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All posts by Rohan Mascarenhas



Mass Incarceration in America: An Interview with Becky Pettit

Rohan Mascarenhas, Russell Sage Foundation
June 26, 2012

incarcerationBecky Pettit is a professor of sociology at the University of Washington. She is a sociologist, trained in demographic methods, with interests in social inequality (broadly defined). A former Visiting Scholar, she is the author of Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress, an eye-opening examination of how mass incarceration has concealed decades of racial inequality.

Q: There have been a number of books published recently that discuss the explosion of incarceration in America. I’m thinking in particular of Michelle Alexander’s New Jim Crow, which received a lot of attention last year. What does Invisible Men add to the conversation about race and imprisonment?

A: Invisible Men is a critique of our national data systems and the social facts they produce. When you hear the unemployment rate is 8.1 percent, those data come from the Current Population Survey, a monthly survey of 50,000-60,000 individuals living in households. The Current Population Survey and many other data sources used to frame our understanding of the American population exclude people who don’t live in households – like inmates, people living in military barracks, or people living in long-term care facilities for the mentally ill. The inmate population is now so large and so disproportionately concentrated among young, low-skill black men that it distorts portraits of the population based on samples of people living in households. So, unlike Alexander, I don’t try and explain the buildup of the criminal justice system itself. Instead, I consider the implications of mass incarceration on patterns of racial inequality.

Q: Let’s talk about the subtitle of your book – "the myth of black progress." What exactly do you mean by that? Do you feel contemporary accounts in the media and by scholars routinely overstate progress?

A: Yes, the media and scholars routinely overstate the well-being of black Americans. Many Americans want desperately to believe in the American dream and believe we live in a colorblind society. We have an African American president. There is a healthy black middle-class. And, if you focus your attention only on data from the household population -- which most assessments of the population are based – it is easy enough to believe that blacks have made progress on a number of social indicators. When data exclude the most disadvantaged segments of the population, they do show a decline in the race gap in high school dropout rates, modest employment gains for blacks, wage increases among blacks with the lowest levels of education, and increases in voter turnout.

What I show in my work is that if you include inmates, things aren’t quite as they seem. Over the past 35 years the penal population has increased five-fold. 2.3 million Americans are now behind bars and 1 in 31 American adults is now under some form of correctional supervision. Nowhere is incarceration more prevalent than in the African American community. My research shows that one in nine black men was incarcerated on any given day in 2008 and that 37 percent of young, black, male dropouts were behind bars.

It seems obvious to say, but prison and jail inmates live in correctional institutions, not households. As a result, they aren’t included in conventional data sources. And that means that conventional data sources generate overly optimistic accounts of black progress on a range of fronts.

Consumer Finance Special Issue: Journal of Marketing Research

Rohan Mascarenhas, Russell Sage Foundation
June 7, 2012

Consumer Finance Decision MakingLate last year, we announced the release of a special issue on consumer finance from the Journal of Marketing Research. The issue, funded by the Russell Sage and Alfred P. Sloan Foundations, features 14 articlesthat provide new insights on how to improve consumers' financial decisions. We previewed some of the articles in these blog posts, but now, we have received permission to post the entire issue for free. Browse through the links and abstracts below to download the papers.

Misunderstanding Savings Growth: Implications for Retirement Savings Behavior
Authors: Craig R.M. McKenzie and Michael J. Liersch
Abstract: People systematically underestimate exponential growth. This article illustrates this phenomenon, its implications, and some potential interventions in the context of saving for retirement, where savings grow exponentially over long periods of time. Experiment 1 shows that a majority of participants expect savings over 40 years to grow linearly rather than exponentially, leading them to grossly underestimate their account balance at retirement. Experiment 2 demonstrates that this misunderstanding leads to underestimates of the cost of waiting to save, which makes putting off saving more attractive than it should be. Finally, Experiments 3-5 show that highlighting the exponential growth of savings motivates both college students and employees to save more for retirement. Making clear to employees the exponential growth of savings before they make crucial decisions about how much to save may be a simple and effective means of increasing retirement savings.

Earmaking and Partitioning: Increasing Saving by Low-Income Households
Authors: Dilip Soman and Amar Cheema
Abstract: This research examines the effects of earmarking money on savings by low-income consumers. In particular, the authors test two interventions that are designed to enhance the effects of earmarking: a) using a visual reminder of the savings goal and b) dividing the earmarked money into two parts. Consistent with prior research which suggests that partitioning increases self-control, individuals save more when earmarked money is partitioned into two accounts versus pooled in one account. In addition, the presence of the visual reminder increases the savings rate. The authors conclude with implications for consumers’ welfare and a discussion of directions for further research.

