8 posts from July 2009

July 28, 2009

Porn Stars and Public Health

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

Recently, news broke that a Los Angeles porn actress tested positive for the HIV virus. Take a look at how different articles addressed this topic:


Los Angeles Times

United Press International (UPI)

ABC News

e! Science News

Yahoo News


Oddly enough, Perez Hilton’s version was the only one that mentioned the importance of using condoms to prevent disease.

I heard someone on the radio suggest that LA rate porn film shoots like they do restaurants. In LA, restaurants must post their quality ratings based on public health inspections so customers can be informed about a kitchen’s cleanliness. Suggesting that porn film locations do the same is odd since the public does not patronize the actual work site nor is visiting or working at such a site a “choice” for someone who needs the job.

Suggesting that the city fund such ratings for the benefit of a few workers who already have the job before they step onto the site seems a colossal waste of taxpayer funds in these lean times.

If the issue is fear of spreading HIV, then public funds would be better spent on sex education, since the rates of sexually transmitted diseases in the general population are a more significant public health hazard than actors within the adult media industry are.


Source: http://www.prb.org/Datafinder/Topic/Map.aspx?variable=43

It is important for the adult entertainment industry to monitor and control the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The industry does test for some but by no means all STIs that may infect their workers. However if they did test for more than HIV, chlamydia, syphilis, and gonorrhea, as they currently do, the industry might lose most of its current workers!


Source: Chlamydia_Fig1_2007CDC.jpg

According to this Reuters article, the porn industry employs 1,200 actors, and since 2004, 1,357 actors have tested positive for gonorrhea, 15 for syphilis, and 22 for HIV. (You might be wondering how there could be more people with gonorrhea than the total number of actors—this figure is an annual average and there is significant turnover in the industry). These statistics, suggest a very high STI rate. But the most commonly occurring STI, chlamydia, is not included in this study.

Let’s consider STIs in context with another illness we’ve heard a lot about this year. The swine flu, H1N1, is considered a pandemic. A pandemic is typically defined as an infectious disease that spreads across some number of continents, potentially infecting a wide group of humans. Using this basic definition, one might wonder why sexually transmitted infections aren’t defined or perceived as pandemics although they too are shared across populations that do range across the globe.

If STIs were indeed defined as pandemics, more resources could be garnered to fight them and to stop their transmission. As it is, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) do what they can to track the numbers and raise awareness.

At the very least, our country could be doing more to better educate its population about sex and STIs. As it is, only 20 of our 50 states (plus the District of Columbia) mandate sex education and none require that forms of contraception, including condom use, be stressed in that curriculum.


Source: http://www.guttmacher.org/sections/sti.php

When STIs hit the news as a threat to the porn industry rather than as a public health issue, sociology can help us understand why we choose to focus on the threat as it affects others instead of ourselves.

What sociological theories or concepts might be useful here? Even though its profit margin is eroding (possibly due to the internet), porn does generate millions of profit for a variety of businesses, like hotels, satellite and cable companies, and media outlets. Would the issue of corporate power and the context of our capitalist system help us understand this issue more? What other sociological concepts might give us some insight?

July 24, 2009

Is Justice Truly Blind? Judge Sonia Sotomayor and Standpoint Perspective

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

President Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Judge Sonia Sotomayor of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, was born to parents who emigrated from Puerto Rico and lived in a housing project in the Bronx. Judge Sotomayor became a summa cum laude Princeton graduate, alum of Yale Law School, and former editor of the Yale Law Journal. Judge Sotomayor has gained lots of publicity not because of her nomination alone, or the fact that she is the first Hispanic nominated to this position, (and, if confirmed, she would be only the third woman on the Supreme Court) but because of two other reasons.

First, in a 2001 speech she gave at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law she said, “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life.” Second, Judge Sotomayor was on a bench that upheld a lower court decision that allowed the city of New Haven, Connecticut to throw out promotion test results that seemed to favor white over minority firefighters. This ruling has been overturned.

