9 posts from September 2010

September 30, 2010

Online Dating Experiences

todd_S_2010b By Todd Schoepflin

I haven’t thought about dating in a while. I guess that’s what happens when you’ve been married for six years. I met my wife in an old-fashioned way: at work. I had the type of the job that was satirized in the movie Office Space. The clock never seemed to move. I’d stare at my computer screen for eight hours waiting for my shift to end. Tina provided much-needed relief from the drudgery of my cubicle existence. These days, the word “date” means that we have a babysitter for a few hours, giving us time to grab a cheeseburger and a beer.

I have no experience with online dating, and before I watched this video interview of Dan Ariely I had never heard a scholar talk about it. Ariely, Professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke University, has studied online dating and makes some really interesting comments about the subject in the interview. image

Ariely points out that typical online dating websites break people down into “searchable attributes” such as height, weight, income, and political views. These  websites operate on the mistaken assumption that people are easy to describe on the basis of such attributes. He uses wine for an analogy. You might be able to describe the wine you drink, but that doesn’t matter very much. What matters is that you know if you like it or you don’t.

He thinks that’s kind of like dating. Being able to describe a person based on a set of characteristics isn’t very useful. It’s the full experience of spending time with someone that tells you whether you like a person or not. It’s not a simple matter of someone being the “perfect” weight and having the “right” eye color. In Ariely’s opinion, breaking people into attributes turns out not to be informative. What’s informative is what happens when you share an experience with someone.

Ariely concludes that people have unsatisfying experiences with online dating. Although websites can match people based on their preferences, they can’t predict if people will actually like each other in the real world. Sure, you can pick someone online who is tall, has brown eyes, and hair that looks great to you, but that doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy that person’s company when you’re on a date.

Something I found really fascinating in the interview was Ariely’s discussion of whether people are superficial. Consider, after all, that people do search for potential dates in terms of hair color, body type, and income. Realistically, he says, people are superficial; for example, generally speaking, women prefer tall men and men prefer skinny women. So women and men both search out partners based on features they find physically attractive.

However, in defense of online daters, Ariely makes a good point: if that’s the search criteria available to people to use, then they’re going to use it. Naturally, a lot of people will have preferences when it comes to hair color, height, and weight. So it’s not that people who use online dating are more superficial than any other group of people. Rather, he believes the typical online dating system exaggerates our tendency to be superficial.

Did you notice the comments from people who reacted to Ariely’s interview? I found a few of them to be very interesting. For instance, a man named Mark said: “I think online dating is unsatisfying for most people because dating in general is unsatisfying for most people.” Think about all of your dating experiences: have most of them been satisfying or disappointing? And, if you have online dating experience, did the outcome of those dates differ significantly from dates that came about in other ways?

A comment I found especially insightful was made by Elizabeth, who said: “Perhaps one of the best things about dating online is that one can know the deal image breakers (smoking, drinking, how many kids, etc.) before falling for someone, before attempting to justify a relationship that won’t work.” That strikes me as an intelligent point. Honestly speaking, isn’t it true there are certain things about potential dating partners that you won’t accept?

I asked my friend Don about this. Don is a 38-year-old never married man who has accumulated vast dating experience. A few years ago he was in a serious relationship that soured because he doesn’t want to have kids. In essence, the fact that he doesn’t want children was a deal breaker in that relationship. He recently set a date using the free dating website called Plenty of Fish. He described his date as a “very pretty, 40-year-old Pilates instructor who doesn’t want kids.”

I asked Don if he thought there were such things as “deal makers.” In other words, if having kids (or wanting to have kids) is a deal breaker for some people, couldn’t we say that not wanting kids is a “deal maker” for other people?

Fair enough, he responded, but in his dating experience, he finds that people tend to focus on differences rather than commonalities. He wonders if this is because people are trying to find the absolutely perfect match. Because technology enables people to access an unlimited number of people, maybe they feel they should hold out for Mr. or Ms. Perfect.

When I told Don I was writing a blog about online dating, he said: “Yeah, because you know so much about that.” He was teasing me because I haven’t been on a date with someone other than my wife since 2000, when I met her. I replied: “Well, suppose I wanted to cheat. You know there are websites that cater to married people, right?” Although I have no plans to destroy my marriage, I have heard radio advertisements of a website tailored to people in relationships. The website AshleyMadison.com uses the trademarked slogan “Life is short. Have an affair.” Isn’t that lovely?

