future value of their retirement savings. And it all adds up to a set of communities that are being forced to cope with a wide range of personal hardships, almost across the board.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Social hate

This is a difficult posting to write. The impetus comes from an exhibit presented by the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Michigan (link). The curators have put together a set of artifacts that capture horrific attitudes towards African-Americans, Asians, gays, women, and other individuals and groups in American society, extending over a century of our history. There are photos of mass rallies of the Ku Klux Klan in the midwest; images of the lynchings of Emmett Till and other African-American victims; t-shirts with racist images of blacks, Jews, Asians, Latinos, and gays; photos from the scene of the Oklahoma City bombing; and recent examples of racist depictions of President Obama. And, of course, it's not just about iconography; it's also about real violence against individuals from these groups. Hate-based murders continue to occur in the United States.

Just viewing these images is a profoundly disturbing experience. But here is the really difficult part: our society continues to embody these strains of hatred somewhere. And it continues to reproduce these hateful beliefs and attitudes for the next generation. We want to imagine that our society is peace-loving, tolerant, respectful of difference, and ultimately "good neighbors" for all members of our society. And this is certainly true for a very high percentage of Americans. But the exhibition makes it all too plain that this is not the case for everyone. There are individuals, and more importantly, there are groups, for whom racial, sexual, and religious hatred is a fundamental social and psychological reality. As investigators for the Anti-Defamation League (link) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (link) have documented, these extremist groups continue to exist, and they continue to recruit new adherents using sophisticated social media (web pages, video games, chat rooms), as well as more old-fashioned means of mobilization.

How are we to come to grips with the idea that some of our fellow citizens -- in our own communities, in our state, and in our country -- have such despicable attitudes and behaviors towards other human beings? And what precautions should our society take to defend itself against the violent manifestations that these attitudes and groups sometimes lead to?

It seems that schools have done a pretty good job of conveying the values of racial equality and social tolerance to our children. This has been an important priority for the past several decades. But at the same time, the hatred documented in the exhibits mentioned here can still be found among young people as well -- not just gun-toting aging militia types. (Here's a resource on youth hate crimes.)

We would all like to imagine that the twenty-first century is going to be a better time than the twentieth century. And a big part of that hope is the idea that hatred and violence between groups will subside, replaced by the values of tolerance and civic equality. Anti-semitism, racism, hatred of gays and lesbians, and the forms of violence that are associated with these attitudes, must disappear. It is tough to be reminded how far we are from that ideal in the first decade of the new century.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Mobile social mapping?

Wouldn't it be interesting if our GPS units gave us basic social data about the spaces we pass through, along with advice about where to find the closest fuel stop? This would function as a sort of "social reality meter" that would render more visible the social realities and human inequalities we traverse as we travel.

Such a device is entirely possible. It would require a spatially coded social data base, including characteristics such as infant mortality, high school completion, poverty, crime, single-parent families, home ownership, property values, and as many other characteristics as we might be interested in. These features would be attached to a geographical location (a census tract, for example, with a boundary file), and the map would dynamically display several selected variables as we travel through the region.

This kind of GIS mapping is commonplace on the desktop. (See ZipSkinny and SocialExplorer, for example.) But putting it into a mobile device -- a GPS unit in the car or a GPS-equipped cell phone -- would be a way of greatly extending our perception of the social landscape around us.

Here's a possible snapshot of violent crime data as we drive across Chicago:

Or a drive through Washington D.C. showing the patterns of unemployment in the metropolitan area:

Or this drive through Cleveland observing the distribution of poverty across the city (measured by eligibility for food stamps):

The idea is "location-based social awareness" using the same technologies that cell phones and GPS devices currently use to keep track of local points of interest or "locations of your friends right now"; but providing the user with enormously greater ability to "sense" the social landscape around him or her. Socially conscious iPhone programmers -- how about it!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Wealth in the United States

So how is wealth distributed spatially across the United States?