Debate surrounding Judge Sotomayor’s nomination have highlighted two perspectives. One, that seems to be the view of the judge herself and the other encapsulated by the opening remarks of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions at the confirmation hearings. The first perspective can be examined by looking at Judge Sotomayor’s 2001 talk, responding to the notion that judges must “transcend” their “personal sympathies” in which she said:

I wonder whether achieving that goal is possible in all or even in most cases… I accept the thesis of a law school classmate, Professor Steven Carter of Yale Law School, in his affirmative action book that in any group of human beings there is a diversity of opinion because there is both a diversity of experiences and of thought. Thus, as noted by …Professor Judith Resnik … there is not a single voice of feminism, not a feminist approach but many who are exploring the possible ways of being that are distinct from those structured in a world dominated by the power and words of men.

That same point can be made with respect to people of color. No one person, judge or nominee will speak in a female or people of color voice. I need not remind you that Justice Clarence Thomas represents a part but not the whole of African-American thought on many subjects. Yet, because I accept the proposition that, as Judge Resnik describes it, "to judge is an exercise of power" and because as, another former law school classmate, Professor Martha Minnow of Harvard Law School, states "there is no objective stance but only a series of perspectives - no neutrality, no escape from choice in judging," I further accept that our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions. The aspiration to impartiality is just that—it's an aspiration because it denies the fact that we are by our experiences making different choices than others.

…Judge Cedarbaum has pointed out to me that seminal decisions in race and sex discrimination cases have come from Supreme Courts composed exclusively of white males. I agree that this is significant but I also choose to emphasize that the people who argued those cases before the Supreme Court which changed the legal landscape ultimately were largely people of color and women…

Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see. My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas with which I am unfamiliar. I simply do not know exactly what that difference will be in my judging. But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage.

A highly contrasting view is offered by Senator Sessions.

Note that Senator Sessions says:

I believe our legal system is at a dangerous crossroads. Down one path is the traditional American legal system, so admired around the world, where judges impartially apply the law to the facts without regard to their own personal views. This is the compassionate system because this is the fair system…Down the other path lies a Brave New World where words have no true meaning and judges are free to decide what facts they choose to see…I will not vote for—no senator should vote for—an individual nominated by any President who is not fully committed to fairness and impartiality towards every person who appears before them. I will not vote for—no senator should vote for—an individual nominated by any President who believes it is acceptable for a judge to allow their own personal background, gender, prejudices, or sympathies to sway their decision in favor of, or against, parties before the court.

My personal and professional experiences tell me that although our race/class/gender may not define us—and that may be debatable—it’s hard to deny these do influence us. And that’s not only true for those of us who—like Judge Sotomayor—are of a “different” race/class/gender. What do you think? And what evidence do you have one way or another? Do you think that our backgrounds shape us? Influence us? What aspects of our life do you think continue to impact us, even as adults? Race? Class? Gender?

These are three of the “biggies” that sociologists study. In fact, studies related to gender and race and even academic departments devoted to studying these areas have given us a deep understanding about how race, gender, and class impact our lives. For example, there’s a 2001 study on hiring discrimination which shows that white men with felony convictions receive job offers ahead of black men without criminal histories. Research indicates that being black, male, and of low education and income is related to longer prison sentences. There is the discrepancy in crack/cocaine sentencing. The Judge Sotomayor’s hearings brought my attention to two studies that found that women on state supreme courts and on the appellate benches—more so than men on these courts—tend to uphold women’s claims in cases of sexual discrimination and defendants’ claims in search and seizure cases. Stated differently, men on these courts are less likely to uphold women’s claims in cases of sexual discrimination and defendants’ claims in search and seizure cases. I restated the findings of the studies to highlight that gender influenced male and female judges.

Africana Studies departments, Asian Studies Departments and Women’s Studies departments were at least in part created because these subjects are worthy of study and had historically been excluded from the academy. With the introduction of race, class, and gender studies social scientists started to pay more attention to the person of researchers: their race, class, and gender, for example. We thought about the ways in which what we know had been shaped by the race, class, and gender of those who brought us this knowledge. Does experiencing oppression, for example, provide its recipients with a particular vision? How about growing up with abundance or opulence? In her classic book, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, sociologist Patricia Hill Collins talks about the “shared angle of vision” of black women. These ideas are relevant to standpoint theory—simply, the idea that what we see/know/attend to is influenced by our group membership.