An article in Time asserts that “cheating has never been easier” now that the AshleyMadison website has applications for iPhone and Blackberry. The site has 4 million members and includes options for males seeking males and females seeking females. I guess cheating is for everyone! Watch CEO Noel Biderman get grilled by the hosts of The View (a person involved with a website that facilitates cheating makes an easy target). He downplays the influence of the website by saying “AshleyMadison.com didn’t invent infidelity.” Touché.

While reading up on the topic of online dating, I came across an article in the New York Times that refers to Cheekd.com as “the next generation of online dating.”

Members purchase cards with phrases and give them to people they encounter in everyday life. One example is “I am totally cooler than your date.” See someone in a restaurant who you think is good-looking? Walk by someone on the street that looks interesting? Simply hand them a card with an identification code that allows the person to find you on the website. Lori Cheek, the founder of the website, says: “It’s almost like you’re shopping online, but you’re shopping in real life.” Cool idea, I guess it gives new meaning to “pick up lines.” I wonder if they have a card that says “Are you from Tennessee? Because you’re the only 10 I see.” Sorry, couldn’t help myself.

I know of two couples who were definitely satisfied with their online dating experiences. Heather and Brian (pictured on their wedding day) met on eHarmony, have been married for over a year, and are expecting their first child soon. Heather explained something she and her husband liked about eHarmony: “We both agree now that many of the things that their questionnaire asked about definitely make us more compatible than some other couples that we know. They focused on values and how we viewed the roles of husband and wife.” As for Jonathan and Nhein, they met on Match.com and then married. No kids yet, but they have a cute little dog!

Do you know anyone who has tried online dating? If so, what has their experience been like? What can we infer about the sociological meanings of relationships?

September 27, 2010

Inequality and Life Chances: Going to Law School or Going to Prison

KS_2010a By Karen Sternheimer

Sociologist Max Weber observed that one’s opportunities, what sociologists call “life chances,” are shaped by our class and status. While we tend to think of success as the sole result of our talent and effort, our social position is in many ways a result of our family’s social status.

Imagine two young men from vastly different backgrounds—both bright, neither exactly sure what direction they want their lives to take. One resides in an impoverished area of Los Angeles in a neighborhood plagued by gangs and violence. The other grows up in Washington, D.C. and attends an exclusive prep school with children of the political elite. Neither is particularly committed to their studies, and both find themselves adrift. Can you guess who ends up in law school and who ends up in prison?

This is not a hypothetical example, but one that attorney Ian Graham details in his memoir, Unbillable Hours: A True Story. The book focuses on Graham’s experience working to free Mario Rocha from prison, who was serving a double-life sentence for a murder he didn’t commit.

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Rocha had drifted from being an honors student to skipping school to hang out with his friends, and at fifteen was placed on probation after riding as a passenger in a stolen car. In 1996, when he was sixteen, Rocha attended a party crashed by gang members, who shot and killed an honors student. Rocha wasn’t in a gang, but a party goer identified him as one of the shooters from a photo line-up—where his picture ended up after his arrest the year before. Despite the lack of evidence of a third shooter, Rocha was arrested for murder. (To learn more about the case, watch Mario's Story on DVD).

His mother, who scraped by as a custodian, took out a $17,000 mortgage on her home in order to pay for what the family hoped would be better legal representation than a public defender could offer. But the attorney they hired (who had approached the family soliciting his services) barely did any work on Rocha’s behalf, and he allowed the prosecution to try Rocha along with the two known gang members. Rocha was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Meanwhile, Graham finished college with what he writes were less than stellar grades and without a clear plan. And yet he was able to secure an entry level job as a staffer on Capitol Hill while he figured out what he wanted to do—a job that someone from Rocha’s background would have a hard time getting even with good grades.

While peer pressure led many in Rocha’s neighborhood to join gangs and drop out of school school, Graham’s friends went to graduate school or got high paying jobs on Wall Street. Feeling like he was “falling behind,” he decided to go to law school and try and figure things out there.

