Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Social Problems: Continuity and Change

[ A u t h o r r e m ove d a t r e q u e s t o f o r i g i n a l p u b l i s h e r ]

U N I V E R S I T Y O F M I N N E S OTA L I B R A R I E S P U B L I S H I N G E D I T I O N , 2 0 1 5 . T H I S E D I T I O N A D A P T E DF R O M A W O R K O R I G I N A L LY P R O D U C E D I N 2 0 1 0 B Y A P U B L I S H E R W H O H A S R E Q U E S T E D T H AT I TN OT R E C E I V E AT T R I B U T I O N .

M I N N E A P O L I S , M N

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Contents

Publisher Information ix

About the Author x

Acknowledgments xi

Preface xiii

Chapter 1: Understanding Social Problems

1.1 What Is a Social Problem? 2

1.2 Sociological Perspectives on Social Problems 9

1.3 Continuity and Change in Social Problems 21

1.4 Doing Research on Social Problems 25

1.5 End-of-Chapter Material 30

Chapter 2: Poverty

2.1 The Measurement and Extent of Poverty 33

2.2 Who the Poor Are: Social Patterns of Poverty 37

2.3 Explaining Poverty 46

2.4 The Consequences of Poverty 57

2.5 Global Poverty 64

2.6 Reducing Poverty 78

2.7 End-of-Chapter Material 83

Chapter 3: Racial and Ethnic Inequality

3.3 Prejudice 87

3.4 Discrimination 98

3.5 Dimensions of Racial and Ethnic Inequality 109

3.6 Explaining Racial and Ethnic Inequality 115

3.7 Reducing Racial and Ethnic Inequality 120

3.8 End-of-Chapter Material 126

3.1 Racial and Ethnic Inequality: A Historical Prelude 128

3.2 The Meaning of Race and Ethnicity 131

Chapter 4: Gender Inequality

4.1 Understanding Sex and Gender 138

4.2 Feminism and Sexism 152

4.3 Dimensions of Gender Inequality 156

4.4 Violence against Women: Rape and Sexual Assault 171

4.5 The Benefits and Costs of Being Male 177

4.6 Reducing Gender Inequality 180

4.7 End-of-Chapter Material 183

Chapter 5: Sexual Orientation and Inequality

5.1 Understanding Sexual Orientation 187

5.2 Public Attitudes about Sexual Orientation 198

5.3 Inequality Based on Sexual Orientation 208

5.4 Improving the Lives of the LGBT Community 222

5.5 End-of-Chapter Material 224

Chapter 6: Aging and Ageism

6.5 Problems Facing Older Americans 227

6.6 Reducing Ageism and Helping Older Americans 242

6.7 End-of-Chapter Material 245

6.1 The Concept and Experience of Aging 247

6.2 Perspectives on Aging 250

6.3 Life Expectancy and the Graying of Society 253

6.4 Biological and Psychological Aspects of Aging 259

Chapter 7: Alcohol and Other Drugs

7.1 Drug Use in History 266

7.2 Drugs and Drug Use Today 272

7.3 Social Patterning of Drug Use 293

7.4 Explaining Drug Use 300

7.5 Drug Policy and the War on Illegal Drugs 307

7.6 Addressing the Drug Problem and Reducing Drug Use 316

7.7 End-of-Chapter Material 320

Chapter 8: Crime and Criminal Justice

8.1 The Problem of Crime 322

8.2 Types of Crime 328

8.3 Who Commits Crime? 337

8.4 Explaining Crime 343

8.5 The Criminal Justice System 354

8.6 Reducing Crime 363

8.7 End-of-Chapter Material 368

Chapter 9: Sexual Behavior

9.6 End-of-Chapter Material 371

9.1 An Overview of Heterosexuality 373

9.2 Teenage Sex and Pregnancy 382

9.3 Abortion 393

9.4 Prostitution 406

9.5 Pornography 417

Chapter 10: The Changing Family

10.1 Overview of the Family 426

10.2 Sociological Perspectives on the Family 434

10.3 Changes and Problems in American Families 439

10.4 Families in the Future 459

10.5 End-of-Chapter Material 462

Chapter 11: Schools and Education

11.1 An Overview of Education in the United States 466

11.2 Sociological Perspectives on Education 477

11.3 Issues and Problems in Elementary and Secondary Education 484

11.4 Issues and Problems in Higher Education 498

11.5 Improving Schools and Education 506

11.6 End-of-Chapter Material 511

Chapter 12: Work and the Economy

12.1 Overview of the Economy 514

12.2 Sociological Perspectives on Work and the Economy 523

12.3 Problems in Work and the Economy 529

12.4 Improving Work and the Economy 551

12.5 End-of-Chapter Material 555

Chapter 13: Health and Health Care

13.5 Improving Health and Health Care 558

13.6 End-of-Chapter Material 563

13.1 Sociological Perspectives on Health and Health Care 565

13.2 Global Aspects of Health and Health Care 572

13.3 Problems of Health in the United States 578

13.4 Problems of Health Care in the United States 594

Chapter 14: Urban and Rural Problems

14.1 A Brief History of Urbanization 606

14.2 Sociological Perspectives on Urbanization 614

14.3 Problems of Urban Life 621

14.4 Problems of Rural Life 636

14.5 Improving Urban and Rural Life 641

14.6 End-of-Chapter Material 643

Chapter 15: Population and the Environment

15.1 Sociological Perspectives on Population and the Environment 645

15.2 Population 649

15.3 The Environment 670

15.4 Addressing Population Problems and Improving the Environment 690

15.5 End-of-Chapter Material 694

Chapter 16: War and Terrorism

16.1 Sociological Perspectives on War and Terrorism 699

16.2 War 705

16.3 Terrorism 728

16.4 Preventing War and Stopping Terrorism 736

16.5 End-of-Chapter Material 740

Please share your supplementary material! 742

Publisher Information

Social Problems: Continuity and

Change is adapted from a work

produced and distributed under a

Creative Commons license (CC BY-

NC-SA) in 2010 by a publisher who

has requested that they and the original

author not receive attribution. This

adapted edition is produced by the University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing through the eLearning Support

Initiative.

This adaptation has reformatted the original text, and replaced some images and figures to make the resulting

whole more shareable. This adaptation has not significantly altered or updated the original 2010 text. This work

is made available under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

About the Author

Social Problems: Continuity and Change is adapted from a work produced by a publisher who has requested

that they and the original author not receive attribution. This adapted edition is produced by the University of

Minnesota Libraries Publishing through the eLearning Support Initiative. Though the publisher has requested that

they and the original author not receive attribution, this adapted edition reproduces all original text and sections

of the book, except for publisher and author name attribution.

Unnamed Author

Unnamed Author is a former president of the Society for the Study of Social Problems and professor of sociology

at the University of Maine. He is the author of another Sociology: Understanding and Changing the Social

World, which won a Textbook Excellence Award from the Text and Academic Authors Association. He is also the

author of several other textbooks: (1) Criminology: A Sociological Understanding, fifth edition (Prentice Hall);

(2) Fundamentals of Criminal Justice, second edition (with George Bryjak; Jones and Bartlett); (3) Collective

Violence, second edition (with Lynne Snowden; Sloan Publishing); (4) Discovering Sociology: An Introduction

Using MicroCase ExplorIt, third edition (Wadsworth); and (5) Law and Society: An Introduction (Prentice

Hall). He has also authored more than thirty journal articles and book chapters in venues such as the American

Sociological Review; Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion; Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency;

Justice Quarterly; Mobilization; Review of Religious Research; Social Forces; Social Problems; Social Science

Quarterly; and Sociological Forum.

Unnamed Author also serves as a regional representative on the council of Alpha Kappa Delta, the international

sociology honor society, and spent seventeen years (fortunately, not all consecutive) as chair of his department.

He has received an Outstanding Faculty Award from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University

of Maine. A native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Unnamed Author has lived in Maine for the past thirty-three

years. He received his PhD in sociology from the State University of New York at Stony Brook and his BA in

sociology from Trinity College (Hartford, Connecticut), where he began to learn how to think like a sociologist

and also to appreciate the value of a sociological perspective for understanding and changing society. He sincerely

hopes that instructors and students enjoy reading this book in the format of their choice.

Acknowledgments

As always in my books, I express my personal and professional debt to two sociologists, Norman Miller and

Forrest Dill. Norman Miller was my first sociology professor in college and led me in his special way into a

discipline and profession that became my life’s calling. Forrest Dill was my adviser in graduate school and helped

me in ways too numerous to mention. His untimely death shortly after I began my career robbed the discipline of

a fine sociologist and took away a good friend.

My professional life since graduate school has been at the University of Maine, where my colleagues over the

years have nurtured my career and provided a wonderful working environment. I trust they will see their concern

for social problems reflected in the pages that follow. Thanks to them all for being who they are.

I also thank everyone at for helping bring this text to fruition and for helping today’s students afford high-quality,

peer-reviewed textbooks at a time when college costs keep rising while the economy keeps faltering. Special

thanks go to Michael Boezi, Vanessa Gennarelli, and Denise Powell, who all worked tirelessly to make this book

the best it could be. My efforts also benefited greatly from the many sociologists who reviewed some or all of the

text. These reviewers were tough but fair, and I hope they are pleased with the result. As every author should say,

any faults that remain are not the reviewers’ responsibility. I am grateful to include their names here:

• Celesta Albonetti, University of Iowa

• Anne Barrett, Florida State University

• Sarah Becker, Louisiana State University

• Laurian Bowles, Western Illinois University

• Joyce Clapp, Guilford College

• Mary Fischer, University of Connecticut

• Otis Grant, Indiana University–South Bend

• Art Houser, Fort Scott Community College

• Michael Kimmel, SUNY at Stony Brook

• Matthew Lee, University of Akron

• William Lockhart, McLennan Community College

• Brea Perry, University of Kentucky

• Nancy Reeves, Rowan University

• Daniel Roddick, Rio Hondo College

• Debra Welkley, California State University–Sacramento

In addition to these reviewers, I would also like to thank Joel Barkan for his valuable comments that improved

Chapter 15 “Population and the Environment”’s discussion of environmental problems involving oceans and

ocean life.

Authors usually save the best for last in their acknowledgments, and that is the family members to whom they owe

so much. Barbara Tennent and our grown sons David and Joel have once again shared with me the joy and effort

of writing a textbook. I know they will share my gratitude when students read this text for free or at relatively low

cost. Our dog, Sadie, kept me company while I was writing the book but passed away suddenly during its final

stages. Her unique spirit and joy of life brought us much laughter and excitement (both the good kind and the bad

kind), and I hope that doggie heaven has survived her entry. The squirrels, rabbits, and birds there should watch

out!

I have saved two family members for the very last, and they are my late parents, Morry and Sylvia Barkan. They

have been gone many years, but whatever I have achieved in my personal and professional life, I owe to them.

xii Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Preface

The founders of American sociology a century or more ago in cities like Atlanta and Chicago wanted to reduce

social inequality, to improve the lives of people of color, and more generally to find solutions to the most vexing

social problems of their times. A former president of the Society for the Study of Social Problems, A. Javier

Treviño, has used the term service sociology to characterize their vision of their new discipline. This book is

grounded in this vision by offering a sociological understanding of today’s social problems and of possible

solutions to these problems.

As this book’s subtitle, Continuity and Change, implies, social problems are persistent, but they have also

improved in the past and can be improved in the present and future, provided that our nation has the wisdom

and will to address them. It is easy to read a social problems textbook and come away feeling frustrated by the

enormity of the many social problems facing us today. This book certainly does not minimize the persistence of

social problems, but neither does it overlook the possibilities for change offered by social research and by the

activities of everyday citizens working to make a difference. Readers of this book will find many examples of

how social problems have been improved and of strategies that hold great potential for solving them today and in

the future.

Several pedagogical features help to convey the “continuity and change” theme of this text and the service

sociology vision in which it is grounded:

• Each chapter begins with a “Social Problems in the News” story related to the social problem

discussed in that chapter. These stories provide an interesting starting point for the chapter’s discussion

and show its relevance for real-life issues.

• Three types of boxes in each chapter provide examples of how social problems have been changed and

can be changed. In no particular order, a first box, “Applying Social Research,” discusses how the

findings from sociological and other social science research either have contributed to public policy

related to the chapter’s social problem or have the potential of doing so. A second box, “Lessons from

Other Societies,” discusses how another nation or nations have successfully addressed the social

problem of that chapter. A third box, “People Making a Difference,” discusses efforts by individuals,

nonprofit organizations or social change groups, or social movements relating to the chapter’s social

problem. Students will see many examples in this box of how ordinary people can indeed make a

difference.

• A fourth box in each chapter, “Children and Our Future,” examines how the social problem discussed

in that chapter particularly affects children, and it outlines the problem’s repercussions for their later

lives as adolescents and adults. This box reinforces for students the impact of social problems on

children and the importance of addressing these problems for their well-being as well as for the

nation’s well-being.

• Each chapter ends with a “Using What You Know” feature that presents students with a scenario

involving the social problem from the chapter and that puts them in a decision-making role. This

feature helps connect the chapter’s theoretical discussion with potential real-life situations.

• Each chapter also ends with a “What You Can Do” feature that suggests several activities, strategies,

or other efforts that students might undertake to learn more about and/or to address the social problem

examined in the chapter. Like other aspects of the book, this feature helps counter “doom and gloom”

feelings that little can be done about social problems.

• Other pedagogical features in each chapter include Learning Objectives at the beginning of a major

section that highlight key topics to be learned; Key Takeaways at the end of a major section that

highlight important points that were discussed in the section; For Your Review questions, also at the

end of a major section, that have students think critically about that section’s discussion; and a

Summary that reviews the major points made in the chapter.

This is my second text with, I’m thrilled to be adding to their growing roster of high-quality, peer-reviewed

textbooks that are affordable in a variety of formats. If one important problem facing higher education today is

the expense of attending a college or university, it is gratifying to know that Flat World’s low-cost open model is

successfully addressing a significant component of this problem.

xiv Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Chapter 1: Understanding Social Problems

1.1 What Is a Social Problem?

1.2 Sociological Perspectives on Social Problems

1.3 Continuity and Change in Social Problems

1.4 Doing Research on Social Problems

1.5 End-of-Chapter Material

1.1 What Is a Social Problem?

Learning Objectives

1. Define “social problem.”

2. Explain the objective and subjective components of the definition of a social problem.

3. Understand the social constructionist view of social problems.

4. List the stages of the natural history of social problems.

A social problem is any condition or behavior that has negative consequences for large numbers of people and that

is generally recognized as a condition or behavior that needs to be addressed. This definition has both an objective

component and a subjective component.

The objective component is this: For any condition or behavior to be considered a social problem, it must have

negative consequences for large numbers of people, as each chapter of this book discusses. How do we know if a

social problem has negative consequences? Reasonable people can and do disagree on whether such consequences

exist and, if so, on their extent and seriousness, but ordinarily a body of data accumulates—from work by

academic researchers, government agencies, and other sources—that strongly points to extensive and serious

consequences. The reasons for these consequences are often hotly debated, and sometimes, as we shall see in

certain chapters in this book, sometimes the very existence of these consequences is disputed. A current example

is climate change: Although the overwhelming majority of climate scientists say that climate change (changes in

the earth’s climate due to the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere) is real and serious, fewer than two-

thirds of Americans (64 percent) in a 2011 poll said they “think that global warming is happening”(Leiserowitz,

et. al., 2011).

This type of dispute points to the subjective component of the definition of social problems: There must be a

perception that a condition or behavior needs to be addressed for it to be considered a social problem. This

component lies at the heart of the social constructionist view of social problems (Rubington & Weinberg, 2010).

In this view, many types of negative conditions and behaviors exist. Many of these are considered sufficiently

negative to acquire the status of a social problem; some do not receive this consideration and thus do not become

a social problem; and some become considered a social problem only if citizens, policymakers, or other parties

call attention to the condition or behavior.