In her confirmation hearing Judge Sotomayor responded to concern about her “wise Latina" comment:

She said:

I want to state up front, unequivocally and without doubt, I do not believe that any ethnic, racial or gender group has an advantage in sound judging. I do believe that every person has an equal opportunity to be a good and wise judge regardless of their background or life experiences… I think the system is strengthened when judges don't assume they're impartial, but when judges test themselves to identify when their emotions are driving a result, or their experience are driving a result and the law is not.

Although Judge Sotomayor’s nomination hearings frame it that way, the central issue at hand is not J0283833 whether one perspective advocates being impartial based on personal characteristics while the other promotes impartiality. One perspectives takes as a given that our personal background and perspective matters, while the other says it does not. 

July 21, 2009

The Myth of Imported Immigrant Success

By Tamara K. Nopper, Ph.D.

Adjunct Assistant Professor, Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania



If I had a dollar for every time I heard people claim that Asian immigrants do well because they migrate with the human capital to succeed, I’d be able to…do many things.

A common sociological explanation for economic inequality between Asian immigrants and “native born minorities,” the importation thesis posits that the “development” of third world countries and policy dictates for skilled and educated labor have resulted in imported success. In other words, immigrants come in with more human capital and thus are able to effectively compete against and sometimes economically surpass other racial groups.

Whereas biological and cultural explanations focus on ethnic group characteristics as facilitators of success or failure, the importation thesis is preoccupied with the selectivity of immigration policy that has diversified the types of migrants the U.S. recruits and receives. Emphasizing the landmark 1965 Immigration Act, which set in motion the increased immigration of ethnicities previously restricted from entry or naturalization, scholars have refocused our attention on the state’s role in shaping contemporary economic inequality between racial groups.

Nevertheless, there are limitations to this approach. First, we can’t simply discuss aspects of immigration policy that favor skills because the majority of post-1965 permanent residents come in under family provisions and therefore don’t necessarily meet skill requirements. Immigration scholars know this and thus many look to other factors to explain economic assimilation. One is what sociologists Alejandro Portes and Ruben G. Rumbaut label the “contexts of reception,” which involves “the kind of community created by [their] co-nationals.” However, unless we explicitly trace how the state collaborates with ethnic institutions, we end up coming back to what’s presumably particular about ethnic groups—as if ethnic contexts flourish outside the purview of the state. In the process, we ignore the ways state institutions assist immigrants in their quest for socioeconomic mobility after arrival, albeit to differing degrees.

While conducting my dissertation research on Korean banks’ and U.S. federal government agencies’ contributions to Korean immigrant entrepreneurship, I became more familiar with such efforts. They involved collaborations between Korean banks, non-profits, and federal government organizations, including the Small Business Administration, the Minority Business Development Agency, the White House Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders—the only White House commission at the time dedicated to economic development among non-whites (Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans had commissions focusing on educational opportunities)—and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).

Korean immigrants aren’t the only ones receiving institutional support. There are multiple projects sponsored by government institutions to economically incorporate immigrants of many backgrounds. For example, the FDIC sponsors a Money Smart program that targets language groups for financial literacy; along with English, the program is offered in Spanish, Chinese, Hmong, Korean, Vietnamese, and Russian.

Additionally—and not addressed in my dissertation—mortgage loans are now available to undocumented immigrants, an opportunity that involves using an Income Tax Identification Number (ITIN), which is issued by the Internal Revenue Service when people are ineligible for a social security number. American banks and credit unions began issuing “ITIN mortgages” to undocumented immigrants in 2003. While increasingly difficult to get due to the current financial crisis and political hostility toward illegal immigrants, Kevin Mukri, a spokesperson for the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, housed under the Department of Treasury, defends ITIN mortgages. As he puts it, “Banks are not an arm of the immigration department…As long as those getting mortgages meet the requirements of being authorized bank customers, including proper ID, it would be discriminatory not to service them.”