After doing well his first year, large law firms courted Graham with fancy dinners and the promise of a six-figure salary. By his own admission, he had little interest in working for a big law firm but was tempted by the money and found himself working long hours doing mind-numbing work. (The work sounded so dull that after reading about it I actually had a nightmare about being locked in a room all night to analyze documents I couldn’t understand. Anyone who is planning on going into law should read his description of life at a big firm.)

In order to do something that might be more interesting, Graham volunteered to work on one of the firm’s pro bono cases. Coincidentally, the firm had recently agreed to take on Rocha’s case and try and win him a new trial, and the book details how Graham and his colleagues set about to help Rocha gain his freedom. (In 2006 Rocha was released from prison and is now attending college in Washington, D.C.)

Although this story has something of a happy ending—Rocha got out of prison and Graham left the big law firm—it serves as a reminder of the different obstacles and opportunities people might face based on social class.

Their struggles to find a sense of purpose and freedom led each on remarkably different paths. Graham worked crazy hours, pulling many all-nighters to try and manage an impossible workload. But he was well compensated, although shackled by “golden handcuffs” of a big salary that made it difficult to leave the firm. But for Rocha the costs were far higher. His shackles were real, as he spent ten years in a maximum-security prison and endured two brutal stabbings by other inmates. While both eventually found direction, Rocha had lost years of valuable young adult experiences learning to survive on his own. Today he is dealing with many of the same challenges people a decade younger struggle with.

“Mario was at least as bright as I was, possibly more so,” Graham writes, “but he had grown up in the LA barrio, without the opportunities, benefits, and second chances of a privileged upbringing. I wondered how I would have fared growing up in his world, and he in mine.”

A good reminder of how social class impacts our life chances.

September 23, 2010

The Educational Equality Debate in Wake County

image By S. Michael Gaddis

Doctoral Student, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

In Raleigh, North Carolina, the last year has been fraught with turmoil over a school reassignment plan that has been in place since 2000. The Wake County economic integration plan redistributed the socioeconomic mix of students in schools by busing students to other schools. The goal of the plan was to strike a better balance in the district, so that poor children were not attending schools with high percentages of other poor children. Some parents were upset because the plan placed their children in schools outside their immediate neighborhoods and resulted in longer bus rides. However, the data indicated that the plan was working to improve test scores for some groups of students, including black and Hispanic students.

Although the plan may seem unusual, it stems from sociological research conducted by James Coleman and other researchers in the 1960s on educational inequality. The research team undertook what was then the largest examination of students and schools in the U.S. They examined the effects of school resources and other school-level variables on student outcomes and found that “the social composition of the student body is more highly related to achievement, independent of the student's own social background, than is any other school factor.” These findings suggested that black students would perform better in more integrated schools than they would in the mostly segregated schools that existed at the time. This research spurred the implementation of desegregation busing in school districts across the United States.

By the 1969 case of Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education, just three years after the publication of the Coleman Report, the mandate was clear that state and local governments must work to integrate schools and the racial composition of schools began to change. From the mid-1960s to the early-1970s, the percentage of black students in overwhelmingly majority (90-100%) non-white schools, dropped by nearly 50%. However, subsequent court cases began to dismantle integration programs and black parents were left with limited legal options just as “white flight” began to take hold and large numbers of white families moved to the suburbs.

In 2000, the decision to integrate students in Wake County on the basis of economic status instead of race was essentially a new way of looking at an old problem. However, when a 2007 court case ruled that school districts could no longer assign students to schools for the singular purpose of racial integration, the few districts using an integration plan like Raleigh's garnered a lot of national attention. If integration plans were to be used at all, the economic model seemed like the only option.

So, why all the fuss over what some call “forced” integration plans? Should individuals be able to choose to self-segregate and put their children in schools with similar other children, whether that similarity is based on race, class, or both? The passion of this debate comes from the notion that all students should have an equal opportunity in their education. Many believe that “separate is inherently unequal” applies to any categorization in the spectrum of inequality, whether race, class, or otherwise.

From the days of the earliest busing orders, both policymakers and education researchers have attempted to determine if integrating schools improves academic outcomes for students. Scholars have suggested a number of different ways that the integration of students might have some impact, but analyzing non-experimental data is difficult and can sometimes lead to misinformed conclusions. Additionally, the results of quantitative data are no comparison to the emotional firepower of the impassioned pleas of citizens. Most parents in Wake County aren't reading the Coleman Report or the any of the research. Instead, they draw upon their own experience opinions about the plan. The two sides in this debate have butted heads in a case of individual choice vs. public equality. A majority of voters in Raleigh elected a school board that promised to end the integration plan and those board members had to listen to their constituents.