Here's a quick effort at analyzing the Forbes list of the top 400 wealth holders in the U.S. Here is a snapshot of the graphic included on the page:

It is logical enough that there is a great concentration of these wealth holders in a few important cities -- Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, San Francisco, New York, Boston. But this snapshot is of limited value in helping us get a handle on the social geography of wealth. It tracks only the very tip of the wealth iceberg.

We might take a different tack and try to use the concentration of million dollar homes across the United States as an index of the concentration of great wealth across space. Unfortunately, I can't locate a convenient data source that provides this information -- though it's probably not too difficult to find. But here's a related approach. The map provided below represents counties by their median home rental prices; this ought to be a reasonable proxy for house values. So we might reason that the highest home rental counties are also the counties with the highest income.

It would be interesting to see a series of maps on this theme along the lines of the treatment that Richard Florida offers for the spatial distribution of various salient social characteristics -- for example, his maps of the distribution of different personality types across space.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Fair prices?

We live in a society that embraces the market in a pretty broad way. We accept that virtually all goods and services are priced through the market at prices set competitively. We accept that sellers are looking to maximize profits through the prices, quantities, and quality of the goods and services that they sell us. We accept, though a bit less fully, the idea that wages are determined by the market -- a person's income is determined by what competing employers are willing to pay. And we have some level of trust that competition protects us against price-gouging, adulteration, exploitation, and other predatory practices. A prior posting questioned this logic when it comes to healthcare. Here I'd like to see whether there are other areas of dissent within American society over prices.

Because of course it wasn't always so. E. P. Thompson's work on early modern Britain reminds us that there was a "moral economy of the crowd" that profoundly challenged the legitimacy of the market; that these popular moral ideas specifically and deeply challenged the idea of market-defined prices for life's necessities; and that the crowd demanded "fair prices" for food and housing (Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture). The moral economy of the crowd focused on the poor -- it assumed a minimum standard of living and demanded that the millers, merchants, and officials respect this standard by charging prices the poor could afford. And the rioting that took place in Poland in 1988 over meat prices is a reminder that this kind of moral reasoning isn't merely part of a pre-modern sensibility.

So where do contemporary Americans show a degree of moral discomfort with prices and the market? Where does the moral appeal of the principles of market justice begin to break down -- principles such as "things are worth exactly what people are willing to pay for them" and "to each what his/her market-determined purchasing power permit him to buy"?

There are a couple of obvious exceptions in contemporary acceptance of the market. One is the public outrage about executive compensation in banking and other corporations that we've seen in the past year. People seem to be morally offended at the idea that CEOs are taking tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation -- even in companies approaching bankruptcy. Part of the outrage stems from the perception that the CEO can't have brought a commensurate gain to the company or its stockholders, witness the failing condition of many of these banks and companies. Part is a suspicion that there must be some kind of corrupt collusion going on in the background between corporate boards and CEOs. But the bottom line moral intuition seems to be something like this: nothing could justify a salary of $100 million, and executive compensation in that range is inherently unfair. And no argument proceeding simply along the lines of fair market competition -- these are competitive rational firms that are offering these salaries, and therefore whatever they arrive at is fair -- cuts much ice with the public.

Here is another example of public divergence from acceptance of pure market outcomes: recent public outcries about college tuition. There is the common complaint that tuition is too high and students can't afford to attend. (This overlooks the important fact that public and private tuitions are almost an order of magnitude apart -- $6,000-12,000 versus $35,00-42,000!) But notice that this is a "fair price" argument that would be nonsensical when applied to the price of an iPod or a Lexus. People don't generally feel aggrieved because a luxury car or a consumer device is too expensive; they just don't buy it. It makes sense to express this complaint in application to college tuition because many of us think of college as a necessity of life that cannot fairly be allocated on the basis of ability to pay. (This explains why colleges offer need-based financial aid.) And this is a moral-economy argument.

And what about that other necessity of life -- gasoline? Public complaints about $4/gallon gas were certainly loud a few months ago. But they seem to have been grounded something differently -- the suspicion that the oil companies were manipulating prices and taking predatory profits -- rather than an assumption of a fair price determined by the needs of the poor.