Increasing Saving Behavior Through Age-Progressed Renderings of the Future Self
Authors: Hal E. Hershfield, Daniel G. Goldstein, William F. Sharpe, Jesse Fox, Leo Yeykelis, Laura L. Carstensen, and Jeremy N. Bailenson
Abstract: Many people fail to save what they will need for retirement. Research on excessive discounting of the future suggests that removing the lure of immediate rewards by precommitting to decisions or elaborating the value of future rewards both can make decisions more future oriented. The authors explore a third and complementary route, one that deals not with present and future rewards but with present and future selves. In line with research that shows that people may fail, because of a lack of belief or imagination, to identify with their future selves, the authors propose that allowing people to interact with age-progressed renderings of themselves will cause them to allocate more resources to the future. In four studies, participants interacted with realistic computer renderings of their future selves using immersive virtual reality hardware and interactive decision aids. In all cases, those who interacted with their virtual future selves exhibited an increased tendency to accept later monetary rewards over immediate ones.

American Labor in Politics: The Forum Special Issue

Rohan Mascarenhas, Russell Sage Foundation
June 6, 2012

unionsAfter Scott Walker's victory in Wisconsin, academics are already pondering the election's implications for the American labor movement. A good initial resource for information is the latest issue of The Forum, an interdisciplinary journal that offers scholars a venue to discuss contemporary politics. The issue, published earlier this month, focuses on the changing place of organized labor in American politics and includes submissions from Russell Sage Foundation authors Chris Rhomberg and David Weil. Here are the abstracts for their articles:

"Broken Windows," Vulnerable Workers, and the Future of Worker Representation, David Weil
The "broken windows" perspective suggests that the erosion of order in a neighborhood leads to elevated fear, retreat from the street, and consequently an environment where more serious crime takes root. I apply the broken windows idea to the workplace. Increasing violations of basic standards in many low-wage workplaces is perceived by workers as the breakdown of laws, making them reluctant to exercise voice in any way, in turn resulting in further erosion of conditions. Efforts to increase union representation are challenging at best under these circumstances. I provide evidence of the decline of complaints by workers over the last decade under the Fair Labor Standards Act as consistent with this story. I then argue that public policy makers and worker advocates should rethink their approach in light of broken windows, focusing on ways to improve collective exercise of basic workplace rights.

Inequality and Mobility: An Interview With Timothy Smeeding

Rohan Mascarenhas, Russell Sage Foundation
June 1, 2012

economic-mobilityTimothy Smeeding is the Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of Public Affairs and Economics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and Director of the Institute for Research on Poverty. He co-edited two RSF volumes on intergenerational mobility: Persistence, Privilege and Parenting and From Parents to Children.

Q: Let me start with a broad question that is currently animating much debate: How rigorous is the evidence on the relationship between inequality and mobility? Would it be fair to say that if a society has higher inequality, it will also generally find that it is harder for its citizens to climb the income ladder?

A: The evidence that inequality and mobility are negatively correlated is strong and growing. We no longer need to wait until a child reaches adulthood to learn that the children of higher status parents, be it according to parental education, income, wealth or all of these, will have a much better chance of future life success than those children who are not so lucky.

Q: From Parents to Children looks at the transmission of advantage in ten advanced countries. How strong is the link between parental education and children’s outcomes in the United States compared to the rest? Is equal opportunity – often hailed as a quintessentially American concept – most available in the U.S.?

A: Ironically, the evidence shows that children in the USA—where inequality is the highest—have the least equal opportunities of all the countries studied in multiple dimensions. The mobility gradients across parental education for cognitive, behavioral and job-related outcomes are the steepest of the countries studied.

Q: One argument often made during debates over inequality is that differences in outcomes may merely reflect differences in ability or effort. But From Parents to Children finds disturbing disparities among children from richer and poorer families even before they reach school. How important are these early differences in the course of a child’s life?

A: Early differences are increasingly important. With many child outcomes we observe—be it early childhood health, pre-kindergarten ability, behavior—there is already a steep gradient benefiting the children of the most able adults, and that gradient persists or grows, but never lessens as the child moves to adulthood. Early action on quality preschool and parenting behaviors cam make a big difference to move toward a more level playing field.