Whether beneficial or not, it seems that the idea of economic integration may be on the way out. In March of this year, the Raleigh school board voted to end the reassignment plan. It remains to be seen whether other districts across the nation will end their reassignment plans as well. How might the mixing of students based on socioeconomic status lead to changes in their academic outcomes? What other alternatives might school districts be able to implement in order to provide students with equal opportunities for education?

September 20, 2010

The Significance of Social Structure

new sally By Sally Raskoff

Can you imagine what it’s like to be absent from your normal social routines? Consider the plight of the miners stuck in a Chilean mine. At the time of this writing, they are in the second month of a projected three to four month waiting period to be rescued from the collapsed mine.

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Apparently the miners have set up routines and roles to help keep them mentally healthy (as much as possible given the circumstances). Each has a specific role to play and tasks to complete to keep them all fed and their “living” space clean.

These people, trapped in a confined space with remote hopes of immediate rescue, bring to mind many parallel situations. The recent TV show Lost is one – although they were not underground and were able to move freely and let the sun regulate their days. And of course that the story was fictional.

People who have chosen to go into underground spaces have a parallel experience but for the fact that they have chosen the experience. Veronique Le Guen and Michael Siffre come to mind.

Michel Siffre started his cave isolation experiments in 1962, spending two months underground at a time. Ten years later he spent six months in a Texas cave, although it is unclear if he was alone or had company. Veronique Le Guen spent 111 days alone in an underground cave in France in 1988. She documented the experience of extreme isolation from the sun and from society. Le Guen and Siffre’s experiences have added to the field of “human chronobiology,” knowledge of how humans cope with isolation from time cues and other elements.

image Siffre approached his time underground as scientific research and thus had systematic plans on what to do and how to structure his approach and experiences. Although her cave experience supposedly was prompted by scientific aims, it doesn’t seem that she had much structure to guide her during those 111 days. Le Guen committed suicide in 1990, only two years after her isolation experiences.

Social structure, including roles and norms, emerges from human interaction. Even in isolation, we can create some structure to mimic the presence of society. In fact, by creating roles and norms, we are not just mimicking society, we are creating it!

In the movie, Castaway, the Tom Hanks character creates Wilson, the volleyball companion so that he can have some “human” interaction in the efforts to retain and protect his sanity as he continues to live on his island.

At our campus, we have a one-unit class in which students spend two days simulating a society. We play the game SIMSOC, invented by sociologist William Gamson. The game demonstrates that when a group of people get together, structure emerges. While there is a book that lays out the rules of the game, not all (but most) students read it. This nicely mirrors society in which some people find out the rules while others navigate through their lives without knowing how to get things done. At the end of the game, students have a really good sense of how society emerges from – and is different from – human interaction.

The miners in Chile have a few more months to wait before they are rescued and can emerge from their underground micro-society. Their stories, along with those of disaster survivors, astronauts, submariners, and severely neglected children are fascinating accounts of how humans can be ripped away from society but sometimes manage to recreate societal elements. They provide a basis for better understanding how humans create society and how society, in turn, makes us fully human.

September 16, 2010

Culture and Visiting the Doctor's Office

new janis By Janis Prince Inniss

If you went off to a far away land (pick the place on the map with which you’re most unfamiliar!) and spent several months gathering data for an ethnographic study of that country’s culture, you would probably have no trouble spotting all the “strange” aspects of that culture.

You might notice peculiar foods, perhaps a strange—or at least foreign—language, the clothing might appear odd, and more than likely, if you were paying close attention you would see many ceremonies that you found perplexing. Anthropologists and sociologists are two kinds of social scientists who might embark upon such as expedition. (Bonus points: Would anthropologists and sociologists study the same cultures? How might their subject matter in this arena differ?)

Perhaps in one of your classes you have seen a film about a ”distant” culture and noticed some of the things I mentioned here. But have you ever turned that sense of wonder inward – to yourself and your culture?

It’s harder to see yourself than it is to see others, but have you ever played a game where you try to see your own culture through the eyes of someone unfamiliar with it? Have you ever thought about what would stand out about our lives to someone from a very different culture?