While I don’t propose further policing of immigrant economic activity (it’s already policed), the state’s willingness to turn a blind eye to such financial transactions, coupled with proactive measures taken by government institutions to economically incorporate post-1965 immigrants, suggests that more than human capital and the ethnic contexts of reception are at play.

Finally, the importation thesis reproduces the racist myth of white entitlement. By emphasizing how immigration policies from 1965 onwards have favored skilled immigrants, we inadvertently suggest that post-1965 immigrants—code for immigrants of color—have a competitive edge over earlier waves of white immigrants. Thus, we promote the idea that earlier waves of white immigrants really did earn everything all by themselves. Despite the valorization of the European indentured servant, peasant, farmer, domestic, or seamstress as relying solely on hard work, perseverance, discipline, and hope, we need to remember that immigration has always been a state selective process and that “unskilled” white immigrants legally entered the United States, experienced upward social mobility, and were actively assisted in their trajectories by the state. While we rightfully draw from W.E.B. Du Bois’ “psychological wage” concept to help interpret white immigrants’ racist political choices, we can’t pretend that earlier white immigrants were only psychologically compensated. As law scholar Hiroshi Motomura describes in Americans in Waiting, white immigrants got theirs. For example, from 1795 to 1952, “every applicant for naturalization had to file a declaration of intent several years in advance.” At different periods, these “intending citizens,” overwhelmingly white, accessed tangible opportunities that helped facilitate economic assimilation, including land grants under the 1862 Homestead Act and the right to vote.

While the implications of immigration acts from 1965 onward require exploration, we need to consider how the state actively promoted and promotes immigrant economic assimilation after arrival. To ignore this reality is to reproduce myths about human capital that impact how we address economic disparities between ethnic and racial groups, some of whom may not be immigrants.

Sociologist Niki T. Dickerson speaks to this point and deserves to be quoted at length. She states, “Conventional explanations of racial inequality in academia and public policy have typically focused on racial disparities in human capital as the primary explanation for persistent racial economic inequality, and consequently we have invested substantial societal resources to eradicate differences in education. However, even though the human capital gap between blacks and whites has closed substantially over the past 30 years, commensurate earnings, unemployment rates, and occupational status have not.”

July 17, 2009

Drugs in America: Not Just for Celebrities


By Karen Sternheimer

My grandfather was a drug dealer. Shocked? Don’t be: he was a pharmacist who at one time owned his own neighborhood drug store, not an underworld kingpin.

What images do you think of when you hear the term “drug user”? Someone who steals, lies, or manipulates to maintain their habit? And what sort of drugs do you imagine them using? Crack? Heroin? Meth?

The speculation surrounding Michael Jackson’s death has brought celebrity clip_image002pharmaceutical use to our attention. But the misuse of prescription drugs is not just for the rich and famous.

It’s interesting how we tend to ignore the use of pharmaceuticals in discussions of the so-clip_image004called War on Drugs. Most of us have legally used drugs that our doctors have prescribed, and often we don’t question whether they are safe or healthy for us. In discussions of illegal drugs we often hear of the many potential dangers the drugs might pose for users, but seldom is this conversation extended into legal pharmaceuticals.

Recently, an FDA advisory panel recommended a ban on Percocet and Vicodin because of their potential harmful effects on the liver. The panel also voted to reduce the amount of acetaminophen (the active ingredient in drugs like Tylenol and Excedrin) in over-the-counter drugs.

According to the Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), in 2007 (the most recent year for which data are available) one in five Americans twelve and older have used pharmaceuticals for “nonmedical” use in their lifetime; just under seven percent have done so in the past year. This might be an undercount, since the NSDUH data does not include people who have asked for and received prescriptions for medications that they might not legitimately need or might be misusing.

To put pharmaceutical use in context, nonmedical use is more common than any other illegal drug other than marijuana (two in five Americans over twelve have tried marijuana). By contrast, just under fifteen percent have tried cocaine, (less than four percent have used crack), about five percent have used methamphetamines, and less than two percent have used heroin at least once in their lives.

The Department of Health and Human Services defines nonmedical use as “the use of prescription-type psychotherapeutic drugs that were not prescribed for the respondent by a physician or were used only for the experience or feeling they caused.” These drugs include opiates, or painkillers like oxycodone, benzodiazepines like valium and other tranquilizers, sedatives, stimulants, or muscle relaxants.