Finally, what about salaries and wages? How do we feel about the inequalities of compensation that exist within the American economy and our own places of work? Americans seem to accept a fairly wide range of salaries and wages when they believe that the differences correspond ultimately to the need for firms to recruit the most effective personnel possible -- a market justification for high salaries. But they seem to begin to feel morally aggrieved when the inequalities that emerge seem to exceed any possible correspondence to contribution, impact, or productivity. So -- we as Americans seem to have a guarded level of acceptance of the emergence of market-driven inequalities when it comes to compensation.

One wonders whether deeper resentment about the workings of market forces will begin to surface in our society, as unemployment and economic recession settle upon us.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

China's Charter 08

The New York Review of Books has published an English translation of an important emerging document calling for political and legal reform in China. The document is called Charter 08 (in analogy with Czechoslovakia's Charter 77 in 1977). It is a citizen-based appeal for the creation of a secure system of laws and rights in China, and has been signed by several thousand Chinese citizens. The Chinese state has belatedly taken note of the Charter, and a number of lead proponents for the document have been detained by the police, including Liu Xiaobo, Zhang Zuhua, Gao Yu, and Liu Di. Perry Link provided the translation.

The central principles articulated in the Charter include:

  • Freedom
  • Human rights
  • Equality
  • Republicanism
  • Democracy
  • Constitutional rule
The specific points included in the Charter include:
  1. A New Constitution
  2. Separation of Powers
  3. Legislative Democracy
  4. An Independent Judiciary
  5. Public Control of Public Servants
  6. Guarantee of Human Rights
  7. Election of Public Officials
  8. Rural-Urban Equality
  9. Freedom to Form Groups
  10. Freedom to Assemble
  11. Freedom of Expression
  12. Freedom of Religion
  13. Civic Education
  14. Protection of Private Property
  15. Financial and Tax Reform
  16. Social Security
  17. Protection of the Environment
  18. A Federated Republic
  19. Truth in Reconciliation
Perry Link makes the point that this is not a "dissident" document, but rather a public-spirited attempt to articulate a future for China's polity.

The Chinese government should recognize that these are precisely the reforms that China needs for the twenty-first century. China needs to find its way to a genuinely law-based society; this is the point of items 1-7 and 14. China needs to rebuild a spirit of legitimacy joining government and the governed. And China needs to end the environment in which corruption, both private and public, is the most visible manifestation of unjust power that is visible to virtually all Chinese people.

Here is a very interesting audio interview with Perry Link on the NYRB website about the context of Charter 08. Also of interest is a piece that Daniel Drezner has posted on Charter 08 on the ForeignPolicy blog. Drezner's view is that the goals of the Charter can only be realized through confrontation with a mass movement, not through consultation and negotiation. But there are other pathways through which a governing party has come to rethink the conditions of its grip on power in the past twenty years. Let's hope the Chinese government has the wisdom to recognize the suitability of these principles for China's future.

January 22: see this very extensive and illuminating analysis of the Charter by Rebecca MacKinnon at Rconversation.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Protests in China

Carrefour protest in Beijing

China has witnessed a visible increase over the past ten years in the number of protests, demonstrations, and riots over a variety of issues. Areas of social problems that have stimulated collective protests include factory conditions, non-payment of wages, factory closures, environmental problems (both large and small), and land and property takeovers by developers and the state.

It isn't surprising that social conditions in China have given rise to causes of protest. Rapid growth has stimulated large movements of people and migrant workers, development has created massive environmental problems for localities, and opportunities for development have created conflicts between developers and local people over land and property rights. Following the terrible earthquake in Sichuan and the collapse of many buildings and schools with tragic loss of life, there was a wave of angry protests by parents against corrupt building practices. So there are plenty of possible causes for protest in China today.

What is more surprising, though, is that the state has not been successful so far in muzzling protest, or in keeping news of local protests from reaching the international public.