Most of the time, we are too close to our way of being to be able to see it objectively. For example, it’s easy to see in a documentary or in your field research that a witch doctor or medicine man performs with grand ceremony. Perhaps we learn that the medicine man must prepare by eating certain foods for a prescribed period of time. Maybe the medicine man performs his ceremony accompanied by ceremonial music and even has a carefully prepared and practiced dance as part of the ritual. We might note that once the ceremony begins, there are other symbols used. And we might wonder what each symbol represents. Imagine that all of this leads to a patient receiving medicine from the medicine man. Now think about whether there are any parallels between this description and your experiences of ceremony surrounding the dispensing of medicine in the U.S.

clip_image002Do you see any parallels? Or are you thinking that there is no ceremony with the dispensation of medicine here? Do you presume that your doctor does consume special foods in preparation for seeing patients? More than likely your doctor does not dance into the room to see you to a specific song—in fact, I doubt that your physician dances in your room at all. So does this mean there is no ceremonial aspect of seeing a physician in the U.S.?

Have you read Horace Miner’s brilliant essay “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema”? If you haven’t, this would be a great time to do so, as continuing to read this piece could spoil it for you. Finished it? Good. Now, using the same element of detachment and observation that Miner exemplifies in that piece, think about your last visit to a doctor. More than likely, your first order of business upon visiting “the medicine man” was to offer your “substantial gift” or at least verify that some entity would provide that gift to the medicine man. After waiting, you were probably called into the back where the rest of the ceremony would take place. You are weighed; your height and then your vital signs are checked. And is there special music for this ceremony? Sure thing! Usually it’s elevator music, right? After you sit on the special ceremonial seat adorned with its distinct paper, the doctor finally comes in right?

Is there something magical about waiting for the doctor? Should we consider that part of the ceremony given that we often experience waits to see the doctor? Doesn’t the doctor have special ‘magical’ tools to aid in your examination? And at the end of the visit, as Miner describes it, the doctor uses a coded language to another specialist who will then grant you special “potions” which have healing properties.

clip_image004What about the doctor’s clothing? Does your doctor wear ceremonial attire? No? Of course, she does. She wears a white coat. As you can see in the video (above) many physicians receive their first white coat once they begin to see patients, or even at the beginning of medical school in a white coat ceremony. (This is a ritual adopted by many other of the health professions.) And what is the white coat, if not a part of the ceremonial dress worn by medicine men/physicians?

If we are ethnocentric, it’s easy to think that going to a doctor in another culture would follow this format; if not we might think their medical practices inferior to ours. Because we are so familiar with our own culture, sometimes we hardly notice its existence. We might take for granted that things just happen to be that way. And that any other way is simply, wrong. But to an outsider, our ways may be as odd as theirs are to us.

September 13, 2010

Fishing as a Metaphor for Social Interaction

todd_S_2010bBy Todd Schoepflin

Fishing is an art. It requires a great deal of skill and coordination. The same is true of social interaction, even if we don’t think of it that way. Interaction takes place almost every second of every day. So much interaction takes place that most people take it for granted. The student of sociology never does.

When I recently stopped for lunch at a waterfront location, I could see several people fishing. I was inspired by the view (the picture doesn’t do it justice) and reflected on the nature of social interaction.

When you fish you cast your line into a body of water. To interact you cast yourself into a sea of people. You look for somebody familiar, or interesting. You interact with someone you’ve connected with a thousand times before. Or you catch someone new with the glimpse of an eye. You smile, maybe even flirt. You shake hands. You friend them on Facebook. You hug them. You make love to them. So many interactions, so little time.

When you fish around others, sometimes your lines get crossed. The same is true in social interaction. You misread somebody. You fail to catch someone’s drift. You can’t get on the same page. You argue with text messages. You misinterpret nonverbal communication. You take them the wrong way. You incorrectly assume their intentions and motives. Sometimes you are able to clear up your misunderstanding and sustain your interaction. Other times, there’s no use. It seems like every time you talk to this person you hit a snag.

You go fishing with hopes, of course, of catching a fish. Sometimes, in the world of social interaction, you fish for information. We love to gossip. We love information (but not too much information). We love stories. We love scandal. We love drama (usually, other people’s drama). We’d like to practice what our mothers told us—“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”—but its awfully hard to follow.