Sometimes disputes occur over whether a particular condition or behavior has negative consequences and is thus a social problem. A

current example is climate change: although almost all climate scientists think climate change is real and serious, more than one-third

of the American public thinks that climate change is not happening.

Wikimedia Commons – public domain.

The history of attention given to rape and sexual assault in the United States before and after the 1970s provides

an example of this latter situation. These acts of sexual violence against women have probably occurred from the

beginning of humanity and certainly were very common in the United States before the 1970s. Although men were

sometimes arrested and prosecuted for rape and sexual assault, sexual violence was otherwise ignored by legal

policymakers and received little attention in college textbooks and the news media, and many people thought that

rape and sexual assault were just something that happened (Allison & Wrightsman, 1993). Thus although sexual

violence existed, it was not considered a social problem. When the contemporary women’s movement began in

the late 1970s, it soon focused on rape and sexual assault as serious crimes and as manifestations of women’s

inequality. Thanks to this focus, rape and sexual assault eventually entered the public consciousness, views of

these crimes began to change, and legal policymakers began to give them more attention. In short, sexual violence

against women became a social problem.

1.1 What Is a Social Problem? 3

Before the 1970s, rape and sexual assault certainly existed and were very common, but they were generally ignored and not

considered a social problem. When the contemporary women’s movement arose during the 1970s, it focused on sexual violence

against women and turned this behavior into a social problem.

Women’s e News – Placards at the Rally To Take Rape Seriously – CC BY 2.0.

The social constructionist view raises an interesting question: When is a social problem a social problem?

According to some sociologists who adopt this view, negative conditions and behaviors are not a social problem

unless they are recognized as such by policymakers, large numbers of lay citizens, or other segments of our

society; these sociologists would thus say that rape and sexual assault before the 1970s were not a social problem

because our society as a whole paid them little attention. Other sociologists say that negative conditions and

behaviors should be considered a social problem even if they receive little or no attention; these sociologists would

thus say that rape and sexual assault before the 1970s were a social problem.

This type of debate is probably akin to the age-old question: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear

it, is a sound made? As such, it is not easy to answer, but it does reinforce one of the key beliefs of the social

constructionist view: Perception matters at least as much as reality, and sometimes more so. In line with this belief,

social constructionism emphasizes that citizens, interest groups, policymakers, and other parties often compete

to influence popular perceptions of many types of conditions and behaviors. They try to influence news media

coverage and popular views of the nature and extent of any negative consequences that may be occurring, the

reasons underlying the condition or behavior in question, and possible solutions to the problem.

4 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Sometimes a condition or behavior becomes a social problem even if there is little or no basis

for this perception. A historical example involves women in college. During the late 1800s,

medical authorities and other experts warned women not to go to college for two reasons: they

feared that the stress of college would disrupt women’s menstrual cycles, and they thought

that women would not do well on exams while they were menstruating.

CollegeDegrees360 – College Girls – CC BY-SA 2.0.

Social constructionism’s emphasis on perception has a provocative implication: Just as a condition or behavior

may not be considered a social problem even if there is strong basis for this perception, so may a condition or

behavior be considered a social problem even if there is little or no basis for this perception. The “issue” of women

in college provides a historical example of this latter possibility. In the late 1800s, leading physicians and medical

researchers in the United States wrote journal articles, textbooks, and newspaper columns in which they warned

women not to go to college. The reason? They feared that the stress of college would disrupt women’s menstrual

cycles, and they also feared that women would not do well in exams during “that time of the month” (Ehrenreich

& English, 2005)! We now know better, of course, but the sexist beliefs of these writers turned the idea of women

going to college into a social problem and helped to reinforce restrictions by colleges and universities on the

admission of women.

1.1 What Is a Social Problem? 5

In a related dynamic, various parties can distort certain aspects of a social problem that does exist: politicians

can give speeches, the news media can use scary headlines and heavy coverage to capture readers’ or viewers’

interest, businesses can use advertising and influence news coverage. News media coverage of violent crime

provides many examples of this dynamic (Robinson, 2011; Surette, 2011). The news media overdramatize violent

crime, which is far less common than property crime like burglary and larceny, by featuring so many stories about

it, and this coverage contributes to public fear of crime. Media stories about violent crime also tend to be more

common when the accused offender is black and the victim is white and when the offender is a juvenile. This type

of coverage is thought to heighten the public’s prejudice toward African Americans and to contribute to negative

views about teenagers.

The Natural History of a Social Problem

We have just discussed some of the difficulties in defining a social problem and the fact that various parties often

try to influence public perceptions of social problems. These issues aside, most social problems go through a

natural history consisting of several stages of their development (Spector & Kitsuse, 2001).

Stage 1: Emergence and Claims Making

A social problem emerges when a social entity (such as a social change group, the news media, or influential

politicians) begins to call attention to a condition or behavior that it perceives to be undesirable and in need of

remedy. As part of this process, it tries to influence public perceptions of the problem, the reasons for it, and

possible solutions to it. Because the social entity is making claims about all these matters, this aspect of Stage 1

is termed the claims-making process. Not all efforts to turn a condition or behavior into a social problem succeed,

and if they do not succeed, a social problem does not emerge. Because of the resources they have or do not have,

some social entities are more likely than others to succeed at this stage. A few ordinary individuals have little

influence in the public sphere, but masses of individuals who engage in protest or other political activity have

greater ability to help a social problem emerge. Because politicians have the ear of the news media and other types

of influence, their views about social problems are often very influential. Most studies of this stage of a social

problem focus on the efforts of social change groups and the larger social movement to which they may belong,

as most social problems begin with bottom-up efforts from such groups.

6 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

A social problem emerges when a social change group successfully calls attention to a condition or behavior that it considers serious.

Protests like the one depicted here have raised the environmental consciousness of Americans and helped put pressure on businesses

to be environmentally responsible.

ItzaFineDay – Financing Climate Change – CC BY 2.0.

Stage 2: Legitimacy

Once a social group succeeds in turning a condition or behavior into a social problem, it usually tries to persuade

the government (local, state, and/or federal) to take some action—spending and policymaking—to address

the problem. As part of this effort, it tries to convince the government that its claims about the problem are

legitimate—that they make sense and are supported by empirical (research-based) evidence. To the extent that

the group succeeds in convincing the government of the legitimacy of its claims, government action is that much

more likely to occur.

Stage 3: Renewed Claims Making

Even if government action does occur, social change groups often conclude that the action is too limited in goals

or scope to be able to successfully address the social problem. If they reach this conclusion, they often decide to

press their demands anew. They do so by reasserting their claims and by criticizing the official response they have

received from the government or other established interests, such as big businesses. This stage may involve a fair

amount of tension between the social change groups and these targets of their claims.

Stage 4: Development of Alternative Strategies

Despite the renewed claims making, social change groups often conclude that the government and established

interests are not responding adequately to their claims. Although the groups may continue to press their claims,

1.1 What Is a Social Problem? 7

they nonetheless realize that these claims may fail to win an adequate response from established interests. This

realization leads them to develop their own strategies for addressing the social problem.

Key Takeaways

• The definition of a social problem has both an objective component and a subjective component. Theobjective component involves empirical evidence of the negative consequences of a social condition orbehavior, while the subjective component involves the perception that the condition or behavior is indeed aproblem that needs to be addressed.

• The social constructionist view emphasizes that a condition or behavior does not become a social problemunless there is a perception that it should be considered a social problem.

• The natural history of a social problem consists of four stages: emergence and claims making, legitimacy,renewed claims making, and alternative strategies.

For Your Review

1. What do you think is the most important social problem facing our nation right now? Explain your answer.

2. Do you agree with the social constructionist view that a negative social condition or behavior is not a socialproblem unless there is a perception that it should be considered a social problem? Why or why not?

References

Allison, J. A., & Wrightsman, L. S. (1993). Rape: The misunderstood crime. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

Publications.

Ehrenreich, B., & English, D. (2005). For her own good: Two centuries of the experts’ advice to women (2nd ed.).

New York, NY: Anchor Books.

Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C., & Smith, N. (2011). Climate change in the American mind:

Americans’ global warming beliefs and attitudes in May 2011. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change

Communication.

Robinson, M. B. (2011). Media coverage of crime and criminal justice. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

Rubington, E., & Weinberg, M. S. (2010). The study of social problems: Seven perspectives (7th ed.). New York,

NY: Oxford University Press.

Spector, M., & Kitsuse, J. I. (2001). Constructing social problems. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

Surette, R. (2011). Media, crime, and criminal justice: Images, realities, and policies (4th ed.). Belmont, CA:

Wadsworth.

8 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

1.2 Sociological Perspectives on Social Problems

Learning Objectives

1. Define the sociological imagination.

2. Explain what is meant by the blaming-the-victim belief.

3. Summarize the most important beliefs and assumptions of functionalism and conflict theory.

4. Summarize the most important beliefs and assumptions of symbolic interactionism and exchange theory.

The sociological understanding of social problems rests heavily on the concept of the sociological imagination.

We discuss this concept in some detail before turning to various theoretical perspectives that provide a further

context for understanding social problems.

The Sociological Imagination

Many individuals experience one or more social problems personally. For example, many people are poor and

unemployed, many are in poor health, and many have family problems, drink too much alcohol, or commit crime.

When we hear about these individuals, it is easy to think that their problems are theirs alone, and that they and

other individuals with the same problems are entirely to blame for their difficulties.

Sociology takes a different approach, as it stresses that individual problems are often rooted in problems stemming

from aspects of society itself. This key insight informed C. Wright Mills’s (1959) (Mills, 1959) classic distinction

between personal troubles and public issues. Personal troubles refer to a problem affecting individuals that the

affected individual, as well as other members of society, typically blame on the individual’s own personal and

moral failings. Examples include such different problems as eating disorders, divorce, and unemployment. Public

issues, whose source lies in the social structure and culture of a society, refer to social problems affecting many

individuals. Problems in society thus help account for problems that individuals experience. Mills felt that many

problems ordinarily considered private troubles are best understood as public issues, and he coined the term

sociological imagination to refer to the ability to appreciate the structural basis for individual problems.

To illustrate Mills’s viewpoint, let’s use our sociological imaginations to understand some contemporary social

problems. We will start with unemployment, which Mills himself discussed. If only a few people were

unemployed, Mills wrote, we could reasonably explain their unemployment by saying they were lazy, lacked good

work habits, and so forth. If so, their unemployment would be their own personal trouble. But when millions of

people are out of work, unemployment is best understood as a public issue because, as Mills (Mills, 1959) put

it, “the very structure of opportunities has collapsed. Both the correct statement of the problem and the range of

possible solutions require us to consider the economic and political institutions of the society, and not merely the

personal situation and character of a scatter of individuals.”

When only a few people are out of work, it is fair to say that their unemployment is their personal trouble. However, when millions of

people are out of work, as has been true since the economic downturn began in 2008, this massive unemployment is more accurately

viewed as a public issue. As such, its causes lie not in the unemployed individuals but rather in our society’s economic and social

systems.

Rawle C. Jackman – The line of hope… – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The high US unemployment rate stemming from the severe economic downturn that began in 2008 provides a

telling example of the point Mills was making. Millions of people lost their jobs through no fault of their own.

While some individuals are undoubtedly unemployed because they are lazy or lack good work habits, a more

structural explanation focusing on lack of opportunity is needed to explain why so many people were out of work.

If so, unemployment is best understood as a public issue rather than a personal trouble.

Another social problem is eating disorders. We usually consider a person’s eating disorder to be a personal trouble

that stems from a lack of control, low self-esteem, or another personal problem. This explanation may be OK as

far as it goes, but it does not help us understand why so many people have the personal problems that lead to eating

disorders. Perhaps more important, this belief also neglects the larger social and cultural forces that help explain

such disorders. For example, most Americans with eating disorders are women, not men. This gender difference

forces us to ask what it is about being a woman in American society that makes eating disorders so much more

common. To begin to answer this question, we need to look to the standard of beauty for women that emphasizes a

slender body (Boyd, et. al., 2011). If this cultural standard did not exist, far fewer American women would suffer

from eating disorders than do now. Because it does exist, even if every girl and woman with an eating disorder

10 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

were cured, others would take their places unless we could somehow change this standard. Viewed in this way,

eating disorders are best understood as a public issue, not just as a personal trouble.

Picking up on Mills’s insights, William Ryan (1976) (Ryan, 1976) pointed out that Americans typically think that

social problems such as poverty and unemployment stem from personal failings of the people experiencing these

problems, not from structural problems in the larger society. Using Mills’s terms, Americans tend to think of social

problems as personal troubles rather than public issues. As Ryan put it, they tend to believe in blaming the victim

rather than blaming the system.

To help us understand a blaming-the-victim ideology, let’s consider why poor children in urban areas often learn

very little in their schools. According to Ryan, a blaming-the-victim approach would say the children’s parents

do not care about their learning, fail to teach them good study habits, and do not encourage them to take school

seriously. This type of explanation, he wrote, may apply to some parents, but it ignores a much more important

reason: the sad shape of America’s urban schools, which, he said, are overcrowded, decrepit structures housing

old textbooks and out-of-date equipment. To improve the schooling of children in urban areas, he wrote, we must

improve the schools themselves and not just try to “improve” the parents.

As this example suggests, a blaming-the-victim approach points to solutions to social problems such as poverty

and illiteracy that are very different from those suggested by a more structural approach that blames the system. If

we blame the victim, we would spend our limited dollars to address the personal failings of individuals who suffer

from poverty, illiteracy, poor health, eating disorders, and other difficulties. If instead we blame the system, we

would focus our attention on the various social conditions (decrepit schools, cultural standards of female beauty,

and the like) that account for these difficulties. A sociological understanding suggests that the latter approach is

ultimately needed to help us deal successfully with the social problems facing us today.

Theoretical Perspectives

Three theoretical perspectives guide sociological thinking on social problems: functionalist theory, conflict theory,

and symbolic interactionist theory. These perspectives look at the same social problems, but they do so in different

ways. Their views taken together offer a fuller understanding of social problems than any of the views can offer

alone. Table 1.1 “Theory Snapshot” summarizes the three perspectives.

Table 1.1 Theory Snapshot

1.2 Sociological Perspectives on Social Problems 11

Theoreticalperspective

Major assumptions Views of social problems

Functionalism

Social stability is necessary for a strong society, andadequate socialization and social integration arenecessary for social stability. Society’s social institutionsperform important functions to help ensure socialstability. Slow social change is desirable, but rapid socialchange threatens social order.

Social problems weaken a society’s stabilitybut do not reflect fundamental faults in howthe society is structured. Solutions to socialproblems should take the form of gradualsocial reform rather than sudden andfar-reaching change. Despite their negativeeffects, social problems often also serveimportant functions for society.

Conflicttheory

Society is characterized by pervasive inequality based onsocial class, race, gender, and other factors. Far-reachingsocial change is needed to reduce or eliminate socialinequality and to create an egalitarian society.

Social problems arise from fundamental faultsin the structure of a society and both reflectand reinforce inequalities based on socialclass, race, gender, and other dimensions.Successful solutions to social problems mustinvolve far-reaching change in the structure ofsociety.

Symbolicinteractionism

People construct their roles as they interact; they do notmerely learn the roles that society has set out for them.As this interaction occurs, individuals negotiate theirdefinitions of the situations in which they findthemselves and socially construct the reality of thesesituations. In so doing, they rely heavily on symbolssuch as words and gestures to reach a sharedunderstanding of their interaction.

Social problems arise from the interaction ofindividuals. People who engage in sociallyproblematic behaviors often learn thesebehaviors from other people. Individuals alsolearn their perceptions of social problemsfrom other people.

Functionalism

Functionalism, also known as the functionalist theory or perspective, arose out of two great revolutions of the

eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The first was the French Revolution of 1789, whose intense violence and

bloody terror shook Europe to its core. The aristocracy throughout Europe feared that revolution would spread to

their own lands, and intellectuals feared that social order was crumbling.

The Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century reinforced these concerns. Starting first in Europe and then

in the United States, the Industrial Revolution led to many changes, including the rise and growth of cities as

people left their farms to live near factories. As the cities grew, people lived in increasingly poor, crowded, and

decrepit conditions, and crime was rampant. Here was additional evidence, if European intellectuals needed it, of

the breakdown of social order.

In response, the intellectuals began to write that a strong society, as exemplified by strong social bonds and rules

and effective socialization, was needed to prevent social order from disintegrating. Without a strong society and

effective socialization, they warned, social order breaks down, and violence and other signs of social disorder

result.

This general framework reached fruition in the writings of Émile Durkheim (1858–1917), a French scholar

largely responsible for the sociological perspective, as we now know it. Adopting the conservative intellectuals’

view of the need for a strong society, Durkheim felt that human beings have desires that result in chaos unless

society limits them (Durkheim, 1952). It does so, he wrote, through two related social mechanisms: socialization

12 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

and social integration. Socialization helps us learn society’s rules and the need to cooperate, as people end up

generally agreeing on important norms and values, while social integration, or our ties to other people and to

social institutions such as religion and the family, helps socialize us and integrate us into society and reinforce our

respect for its rules.

Today’s functionalist perspective arises out of Durkheim’s work and that of other conservative intellectuals of

the nineteenth century. It uses the human body as a model for understanding society. In the human body, our

various organs and other body parts serve important functions for the ongoing health and stability of our body.

Our eyes help us see, our ears help us hear, our heart circulates our blood, and so forth. Just as we can understand

the body by describing and understanding the functions that its parts serve for its health and stability, so can we

understand society by describing and understanding the functions that its parts—or, more accurately, its social

institutions—serve for the ongoing health and stability of society. Thus functionalism emphasizes the importance

of social institutions such as the family, religion, and education for producing a stable society.

Émile Durkheim was a founder of sociology and is largely credited with

developing the functionalist perspective.

Marxists.org – public domain.

Similar to the view of the conservative intellectuals from which it grew, functionalism is skeptical of rapid social

change and other major social upheaval. The analogy to the human body helps us understand this skepticism. In

our bodies, any sudden, rapid change is a sign of danger to our health. If we break a bone in one of our legs, we

have trouble walking; if we lose sight in both our eyes, we can no longer see. Slow changes, such as the growth

1.2 Sociological Perspectives on Social Problems 13

of our hair and our nails, are fine and even normal, but sudden changes like those just described are obviously

troublesome. By analogy, sudden and rapid changes in society and its social institutions are troublesome according

to the functionalist perspective. If the human body evolved to its present form and functions because these made

sense from an evolutionary perspective, so did society evolve to its present form and functions because these made

sense. Any sudden change in society thus threatens its stability and future.

As these comments might suggest, functionalism views social problems as arising from society’s natural

evolution. When a social problem does occur, it might threaten a society’s stability, but it does not mean that

fundamental flaws in the society exist. Accordingly, gradual social reform should be all that is needed to address

the social problem.

Functionalism even suggests that social problems must be functional in some ways for society, because otherwise

these problems would not continue. This is certainly a controversial suggestion, but it is true that many social

problems do serve important functions for our society. For example, crime is a major social problem, but it is also

good for the economy because it creates hundreds of thousands of jobs in law enforcement, courts and corrections,

home security, and other sectors of the economy whose major role is to deal with crime. If crime disappeared,

many people would be out of work! Similarly, poverty is also a major social problem, but one function that poverty

serves is that poor people do jobs that otherwise might not get done because other people would not want to do

them (Gans, 1972). Like crime, poverty also provides employment for people across the nation, such as those who

work in social service agencies that help poor people.

Conflict Theory

In many ways, conflict theory is the opposite of functionalism but ironically also grew out of the Industrial

Revolution, thanks largely to Karl Marx (1818–1883) and his collaborator, Friedrich Engels (1820–1895).

Whereas conservative intellectuals feared the mass violence resulting from industrialization, Marx and Engels

deplored the conditions they felt were responsible for the mass violence and the capitalist society they felt was

responsible for these conditions. Instead of fearing the breakdown of social order that mass violence represented,

they felt that revolutionary violence was needed to eliminate capitalism and the poverty and misery they saw as

its inevitable results (Marx, 1906; Marx & Engels, 1962).

According to Marx and Engels, every society is divided into two classes based on the ownership of the means

of production (tools, factories, and the like). In a capitalist society, the bourgeoisie, or ruling class, owns the

means of production, while the proletariat, or working class, does not own the means of production and instead

is oppressed and exploited by the bourgeoisie. This difference creates an automatic conflict of interests between

the two groups. Simply put, the bourgeoisie is interested in maintaining its position at the top of society, while the

proletariat’s interest lies in rising up from the bottom and overthrowing the bourgeoisie to create an egalitarian

society.

In a capitalist society, Marx and Engels wrote, revolution is inevitable because of structural contradictions arising

from the very nature of capitalism. Because profit is the main goal of capitalism, the bourgeoisie’s interest lies

in maximizing profit. To do so, capitalists try to keep wages as low as possible and to spend as little money

as possible on working conditions. This central fact of capitalism, said Marx and Engels, eventually prompts

14 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

the rise of class consciousness, or an awareness of the reasons for their oppression, among workers. Their class

consciousness in turn leads them to revolt against the bourgeoisie to eliminate the oppression and exploitation

they suffer.

Marx and Engels’ view of conflict arising from unequal positions held by members of society lies at the heart of

today’s conflict theory. This theory emphasizes that different groups in society have different interests stemming

from their different social positions. These different interests in turn lead to different views on important social

issues. Some versions of the theory root conflict in divisions based on race and ethnicity, gender, and other such

differences, while other versions follow Marx and Engels in seeing conflict arising out of different positions in the

economic structure. In general, however, conflict theory emphasizes that the various parts of society contribute

to ongoing inequality, whereas functionalist theory, as we have seen, stresses that they contribute to the ongoing

stability of society. Thus while functionalist theory emphasizes the benefits of the various parts of society for

ongoing social stability, conflict theory favors social change to reduce inequality.

1.2 Sociological Perspectives on Social Problems 15

Karl Marx and his collaborator Friedrich Engels were intense critics of capitalism. Their work inspired the later development of

conflict theory in sociology.

Wikimedia Commons – public domain.

Feminist theory has developed in sociology and other disciplines since the 1970s and for our purposes will be

considered a specific application of conflict theory. In this case, the conflict concerns gender inequality rather

than the class inequality emphasized by Marx and Engels. Although many variations of feminist theory exist,

they all emphasize that society is filled with gender inequality such that women are the subordinate sex in many

16 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

dimensions of social, political, and economic life (Lorber, 2010). Liberal feminists view gender inequality as

arising out of gender differences in socialization, while Marxist feminists say that this inequality is a result of

the rise of capitalism, which made women dependent on men for economic support. On the other hand, radical

feminists view gender inequality as present in all societies, not just capitalist ones. Several chapters in this book

emphasize the perspectives of feminist sociologists and other social scientists.

Conflict theory in its various forms views social problems as arising from society’s inherent inequality. Depending

on which version of conflict theory is being considered, the inequality contributing to social problems is based

on social class, race and ethnicity, gender, or some other dimension of society’s hierarchy. Because any of these

inequalities represents a fundamental flaw in society, conflict theory assumes that fundamental social change is

needed to address society’s many social problems.

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism focuses on the interaction of individuals and on how they interpret their interaction.

Its roots lie in the work of early 1900s American sociologists, social psychologists, and philosophers who

were interested in human consciousness and action. Herbert Blumer (1969) (Blumer, 1969), a sociologist at the

University of Chicago, built on their writings to develop symbolic interactionism, a term he coined. Drawing on

Blumer’s work, symbolic interactionists feel that people do not merely learn the roles that society has set out for

them; instead they construct these roles as they interact. As they interact, they negotiate their definitions of the

situations in which they find themselves and socially construct the reality of these situations. In doing so, they

rely heavily on symbols such as words and gestures to reach a shared understanding of their interaction.

Symbolic interactionism focuses on individuals, such as the people conversing here. Sociologists favoring this approach examine how

and why individuals interact and interpret the meanings of their interaction.

1.2 Sociological Perspectives on Social Problems 17

Wikimedia Commons – public domain.

An example is the familiar symbol of shaking hands. In the United States and many other societies, shaking hands

is a symbol of greeting and friendship. This simple act indicates that you are a nice, polite person with whom

someone should feel comfortable. To reinforce this symbol’s importance for understanding a bit of interaction,

consider a situation where someone refuses to shake hands. This action is usually intended as a sign of dislike

or as an insult, and the other person interprets it as such. Their understanding of the situation and subsequent

interaction will be very different from those arising from the more typical shaking of hands. As the term symbolic

interactionism implies, their understanding of this encounter arises from what they do when they interact and

from their use and interpretation of the various symbols included in their interaction. According to symbolic

interactionists, social order is possible because people learn what various symbols (such as shaking hands) mean

and apply these meanings to different kinds of situations. If you visited a society where sticking your right hand

out to greet someone was interpreted as a threatening gesture, you would quickly learn the value of common

understandings of symbols.

Symbolic interactionism views social problems as arising from the interaction of individuals. This interaction

matters in two important respects. First, socially problematic behaviors such as crime and drug use are often

learned from our interaction with people who engage in these behaviors; we adopt their attitudes that justify

committing these behaviors, and we learn any special techniques that might be needed to commit these behaviors.

Second, we also learn our perceptions of a social problem from our interaction with other people, whose

perceptions and beliefs influence our own perceptions and beliefs.

Because symbolic interactionism emphasizes the perception of social problems, it is closely aligned with the

social constructionist view discussed earlier. Both perspectives emphasize the subjective nature of social

problems. By doing so, they remind us that perceptions often matter at least as much as objective reality in

determining whether a given condition or behavior rises to the level of a social problem and in the types of

possible solutions that various parties might favor for a particular social problem.

Applying the Three Perspectives

18 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

To explain armed robbery, symbolic interactionists focus on how armed robbers decide when and where to rob a victim and on how

their interactions with other criminals reinforce their own criminal tendencies.

Geoffrey Fairchild – The Robbery – CC BY 2.0.

To help you further understand the different views of these three theoretical perspectives, let’s see what they would

probably say about armed robbery, a very serious form of crime, while recognizing that the three perspectives

together provide a more comprehensive understanding of armed robbery than any one perspective provides by

itself.

A functionalist approach might suggest that armed robbery actually serves positive functions for society, such as

the job-creating function mentioned earlier for crime in general. It would still think that efforts should be made

to reduce armed robbery, but it would also assume that far-reaching changes in our society would be neither wise

nor necessary as part of the effort to reduce crime.

Conflict theory would take a very different approach to understanding armed robbery. It might note that most

street criminals are poor and thus emphasize that armed robbery is the result of the despair and frustration of living

in poverty and facing a lack of jobs and other opportunities for economic and social success. The roots of street

crime, from the perspective of conflict theory, thus lie in society at least as much as they lie in the individuals

committing such crime. To reduce armed robbery and other street crime, conflict theory would advocate far-

reaching changes in the economic structure of society.

For its part, symbolic interactionism would focus on how armed robbers make such decisions as when and where

to rob someone and on how their interactions with other criminals reinforce their own criminal tendencies. It

would also investigate how victims of armed robbery behave when confronted by a robber. To reduce armed

robbery, it would advocate programs that reduce the opportunities for interaction among potential criminal

offenders, for example, after-school programs that keep at-risk youths busy in “conventional” activities so that

they have less time to spend with youths who might help them get into trouble.

1.2 Sociological Perspectives on Social Problems 19

Key Takeaways

• According to C. Wright Mills, the sociological imagination involves the ability to recognize that privatetroubles are rooted in public issues and structural problems.

• Functionalism emphasizes the importance of social institutions for social stability and implies that far-reaching social change will be socially harmful.

• Conflict theory emphasizes social inequality and suggests that far-reaching social change is needed toachieve a just society.

• Symbolic interactionism emphasizes the social meanings and understandings that individuals derive fromtheir social interaction.

For Your Review

1. Select an example of a “private trouble” and explain how and why it may reflect a structural problem insociety.

2. At this point in your study of social problems, which one of the three sociological theoretical perspectivessounds most appealing to you? Why?

References

Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic interactionism: Perspective and Method. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Boyd, E. M., Reynolds, J. R., Tillman, K. H., & Martin, P. Y. (2011). Adolescent girls’ race/ethnic status,

identities, and drive for thinness. Social Science Research, 40(2), 667–684.

Durkheim, É. (1952). Suicide (J. Spaulding & G. Simpson, Trans.). New York, NY: Free Press. (Original work

published 1897).

Gans, H. J. (1972). The positive functions of poverty. American Journal of Sociology, 78, 275–289.

Lorber, J. (2010). Gender Inequality: Feminist Theories and Politics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Marx, K. (1906). Capital. New York, NY: Random House. (Original work published 1867).

Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1962). The communist manifesto. In Marx and Engels: Selected works (Vol. 2, pp. 21–65).

Moscow, Russia: Foreign Language Publishing House. (Original work published 1848).

Mills, C. W. (1959). The sociological imagination. London, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Ryan, W. (1976). Blaming the victim (Rev. ed.). New York, NY: Vintage Books.

20 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

1.3 Continuity and Change in Social Problems

Learning Objectives

1. Explain what is meant by this book’s subtitle, “Continuity and Change.”

2. List the three sources of changes to social problems.

3. Describe how the United States compares to other democracies regarding the seriousness of social problems.

This book’s subtitle, “Continuity and Change,” conveys a theme that will guide every chapter’s discussion. Social

problems are, first of all, persistent. They have continued for decades and even centuries, and they show no sign

of ending anytime soon. In view of social problems’ long history, certainty of continuing for some time to come,

and serious consequences, it is easy to feel overwhelmed when reading about them, to think that little can be done

about them, and even to become a bit depressed. As a result, it is easy for students to come away from social

problems courses with a rather pessimistic, “doom and gloom” outlook (Johnson, 2005).

An important source of change in social problems is protest by a social change group or movement.

M 2 – Fantasia Protest, Castro Theater, 1991 – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

That is why this book stresses the second part of the subtitle, change. Although social problems are indeed

persistent, it is also true that certain problems are less serious now than in the past. Change is possible. As just

one of many examples, consider the conditions that workers face in the United States. As Chapter 12 “Work and

the Economy” discusses, many workers today are unemployed, have low wages, or work in substandard and even

dangerous workplaces. Yet they are immeasurably better off than a century ago, thanks to the US labor movement

that began during the 1870s. Workers now have the eight-hour day, the minimum wage (even if many people think

it is too low), the right to strike, and workplaces that are much safer than when the labor movement began. In two

more examples, people of color and women have made incredible advances since the 1960s, even if, as Chapter 3

“Racial and Ethnic Inequality” and Chapter 4 “Gender Inequality” discuss, they continue to experience racial and

gender inequality, respectively. To repeat: Change is possible.

How does change occur? One source of change in social problems is social science theory and research. Over

the decades, theory and research in sociology and the other social sciences have pointed to the reasons for social

problems, to potentially successful ways of addressing them, and to actual policies that succeeded in addressing

some aspect of a social problem. Accordingly, the discussion in each chapter of this book is based on sound social

science theory and research, and each chapter will present examples of how the findings from sociological and

other social science research have either contributed to public policy related to the chapter’s social problem or

have the potential of doing so.

The actions of individuals and groups may also make a difference. Many people have public-service jobs or

volunteer in all sorts of activities involving a social problem: they assist at a food pantry, they help clean up a

riverbank, and so forth. Others take on a more activist orientation by becoming involved in small social change

groups or a larger social movement. Our nation is a better place today because of the labor movement, the

Southern civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the gay rights movement, the environmental movement,

and other efforts too numerous to mention. According to Frances Fox Piven (2006) (Piven, 2006), a former

president of the American Sociological Association, it is through such efforts that “ordinary people change

America,” as the subtitle of her book on this subject reads.