We might say that the presence of protest in a society is actually a sign of rough and ready democracy as well: it indicates that public opinion is important and can be mobilized, it suggests that the state is unwilling to use the most repressive means available to crush protest, and it suggests that the state can be affected by public protest. So the rising frequency of protest in China might be seen as evidence of a growing importance of the sphere of civil society within Chinese politics.

YouTube provides a surprisingly wide window on protests in China today. It's worth viewing a sampling of clips from YouTube that surface when one searches for Chinese protest:

Unemployment for Chinese migrant workers

Labor protest in Shanghai

Shoe factory protest for back wages

Environmental protest in Xiamen

Protest about water pollution in Xiamen

Parents protesting children's death in Sichuan

Will the sociology of the future be able to use the contents of YouTube, Twitter, or Facebook as an important empirical indicator of social change in societies such as China, Malaysia, or Russia?

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Paying for health

A person's income determines his/her access to many things he wants and needs: food, clothing, transportation, housing, entertainment, and the internet, for example. And people who have higher income are able to consume more of all of these categories than people with lower income, if they choose to. More affluent people shop for food at Papa Joe's or Whole Food; live in larger and more luxurious homes; buy their clothing from boutiques rather than Penny's or the thrift shop; and drive multiple handsome cars. Poor people can't afford the luxury end of these forms of consumption. And in some way our culture has judged that these sorts of inequalities of consumption are a legitimate and fair part of a market economy; if you judge that inequalities of income are justifiable (perhaps with some limits on extremes), then you pretty much have to support the idea of inequalities of consumption as well.

But what about goods that have a price but that are essential to living a decent human life? Food certainly falls in this category; if 30% of society could literally not afford to purchase enough calories to provide 2200-2900 calories per day for adults and 1800 calories for children, then we would probably have a different idea about the fairness of a market for food -- the principle that says "to each according to his/her earning capacity" doesn't seem very convincing in circumstances where it leads to malnutrition or starvation. In other words, if the normal workings of a market economy left a significant segment of the population without the ability to purchase enough food for subsistence, we would surely judge that this isn't a fair or socially just way of distributing income and food. And there is an important point to be noted here: there is hunger in America, and the system of producing goods and income isn't fully satisfying the subsistence needs of the whole population. (This is exactly what makes it compelling that our government needs to provide food assistance for the very poor, through food stamps or targeted income supplements.) So there is an important issue about the justice of current actual distributions of such basic goods as food, clothing, or shelter across the U.S. population.

But push a little deeper and consider the "market for health care". Supporting one's current healthy status is a costly effort; repairing the body in times of traumatic injury or serious illness is even more costly; and our society leaves a lot of the allocation of health care services to private purchasing power. Health insurance is the primary vehicle through which many Americans provide financially for their health care needs. Some people have insurance provided or subsidized through their employers; some families purchase health insurance through the private market; and many families lack health insurance entirely. Upwards on 45 million Americans are uninsured, including 20% of adults and 9% of children (CDC link). And this includes a wide range of Americans, from the extremely poor to the working poor to the solidly middle class.

It is clear that access to doctors, hospitals, nurses, and prescription drugs is a critical need that everyone faces at various points in life. It is obvious as well that one's future ability to live and work productively and to enjoy a satisfying life is conditioned by one's ability to gain access to health care when it is needed. It is also clear that uncertainty about the availability of health care is a major source of anxiety for many, many people in U.S. society today. So it is self-evident that decent health care is one of our most basic and unavoidable needs.

So what do people do when they lack health insurance and serious illness or injury occurs? This isn't a mystery anymore; families go into debt to doctors and hospitals, they face bankruptcy, they find some limited sources of free care (free clinics, pro bono doctors' services), and they forego "optional" treatments that may well extend the length or quality of life. And it is evident that this pattern results in very serious harms and limitations for people in these groups. People who have the least access to health care through our basic institutions may be expected to live shorter lives and to suffer more.

And what about people at the high end of the income spectrum? How do they relate to the problems of health? Here too the answers are fairly well known: they are able to seek out the best (and most expensive) specialists, travel to national centers for specialized treatment, and undergo advanced diagnostic tests that are not covered by insurance. (Here is a news story from CNN on boutique health care.) The affluent aren't able to assure their health through expenditure -- but they can certainly improve their odds.