Reviews for 'Counted Out': 'Fascinating,' 'Insightful' and 'A Model for Public Sociology'

Rohan Mascarenhas, Russell Sage Foundation
May 30, 2012

gay marriageAfter President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, we wrote a post analyzing American attitudes on family and marriage. That research came from Counted Out, which examines currents in public opinion to predict how Americans’ definitions of family may change in the future. The volume has earned excellent reviews over the past two years and the latest issues of Gender & Society and Contemporary Sociology add to the praise:

M. V. Lee Badgett, University of Massachusetts, Amherst:

This excellent recent book, Counted Out, by a team of sociologists including Brian Powell, Catherine Bolzendahl, Claudia Geist, and Lala Carr Steelman, is one of the most insightful and readable books to explain the changes in Americans’ views of family that are driving these debates and legal changes. Powell et al. angle their analytical lens to illuminate the borders of Americans’ definition of family and how they set those boundaries that bring same-sex couples in or keep them out.

Early Childhood and Mobility: An Interview with Jane Waldfogel

Rohan Mascarenhas, Russell Sage Foundation
May 21, 2012

economic-mobilityJane Waldfogel is a professor of social work and public affairs at Columbia University School of Social Work. She has written extensively on the impact of public policies on child and family well-being. She also contributed research to the RSF volumes Persistence, Privilege and Parenting and From Parents to Children.

Q: As part of our volume Privilege, Parenting and Persistence, you and Elizabeth Washbrook examined income-related gaps in school readiness among children in the U.S. and the U.K. You found that parenting behavior played a big part in the significant disparities between the children. What parental practices are we talking about here?

A: The most important aspect of parenting, in particular for young children, is whether it is responsive and sensitive to the child. This is of course difficult to measure, so often in large datasets we have to rely on measures of other aspects of parenting, such as whether the parent provides cognitively stimulating materials (such as books and toys), whether the parent is warm and supportive of the child, or whether the parent uses harsh discipline. Reading with children is also important, particularly for early literacy and language development.

Q: Several policymakers have suggested that improving children's outcomes needs to involve encouraging better parenting. Barack Obama, for example, often exhorts parents to read more to their children. But what does the research tell us about the success of initiatives in changing family practices? Are there any promising efforts on the horizon?

A: We have known for some time that parenting is really important for children’s outcomes, but until recently, the consensus among social scientists was that we did not have much rigorous evidence that parenting programs are effective at improving parenting and children’s outcomes. But this has been changing. We now have good evidence, from randomized controlled trials, that well-designed programs can be effective at improving parenting and child outcomes. One of the best examples in this regard is the Nurse-Family Partnership Program, which is now being expanded nationwide (and in other countries such as the United Kingdom).

Comparing Economic Mobility in Canada and America: An Interview with Miles Corak

Rohan Mascarenhas, Russell Sage Foundation
May 18, 2012

economic-mobilityMiles Corak is a professor of economics at the University of Ottawa. He has published numerous articles on topics dealing with child poverty, access to university education, intergenerational earnings and education mobility, and unemployment. He has also contributed to two RSF volumes on economic mobility—From Parents to Children (2012) and Persistence, Privilege and Parenting (2011).

Q: In your chapter in Persistence, Privilege, and Parenting, you compare the effects of family background on mobility outcomes in Canada and the United States. First, why should people interested in inequality and mobility look in particular at the different results in these two countries? And second: is the ‘American Dream’ more achievable in Canada?

A: Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to consider what we mean by this phrase.

The "American Dream" is a very important metaphor in the United States, indeed some would say a defining metaphor. But it has a host of meanings, and our analysis speaks to the idea that economic outcomes should be the result of the energies, talents and motivations of individuals than of their family background. The American Dream is about becoming all that you can be regardless of your starting point in life.

In fact, we used similarly designed public opinion polls in the two countries to ask representative samples of Americans and Canadians what they understood the American Dream to mean, and surprisingly they answered in very much the same way, indeed in some scenarios we put to them, exactly in the same way. Both Americans and Canadians value freedom, being able to accomplish anything that you want, and to have the basic opportunities like health and education to do so.

On average, it is pretty clear that there is more mobility, up to three times more mobility, in Canada than in the United States.

Canadians differ from Americans in that they have a stronger tendency to see government policy as just another tool to help them achieve their individual goals. I don't want to overstate this tendency, but it is clear that Americans have a stronger tendency to see government as hindering rather than helping them, and that this could reflect a belief about the effectiveness of public policy as much as a principled stand against it.