Sharing this view, anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful,

committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Change thus is not easy, but it

can and does occur. Eleanor Roosevelt (Roosevelt, 1960) recognized this when she wrote, “Surely, in the light of

history, it is more intelligent to hope rather than to fear, to try rather than not to try. For one thing we know beyond

all doubt: Nothing has ever been achieved by the person who says, ‘It can’t be done.’” In the optimistic spirit of

these two famous women, we will see examples throughout this book of people making a difference in their jobs,

volunteer activities, and involvement in social change efforts.

22 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Many other democracies rank higher than the United States on poverty, health, and other social indicators. For this reason, the United

States may have much to learn from their positive examples.

Alex Loach – Houses of Parliament, London, England – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Change also occurs in social problems because policymakers (elected or appointed officials and other individuals)

pass laws or enact policies that successfully address a social problem. They often do so only because of the

pressure of a social movement, but sometimes they have the vision to act without such pressure. It is also true that

many officials fail to take action despite the pressure of a social movement, so those who do take action should

be applauded. A recent example involves the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, who made the legalization

of same-sex marriage a top priority for his state when he took office in January 2011. After the New York state

legislature narrowly approved same-sex marriage six months later, Cuomo’s advocacy was widely credited for

enabling this to happen (Barbaro, 2011).

A final source of change is the lessons learned from other nations’ experiences with social problems. Sometimes

these lessons for the United States are positive ones, as when another nation has tackled a social problem more

successfully than the United States, and sometimes these lessons are negative ones, as when another nation has

a more serious problem than the United States and/or has made mistakes in addressing this problem. The United

States can learn from the good examples of some other nations, and it can also learn from the bad ones. For this

reason, each chapter of this book discusses such examples. In this regard, the United States has much to learn from

the experiences of other long-standing democracies like Canada, the nations of Western Europe, and Australia and

New Zealand. Despite its great wealth, the United States ranks below most of its democratic peers on many social

indicators, such as poverty, health, and so on (Holland, 2011; Russell, 2011). A major reason for this difference is

that other democratic governments are far more proactive, in terms of attention and spending, than the US federal

and state governments in helping their citizens. Because the United States has much to learn from their positive

example, this book’s chapters all discuss policies that enable other democracies to address certain social problems

far more successfully than the United States has addressed them.

1.3 Continuity and Change in Social Problems 23

Key Takeaways

• Social problems are persistent, but they have also changed over the years, and many social problems are lessserious now than in the past.

• Three sources of change to social problems include social science research, the efforts of citizens actingalone or especially in social change groups, and the experiences of other nations.

For Your Review

1. Have you participated in any volunteer or other activity involving a social problem? If so, why did you doso? If not, why have you not participated in such an effort?

2. Do you share Eleanor Roosevelt’s optimism that social change is possible? Why or why not?

References

Barbaro, M. (2011, June 6). Behind NY gay marriage, an unlikely mix of forces. New York Times, p. A1.

Holland, J. (2011, June 15). 9 countries that do it better: Why does Europe take better care of its people

than America? AlterNet. Retrieved from http://www.alternet.org/story/151312/

151319_countries_that_do_it_better%151313A_why_does_europe_take_better_care

_of_its_people_than_america?page=151311.

Johnson, B. (2005). Overcoming “doom and gloom”: Empowering students in courses on social problems,

injustice, and inequality. Teaching Sociology, 33, 44–58.

Piven, F. F. (2006). Challenging authority: How ordinary people change America. Lanham, MD: Rowman &

Littlefield.

Roosevelt, E. (1960). You learn by living: Eleven keys for a more fulfilling life. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Russell, J. W. (2011). Double standard: Social policy in Europe and the United States (2nd ed.). Lanham, MD:

Rowman & Littlefield.

24 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

1.4 Doing Research on Social Problems

Learning Objectives

1. List the major advantages and disadvantages of surveys, observational studies, and experiments.

2. Explain why scholars who study social problems often rely on existing data.

Sound research is an essential tool for understanding the sources, dynamics, and consequences of social problems

and possible solutions to them. This section briefly describes the major ways in which sociologists gather

information about social problems. Table 1.2 “Major Sociological Research Methods” summarizes the advantages

and disadvantages of each method.

Table 1.2 Major Sociological Research Methods

Method Advantages Disadvantages

Survey

Many people can be included. If given toa random sample of the population, asurvey’s results can be generalized to thepopulation.

Large surveys are expensive and time consuming. Althoughmuch information is gathered, this information is relativelysuperficial.

ExperimentsIf random assignment is used,experiments provide fairly convincingdata on cause and effect.

Because experiments do not involve random samples of thepopulation and most often involve college students, theirresults cannot readily be generalized to the population.

Observation(fieldresearch)

Observational studies may provide rich,detailed information about the peoplewho are observed.

Because observation studies do not involve random samples ofthe population, their results cannot readily be generalized to thepopulation.

Existingdata

Because existing data have already beengathered, the researcher does not have tospend the time and money to gather data.

The data set that is being analyzed may not contain data on allthe variables in which a sociologist is interested or may containdata on variables that are not measured in ways the sociologistprefers.

Surveys

The survey is the most common method by which sociologists gather their data. The Gallup poll is perhaps the

most well-known example of a survey and, like all surveys, gathers its data with the help of a questionnaire that is

given to a group of respondents. The Gallup poll is an example of a survey conducted by a private organization,

but sociologists do their own surveys, as does the government and many organizations in addition to Gallup.

Many surveys are administered to respondents who are randomly chosen and thus constitute a random sample.

In a random sample, everyone in the population (whether it be the whole US population or just the population

of a state or city, all the college students in a state or city or all the students at just one college, etc.) has the

same chance of being included in the survey. The beauty of a random sample is that it allows us to generalize the

results of the sample to the population from which the sample comes. This means that we can be fairly sure of

the behavior and attitudes of the whole US population by knowing the behavior and attitudes of just four hundred

people randomly chosen from that population.

Some surveys are face-to-face surveys, in which interviewers meet with respondents to ask them questions. This

type of survey can yield much information, because interviewers typically will spend at least an hour asking their

questions, and a high response rate (the percentage of all people in the sample who agree to be interviewed), which

is important to be able to generalize the survey’s results to the entire population. On the downside, this type of

survey can be very expensive and time consuming to conduct.

Surveys are very useful for gathering various kinds of information relevant to social problems. Advances in technology have made

telephone surveys involving random-digit dialing perhaps the most popular way of conducting a survey.

plantronicsgermany – Encore520 call center man standing – CC BY-ND 2.0.

Because of these drawbacks, sociologists and other researchers have turned to telephone surveys. Most Gallup

polls are conducted over the telephone. Computers do random-digit dialing, which results in a random sample

of all telephone numbers being selected. Although the response rate and the number of questions asked are both

lower than in face-to-face surveys (people can just hang up the phone at the outset or let their answering machine

take the call), the ease and low expense of telephone surveys are making them increasingly popular. Surveys done

over the Internet are also becoming more popular, as they can reach many people at very low expense. A major

problem with web surveys is that their results cannot necessarily be generalized to the entire population because

not everyone has access to the Internet.

Surveys are used in the study of social problems to gather information about the behavior and attitudes of people

regarding one or more problems. For example, many surveys ask people about their use of alcohol, tobacco,

and other drugs or about their experiences of being unemployed or in poor health. Many of the chapters in this

book will present evidence gathered by surveys carried out by sociologists and other social scientists, various

governmental agencies, and private research and public interest firms.

26 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Experiments

Experiments are the primary form of research in the natural and physical sciences, but in the social sciences they

are for the most part found only in psychology. Some sociologists still use experiments, however, and they remain

a powerful tool of social research.

The major advantage of experiments, whether they are done in the natural and physical sciences or in the social

sciences, is that the researcher can be fairly sure of a cause-and-effect relationship because of the way the

experiment is set up. Although many different experimental designs exist, the typical experiment consists of an

experimental group and a control group, with subjects randomly assigned to either group. The researcher does

something to the experimental group that is not done to the control group. If the two groups differ later in some

variable, then it is safe to say that the condition to which the experimental group was subjected was responsible

for the difference that resulted.

Most experiments take place in the laboratory, which for psychologists may be a room with a one-way mirror,

but some experiments occur in the field, or in a natural setting (field experiments). In Minneapolis, Minnesota,

in the early 1980s, sociologists were involved in a much-discussed field experiment sponsored by the federal

government. The researchers wanted to see whether arresting men for domestic violence made it less likely that

they would commit such violence again. To test this hypothesis, the researchers had police do one of the following

after arriving at the scene of a domestic dispute: They either arrested the suspect, separated him from his wife or

partner for several hours, or warned him to stop but did not arrest or separate him. The researchers then determined

the percentage of men in each group who committed repeated domestic violence during the next six months and

found that those who were arrested had the lowest rate of recidivism, or repeat offending (Sherman & Berk, 1984).

This finding led many jurisdictions across the United States to adopt a policy of mandatory arrest for domestic

violence suspects. However, replications of the Minneapolis experiment in other cities found that arrest sometimes

reduced recidivism for domestic violence but also sometimes increased it, depending on which city was being

studied and on certain characteristics of the suspects, including whether they were employed at the time of their

arrest (Sherman, 1992).

As the Minneapolis study suggests, perhaps the most important problem with experiments is that their results are

not generalizable beyond the specific subjects studied. The subjects in most psychology experiments, for example,

are college students, who obviously are not typical of average Americans: They are younger, more educated,

and more likely to be middle class. Despite this problem, experiments in psychology and other social sciences

have given us very valuable insights into the sources of attitudes and behavior. Scholars of social problems

are increasingly using field experiments to study the effectiveness of various policies and programs aimed at

addressing social problems. We will examine the results of several such experiments in the chapters ahead.

Observational Studies

Observational research, also called field research, is a staple of sociology. Sociologists have long gone into the

field to observe people and social settings, and the result has been many rich descriptions and analyses of behavior

in juvenile gangs, bars, urban street corners, and even whole communities.

1.4 Doing Research on Social Problems 27

Observational studies consist of both participant observation and nonparticipant observation. Their names

describe how they differ. In participant observation, the researcher is part of the group that she or he is studying,

spends time with the group, and might even live with people in the group. Several classical social problems studies

of this type exist, many of them involving people in urban neighborhoods (Liebow, 1967; Liebow, 1993; Whyte,

1943). In nonparticipant observation, the researcher observes a group of people but does not otherwise interact

with them. If you went to your local shopping mall to observe, say, whether people walking with children looked

happier than people without children, you would be engaging in nonparticipant observation.

Similar to experiments, observational studies cannot automatically be generalized to other settings or members of

the population. But in many ways they provide a richer account of people’s lives than surveys do, and they remain

an important method of research on social problems.

Existing Data

Sometimes sociologists do not gather their own data but instead analyze existing data that someone else has

gathered. The US Census Bureau, for example, gathers data on all kinds of areas relevant to the lives of

Americans, and many sociologists analyze census data on such social problems as poverty, unemployment, and

illness. Sociologists interested in crime and the criminal justice system may analyze data from court records, while

medical sociologists often analyze data from patient records at hospitals. Analysis of existing data such as these

is called secondary data analysis. Its advantage to sociologists is that someone else has already spent the time

and money to gather the data. A disadvantage is that the data set being analyzed may not contain data on all the

topics in which a sociologist may be interested or may contain data on topics that are not measured in ways the

sociologist might prefer.

The Scientific Method and Objectivity

This section began by stressing the need for sound research in the study of social problems. But what are the

elements of sound research? At a minimum, such research should follow the rules of the scientific method. As you

probably learned in high school and/or college science classes, these rules—formulating hypotheses, gathering

and testing data, drawing conclusions, and so forth—help guarantee that research yields the most accurate and

reliable conclusions possible.

An overriding principle of the scientific method is that research should be conducted as objectively as possible.

Researchers are often passionate about their work, but they must take care not to let the findings they expect

and even hope to uncover affect how they do their research. This in turn means that they must not conduct their

research in a manner that helps achieve the results they expect to find. Such bias can happen unconsciously, and

the scientific method helps reduce the potential for this bias as much as possible.

This potential is arguably greater in the social sciences than in the natural and physical sciences. The political

views of chemists and physicists typically do not affect how an experiment is performed and how the outcome of

the experiment is interpreted. In contrast, researchers in the social sciences, and perhaps particularly in sociology,

often have strong feelings about the topics they are studying. Their social and political beliefs may thus influence

28 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

how they perform their research on these topics and how they interpret the results of this research. Following the

scientific method helps reduce this possible influence.

Key Takeaways

• The major types of research on social problems include surveys, experiments, observational studies, and theuse of existing data.

• Surveys are the most common method, and the results of surveys of random samples may be generalized tothe populations from which the samples come.

• Observation studies and existing data are also common methods in social problems research. Observationstudies enable the gathering of rich, detailed information, but their results cannot necessarily be generalizedbeyond the people studied.

• Research on social problems should follow the scientific method to yield the most accurate and objectiveconclusions possible.

For Your Review

1. Have you ever been a respondent or subject in any type of sociological or psychological research project? Ifso, how did it feel to be studied?

2. Which type of social problems research method sounds most interesting to you? Why?

References

Liebow, E. (1967). Tally’s corner. Boston, MA: Little, Brown.

Liebow, E. (1993). Tell them who I am: The lives of homeless women. New York, NY: Free Press.

Sherman, L. W., & Berk, R. A. (1984). The specific deterrent effects of arrest for domestic assault. American

Sociological Review, 49, 261–272.

Sherman, L. W. (1992). Policing domestic violence: Experiments and dilemmas. New York, NY: Free Press.

Whyte, W. F. (1943). Street corner society: The social structure of an Italian slum. Chicago, IL: University of

Chicago Press.

1.4 Doing Research on Social Problems 29

1.5 End-of-Chapter Material

Summary

1. Some sociologists favor the social constructionist view that negative social conditions or behaviors are notsocial problems unless they are generally perceived as a social problem, but other sociologists say that theseconditions and behaviors are still social problems even if they are not perceived as such.

2. According to C. Wright Mills, the sociological imagination involves the ability to realize that personaltroubles are rooted in problems in the larger social structure. The sociological imagination thus supports ablaming-the-system view over a blaming-the-victim view.

3. Social problems have existed for decades or even centuries, but many of these have also lessened in theirseriousness over time, and change in the future is indeed possible.

4. Several theoretical perspectives in sociology exist. Functionalism emphasizes the functions that socialinstitutions serve to ensure the ongoing stability of society, while conflict theory focuses on the conflictamong different racial, ethnic, social class, and other groups and emphasizes how social institutions helpensure inequality. Symbolic interactionism focuses on how individuals interpret the meanings of thesituations in which they find themselves.

Chapter 2: Poverty

Social Problems in the News

“Survey: More US Kids Go to School Hungry,” the headline said. As the US economy continued to struggle, a nationwidesurvey of 638 public school teachers in grades K–8 conducted for Share Our Strength, a nonprofit organization working toend childhood hunger, found alarming evidence of children coming to school with empty stomachs. More than two-thirdsof the teachers said they had students who “regularly come to school too hungry to learn—some having had no dinnerthe night before,” according to the news article. More than 60 percent of the teachers said the problem had worsenedduring the past year, and more than 40 percent called it a “serious” problem. Many of the teachers said they spent theirown money to buy food for their students. As an elementary school teacher explained, “I’ve had lots of students cometo school—not just one or two—who put their heads down and cry because they haven’t eaten since lunch yesterday”(United Press International, 2011).

The United States is one of the richest nations in the world. Many Americans live in luxury or at least are

comfortably well-off. Yet, as this poignant news story of childhood hunger reminds us, many Americans also live

in poverty or near poverty. This chapter explains why poverty exists and why the US poverty rate is so high, and

it discusses the devastating consequences of poverty for the millions of Americans who live in or near poverty. It

also examines poverty in the poorest nations of the world and outlines efforts for reducing poverty in the United

States and these nations.