When you fish, you use bait. And sometimes you do the same in social interaction. You bend the truth to get what you want. You dangle a reward in front of image somebody to get what you want. You might even threaten someone to get what you want. And you hope they take the bait--hook, line, and sinker.

And it must be said that no one is born knowing how to fish. A toddler doesn’t know how to put a worm on a hook. She must be taught. She can’t cast her line into the water. She must be instructed. And so it is with social interaction. A baby cannot talk nor understand the nuances of gestures and facial expressions. He doesn’t know the purpose of a dirty look or a wink. But over time he learns the rules of interaction, first from family, then his peers, and even from television.

Once the person is taught the tools (and rules) of interaction, she uses them for a lifetime. However, it should be said that people occasionally depart from the rules. There are norms of social interaction, but they are not always followed. We call this deviance. Deviate from the norms and you may face a consequence. We call them sanctions.

Whatever the case, we are always reminded by the people around us of the “right” way to interact. People talk of courtesy. They talk in terms of etiquette. Remember, we are told, it’s not polite to have your cell phone on at this or that moment. Don’t talk too loudly, we tell our children at the library. Don’t laugh too loud at a funeral, that’s not appropriate. Don’t covet your neighbor’s wife (That one’s a commandment!)

Sometimes, you fish alone. But a lot of times, others are around you. It reminds you that most action is social action. When others are present, you can’t fish as if no else is there. You are mindful of them, you take them into account. To avoid fishing the same space, or to avoid crossing lines, you align your actions.

And even when you are alone, your thoughts soon drift to the people in your life. Your parents. Your friends. Your co-workers. Even without recognizing it, you’re thinking of (and preparing for) your next interaction. And how long can you go without checking your cell phone for missed calls?

You are finished fishing. You didn’t catch anything. It’s time to go home. Or to work. Or to school. You would have liked to stay longer. There’s so much more fishing to do. And so it goes here. This is a tiny view of social interaction. I didn’t cover all angles. I didn’t account for all perspectives. Interactions happen in so many ways and involve so many people. There’s so much more to consider. But it sure is fun to fish for a while. And it’s a joy to think about the wonders of social interaction.

September 09, 2010

Philanthropy: Giving and Receiving

new sally By Sally Raskoff

clip_image002I recently spent a lovely afternoon in a comfortable space with a great view and access to books, photographs and a collection of the world’s greatest art. During my half-day visit to this place, the only money I spent was on food. The grounds were rich with flowering plants, even in the summer heat, and beautiful stone tiles making the walls and floors. Upon leaving, I felt rested, invigorated, and ready to do anything!

What makes my relaxing day possible? Philanthropy! I spent my afternoon at the Getty Museum here in Los Angeles.

J. Paul Getty (pictured at right) made a lot of money in the oil business and the Getty Trust, that operates the Museum, is his legacy.

Did you see the recent news about the 40 billionaires who have pledged to give away half of their wealth? Reading the letters on givingpledge.org, it is clear that many of these philanthropists are giving their personal wealth to self-named foundations, as Mr. Getty had done years before.

These billionaires give their money through their foundations to benefit health, art, education, and many other institutions and issues in society. These practices link to the historical expectations of noblesse oblige where the fortunate to do something socially responsible with their fortune – or at least with some of it.

Using such large sums of money for the public good is commendable. Yet research suggests that philanthropic efforts benefit the donors far beyond any effects on the general public. Foundations may do a good job at moving their funds towards other organizations that know what they are doing or hiring people with expertise to take on the various functions. For example, if one’s mission is to eradicate a disease, working with researchers and building coalitions with other non-profits can bring much new information to light.

Such funds are not always used so effectively, depending on how the money is managed and the clarity of the organization’s goals.

There might be other reasons for such large-scale generosity. The Gates Foundation was founded at roughly the same time as Microsoft was indicted for violating monopoly laws. While there might have been separate reasons for these two events, their simultaneous occurrence makes one wonder if it affected the sentencing (or lack thereof). In any case, creating a foundation that does philanthropic purposes does give the donor a hefty tax break thus there are benefits besides the satisfaction that may come from using the funds for good works.