Nonmedical use of prescription drugs during the past year is most common for people in their late teens and early twenties, and peaks at age 21, with seventeen percent reporting use during 2007. Americans 25-44 were more likely to have misused pharmaceuticals than teens under fifteen were in the past year. Yet typically public service announcements, like the one below, focus on kids as the main users.

According to the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN)’s most recent data, nearly half a million emergency room visits per year are due to nonmedical pharmaceutical use. As the graph below indicates, Americans aged 35-54 were most likely to visit emergency departments (EDs) for pharmaceutical use.

It seems that we often underestimate the dangers of middle-aged drug use. While young adults might use pharmaceuticals more often, their bodies might be more resilient in handling the drugs. Older adults might have been using the drugs for a longer period of time as well, which could increase their tolerance and thus the amount of the drug used.


It shouldn’t be a big surprise that people would use pharmaceuticals without prescriptions if we think about the big picture. Consumers have been encouraged to seek out specific drugs since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) legalized direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs in 1997.

You know all those ads for drugs you see during sporting events or the evening news? The pharmaceutical companies want us to ask our doctors for drugs. Before 1997 drug companies could only market to physicians, and the ad campaigns are designed to sell more drugs to a wider array of patients.

That is, if you really are a patient. If you have ever gotten spam in your email inbox you probably have been offered the chance to buy drugs for which you have no medical condition (or the right anatomy). Online drugstores have been able to operate with little impunity and sometimes substitute a checklist for an actual medical exam.

The misuse of pharmaceuticals is a difficult problem to control. The industry is extremely profitable—a 2004 report estimated that Americans spent $200 billion annually on prescription drugs. As America ages, this number will surely skyrocket.

And let’s not forget that medications have extended lives and improved the quality of life dramatically. Pharmaceuticals have made diseases like HIV that were once death sentences into more manageable, though still serious, chronic conditions.

Even the prescription drugs most likely to be abused have done far more good than harm in the grand scheme of things. Unlike many illegal drugs, which have been demonized for decades, it is impossible to do this for pharmaceuticals. They cannot be unilaterally condemned like some other drugs have been (and may not deserve to be; but that’s a subject for another post).

What other sociological factors have made us less likely to recognize the problem of pharmaceutical abuse in the past?

July 14, 2009

What is Funny? The Sociology of Comedy

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

In what context is it okay to:

A. Give detailed – and I do mean detailed tips to women on performing oral sex?

B. Use the “n-word” so frequently that it seems to be used after every other word?

C. Talk about “essential” traits of black men, black women, black people?

D. Say that you hope someone’s kidneys fail?

E. Say that a young woman was “knocked up” at a baseball game?

At least with the examples of D. and E. you probably figured out that this is a list of things that comedians have said as those two have been widely discussed in the press. I heard the first three at stand-up comedy performances. Example A. was at a comedy club performance by Sheryl Underwood. The possibilities of who I am referring to in B. are many, but before his conversion away from the use of the word, it was true of Paul Mooney. White comedian Gary Owen seems to have built his career on the basis of C. (Owen says that he is married to a black woman and uses this as his entrée into the ways of blackfolk which he compares to those of whites.)

Listening to him, I am left with the impression that race is a biological determinant. In case you missed the event and the resulting dust-up, example D. refers to the 2009 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner at which comedian Wanda Sykes said she hopes Rush Limbaugh’s kidneys fail. (Limbaugh had said that he hopes President Obama’s “liberalism” fails.) E. is an allusion to David Letterman's jokes about the daughter of Alaska governor, Sarah Palin.

How about pretending to be a health official and telling someone that they have “oaktreeitis” and that a tree will grow out of his navel? And that the condition could cause his death! I heard this prank telephone call on comedian Steve Harvey’s syndicated radio show recently. The call was made by his nephew (called Nephew Tommy) who excels at these calls and has done so many that they seem to have enough to play at least one per day. He told one man that his wife, Tina used to be his brother Tim! Nephew Tommy confirmed that Tina has a scar above her left hip and a birthmark on her shoulder and after some more details the man seemed to believe that Tina used to be Tim.