Although this chapter will paint a disturbing picture of poverty, there is still cause for hope. As we shall see,

the “war on poverty” that began in the United States during the 1960s dramatically reduced poverty. Inspired by

books with titles like The Other America: Poverty in the United States (Harrington, 1962) and In the Midst of

Plenty: The Poor in America (Bagdikian, 1964) that described the plight of the poor in heartbreaking detail, the

federal government established various funding programs and other policies that greatly lowered the poverty rate

in less than a decade (Schwartz, 1984). Since the 1960s and 1970s, however, the United States has cut back on

these programs, and the poor are no longer on the national agenda. Other wealthy democracies provide much more

funding and many more services for their poor than does the United States, and their poverty rates are much lower

than ours.

Still, the history of the war on poverty and the experience of these other nations both demonstrate that US poverty

can be reduced with appropriate policies and programs. If the United States were to go back to the future by

remembering its earlier war on poverty and by learning from other Western democracies, it could again lower

poverty and help millions of Americans lead better, healthier, and more productive lives.

But why should we care about poverty in the first place? As this chapter discusses, many politicians and much of

the public blame the poor for being poor, and they oppose increasing federal spending to help the poor and even

want to reduce such spending. As poverty expert Mark R. Rank (Rank, 2011) summarizes this way of thinking,

“All too often we view poverty as someone else’s problem.” Rank says this unsympathetic view is shortsighted

because, as he puts it, “poverty affects us all” (Rank, 2011). This is true, he explains, for at least two reasons.

First, the United States spends much more money than it needs to because of the consequences of poverty. Poor

people experience worse health, family problems, higher crime rates, and many other problems, all of which our

nation spends billions of dollars annually to address. In fact, childhood poverty has been estimated to cost the

US economy an estimated $500 billion annually because of the problems it leads to, including unemployment,

low-paid employment, higher crime rates, and physical and mental health problems (Eckholm, 2007). If the US

poverty rate were no higher than that of other democracies, billions of tax dollars and other resources would be

saved.

Second, the majority of Americans can actually expect to be poor or near poor at some point in their lives, with

about 75 percent of Americans in the 20–75 age range living in poverty or near poverty for at least one year in

their lives. As Rank (Rank, 2011) observes, most Americans “will find ourselves below the poverty line and using

a social safety net program at some point.” Because poverty costs the United States so much money and because

so many people experience poverty, says Rank, everyone should want the United States to do everything possible

to reduce poverty.

Sociologist John Iceland (Iceland, 2006) adds two additional reasons for why everyone should care about poverty

and want it reduced. First, a high rate of poverty impairs our nation’s economic progress: When a large number

of people cannot afford to purchase goods and services, economic growth is more difficult to achieve. Second,

poverty produces crime and other social problems that affect people across the socioeconomic ladder. Reductions

in poverty would help not only the poor but also people who are not poor.

We begin our examination of poverty by discussing how poverty is measured and how much poverty exists.

References

Bagdikian, B. H. (1964). In the midst of plenty: The poor in America. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Eckholm, E. (2007, January 25). Childhood poverty is found to portend high adult costs. New York Times, p. A19.

Harrington, M. (1962). The other America: Poverty in the United States. New York, NY: Macmillan.

Iceland, J. (2006). Poverty in America: A handbook. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Rank, M. R. (2011). Rethinking American poverty. Contexts, 10(Spring), 16–21.

Schwartz, J. E. (1984, June 18). The war we won: How the great society defeated poverty. The New Republic,

18–19.

United Press International. (2011, February 23). Survey: More U.S. kids go to school hungry. UPI.com. Retrieved

from http://www.upi.com/Health_News/2011/2002/2023/Survey-More-US-kids-go-to-school-hungry/

UPI-20871298510763/.

32 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

2.1 The Measurement and Extent of Poverty

Learning Objectives

1. Understand how official poverty in the United States is measured.

2. Describe problems in the measurement of official poverty.

3. Describe the extent of official poverty.

When US officials became concerned about poverty during the 1960s, they quickly realized they needed to

find out how much poverty we had. To do so, a measure of official poverty, or a poverty line, was needed.

A government economist, Mollie Orshanky, first calculated this line in 1963 by multiplying the cost of a very

minimal diet by three, as a 1955 government study had determined that the typical American family spent one-

third of its income on food. Thus a family whose cash income is lower than three times the cost of a very minimal

diet is considered officially poor.

This way of calculating the official poverty line has not changed since 1963. It is thus out of date for many

reasons. For example, many expenses, such as heat and electricity, child care, transportation, and health care, now

occupy a greater percentage of the typical family’s budget than was true in 1963. In addition, this official measure

ignores a family’s noncash income from benefits such as food stamps and tax credits. As a national measure, the

poverty line also fails to take into account regional differences in the cost of living. All these problems make the

official measurement of poverty highly suspect. As one poverty expert observes, “The official measure no longer

corresponds to reality. It doesn’t get either side of the equation right—how much the poor have or how much they

need. No one really trusts the data” (DeParle, et. al., 2011). We’ll return to this issue shortly.

The measure of official poverty began in 1963 and stipulates that a family whose income is lower than three times the cost of a

minimal diet is considered officially poor. This measure has not changed since 1963 even though family expenses have risen greatly

in many areas.

Wikimedia Commons – public domain.

The poverty line is adjusted annually for inflation and takes into account the number of people in a family:

The larger the family size, the higher the poverty line. In 2010, the poverty line for a nonfarm family of four

(two adults, two children) was $22,213. A four-person family earning even one more dollar than $22,213

in 2010 was not officially poor, even though its “extra” income hardly lifted it out of dire economic straits.

Poverty experts have calculated a no-frills budget that enables a family to meet its basic needs in food,

clothing, shelter, and so forth; this budget is about twice the poverty line. Families with incomes between

the poverty line and twice the poverty line (or twice poverty) are barely making ends meet, but they are

not considered officially poor. When we talk here about the poverty level, then, keep in mind that we are

talking only about official poverty and that there are many families and individuals living in near poverty

who have trouble meeting their basic needs, especially when they face unusually high medical expenses,

motor vehicle expenses, or the like. For this reason, many analysts think families need incomes twice as

high as the federal poverty level just to get by (Wright, et. al., 2011). They thus use twice-poverty data

(i.e., family incomes below twice the poverty line) to provide a more accurate understanding of how many

Americans face serious financial difficulties, even if they are not living in official poverty.

The Extent of Poverty

With this caveat in mind, how many Americans are poor? The US Census Bureau gives us some answers

that use the traditional, official measure of poverty developed in 1963. In 2010, 15.1 percent of the

US population, or 46.2 million Americans, lived in official poverty (DeNavas-Walt, et. al., 2011). This

percentage represented a decline from the early 1990s but was higher than 2000 and even higher than the

34 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

rate in the late 1960s (see Figure 2.1 “US Poverty, 1959–2010”). If we were winning the war on poverty in

the 1960s (notice the sharp drop in the 1960s in Figure 2.1 “US Poverty, 1959–2010”), since then poverty

has fought us to a standstill.

Figure 2.1 US Poverty, 1959–2010

Source: Data from US Census Bureau. (2011). Historical poverty tables: People. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/data/historical/people.html.

Another way of understanding the extent of poverty is to consider episodic poverty, defined by the Census

Bureau as being poor for at least two consecutive months in some time period. From 2004 to 2007, the

last years for which data are available, almost one-third of the US public, equal to about 95 million people,

were poor for at least two consecutive months, although only 2.2 percent were poor for all three years

(DeNavas-Walt, et al., 2010). As these figures indicate, people go into and out of poverty, but even those

who go out of it do not usually move very far from it. And as we have seen, the majority of Americans can

expect to experience poverty or near poverty at some point in their lives.

The problems in the official poverty measure that were noted earlier have led the Census Bureau to develop

a Supplemental Poverty Measure. This measure takes into account the many family expenses in addition

to food; it also takes into account geographic differences in the cost of living, taxes paid and tax credits

received, and the provision of food stamps, Medicaid, and certain other kinds of government aid. This new

measure yields an estimate of poverty that is higher than the rather simplistic official poverty measure that,

as noted earlier, is based solely on the size of a family and the cost of food and the amount of a family’s

cash income. According to this new measure, the 2010 poverty rate was 16.0 percent, equal to 49.1 million

Americans (Short, 2011). Because the official poverty measure identified 46.2 million people as poor, the

new, more accurate measure increased the number of poor people in the United States by almost 3 million.

Without the help of Social Security, food stamps, and other federal programs, at least 25 million additional

people would be classified as poor (Sherman, 2011). These programs thus are essential in keeping many

people above the poverty level, even if they still have trouble making ends meet and even though the

poverty rate remains unacceptably high.

A final figure is worth noting. Recall that many poverty experts think that twice-poverty data—the

percentage and number of people living in families with incomes below twice the official poverty

level—are a better gauge than the official poverty level of the actual extent of poverty, broadly defined, in

the United States. Using the twice-poverty threshold, about one-third of the US population, or more than

2.1 The Measurement and Extent of Poverty 35

100 million Americans, live in poverty or near poverty (Pereyra, 2011). Those in near poverty are just one

crisis—losing a job or sustaining a serious illness or injury—away from poverty. Twice-poverty data paint

a very discouraging picture.

Key Takeaways

• The official poverty rate is based on the size of a family and a minimal food budget; this measureunderestimates the true extent of poverty.

• The official poverty rate in 2010 was 15.1 percent, equal to more than 46 million Americans.

• About one-third of the US population, or more than 100 million Americans, have incomes no higherthan twice the poverty line.

For Your Review

1. Write a short essay that summarizes the problems by which the official poverty rate is determined.

2. Sit down with some classmates and estimate what a family of four (two parents, two young children)in your area would have to pay annually for food, clothing, shelter, energy, and other necessities oflife. What figure do you end up with? How does this sum of money compare with the officialpoverty line of $22,213 in 2010 for a family of four?

References

DeNavas-Walt, C., Proctor, B. D., & Smith, J. C. (2011). Income, poverty, and health insurance coverage

in the United States: 2010 (Current Population Reports, P60-239). Washington, DC: US Census Bureau.

DeParle, J., Gebeloff, R., & Tavernise, S. (2011, November 4). Bleak portrait of poverty is off the mark,

experts say. New York Times, p. A1.

Pereyra, L. (2011). Half in Ten campaign criticizes House Republican funding proposal. Washington, DC:

Center for American Progress.

Sherman, A. (2011). Despite deep recession and high unemployment, government efforts—including the

Recovery Act—prevented poverty from rising in 2009, new census data show. Washington, DC: Center on

Budget and Policy Priorities.

Short, K. (2011). The research supplemental poverty measure: 2010 (Current Population Reports,

P60-241). Washington, DC: US Census Bureau.

Wright, V. R., Chau, M., & Aratani, Y. (2011). Who are America’s poor children? The official story. New

York, NY: National Center for Children in Poverty.

36 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

2.2 Who the Poor Are: Social Patterns of Poverty

Learning Objectives

1. Describe racial/ethnic differences in the poverty rate.

2. Discuss how family structure is related to the poverty rate.

3. Explain what poverty and labor force participation data imply about the belief that many poor people lackthe motivation to work.

Who are the poor? Although the official poverty rate in 2010 was 15.1 percent, this rate differs by the important

sociodemographic characteristics of race/ethnicity, gender, and age, and it also differs by region of the nation and

by family structure. The poverty rate differences based on these variables are critical to understanding the nature

and social patterning of poverty in the United States. We look at each of these variables in turn with 2010 census

data (DeNavas-Walt, et, al., 2011).

Race/Ethnicity

Here is a quick quiz; please circle the correct answer.

• Most poor people in the United States are

1. Black/African American

2. Latino

3. Native American

4. Asian

5. White

What did you circle? If you are like the majority of people who answer a similar question in public opinion

surveys, you would have circled a. Black/African American. When Americans think about poor people, they tend

to picture African Americans (White, 2007). This popular image is thought to reduce the public’s sympathy for

poor people and to lead them to oppose increased government aid for the poor. The public’s views on these matters

are, in turn, thought to play a key role in government poverty policy. It is thus essential for the public to have an

accurate understanding of the racial/ethnic patterning of poverty.

The most typical poor people in the United States are non-Latino whites. These individuals comprise 42.4 percent of all poor

Americans.

Franco Folini – Homeless guys with dogs – CC BY-SA 2.0.

Unfortunately, the public’s racial image of poor people is mistaken, as census data reveal that the most typical poor

person is white (non-Latino). To be more precise, 42.4 percent of poor people are white (non-Latino), 28.7 percent

are Latino, 23.1 percent are black, and 3.7 percent are Asian (see Figure 2.2 “Racial and Ethnic Composition of

the Poor, 2010 (Percentage of Poor Persons Who Belong to Each Group)”). As these figures show, non-Latino

whites certainly comprise the greatest number of the American poor. Turning these percentages into numbers,

they account for 19.6 million of the 46.2 million poor Americans.

It is also true, though, that race and ethnicity affect the chances of being poor. While only 9.9 percent of non-

Latino whites are poor, 27.4 percent of African Americans, 12.1 percent of Asians, and 26.6 percent of Latinos

(who may be of any race) are poor (see Figure 2.3 “Race, Ethnicity, and Poverty, 2010 (Percentage of Each Group

That Is Poor)”). Thus African Americans and Latinos are almost three times as likely as non-Latino whites to be

poor. (Because there are so many non-Latino whites in the United States, the greatest number of poor people are

non-Latino white, even if the percentage of whites who are poor is relatively low.) The higher poverty rates of

people of color are so striking and important that they have been termed the “colors of poverty” (Lin & Harris,

2008).

Figure 2.2 Racial and Ethnic Composition of the Poor, 2010 (Percentage of Poor Persons Who

Belong to Each Group)

38 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Source: Data from DeNavas-Walt, C., Proctor, B. D., & Smith, J. C. (2011). Income, poverty,

and health insurance coverage in the United States: 2010 (Current Population Report

P60-239). Washington, DC: US Census Bureau.

Figure 2.3 Race, Ethnicity, and Poverty, 2010 (Percentage of Each Group That Is Poor)

Source: Data from DeNavas-Walt, C., Proctor, B. D., & Smith, J. C. (2011). Income, poverty, and health insurance coverage in the

United States: 2010 (Current Population Report P60-239). Washington, DC: US Census Bureau.

Gender

One thing that many women know all too well is that women are more likely than men to be poor. According to

2.2 Who the Poor Are: Social Patterns of Poverty 39

the census, 16.2 percent of all females live in poverty, compared to only 14.0 percent of all males. These figures

translate to a large gender gap in the actual number of poor people, as 25.2 million women and girls live in poverty,

compared to only 21.0 million men and boys, for a difference of 4.2 million people. The high rate of female

poverty is called the feminization of poverty (Iceland, 2006). We will see additional evidence of this pattern when

we look at the section on family structure that follows.

Age

Turning to age, at any one time 22 percent of children under age 18 are poor (amounting to 16.4 million children),

a figure that rises to about 39 percent of African American children and 35 percent of Latino children. About

37 percent of all children live in poverty for at least one year before turning 18 (Ratcliffe & McKernan, 2010).

The poverty rate for US children is the highest of all wealthy democracies and in fact is 1.5 to 9 times greater

than the corresponding rates in Canada and Western Europe (Mishel, et. al., 2009). As high as the US childhood

poverty rate is, twice-poverty data again paint an even more discouraging picture. Children living in families

with incomes below twice the official poverty level are called low-income children, and their families are called

low-income families. Almost 44 percent of American children, or some 32.5 million kids, live in such families

(Addy & Wright, 2012). Almost two-thirds of African American children and Latino children live in low-income

families.