There is value in comparing these two countries precisely because Americans and Canadians share some important values and goals, and because labour markets function in broadly similar ways on both sides of the border. But also because attitudes to public policy and the actual design of policy differ. These are differences that we potentially can all learn from, and that might be transferable across the countries.

To the extent that we measure the American Dream by the degree of relative earnings mobility across the generations --- by how closely tied a child's adult position in the earnings distribution is to the position occupied by his or her parents --- then on average it is pretty clear that there is more mobility, up to three times more mobility, in Canada than in the United States.

But the major point of our chapter was that this difference reflects differences in mobility at the two extremes of the earnings distribution. In fact, the broad majority of Canadians and Americans born to parents in the broad middle of the earnings distribution experience considerable mobility both upward and downward. But Americans born to parents at the top and the bottom are more likely than Canadians to become, respectively, the top and bottom earners of the next generation. It is in this sense that some might suggest that the American Dream is more of a reality north of the 49th parallel.

How Britain Cut Child Poverty in Half in Ten Years

Rohan Mascarenhas, Russell Sage Foundation
May 11, 2012

child poverty in BritainIn March 1999, U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair made a remarkable pledge before a startled audience: "Our historic aim will be for ours to be the first generation to end child poverty," he said. "It will take a generation. It is a 20-year mission. But I believe that it can be done if we reform the welfare state and build it around the needs of families and children." The unexpected announcement came in the midst of an alarming rise in the country's child poverty, which hovered around the 20 percent level by the mid-1990s. (See Figure 1.3 below for an international comparison; poverty was defined as income below half of the country's median income). But would such an ambitious pledge make a difference? With its echoes of Lyndon Johnson's "war on poverty" speech, now often cited in conservative circles as evidence of policy hubris, would Blair's ambition merely reveal the intractable problems underlying poverty?

How Americans Talk About Family and Same-Sex Marriage

Rohan Mascarenhas, Russell Sage Foundation
May 10, 2012

gay marriageWhen sociologist Brian Powell and his team asked more than 1,500 Americans to define what counts as family, he found that respondents fell into three broad categories:

•Exclusionists (roughly 45 percent of his sample) strongly privilege the traditional heterosexual family;
• Moderates (roughly 29 percent) place more primacy on children and extend family status to any arrangement with children;
• Inclusionists (25 percent) have a broad conception of family that is flexible and expansive.

Digging deeper, Powell analyzed the themes and reasons each group invoked to explain why they believed certain living arrangements counted (or did not count) as family. Here are the themes used by people in the 'exclusionist' category:

gay marriage opponents

In his RSF book, Counted Out: Same-Sex Relations and Americans' Definitions of Family, Powell elaborates:

The transcripts of our interviews are replete with phrases such as "the marriage vow," "the marriage covenant," "ceremonial arrangements," "legal marriage," "legal connection," and "legally binding." In their references to marriage, exclusionists also often mentioned the gender of the marital partners—most notably specifying them as "man and wife," "man and wife living together," or "marriage between a man and a woman"—thus making it explicit that their definition excluded gay and lesbian couples.

The Future of Collective Bargaining: An Interview with Chris Rhomberg

Rohan Mascarenhas, Russell Sage Foundation
April 30, 2012

Detroit strikeChris Rhomberg is the author of The Broken Table: The Detroit Newspaper Strike and the State of American Labor, a riveting analysis of the 1995 Detroit newspaper strike. An associate professor of sociology at Fordham University, Rhomberg studies issues of race, labor, and urban politics in American political development.

Q: By 1995, when the Detroit strike began, the erosion of collective bargaining rights was already firmly established. What drew you to this newspaper strike as opposed to the many other wrenching labor disputes of the 1980s and early 1990s? What did you hope to learn from Detroit?

A: The rise of the current anti-union regime began in the 1980s, but my argument is that such macro-institutional changes do not occur neatly in all places all at once. In the 1990s it was not necessarily clear where things would go next. By that time unions had adopted counter-tactics of community mobilization and striking against unfair labor practices in order to gain some protec-tion against permanent replacement. The National Labor Relations Board became more favorable to unions, under the administration of President Bill Clinton. The labor movement as a whole had begun a progressive revival, symbolized in the October 1995 election of Service Employees International Union president John Sweeney as president of the AFL-CIO.