During one call, posing as an immigration officer, Nephew Tommy informed a Guyanese-born American citizen that she would be deported to Guyana, and that he would be keeping her U.S. born son. On another call, Nephew Tommy told a man that it had become apparent that Tommy and his wife were being treated by the same fertility specialist as the man and his wife. Tommy explained that he had just been notified that there was a mix-up: Tommy’s sperm had been used to artificially inseminate the man’s wife, instead of her husband’s. The husband was shocked and furious. And unbelievably, it was this man’s wife who arranged for the prank call to be made. In every one of the Nephew Tommy prank calls that I have heard people have become so upset that they curse at Nephew Tommy and their words are bleeped out on the air. The man with “oaktreeitis” started crying.

The whole gotcha branch of comedy has grown in recent years. Have you seen Punk’d? I have only see one or two episodes of this television show but the premise seems to be to put a celebrity in an upsetting situation with cameras rolling. I saw an episode in which former NBA player Magic Johnson’s vehicle was vandalized by a young woman who said that Johnson’s son had used her sexually. Funny, right?clip_image002

Without the settings of comedy routine or comedy bits, many of these incidents would be considered rude, obscene, or even tasteless. Why are they acceptable because they’re funny, or meant to be that way? Is there any other avenue in our lives in which we are allowed to behave like this? Both Sykes’ and Letterman’s jokes drew tremendous responses from people saying they had gone too far, while others said they were simply funny.

But what is funny? And who decides what is funny? What if most of your friends and family think that something is funny and you don’t? Does that mean you are hypersensitive? Think about how context shapes what is and is not funny. Time is an important aspect of context. Compare old comedies with your current favorites. How has comedy changed over time? And how does the setting of a comedy club influence what we find funny? What if Sheryl Underwood undertook her instruction with the woman sitting next to her on a plane? With prank calls and shows, the victims are unaware of the comedy context, hence their distress and heightened comedy. What, if anything, do we learn about our society’s humor when it’s at someone’s expense? Is humor always at someone’s expense?

July 11, 2009

Economics, Education, and Anomie

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

It’s been really hard not to see the world from a Marxian perspective in recent days.

As my home state, California, implodes financially and other states and the federal government experience instability, I keep hearing Marx whispering in my ear, “Our material conditions and clip_image002productive activities create and maintain all other societal institutions.”

As the economy has faltered, other societal institutions are following suit. Cuts to education have already begun and welfare services seem to be next. As unemployment remains high – and those figures only count those who are actively looking for work – more businesses are failing, storefronts empty out, and more people are on the street selling wares or fruit or holding signs asking for money, shelter, or food.

It may be easy to forget that government exists to distribute our societal resources, those public goods to which we all must have access. To do that, they depend on tax revenues as their funding to then provide services to the people. Services such as education prepare future and current generations for civic life and jobs, public health infrastructure to keep us healthy with clean water and sewage systems, welfare services for those who cannot provide for themselves in the short term or the long term.

The government has less money to spend in these lean times, since their income depends on productive work by businesses and people. Thus government must be as efficient as possible, cut programs, and/or raise tax rates in the efforts to balance budgets.

The Los Angeles Times recently reported on legislators’ discussions to cut programs, regardless of the other two issues. For example, many states are considering or already cutting educational programs and services, such as classes and educational loan forgiveness programs.

At my own college, our trustees voted to cut our second summer session. This doesn’t sound like a huge problem since we still have the first session. However, our first session was designed to be small clip_image004to deal with budget issues in this fiscal year while the second session was to be rather large. We had expected many university students to come to our community college and take lower division courses since their universities had cut those types of classes in their summer sessions. So, cutting the second session leaves us with a tiny summer session and the lack of opportunity for both university students and our own students who had that one last class to take before transferring to the university. We know that more cuts are coming for the fall session too.

Cutting these programs bars people from opportunities, from transferring to universities and from re-training into new jobs. Couple these lack of educational opportunities with the cuts in other social programs, and one might wonder how we will be able to create a functioning economy!