40 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

The poverty rate for US children is the highest in the Western world.

Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 3.0.

At the other end of the age distribution, 9 percent of people aged 65 or older are poor (amounting to about 3.5

million seniors). Turning around these age figures, almost 36 percent of all poor people in the United States are

children, and almost 8 percent of the poor are 65 or older. Thus more than 43.4 percent of Americans living in

poverty are children or the elderly.

2.2 Who the Poor Are: Social Patterns of Poverty 41

Region

Poverty rates differ around the country. Some states have higher poverty rates than other states, and some

counties within a state are poorer than other counties within that state. A basic way of understanding geographical

differences in poverty is to examine the poverty rates of the four major regions of the nation. When we do this,

the South is the poorest region, with a poverty rate of 16.9 percent. The West is next (15.3 percent), followed by

the Midwest (13.9 percent) and then the Northeast (12.8 percent). The South’s high poverty rate is thought to be

an important reason for the high rate of illnesses and other health problems it experiences compared to the other

regions (Ramshaw, 2011).

Family Structure

There are many types of family structures, including a married couple living with their children; an unmarried

couple living with one or more children; a household with children headed by only one parent, usually a woman;

a household with two adults and no children; and a household with only one adult living alone. Across the nation,

poverty rates differ from one type of family structure to another.

Not surprisingly, poverty rates are higher in families with one adult than in those with two adults (because they

often are bringing in two incomes), and, in one-adult families, they are higher in families headed by a woman than

in those headed by a man (because women generally have lower incomes than men). Of all families headed by

just a woman, 31.6 percent live in poverty, compared to only 15.8 percent of families headed by just a man. In

contrast, only 6.2 percent of families headed by a married couple live in poverty (see Figure 2.4 “Family Structure

and Poverty Rate (Percentage of Each Type of Structure That Lives in Poverty)”). The figure for female-headed

families provides additional evidence for the feminization of poverty concept introduced earlier.

Figure 2.4 Family Structure and Poverty Rate (Percentage of Each Type of Structure That Lives in Poverty)

Source: Data from DeNavas-Walt, C., Proctor, B. D., & Smith, J. C. (2011). Income, poverty, and health insurance coverage in the

United States: 2010 (Current Population Report P60-239). Washington, DC: US Census Bureau.

42 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

We saw earlier that 22 percent of American children are poor. This figure varies according to the type of family

structure in which the children live. Whereas only 11.6 percent of children residing with married parents live in

poverty, 46.9 percent of those living with only their mother live in poverty. This latter figure rises to 53.3 percent

for African American children and 57.0 percent for Latino children (US Census Bureau, 2012). Yet regardless of

their race or ethnicity, children living just with their mothers are at particularly great risk of living in poverty.

Labor Force Status

As this chapter discusses later, many Americans think the poor are lazy and lack the motivation to work and,

as is often said, “really could work if they wanted to.” However, government data on the poor show that most

poor people are, in fact, either working, unemployed but looking for work, or unable to work because of their

age or health. Table 2.1 “Poverty and Labor Force Participation, 2010” shows the relevant data. We discuss these

numbers in some detail because of their importance, so please follow along carefully.

Table 2.1 Poverty and Labor Force Participation, 2010

Total number of poor people 46,180,000

Number of poor people under age 18 16,401,000

Number of poor people ages 65 and older 3,521,000

Number of poor people ages 18–64 26,258,000

Number of poor people ages 18–64 who were:

Working full- or part-time 9,053,000

Unemployed but looking for work 3,616,000

Disabled 4,247,000

In the armed forces 77,000

Able-bodied but not in the labor force 9,254,000

Source: Data from US Census Bureau. (2010). Current population survey (CPS) table creator. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/cps/data/

cpstablecreator.html.

Let’s examine this table to see the story it tells. Of the roughly 46.2 million poor people, almost 20 million

were either under age 18 or at least 65. Because of their ages, we would not expect them to be working. Of

the remaining 26.3 million poor adults ages 18–64, almost 17 million, or about two-thirds, fell into one of these

categories: (a) they worked full-time or part-time, (b) they were unemployed but looking for work during a year

of very high unemployment due to the nation’s faltering economy, (c) they did not work because of a disability,

2.2 Who the Poor Are: Social Patterns of Poverty 43

or (d) they were in the armed forces. Subtracting all these adults leaves about 9.3 million able-bodied people ages

18–64.

Doing some arithmetic, we thus see that almost 37 million of the 46.2 million poor people we started with, or 80

percent, with were either working or unemployed but looking for work, too young or too old to work, disabled, or

in the armed forces. It would thus be inaccurate to describe the vast majority of the poor as lazy and lacking the

motivation to work.

What about the 9.3 million able-bodied poor people who are ages 18–64 but not in the labor force, who compose

only 20 percent of the poor to begin with? Most of them were either taking care of small children or elderly parents

or other relatives, retired for health reasons, or in school (US Census Bureau, 2012); some also left the labor force

out of frustration and did not look for work (and thus were not counted officially as unemployed). Taking all these

numbers and categories into account, it turns out that the percentage of poor people who “really could work if they

wanted to” is rather miniscule, and the common belief that they “really could work if they wanted to” is nothing

more than a myth.

People Making a Difference

Feeding “Motel Kids” Near Disneyland

Just blocks from Disneyland in Anaheim, California, more than 1,000 families live in cheap motels frequently used bydrug dealers and prostitutes. Because they cannot afford the deposit for an apartment, the motels are their only alternativeto homelessness. As Bruno Serato, a local Italian restaurant owner, observed, “Some people are stuck, they have nomoney. They need to live in that room. They’ve lost everything they have. They have no other choice. No choice.”

Serato learned about these families back in 2005, when he saw a boy at the local Boys & Girls Club eating a bag ofpotato chips as his only food for dinner. He was told that the boy lived with his family in a motel and that the Boys &Girls Club had a “motel kids” program that drove children in vans after school to their motels. Although the childrengot free breakfast and lunch at school, they often went hungry at night. Serato soon began serving pasta dinners to someseventy children at the club every evening, a number that had grown by spring 2011 to almost three hundred childrennightly. Serato also pays to have the children transported to the club for their dinners, and he estimates that the food andtransportation cost him about $2,000 monthly. His program had served more than 300,000 pasta dinners to motel kids by2011.

Two of the children who eat Serato’s pasta are Carlos and Anthony Gomez, 12, who live in a motel room with the othermembers of their family. Their father was grateful for the pasta: “I no longer worry as much, about them [coming home]and there being no food. I know that they eat over there at [the] Boys & Girls Club.”

Bruno Serato is merely happy to be helping out. “They’re customers,” he explains. “My favorite customers” (Toner,2011).

For more information about Bruno Serato’s efforts, visit his charity site at www.thecaterinasclub.org.

Key Takeaways

• Although people of color have higher poverty rates than non-Latino whites, the most typical poor person inthe United States is non-Latino white.

• The US childhood poverty rate is the highest of all Western democracies.

44 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

• Labor force participation data indicate that the belief that poor people lack motivation to work is in fact amyth.

For Your Review

1. Why do you think the majority of Americans assume poor people lack the motivation to work?

2. Explain to a friend how labor force participation data indicate that it is inaccurate to think that poor peoplelack the motivation to work.

References

Addy, S., & Wright, V. R. (2012). Basic facts about low-income children, 2010. New York, NY: National Center

for Children in Poverty.

DeNavas-Walt, C., Proctor, B. D., & Smith, J. C. (2011). Income, poverty, and health insurance coverage in the

United States: 2010 (Current Population Reports, P60-298). Washington, DC: US Census Bureau.

Iceland, J. (2006). Poverty in America: A handbook. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Lin, A. C., & Harris, D. R. (Eds.). (2008). The colors of poverty: Why racial and ethnic disparities persist. New

York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

Mishel, L., Bernstein, J., & Shierholz, H. (2009). The state of working America 2008/2009. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press.

Ramshaw, E. (2011, July 10). Major health problems linked to poverty. New York Times, p. A21.

Ratcliffe, C., & McKernan, S.-M. (2010). Childhood poverty persistence: Facts and consequences. Washington,

DC: Urban Institute Press.

Toner, K. (2011, March 24). Making sure “motel kids” don’t go hungry. CNN. Retrieved from

http://www.cnn.com/2011/LIVING/03/24/cnnheroes.serato.motel.kids/index.html.

US Census Bureau . (2012). Poverty. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/hhes/

www/cpstables/032011/pov/new02_100.htm.

US Census Bureau. (2012). Current population survey. 2012 annual social and economic supplement.

Washington, DC: Author.

White, J. A. (2007). The hollow and the ghetto: Space, race, and the politics of poverty. Politics & Gender, 3,

271–280.

2.2 Who the Poor Are: Social Patterns of Poverty 45

2.3 Explaining Poverty

Learning Objectives

1. Describe the assumptions of the functionalist and conflict views of stratification and of poverty.

2. Explain the focus of symbolic interactionist work on poverty.

3. Understand the difference between the individualist and structural explanations of poverty.

Why does poverty exist, and why and how do poor people end up being poor? The sociological perspectives

introduced in Chapter 1 “Understanding Social Problems” provide some possible answers to these questions

through their attempt to explain why American society is stratified—that is, why it has a range of wealth ranging

from the extremely wealthy to the extremely poor. We review what these perspectives say generally about

social stratification (rankings of people based on wealth and other resources a society values) before turning to

explanations focusing specifically on poverty.

In general, the functionalist perspective and conflict perspective both try to explain why social stratification exists

and endures, while the symbolic interactionist perspective discusses the differences that stratification produces for

everyday interaction. Table 2.2 “Theory Snapshot” summarizes these three approaches.

Table 2.2 Theory Snapshot

Theoreticalperspective

Major assumptions

FunctionalismStratification is necessary to induce people with special intelligence, knowledge, and skills to enter themost important occupations. For this reason, stratification is necessary and inevitable.

Conflicttheory

Stratification results from lack of opportunity and from discrimination and prejudice against the poor,women, and people of color. It is neither necessary nor inevitable.

Symbolicinteractionism

Stratification affects people’s beliefs, lifestyles, daily interaction, and conceptions of themselves.

The Functionalist View

As discussed in Chapter 1 “Understanding Social Problems”, functionalist theory assumes that society’s structures

and processes exist because they serve important functions for society’s stability and continuity. In line with this

view, functionalist theorists in sociology assume that stratification exists because it also serves important functions

for society. This explanation was developed more than sixty years ago by Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore

(Davis & Moore, 1945) in the form of several logical assumptions that imply stratification is both necessary and

inevitable. When applied to American society, their assumptions would be as follows:

1. Some jobs are more important than other jobs. For example, the job of a brain surgeon is more

important than the job of shoe shining.

2. Some jobs require more skills and knowledge than other jobs. To stay with our example, it takes

more skills and knowledge to perform brain surgery than to shine shoes.

3. Relatively few people have the ability to acquire the skills and knowledge that are needed to do

these important, highly skilled jobs. Most of us would be able to do a decent job of shining shoes,

but very few of us would be able to become brain surgeons.

4. To encourage the people with the skills and knowledge to do the important, highly skilled jobs,

society must promise them higher incomes or other rewards. If this is true, some people

automatically end up higher in society’s ranking system than others, and stratification is thus necessary

and inevitable.

To illustrate their assumptions, say we have a society where shining shoes and doing brain surgery both give us

incomes of $150,000 per year. (This example is very hypothetical, but please keep reading.) If you decide to shine

shoes, you can begin making this money at age 16, but if you decide to become a brain surgeon, you will not start

making this same amount until about age 35, as you must first go to college and medical school and then acquire

several more years of medical training. While you have spent nineteen additional years beyond age 16 getting this

education and training and taking out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, you could have spent those

years shining shoes and making $150,000 a year, or $2.85 million overall. Which job would you choose?

2.3 Explaining Poverty 47

Functional theory argues that the promise of very high incomes is necessary to encourage talented people to pursue important careers

such as surgery. If physicians and shoe shiners made the same high income, would enough people decide to become physicians?

Public Domain Images – CC0 public domain.

As this example suggests, many people might not choose to become brain surgeons unless considerable financial

and other rewards awaited them. By extension, we might not have enough people filling society’s important jobs

unless they know they will be similarly rewarded. If this is true, we must have stratification. And if we must

have stratification, then that means some people will have much less money than other people. If stratification

is inevitable, then, poverty is also inevitable. The functionalist view further implies that if people are poor, it is

because they do not have the ability to acquire the skills and knowledge necessary for the important, high-paying

jobs.

The functionalist view sounds very logical, but a few years after Davis and Moore published their theory, other

sociologists pointed out some serious problems in their argument (Tumin, 1953; Wrong, 1959).

First, it is difficult to compare the importance of many types of jobs. For example, which is more important,

doing brain surgery or mining coal? Although you might be tempted to answer with brain surgery, if no coal were

mined then much of our society could not function. In another example, which job is more important, attorney or

professor? (Be careful how you answer this one!)

48 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Second, the functionalist explanation implies that the most important jobs have the highest incomes and the least

important jobs the lowest incomes, but many examples, including the ones just mentioned, counter this view.

Coal miners make much less money than physicians, and professors, for better or worse, earn much less on the

average than lawyers. A professional athlete making millions of dollars a year earns many times the income of

the president of the United States, but who is more important to the nation? Elementary school teachers do a very

important job in our society, but their salaries are much lower than those of sports agents, advertising executives,

and many other people whose jobs are far less essential.

Third, the functionalist view assumes that people move up the economic ladder based on their abilities, skills,

knowledge, and, more generally, their merit. This implies that if they do not move up the ladder, they lack the

necessary merit. However, this view ignores the fact that much of our stratification stems from lack of equal

opportunity. As later chapters in this book discuss, because of their race, ethnicity, gender, and class standing at

birth, some people have less opportunity than others to acquire the skills and training they need to fill the types of

jobs addressed by the functionalist approach.

Finally, the functionalist explanation might make sense up to a point, but it does not justify the extremes of

wealth and poverty found in the United States and other nations. Even if we do have to promise higher incomes

to get enough people to become physicians, does that mean we also need the amount of poverty we have? Do

CEOs of corporations really need to make millions of dollars per year to get enough qualified people to become

CEOs? Do people take on a position as CEO or other high-paying job at least partly because of the challenge,

working conditions, and other positive aspects they offer? The functionalist view does not answer these questions

adequately.

One other line of functionalist thinking focuses more directly on poverty than generally on stratification. This

particular functionalist view provocatively argues that poverty exists because it serves certain positive functions

for our society. These functions include the following: (1) poor people do the work that other people do not want

to do; (2) the programs that help poor people provide a lot of jobs for the people employed by the programs; (3)

the poor purchase goods, such as day-old bread and used clothing, that other people do not wish to purchase, and

thus extend the economic value of these goods; and (4) the poor provide jobs for doctors, lawyers, teachers, and

other professionals who may not be competent enough to be employed in positions catering to wealthier patients,

clients, students, and so forth (Gans, 1972). Because poverty serves all these functions and more, according to this

argument, the middle and upper classes have a vested interested in neglecting poverty to help ensure its continued

existence.

The Conflict View

2.3 Explaining Poverty 49

Because he was born in a log cabin and later became president, Abraham Lincoln’s life epitomizes the American Dream, which is the

belief that people born into poverty can become successful through hard work. The popularity of this belief leads many Americans

to blame poor people for their poverty.

US Library of Congress – public domain.

Conflict theory’s explanation of stratification draws on Karl Marx’s view of class societies and incorporates the

critique of the functionalist view just discussed. Many different explanations grounded in conflict theory exist,

but they all assume that stratification stems from a fundamental conflict between the needs and interests of the

powerful, or “haves,” in society and those of the weak, or “have-nots” (Kerbo, 2012). The former take advantage

of their position at the top of society to stay at the top, even if it means oppressing those at the bottom. At a

minimum, they can heavily influence the law, the media, and other institutions in a way that maintains society’s

class structure.