In other words, ability to pay influences the quality and extent of health care that an individual or family is able to gain access to; and the health status of the family is affected by these variations in quality and access. So, to some meaningful extent, our social system places health care in the category of a market good.

But here is the question I'm working around to: what does justice require when it comes to health care? Is it right to look at health care as just another consumption good like shoes -- affluent people wear Gucci and poor people wear Dollar Store, but everyone has his/her feet covered? Or is health care in a special category, too closely linked to living a full human life to allow it to be distributed so unequally?

It seems a bitter but unavoidable truth that there are very substantial inequalities in the provision of health care in our society. One person's likelihood of surviving a devastating cancer may be significantly less than another person's chances, simply based on the second person's ability to pay for premium health care services. Further, it seems unavoidable that these inequalities are flatly unjust in any society that believes in the equal worth of all human beings. And where this seems to lead is to the conclusion that some system of universal health insurance is a fundamental requirement of justice.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Can America overcome racism?

The social and economic inequalities in America that are associated with race are staggering and persistent. Pick almost any category where you'd rather have more than less -- income, health status, property and home ownership, likelihood of having health insurance, life expectancy, or likelihood of having a favorable outcome in the criminal justice system. In all of these categories there is a wide gap between black and white Americans. And this remains true even when we control for income -- the health gap between white and black Americans earning more than $80,000 remains significant. So America has embedded a set of economic and social institutions that reproduce racial disadvantage. America remains a deeply racialized society.

These observations don't necessarily amount to a conclusion about racist attitudes and deliberate discrimination on the part of most Americans. Attitudes and outcomes need to be distinguished. It is likely enough that there has been a lot of progress in conscious attitudes about race since 1950 for the majority of Americans. But persistent discriminatory outcomes can arise without explicit racist attitudes or discrimination on the part of specific individuals. Central examples of these forms of embedded "structural" mechanisms of racial discrimination include residential segregation and unequal educational opportunities for black and white children, based on where they live. Segregation certainly arose in part through deliberate efforts at excluding black people from certain neighborhoods -- real estate "steering", mortgage and insurance redlining, and overt violence and intimidation. But the mechanisms sustaining segregation today may well be more impersonal. The fact remains that patterns of racial residential segregation help to reproduce the kinds of racial inequality mentioned above.

These racial inequalities are also deeply intertwined with the social geography of major American cities. The concentration of poverty, racial isolation, poor schools, poor health facilities, and high crime rates create a multi-stranded social mechanism for reproducing racial inequality. It isn't impossible for an African-American child to thrive and achieve in this environment -- but it is certainly much harder. And the probabilities are stacked against her.

So, back to the main question: can America overcome its racism? Several things are necessary if this can happen.

First, we have to honestly face the facts -- the outcomes mentioned above. We can't delude ourselves by saying "the problems of race are finished in America" because we've elected an African-American president. The facts of racial difference in life outcomes need to be recognized, and we need to be vigilant in uncovering the mechanisms that lead to these disparities.

Second, we have to recognize why it is so important for our political culture that we address and resolve these continuing racial inequalities. Most fundamentally, we believe in equality -- equality of worth and equality of opportunity. The persistent inequalities between black and white populations are a fundamental affront to these values. And we believe in democracy --but a democracy cannot thrive in circumstances of what amounts to two levels of citizenship.

But third, pragmatically, justice is a necessary component of social peace. Our country has seen violent outbreaks for over a century over the facts of contemporary race relations -- Watts, Chicago, Detroit, Harlem, Miami. It is only enlightened prudence to realize that we must aggressively and consistently attack the institutional realities that reproduce racial disadvantage. Securing racial justice is a good investment in future social harmony.

Finally, we will need to have the resolve it takes to provide the resources necessary to assure genuine equality of opportunity for all Americans. This will be the work of a generation. But it will lay the basis for a more sustainable, harmonious, and productive society.