While our economy is in need of some radical re-structuring – I often wonder how the feudalists felt as their economic system was crumbing and capitalism was emerging around them – the institutions tied to it will also require some rebuilding. It will not be easy living through these times but it is quite exciting, sociologically speaking. Such change certainly does not occur quickly, although its does seem that things change more quickly now than they had in the past.

Emile Durkheim would identify the division of labor and interdependence in such a complex society as the social glue to keep us functioning as a society. While computer programmers, nurses, café servers, and teachers all do contribute to society and do depend on each other, what happens when those people lose their jobs? Durkheim also noted that during times of flux like these anomie, or a sense of normlessness can develop, where people don’t feel as connected to one another and are therefore more likely to violate rules and laws.

Returning to a Marxian perspective, we might also ask, “Who benefits from the status quo?” Who may be profiting from maintaining one of the few industrialized nations with limited access to higher education?

July 08, 2009

Unemployment and Socioeconomic Status

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

Being unemployed can be an incredibly stressful experience. Difficulty paying bills is the most obvious stressor, but there are others: the threat of losing a home, feeling rejected while looking for a new job, and declining self-esteem are others. How do you now answer the question, “what do you do?”

Yet the challenges of unemployment are not equal opportunity experiences. An individual’s socio-economic status (SES) makes a big clip_image002difference; two people standing next to each other in line at an unemployment office might have very different realities.

Socio-economic status is a collective measure of status based on education, income, wealth, and occupation, as well as an individual’s family background: parents’ education, income, wealth and occupation. All of these impact how a person will experience unemployment.

For instance, someone with more education is less likely to be unemployed. As you can see from the graph below, people without a high school diploma were three times more likely to be unemployed as those with bachelor’s degrees were in 2008. And because median earnings are higher with more education, people with college degrees might be more likely to have savings to dip into should they become unemployed.


Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

And yet for those people who are highly educated and unemployed—note the 2% with doctoral degrees who were unemployed in 2008—the sense of personal failure might be more significant. One possible silver lining to being unemployed during a recession is that a person might know many others in the same situation and therefore take their situation less personally. People with higher levels of education may feel more isolated if they are unemployed.

Another factor defining SES is occupational prestige, which can also shape how someone experiences unemployment. For example, a friend of mine who held an executive-level position lost her job when her company was bought out by a competitor. She was given nine months severance pay of her full salary and decided to start her own business, knowing that she would still collect a significant paycheck for several months. For other people accustomed to not just a high salary, but the power and authority that comes with a high-prestige position, it may be tough to accept that a high-level job might not open up for them.

This is one example of the downward mobility many people are experiencing right now. Aside from having less money to spend and having to alter their lifestyle, finding a job with less prestige also means a shift in one’s social standing and sense of self.

But for some people, who maybe identified too much with their work, unemployment seems to be liberating. In a recent article, the Los Angeles Times described how some clip_image006people, mostly young and single, experienced “funemployment” by going to the beach, hanging out with friends, and even doing volunteer work. “And at least till the bank account dries up, they’re content living for today.”

Another Times article describes how to have fun in Las Vegas after losing a job by going to the cheaper restaurants in the older, downtown area of Fremont Street. “Vegas is not just the high-priced adult Disneyland I used to revel in. It has spirit and (dare I say it?) soul, and it was totally worth dipping into my severance package.”

The author also described how her newly unemployed status meant she would be mingling with a different crowd that she was used to: “Signs warn patrons not to smoke in line and not to steal the glasses. How enchantingly old school. But the jeans-and-T-shirt-wearing crowd said ‘Midwestern tourist’ more than hip gambler.”

It’s interesting how the author conflates downward mobility with people from a certain region of the country (as a native Midwesterner this rankled me a bit), but it is also a way of trying to distinguish one’s sense of self at others’ expense. A letter to the editor later chided the author for going on vacation at all while she was unemployed.

Clearly having a severance package, previously holding a high paying job, and not having a family to support might make the unemployment experience easier. So too might having a social network with valuable job connections, and family members willing and able to provide financial support and/or a place to live in the meantime. What other factors might make unemployment easier? What might make it more difficult?