In general, conflict theory attributes stratification and thus poverty to lack of opportunity from discrimination and

50 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

prejudice against the poor, women, and people of color. In this regard, it reflects one of the early critiques of the

functionalist view that the previous section outlined. To reiterate an earlier point, several of the remaining chapters

of this book discuss the various obstacles that make it difficult for the poor, women, and people of color in the

United States to move up the socioeconomic ladder and to otherwise enjoy healthy and productive lives.

Symbolic Interactionism

Consistent with its micro orientation, symbolic interactionism tries to understand stratification and thus poverty

by looking at people’s interaction and understandings in their daily lives. Unlike the functionalist and conflict

views, it does not try to explain why we have stratification in the first place. Rather, it examines the differences

that stratification makes for people’s lifestyles and their interaction with other people.

Many detailed, insightful sociological books on the lives of the urban and rural poor reflect the symbolic

interactionist perspective (Anderson, 1999; C. M. Duncan, 2000; Liebow, 1993; Rank, 1994). These books focus

on different people in different places, but they all make very clear that the poor often lead lives of quiet

desperation and must find ways of coping with the fact of being poor. In these books, the consequences of poverty

discussed later in this chapter acquire a human face, and readers learn in great detail what it is like to live in

poverty on a daily basis.

Some classic journalistic accounts by authors not trained in the social sciences also present eloquent descriptions

of poor people’s lives (Bagdikian, 1964; Harrington, 1962). Writing in this tradition, a newspaper columnist who

grew up in poverty recently recalled, “I know the feel of thick calluses on the bottom of shoeless feet. I know the

bite of the cold breeze that slithers through a drafty house. I know the weight of constant worry over not having

enough to fill a belly or fight an illness…Poverty is brutal, consuming and unforgiving. It strikes at the soul”

(Blow, 2011).

2.3 Explaining Poverty 51

Sociological accounts of the poor provide a vivid portrait of what it is like to live in poverty on a daily basis.

Pixabay – CC0 public domain.

On a more lighthearted note, examples of the symbolic interactionist framework are also seen in the many literary

works and films that portray the difficulties that the rich and poor have in interacting on the relatively few

occasions when they do interact. For example, in the film Pretty Woman, Richard Gere plays a rich businessman

who hires a prostitute, played by Julia Roberts, to accompany him to swank parties and other affairs. Roberts has

to buy a new wardrobe and learn how to dine and behave in these social settings, and much of the film’s humor

and poignancy come from her awkwardness in learning the lifestyle of the rich.

Specific Explanations of Poverty

The functionalist and conflict views focus broadly on social stratification but only indirectly on poverty. When

poverty finally attracted national attention during the 1960s, scholars began to try specifically to understand why

poor people become poor and remain poor. Two competing explanations developed, with the basic debate turning

on whether poverty arises from problems either within the poor themselves or in the society in which they live

(Rank, 2011). The first type of explanation follows logically from the functional theory of stratification and may

be considered an individualistic explanation. The second type of explanation follows from conflict theory and is a

structural explanation that focuses on problems in American society that produce poverty. Table 2.3 “Explanations

of Poverty” summarizes these explanations.

Table 2.3 Explanations of Poverty

Explanation Major assumptions

IndividualisticPoverty results from the fact that poor people lack the motivation to work and have certain beliefs andvalues that contribute to their poverty.

Structural Poverty results from problems in society that lead to a lack of opportunity and a lack of jobs.

It is critical to determine which explanation makes more sense because, as sociologist Theresa C. Davidson

(Davidson, 2009) observes, “beliefs about the causes of poverty shape attitudes toward the poor.” To be more

precise, the particular explanation that people favor affects their view of government efforts to help the poor.

Those who attribute poverty to problems in the larger society are much more likely than those who attribute it

to deficiencies among the poor to believe that the government should do more to help the poor (Bradley & Cole,

2002). The explanation for poverty we favor presumably affects the amount of sympathy we have for the poor,

and our sympathy, or lack of sympathy, in turn affects our views about the government’s role in helping the poor.

With this backdrop in mind, what do the individualistic and structural explanations of poverty say?

Individualistic Explanation

According to the individualistic explanation, the poor have personal problems and deficiencies that are responsible

52 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

for their poverty. In the past, the poor were thought to be biologically inferior, a view that has not entirely faded,

but today the much more common belief is that they lack the ambition and motivation to work hard and to achieve

success. According to survey evidence, the majority of Americans share this belief (Davidson, 2009). A more

sophisticated version of this type of explanation is called the culture of poverty theory (Banfield, 1974; Lewis,

1966; Murray, 2012). According to this theory, the poor generally have beliefs and values that differ from those

of the nonpoor and that doom them to continued poverty. For example, they are said to be impulsive and to live

for the present rather than the future.

Regardless of which version one might hold, the individualistic explanation is a blaming-the-victim approach

(see Chapter 1 “Understanding Social Problems”). Critics say this explanation ignores discrimination and other

problems in American society and exaggerates the degree to which the poor and nonpoor do in fact hold different

values (Ehrenreich, 2012; Holland, 2011; Schmidt, 2012). Regarding the latter point, they note that poor employed

adults work more hours per week than wealthier adults and that poor parents interviewed in surveys value

education for their children at least as much as wealthier parents. These and other similarities in values and beliefs

lead critics of the individualistic explanation to conclude that poor people’s poverty cannot reasonably be said to

result from a culture of poverty.

Structural Explanation

According to the second, structural explanation, which is a blaming-the-system approach, US poverty stems from

problems in American society that lead to a lack of equal opportunity and a lack of jobs. These problems include

(a) racial, ethnic, gender, and age discrimination; (b) lack of good schooling and adequate health care; and (c)

structural changes in the American economic system, such as the departure of manufacturing companies from

American cities in the 1980s and 1990s that led to the loss of thousands of jobs. These problems help create

a vicious cycle of poverty in which children of the poor are often fated to end up in poverty or near poverty

themselves as adults.

As Rank (Rank, 2011) summarizes this view, “American poverty is largely the result of failings at the economic

and political levels, rather than at the individual level…In contrast to [the individualistic] perspective, the basic

problem lies in a shortage of viable opportunities for all Americans.” Rank points out that the US economy during

the past few decades has created more low-paying and part-time jobs and jobs without benefits, meaning that

Americans increasingly find themselves in jobs that barely lift them out of poverty, if at all. Sociologist Fred Block

and colleagues share this critique of the individualistic perspective: “Most of our policies incorrectly assume that

people can avoid or overcome poverty through hard work alone. Yet this assumption ignores the realities of our

failing urban schools, increasing employment insecurities, and the lack of affordable housing, health care, and

child care. It ignores the fact that the American Dream is rapidly becoming unattainable for an increasing number

of Americans, whether employed or not” (Block, et. al., 2006).

Most sociologists favor the structural explanation. As later chapters in this book document, racial and ethnic

discrimination, lack of adequate schooling and health care, and other problems make it difficult to rise out of

poverty. On the other hand, some ethnographic research supports the individualistic explanation by showing that

the poor do have certain values and follow certain practices that augment their plight (Small, et. al., 2010). For

example, the poor have higher rates of cigarette smoking (34 percent of people with annual incomes between

2.3 Explaining Poverty 53

$6,000 and $11,999 smoke, compared to only 13 percent of those with incomes $90,000 or greater [Goszkowski,

2008]), which helps cause them to have more serious health problems.

Adopting an integrated perspective, some researchers say these values and practices are ultimately the result of

poverty itself (Small et, al., 2010). These scholars concede a culture of poverty does exist, but they also say it

exists because it helps the poor cope daily with the structural effects of being poor. If these effects lead to a culture

of poverty, they add, poverty then becomes self-perpetuating. If poverty is both cultural and structural in origin,

these scholars say, efforts to improve the lives of people in the “other America” must involve increased structural

opportunities for the poor and changes in some of their values and practices.

Key Takeaways

• According to the functionalist view, stratification is a necessary and inevitable consequence of the need touse the promise of financial reward to encourage talented people to pursue important jobs and careers.

• According to conflict theory, stratification results from lack of opportunity and discrimination against thepoor and people of color.

• According to symbolic interactionism, social class affects how people interact in everyday life and how theyview certain aspects of the social world.

• The individualistic view attributes poverty to individual failings of poor people themselves, while thestructural view attributes poverty to problems in the larger society.

For Your Review

1. In explaining poverty in the United States, which view, individualist or structural, makes more sense to you?Why?

2. Suppose you could wave a magic wand and invent a society where everyone had about the same income nomatter which job he or she performed. Do you think it would be difficult to persuade enough people tobecome physicians or to pursue other important careers? Explain your answer.

References

Anderson, E. (1999). Code of the street: Decency, violence, and the moral life of the inner city. New York, NY:

W. W. Norton.

Bagdikian, B. H. (1964). In the midst of plenty: The poor in America. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Banfield, E. C. (1974). The unheavenly city revisited. Boston, MA: Little, Brown.

Block, F., Korteweg, A. C., & Woodward, K. (2006). The compassion gap in American poverty policy. Contexts,

5(2), 14–20.

54 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Blow, C. M. (2011, June 25). Them that’s not shall lose. New York Times, p. A19.

Bradley, C., & Cole, D. J. (2002). Causal attributions and the significance of self-efficacy in predicting solutions

to poverty. Sociological Focus, 35, 381–396.

Davidson, T. C. (2009). Attributions for poverty among college students: The impact of service-learning and

religiosity. College Student Journal, 43, 136–144.

Davis, K., & Moore, W. (1945). Some principles of stratification. American Sociological Review, 10, 242–249.

Duncan, C. M. (2000). Worlds apart: Why poverty persists in rural America. New Haven, CT: Yale University

Press.

Ehrenreich, B. (2012, March 15). What “other America”? Salon.com. Retrieved from http://www.salon.com/2012/

03/15/the_truth_about_the_poor/.

Gans, H. J. (1972). The positive functions of poverty. American Journal of Sociology, 78, 275–289.

Goszkowski, R. (2008). Among Americans, smoking decreases as income increases. Retrieved from

http://www.gallup.com/poll/105550/among-americans-smoking-decreases-income-increases.aspx.

Harrington, M. (1962). The other America: Poverty in the United States. New York, NY: Macmillan.

Holland, J. (2011, July 29). Debunking the big lie right-wingers use to justify black poverty and unemployment.

AlterNet. Retrieved from http://www.alternet.org/story/151830/debunking_the_big_lie_right-

wingers_use_to_justify_black_poverty _and_unemployment_?page=entire.

Kerbo, H. R. (2012). Social stratification and inequality. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Lewis, O. (1966). The culture of poverty. Scientific American, 113, 19–25.

Liebow, E. (1993). Tell them who I am: The lives of homeless women. New York, NY: Free Press.

Murray, C. (2012). Coming apart: The state of white America, 1960–2010. New York, NY: Crown Forum.

Rank, M. R. (1994). Living on the edge: The realities of welfare in America. New York, NY: Columbia University

Press.

Rank, M. R. (2011). Rethinking American poverty. Contexts, 10(Spring), 16–21.

Schmidt, P. (2012, February 12). Charles Murray, author of the “Bell Curve,” steps back into the ring. The

Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Charles-Murray-Author-of-The/

130722/?sid=at&utm_source=at&utm_medium=en.

Small, M. L., Harding, D. J., & Lamont, M. (2010). Reconsidering culture and poverty. The Annals of the

American Academy of Political and Social Science, 629(May), 6–27.

Tumin, M. M. (1953). Some principles of stratification: A critical analysis. American Sociological Review, 18,

387–393.

2.3 Explaining Poverty 55

Wrong, D. H. (1959). The functional theory of stratification: Some neglected considerations. American

Sociological Review, 24, 772–782.

56 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

2.4 The Consequences of Poverty

Learning Objectives

1. Describe the family and housing problems associated with poverty.

2. Explain how poverty affects health and educational attainment.

Regardless of its causes, poverty has devastating consequences for the people who live in it. Much research

conducted and/or analyzed by scholars, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations has documented the

effects of poverty (and near poverty) on the lives of the poor (Lindsey, 2009; Moore, et. al., 2009; Ratcliffe &

McKernan, 2010; Sanders, 2011). Many of these studies focus on childhood poverty, and these studies make it

very clear that childhood poverty has lifelong consequences. In general, poor children are more likely to be poor

as adults, more likely to drop out of high school, more likely to become a teenaged parent, and more likely to

have employment problems. Although only 1 percent of children who are never poor end up being poor as young

adults, 32 percent of poor children become poor as young adults (Ratcliffe & McKernan, 2010).

Poor children are more likely to have inadequate nutrition and to experience health, behavioral, and cognitive problems.

Kelly Short – Poverty: “Damaged Child,” Oklahoma City, OK, USA, 1936. (Colorized). – CC BY-SA 2.0.

A recent study used government data to follow children born between 1968 and 1975 until they were ages 30 to

37 (Duncan & Magnuson, 2011). The researchers compared individuals who lived in poverty in early childhood to

those whose families had incomes at least twice the poverty line in early childhood. Compared to the latter group,

adults who were poor in early childhood

• had completed two fewer years of schooling on the average;

• had incomes that were less than half of those earned by adults who had wealthier childhoods;

• received $826 more annually in food stamps on the average;

• were almost three times more likely to report being in poor health;

• were twice as likely to have been arrested (males only); and

• were five times as likely to have borne a child (females only).

We discuss some of the major specific consequences of poverty here and will return to them in later chapters.

58 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Family Problems

The poor are at greater risk for family problems, including divorce and domestic violence. As Chapter 9 “Sexual

Behavior” explains, a major reason for many of the problems families experience is stress. Even in families that

are not poor, running a household can cause stress, children can cause stress, and paying the bills can cause stress.

Families that are poor have more stress because of their poverty, and the ordinary stresses of family life become

even more intense in poor families. The various kinds of family problems thus happen more commonly in poor

families than in wealthier families. Compounding this situation, when these problems occur, poor families have

fewer resources than wealthier families to deal with these problems.

Children and Our Future

Getting under Children’s Skin: The Biological Effects of Childhood Poverty

As the text discusses, childhood poverty often has lifelong consequences. Poor children are more likely to be poor whenthey become adults, and they are at greater risk for antisocial behavior when young, and for unemployment, criminalbehavior, and other problems when they reach adolescence and young adulthood.

According to growing evidence, one reason poverty has these consequences is that it has certain neural effects onpoor children that impair their cognitive abilities and thus their behavior and learning potential. As Greg J. Duncanand Katherine Magnuson (Duncan & Magnuson, 2011, p. 23) observe, “Emerging research in neuroscience anddevelopmental psychology suggests that poverty early in a child’s life may be particularly harmful because theastonishingly rapid development of young children’s brains leaves them sensitive (and vulnerable) to environmentalconditions.”

In short, poverty can change the way the brain develops in young children. The major reason for this effect is stress.Children growing up in poverty experience multiple stressful events: neighborhood crime and drug use; divorce, parentalconflict, and other family problems, including abuse and neglect by their parents; parental financial problems andunemployment; physical and mental health problems of one or more family members; and so forth. Their great levels ofstress in turn affect their bodies in certain harmful ways. As two poverty scholars note, “It’s not just that poverty-inducedstress is mentally taxing. If it’s experienced early enough in childhood, it can in fact get ‘under the skin’ and change theway in which the body copes with the environment and the way in which the brain develops. These deep, enduring, andsometimes irreversible physiological changes are the very human price of running a high-poverty society” (Grusky &Wimer, 2011, p. 2).

One way poverty gets “under children’s skin” is as follows (Evans, et. al., 2011). Poor children’s high levels of stressproduce unusually high levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and higher levels of blood pressure. Because these highlevels impair their neural development, their memory and language development skills suffer. This result in turn affectstheir behavior and learning potential. For other physiological reasons, high levels of stress also affect the immune system,so that poor children are more likely to develop various illnesses during childhood and to have high blood pressure andother health problems when they grow older, and cause other biological changes that make poor children more likely toend up being obese and to have drug and alcohol problems.

