Saturday, January 03, 2009

Categorically Unequal--book notes

I haven't read Categorically Unequal, but I plan to in 2009.

Not long ago, someone sent me the following synopsis of the book's content. Controversial, no doubt. Worth a careful study because usually this sort of study turns bright lights on subjects we'd just as soon ignore.

The United States holds the dubious distinction of having the most unequal income distribution of any advanced industrialized nation. While other developed countries face similar challenges from globalization and technological change, none rivals America’s singularly poor record for equitably distributing the benefits and burdens of recent economic shifts.

In Categorically Unequal, Douglas Massey, the Henry G. Bryant Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, weaves together history, political economy, and even neuropsychology to provide a comprehensive explanation of how America’s culture and political system perpetuates inequalities between different segments of the population.

Categorically Unequal is striking both for its theoretical originality and for the breadth of topics it covers. Massey argues that social inequalities arise from the universal human tendency to place others into social categories. In America, ethnic minorities, women, and the poor have consistently been the targets of stereotyping, and as a result, they have been exploited and discriminated against throughout the nation’s history.

African-Americans continue to face discrimination in markets for jobs, housing, and credit. Meanwhile, the militarization of the U.S.-Mexican border has discouraged Mexican migrants from leaving the United States, creating a pool of exploitable workers who lack the legal rights of citizens. Massey also shows that women’s advances in the labor market have been concentrated among the affluent and well-educated, while low-skilled female workers have been relegated to occupations that offer few chances for earnings mobility.

At the same time, as the wages of low-income men have fallen, more working-class women are remaining unmarried and raising children on their own. Even as minorities and women continue to face these obstacles, the progressive legacy of the New Deal has come under frontal assault. The government has passed anti-union legislation, made taxes more regressive, allowed the real value of the federal minimum wage to decline, and drastically cut social welfare spending.

As a result, the income gap between the richest and poorest has dramatically widened since 1980. Massey attributes these anti-poor policies in part to the increasing segregation of neighborhoods by income, which has insulated the affluent from the social consequences of poverty, and to the disenfranchisement of the poor, as the population of immigrants, prisoners, and ex-felons swells.

America’s unrivalled disparities are not simply the inevitable result of globalization and technological change. As Massey shows, privileged groups have systematically exploited and excluded many of their fellow Americans.

By delving into the root causes of inequality in America, Categorically Unequal provides a compelling argument for the creation of a more equitable society.

[Order a copy here. For a bibliography of Massey's previous work take a look here.]


Anonymous said...

I have no doubt this book offers cogent analysis of the systemic issues surrounding poverty. I do hope, however, we do not lose sight of the non-systemic issues that contribute. Do systems perpetuate poverty? You bet. But so do individual cultures and indiviual choices. For instance, you mention single motherhood, which has probably the single highest correlation with poverty. Decidinig to have sex and have a child at 14, or 15, or 16 is not a systemic issue. It is the result of choices made in an environment in which such choices are often seen as either inevitable or even as okay. And it is one of the highest contributing factors to poverty. If we don't face issues concerning cultural values and individual choices head on as well, we won't win the battle against poverty. Changing systems alone is only half the answer. Changing "hearts and minds" (cringe) has to happen, too.

rogueminister said...

Wow, this sounds like a fantastic book. I was just talking to a friend of mine, who is teaching in the poorest neighborhood in Washington, D.C. and researching this very idea, and she said she never realized how true it was until she spent a significant amount of time seeing the problems first hand.

This book sounds like it might be in a similar vein to Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States." I hope it opens the eyes of anyone who reads it to the fact that there are indeed gross inequalities and give them reason to investigate further and act in a redemptive way.

I have to disagree, to some extent, with Anonymous about choices. Freedom of choice is a myth in many cases. The system puts forward a very limited amount of choices for many and personal responsibility isnt something that some folks are taught. For instance, many of the kids I worked with in Nashville didnt believe getting out of their situation, or let alone going to college, was an option for them. That is until someone came along and said you can better yourself and your situation. So yes people make choices, but often they only have a certain range, at least in their minds, of choices that can be made. Most of which arent going to help them.

Anonymous said...

My eye caught "Cost of the War in Iraq" next to this post. Does this counter imply that war is reduced to cost? And (as an African myself) what is the reason for the selectiveness of the statistic?

Larry James said...

Thanks for the posts here. Anon 12:08, I hope you read what rogueminister offers and then, tune in about Monday for a comment from me on free will and how it is used and misused, especially by folks whose experience of poverty sets them up for choices that don't challenge the unjust system, but hurt themselves. It is complicated, but if you are here, you have a better chance of seeing it. As to the running graphic on the "cost of the war in Iraq," no the intention is not to reduce war to costs, but it is also not to ignore what the nation has "invested" in this war and how those dollars might have been used in other ways. BTW--the metrics back of these numbers is extremely conservative. If you click on the counter and go inside, you'll be able to do some "investment compasrions."

Anonymous said...

Thankyou for your gracious reply (I'm Anonymous 1:10 PM). The book "Big Questions in History" (perhaps not available in the USA) predicted in 2005 that, on the basis of history, the USA was overdue for a major financial crash. This is the pattern when empire overextends itself. Further consequences were listed, which I should now read again. I hope to view the Monday post. In my view, the poor are frequently given too little credit by Western commentators who look down upon their attitudes towards justice. These may be shrewder than the Westerner thinks, and ensure survival in their context.

Anonymous said...

I chose teen pregnancy as an example on purpose. It's pretty srtaightforward, and certainly the result of choice (if not, that's a whole other issue). My point is not that the environment in which too many poor kids grow up which results in such a high teen pregnancy rate doesn't matter. Just the opposite. That environment needs to change. And if we say, "well that's just their culture and we can't interfere," we're just leaving those kids on a path to poverty. My point was just that poverty is at the intersection of systems/policy and personal choices, and we ignore the choice quotient on peril of failure. I'm all for addressing systems, but we also need to address choice.

Anon 12:08

NikkiWordPlay said...

Anon 12:08, while I echo your sentiment of personal accountability, I still believe you are nearsighted in your analysis. As it was commented earlier, choice is the great American myth. Even within your example of teen pregnancy you are misinformed. The reality is, there is no socioeconmic difference in the rates of teen pregnancies. There is however, a difference in the options that various classes of people have to deal with them. So individuals with money and resources like 'private insurance, are able to terminate pregnancies, privately and quietly, or seek out adoption. Young poor individuals are not afforded the same choices and do not have the same options. The life of the poor in the country, is very public, and therefore is scrutinized and demonized in ways that those of economic status can insulate themselves from. Drug use and activity cuts across class and race, however, drug related incarceration is overwhelmingly poor and of color.