July 04, 2009

Losing Youth in Residential Placements

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

When I first learned of private youth residential facilities (sometimes known as boot camps), I was struck by how ”American” the concept is: pay lots of money to complete strangers to haul away your misbehaving child to parts unknown. I empathize with parents though. It’s the biggest, most important job and yet there are no manuals, licenses or standards to pass before we embark on this lifelong task.

So what’s a parent to do when they “just can’t handle their teen”? What to do with substance using youth and/or those with mental illnesses that may not even be diagnosed, after you’ve done it all? Attendance at boot camps, wilderness programs, and residential treatment facilities has increased dramatically over the last 20 years. Adolescents and youth with disruptive behaviors are more likely to be put in residential facilities and so are those with family problems.

The tales of abuse suffered by teens at these facilities—particularly the private ones—are growing. Distraught parents realize that their children are not being helped and some suffer abuse, returning home in worse emotional pain than when they left, and many becoming suicidal or substance abusers as a result of their experiences. Youth can be sent to these facilities by their parents or by formal institutions like the juvenile court.

For instance, offending juveniles might be sent to to a boot camp as a punishment. Children in state custody (such as those under the care of child welfare) might be sent there because their behavior makes placing them with a family inappropriate. But with families willing to take in children in short supply, professionals in the child welfare system admit that children are often placed in residential facilities because there is no other placement available.

Take the case of Martin Lee Anderson (click here to see video) . Anderson was a 14-year-old honor student who was sent to a boot camp because he violated the probation he was sentenced to when he went for a "joy ride" in his grandmother’s car. When Anderson resisted orders from facility personnel, seven drill instructors (with a nurse looking on) used “standard law enforcement techniques” on him that led to his death. (In the video of the abuse, the seven are seen punching and kicking Anderson.)

Take a look at the web sites of some of these facilities; they’re easy enough to find but I won’t link to any of them without knowledge of their standards. You’ll see that they entice parents by appealing to their desire to do what is best for their children. (One translation: If you love your child enough, you’ll pay to send him/her here.) These residential facilities cost from about $30,000 to more than $70,000 per year! For parents who don’t have that much money lying around, they’ll help them get a loan!

Where are they located? All over the U.S., although there are also American owned and operated facilities outside of the county. You’ll see many “accreditation” seals on these web sites and glowing testimonials from parents and professionals. But how would a parent know whether the accrediting body is legitimate or whether the testimonials were supplied because the writers were paid?

clip_image002What entities should monitor these facilities? Undoubtedly, some youth need stringent programs and there is evidence that some facilities do provide treatment for such children. But how can parents tell whether they are handing over their troubled youth to a good or bad program? How do state agencies ensure that children are not being placed in harm’s way?

The process of regulating residential facilities is mind boggling. Not only do the facilities differ by mission, size, administrative structure, and funding sources, but each state has its own rules, some of which are far more lax than others. A nationwide survey found that there’s usually some version of the following regulation measures: licensure and certification, critical incident reporting, complaint reviews, announced and unannounced visits, regulations governing selected characteristics, and accreditation. Adding to the chaos, in most states, more than one agency regulates these facilities. Many states never revoke licenses or deny renewals though, and some states offer licenses in perpetuity; what is the penalty for facility violations then? Even a child’s death or serious injury does not necessarily have to be reported in some states. After the death of a 14-year-old and because of other concerns, the Department of Children’s Services in Tennessee stopped placing children there. However the facility did not lose its license so children continued to be sent there from other states. Even when facilities meet regulatory standards, quality and appropriateness of placement are not addressed.

Where is the outrage when these facilities are built as when homeless shelters are proposed, for example? What should happen to the staff of these facilities when allegations of abuse are found to have merit? The staff involved with the Anderson tragedy was charged with manslaughter and gross negligence but found not guilty. What qualifications should facility staff hold? Interestingly, six of the seven drill instructors in the Anderson case were former military men. Should state and federal laws regulate these facilities? Restraints and isolation of youth are areas of most variability among states, yet you can imagine the kinds of torture that youth can endure with the inappropriate application of either. And finally, why don’t we have residential programs for parents to check themselves into that might help with their parenting skills?

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