The Getty Trust is one of the largest foundations, especially in the art world. Their museum in Los Angles is free, so their collection and exhibits are accessible to virtually anyone. Parking isn’t cheap, though, and the Getty facilities are located off a freeway at the edge of a mountain range. It’s not an easy walk from anywhere.

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Foundations and museums that offer access to gardens, art, or other exhibits often have at least one free day a month so anyone can visit to appreciate the collections. However, things other than entry costs often limit access to these places.

Some people might not see the point in looking at particular art pieces or walking through botanical garden. Practically speaking, stepping outside your usual routine or travel through a city or town may not be possible since that may mean losing work or finding transportation that may not exist.

There might also be limits on whose work is being shared because foundations focus on particular types of art or plants. While in Los Angeles we have many different museums featuring different types of art, not all museums are easily accessible to the public.

Sociologically speaking, there are many pros and cons to the phenomenon of philanthropy. While capitalistic excesses may eventually get funneled back into public venues and purposes, there is a tremendous time lag and not all social issues may be addressed by these funds. Philanthropy does not seek to level the playing field; it is controlled by the elite and for the most part they choose which causes to support and how to support them.

September 06, 2010

The Hidden Nature of Wealth

KS_2010a By Karen Sternheimer

During a recent in-class exercise, I had my students play a game. Each of them got cards denoting a certain point value, and the object of the game was to negotiate with one another to trade cards and end with the most points.

After the game was over, we talked about the strategies they used to try and maximize their points. Some people felt like they had enough and decided not to trade with their classmates at all. Others wheeled and dealed to get points and sometimes lied, even to their friends. A few students felt like they had plenty and gave cards away for fewer points than they received in return.

While at first it might seem like the game only revealed individual differences, as they talked about the cards they started off with many students were stunned to find out how many more points their classmates had at the start of the game. The game’s “winner” had doubled his points, but he also started off with far points more than most of his peers.

Just as in real life, people started this game with far more than others, and no one was told exactly how much anyone else had. Students had to learn during the game that having a lot of cards did not necessarily mean the cards had high point values. And just like in real life, we tend to think that people who have the fanciest cars, most expensive clothes, and extravagant homes are the wealthiest. But wealth is often more hidden than we think.

While many people attempt to convey status through consumption, most of us keep our true net worth a secret. We learn early on not to share our annual income with others, even close friends and family members. It’s often considered tacky to talk about how much wealth we have accumulated, or shameful to mention our debt. Instead we use consumption as a proxy for displaying signs of wealth, but it isn’t an accurate measure.

Your friend with the new car and brand-name everything might have a mountain of credit card debt. And the third richest man in the world, billionaire Warren Buffett, lives in same suburban home he purchased in 1958 in Omaha, Nebraska.

Buffett’s wealth isn’t exactly a secret, since his net worth is a mainstay on Forbes magazine’s list, but most Americans aren’t aware of exactly how much money the wealthiest among us have accumulated. Nor do we tend to know how concentrated wealth in America actually is. In 2007, the wealthiest 1% owned 35% of Americans' total net worth, while the bottom 80% owned 15%.

You’ve likely heard the phrase “a rising tide lifts all boats,” meaning we all benefit from a good economy. When times are good, some boats (or yachts) rise far higher than others. During the economic boom of the 1990s, a time we now often look back on with nostalgia considering the sluggish economy we have today, the vast majority of the gains went to the top 1%. According to a study by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), between 1979 and 1997 the average annual after tax income rose 157% for the top 1%, but actually fell by 1% for the poorest 20% of Americans.

clip_image002

Source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

The disparity between the wealthiest 1% grew even bigger during the 2000s. According to economists Thomas Pikkety and Emmanuel Saez, the incomes of the top 1% grew on average more than $521,000 per year between 2002 and 2007. According to their research, during this time the top tenth of one percent grew by an average of nearly $3.5 million per year. In the same five year period the average annual income of the bottom 90% grew by about $1,200 per year.

During these tough economic times, many people might be thrilled to have any income and would be even more excited if their incomes grew at all. As the Los Angeles Times reported earlier this year, the recession has touched just about everyone, even the wealthy. In 2008, the number of millionaires in the United States declined…but soon rebounded in 2009 as the stock market rose.

By contrast, the unemployment rate has hovered near 10% for better than a year, and home values remain depressed. Most Americans’ economic well being stems from income from work and from home equity, while the wealthiest 1% typically gets most of their income from investments and are less impacted by a bad job market or by real estate fluctuations.

The Times article also reports on a study that showed an increase in the concentration of wealth between 2007 and 2009:

“The recession is going to end up accentuating the inequalities of income and wealth we've seen for 30 years,” said Larry Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. “This requires attention if we're going to see robust wealth growth going forward.”

The hidden nature of wealth enables inequality to flourish. Some of my students felt angry when they learned that their classmates had started the game with so much more than they did. Others admitted that they began to look down on their classmates who had little to trade during the game. Overall they demonstrated a variety of different strategies and reactions to the way the game was structured. But it is much easier to play if you know how the game works.

September 02, 2010

Testing Toddlers

image By Hilary Levey

Post-doctoral Fellow, Harvard University

I neither have children, nor do I live in New York City. Yet, I felt stressed out when I heard the recent news that the New York City Department of Education may begin testing three-year-olds for places in kindergarten classrooms at public schools. If the Department of Education goes forward with this plan, they must work to ensure that all children have equal opportunities to gain admission. Otherwise the current proposal will only worsen a worrying trend towards unequal access to the City’s best schools.

New York City has long been dedicated to its gifted and talented youth and many of its schools serve as exemplary models for schools nationwide. Students gain admission to most elementary school programs by taking two tests at age four or five: the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test and the Bracken School Readiness Assessment. Prior to 2007, application dossiers included teacher evaluations. But beginning in 2008 the decision comes down solely to performance on these clip_image002standardized tests.

The shift to age three testing is meant to help parents make decisions about their children’s education sooner rather than later. This sped-up process highlights the current competitive culture among the five-and-under set in wealthier parts of New York City, where the prevailing wisdom is that where a child attends kindergarten determines whether or not the Ivy League will ever be in reach.

Parents are understandably extremely anxious about their children’s long-term educational and economic futures. Given the current economic environment, fewer parents can afford to send their kids to private schools, so getting their little ones into a gifted classroom is more important than ever. Some some public elementary New York City schools have recently not had enough space to accommodate neighborhood children, which helps explain the emergence of Aristotle Circle and Bright Kids NYC. These companies, for a price (we’re talking up to four figures), will do test prep for three- and four-year-olds, selling parents the possibility of securing lifelong bragging rights about their children.

But kindergarten admission is about more than just bragging rights for parents. New research by a group of economists shows that what happens in kindergarten matters a lot. A better kindergarten class improves not only your odds of going to college and earning a good living, but also the chance that you marry or own a home. The researchers also found that by age 27 students who had had more experienced kindergarten teachers earned an average of $900 per year more than peers who had less experienced kindergarten teachers.

It turns out that the results from a standardized test that determines placement in gifted programs actually does prove useful in predicting how successful you will be later in life, according to their research. Despite constant complaints about standardized tests—that they favor girls over boys, as well as members of the middle class—the fact is that they do a reasonably good job of measuring something that predicts success later in life, especially if you think of success in terms of income (though, this is debatable, of course). So we can’t blame the tests themselves, even if three- or four-year-olds are the test takers.

What we can do is blame a system that provides differential access to information about the tests and stacks the deck against low-income families. This information ranges from the most basic type (how and when to take the right tests, and the basic components of each test) to the more complex (how to prepare a four-year-old to sit still for thirty to forty minutes while interacting with a strange adult). Perhaps the most worrisome fact is that since 2008 when the City switched to using these exams exclusively, the number of minority gifted kindergartners has dropped by nearly 20%.

As a sociologist, I worry about such inequality. One relatively simple step the Department of Education could take to ensure that preschool testing doesn’t exacerbate existing inequality is to provide information about the testing, along with test-prep materials, to all preschool parents. More specifically, they should target Head Start centers, where parental networks are strong but knowledge about these topics may not be as extensive as it is among parents who frequent UrbanBaby.com or belong to a Soho parenting group.

I care about this issue not only because I’m a social scientist but also because I hope to be a parent one day. And though I may not parent in New York City, I do care about the decisions of the New York Department of Education. New York is a trendsetter in many ways—so it should set the right trends in areas that really matter. What are other steps New York City, and other school systems around the country, could take to promote more equal access to gifted education?

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