The policy implications of the scientific research on childhood poverty are clear. As public health scholar Jack P.Shonkoff (Shonkoff, 2011) explains, “Viewing this scientific evidence within a biodevelopmental framework points tothe particular importance of addressing the needs of our most disadvantaged children at the earliest ages.” Duncan andMagnuson (Duncan & Magnuson, 2011) agree that “greater policy attention should be given to remediating situationsinvolving deep and persistent poverty occurring early in childhood.” To reduce poverty’s harmful physiological effectson children, Skonkoff advocates efforts to promote strong, stable relationships among all members of poor families; toimprove the quality of the home and neighborhood physical environments in which poor children grow; and to improvethe nutrition of poor children. Duncan and Magnuson call for more generous income transfers to poor families withyoung children and note that many European democracies provide many kinds of support to such families. The recent

2.4 The Consequences of Poverty 59

scientific evidence on early childhood poverty underscores the importance of doing everything possible to reduce theharmful effects of poverty during the first few years of life.

Health, Illness, and Medical Care

The poor are also more likely to have many kinds of health problems, including infant mortality, earlier adulthood

mortality, and mental illness, and they are also more likely to receive inadequate medical care. Poor children are

more likely to have inadequate nutrition and, partly for this reason, to suffer health, behavioral, and cognitive

problems. These problems in turn impair their ability to do well in school and land stable employment as adults,

helping to ensure that poverty will persist across generations. Many poor people are uninsured or underinsured, at

least until the US health-care reform legislation of 2010 takes full effect a few years from now, and many have to

visit health clinics that are overcrowded and understaffed.

As Chapter 12 “Work and the Economy” discusses, it is unclear how much of poor people’s worse health stems

from their lack of money and lack of good health care versus their own behavior such as smoking and eating

unhealthy diets. Regardless of the exact reasons, however, the fact remains that poor health is a major consequence

of poverty. According to recent research, this fact means that poverty is responsible for almost 150,000 deaths

annually, a figure about equal to the number of deaths from lung cancer (Bakalar, 2011).

Education

Poor children typically go to rundown schools with inadequate facilities where they receive inadequate schooling.

They are much less likely than wealthier children to graduate from high school or to go to college. Their lack of

education in turn restricts them and their own children to poverty, once again helping to ensure a vicious cycle of

continuing poverty across generations. As Chapter 10 “The Changing Family” explains, scholars debate whether

the poor school performance of poor children stems more from the inadequacy of their schools and schooling

versus their own poverty. Regardless of exactly why poor children are more likely to do poorly in school and to

have low educational attainment, these educational problems are another major consequence of poverty.

Housing and Homelessness

The poor are, not surprisingly, more likely to be homeless than the nonpoor but also more likely to live in

dilapidated housing and unable to buy their own homes. Many poor families spend more than half their income

on rent, and they tend to live in poor neighborhoods that lack job opportunities, good schools, and other features

of modern life that wealthier people take for granted. The lack of adequate housing for the poor remains a major

national problem. Even worse is outright homelessness. An estimated 1.6 million people, including more than

300,000 children, are homeless at least part of the year (Lee, et. al., 2010).

60 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Crime and Victimization

As Chapter 7 “Alcohol and Other Drugs” discusses, poor (and near poor) people account for the bulk of our street

crime (homicide, robbery, burglary, etc.), and they also account for the bulk of victims of street crime. That chapter

will outline several reasons for this dual connection between poverty and street crime, but they include the deep

frustration and stress of living in poverty and the fact that many poor people live in high-crime neighborhoods.

In such neighborhoods, children are more likely to grow up under the influence of older peers who are already in

gangs or otherwise committing crime, and people of any age are more likely to become crime victims. Moreover,

because poor and near-poor people are more likely to commit street crime, they also comprise most of the people

arrested for street crimes, convicted of street crime, and imprisoned for street crime. Most of the more than 2

million people now in the nation’s prisons and jails come from poor or near-poor backgrounds. Criminal behavior

and criminal victimization, then, are other major consequences of poverty.

Lessons from Other Societies

Poverty and Poverty Policy in Other Western Democracies

To compare international poverty rates, scholars commonly use a measure of the percentage of households in a nationthat receive less than half of the nation’s median household income after taxes and cash transfers from the government.In data from the late 2000s, 17.3 percent of US households lived in poverty as defined by this measure. By comparison,other Western democracies had the rates depicted in the figure that follows. The average poverty rate of the nations in thefigure excluding the United States is 9.5 percent. The US rate is thus almost twice as high as the average for all the otherdemocracies.

This graph illustrates the poverty rates in western democracies (i.e., the percentage of persons living with less than half of the median household

income) as of the late 2000s

Source: Data from Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2011). Society at a glance 2011: OECD social indicators.

Retrieved July 23, 2011, from http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/soc_glance-2011-en/06/02/

index.html;jsessionid=erdqhbpb203ea.epsilon?contentType=&itemId=/content/chapter/soc_glance-2011-17-en&containerItemId=/content/se.

Why is there so much more poverty in the United States than in its Western counterparts? Several differences betweenthe United States and the other nations stand out (Brady, 2009; Russell, 2011). First, other Western nations have higher

2.4 The Consequences of Poverty 61

minimum wages and stronger labor unions than the United States has, and these lead to incomes that help push peopleabove poverty. Second, these other nations spend a much greater proportion of their gross domestic product on socialexpenditures (income support and social services such as child-care subsidies and housing allowances) than does theUnited States. As sociologist John Iceland (Iceland, 2006) notes, “Such countries often invest heavily in both universalbenefits, such as maternity leave, child care, and medical care, and in promoting work among [poor] families…TheUnited States, in comparison with other advanced nations, lacks national health insurance, provides less publiclysupported housing, and spends less on job training and job creation.” Block and colleagues agree: “These other countriesall take a more comprehensive government approach to combating poverty, and they assume that it is caused by economicand structural factors rather than bad behavior” (Block et, al., 2006).

The experience of the United Kingdom provides a striking contrast between the effectiveness of the expansive approachused in other wealthy democracies and the inadequacy of the American approach. In 1994, about 30 percent of Britishchildren lived in poverty; by 2009, that figure had fallen by more than half to 12 percent. Meanwhile, the US 2009 childpoverty rate, was almost 21 percent.

Britain used three strategies to reduce its child poverty rate and to help poor children and their families in other ways.First, it induced more poor parents to work through a series of new measures, including a national minimum wage higherthan its US counterpart and various tax savings for low-income workers. Because of these measures, the percentage ofsingle parents who worked rose from 45 percent in 1997 to 57 percent in 2008. Second, Britain increased child welfarebenefits regardless of whether a parent worked. Third, it increased paid maternity leave from four months to nine months,implemented two weeks of paid paternity leave, established universal preschool (which both helps children’s cognitiveabilities and makes it easier for parents to afford to work), increased child-care aid, and made it possible for parents ofyoung children to adjust their working hours to their parental responsibilities (Waldfogel, 2010). While the British childpoverty rate fell dramatically because of these strategies, the US child poverty rate stagnated.

In short, the United States has so much more poverty than other democracies in part because it spends so much lessthan they do on helping the poor. The United States certainly has the wealth to follow their example, but it has chosennot to do so, and a high poverty rate is the unfortunate result. As the Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman (2006, p.A25) summarizes this lesson, “Government truly can be a force for good. Decades of propaganda have conditioned manyAmericans to assume that government is always incompetent…But the [British experience has] shown that a governmentthat seriously tries to reduce poverty can achieve a lot.”

Key Takeaways

• Poor people are more likely to have several kinds of family problems, including divorce and family conflict.

• Poor people are more likely to have several kinds of health problems.

• Children growing up in poverty are less likely to graduate high school or go to college, and they are morelikely to commit street crime.

For Your Review

1. Write a brief essay that summarizes the consequences of poverty.

2. Why do you think poor children are more likely to develop health problems?

62 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

References

Bakalar, N. (2011, July 4). Researchers link deaths to social ills. New York Times, p. D5.

Block, F., Korteweg, A. C., & Woodward, K. (2006). The compassion gap in American poverty policy. Contexts,

5(2), 14–20.

Brady, D. (2009). Rich democracies, poor people: How politics explain poverty. New York, NY: Oxford

University Press.

Duncan, G. J., & Magnuson, K. (2011, winter). The long reach of early childhood poverty. Pathways: A Magazine

on Poverty, Inequality, and Social Policy, 22–27.

Evans, G. W., Brooks-Gunn, J., & Klebanov, P. K. (2011, winter). Stressing out the poor: Chronic physiological

stress and the income-achievement gap. Pathways: A Magazine on Poverty, Inequality, and Social Policy, 16–21.

Grusky, D., & Wimer, C.(Eds.). (2011, winter). Editors’ note. Pathways: A Magazine on Poverty, Inequality, and

Social Policy, 2.

Iceland, J. (2006). Poverty in America: A handbook. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Krugman, P. (Krugman, 2006). Helping the poor, the British way. New York Times, p. A25.

Lee, B., Tyler, K. A., & Wright, J. D. ( 2010). The new homelessness revisited. Annual Review of Sociology, 36,

501–521.

Lindsey, D. (2009). Child poverty and inequality: Securing a better future for America’s children. New York, NY:

Oxford University Press.

Moore, K. A., Redd, Z., Burkhauser, M., Mbawa, K., & Collins, A. (2009). Children in poverty: Trends,

consequences, and policy options. Washington, DC: Child Trends. Retrieved from http://www.childtrends.org/

Files//Child_Trends-2009_04_07_RB_ChildreninPoverty.pdf.

Ratcliffe, C., & McKernan, S.-M. (2010). Childhood poverty persistence: Facts and consequences. Washington,

DC: Urban Institute Press.

Russell, J. W. ( 2011). Double standard: Social policy in Europe and the United States (2nd ed.). Lanham, MD:

Rowman & Littlefield.

Sanders, L. (2011). Neuroscience exposes pernicious effects of poverty. Science News, 179(3), 32.

Shonkoff, J. P. (2011, winter). Building a foundation for prosperity on the science of early childhood development.

Pathways: A Magazine on Poverty, Inequality, and Social Policy, 10–14.

Waldfogel, J. (2010). Britain’s war on poverty. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

2.4 The Consequences of Poverty 63

2.5 Global Poverty

Learning Objectives

1. Describe where poor nations tend to be located.

2. Explain the difference between the modernization and dependency theories of poverty.

3. List some of the consequences of global poverty.

As serious as poverty is in the United States, poverty in much of the rest of the world is beyond comprehension

to the average American. Many of the world’s poor live in such desperate circumstances that they would envy the

lives of poor Americans. Without at all meaning to minimize the plight of the American poor, this section provides

a brief look at the world’s poor and at the dimensions of global poverty

Global Inequality

The world has a few very rich nations and many very poor nations, and there is an enormous gulf between these

two extremes. If the world were one nation, its median annual income (at which half of the world’s population is

below this income and half is above it) would be only $1,700 (Dikhanov, 2005). The richest fifth of the world’s

population would have three-fourths of the world’s entire income, while the poorest fifth of the world’s population

would have only 1.5 percent of the world’s income, and the poorest two-fifths would have only 5.0 percent of the

world’s income (Dikhanov, 2005). Reflecting this latter fact, these poorest two-fifths, or about 2 billion people,

live on less than $2 per day (United Nations Development Programme, 2009). As Figure 2.5 “Global Income

Distribution (Percentage of World Income Held by Each Fifth of World Population)” illustrates, this distribution

of income resembles a champagne glass.

Figure 2.5 Global Income Distribution (Percentage of World Income Held by Each Fifth of World Population)

Source: Data from Dikhanov, Y. (2005). Trends in global income distribution, 1970–2000, and scenarios for 2015. New York, NY:

United Nations Development Programme.

To understand global inequality, it is helpful to classify nations into a small number of categories based on their

degree of wealth or poverty, their level of industrialization and economic development, and related factors. Over

the decades, scholars and international organizations such as the United Nations and the World Bank have used

various classification systems, or typologies. A popular typology today simply ranks nations into groups called

wealthy (or high-income) nations, middle-income nations, and poor (or low-income) nations, based on measures

such as gross domestic product (GDP) per capita (the total value of a nation’s goods and services divided by its

population). This typology has the advantage of emphasizing the most important variable in global stratification:

how much wealth a nation has. At the risk of being somewhat simplistic, the other important differences among

the world’s nations all stem from their degree of wealth or poverty. Figure 2.6 “Global Stratification Map” depicts

these three categories of nations (with the middle category divided into upper-middle and lower-middle). As

should be clear, whether a nation is wealthy, middle income, or poor is heavily related to the continent on which

it is found.

Figure 2.6 Global Stratification Map

2.5 Global Poverty 65

Source: Adapted from UNEP/GRID-Arendal Maps and Graphics Library. (2009).Country income groups (World Bank

classification). Retrieved from http://maps.grida.no/go/graphic/country-income-groups-world-bank-classification.

Measuring Global Poverty

The World Bank has begun to emphasize vulnerability to poverty. Many people who are not officially poor have a good chance of

becoming poor within a year. Strategies to prevent this from happening are a major focus of the World Bank.

Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 2.0.

How do we know which nations are poor? A very common measure of global poverty was developed by the

World Bank, an international institution funded by wealthy nations that provides loans, grants, and other aid to

66 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

help poor and middle-income nations. Each year the World Bank publishes its World Development Report, which

provides statistics and other information on the economic and social well-being of the globe’s almost two hundred

nations. The World Bank puts the official global poverty line (which is considered a measure of extreme poverty)

at income under $1.25 per person per day, which amounts to about $456 yearly per person or $1,825 for a family

of four. According to this measure, 1.4 billion people, making up more than one-fifth of the world’s population

and more than one-fourth of the population of developing (poor and middle-income) nations, are poor. This level

of poverty rises to 40 percent of South Asia and 51 percent of sub-Saharan Africa (Haughton & Khandker, 2009).

In a new development, the World Bank has begun emphasizing the concept of vulnerability to poverty, which

refers to a significant probability that people who are not officially poor will become poor within the next year.

Determining vulnerability to poverty is important because it enables antipoverty strategies to be aimed at those

most at risk for sliding into poverty, with the hope of preventing them from doing so.

Vulnerability to poverty appears widespread; in several developing nations, about one-fourth of the population

is always poor, while almost one-third is vulnerable to poverty or is slipping into and out of poverty. In these

nations, more than half the population is always or sometimes poor. (Haughton & Khandker, 2009) summarize this

situation: “As typically defined, vulnerability to poverty is more widespread than poverty itself. A wide swathe of

society risks poverty at some point of time; put another way, in most societies, only a relatively modest portion of

society may be considered as economically secure.”

Explaining Global Poverty

Explanations of global poverty parallel those of US poverty in their focus on individualistic versus structural

problems. One type of explanation takes an individualistic approach by, in effect, blaming the people in the

poorest nations for their own poverty, while a second explanation takes a structural approach in blaming the plight

of poor nations on their treatment by the richest ones. Table 2.4 “Theory Snapshot” summarizes the two sets of

explanations.

Table 2.4 Theory Snapshot

Theory Major assumptions

Modernizationtheory

Wealthy nations became wealthy because early on they were able to develop the necessary beliefs, values,and practices for trade, industrialization, and rapid economic growth to occur. Poor nations remained poorbecause they failed to develop these beliefs, values, and practices; instead, they continued to followtraditional beliefs and practices that stymied industrial development and modernization.

Dependencytheory

The poverty of poor nations stems from their colonization by European nations, which exploited the poornations’ resources and either enslaved their populations or used them as cheap labor. The colonizednations were thus unable to develop a professional and business class that would have enabled them toenter the industrial age and to otherwise develop their economies.

2.5 Global Poverty 67

Modernization Theory

The individualistic explanation is called modernization theory (Rostow, 1990). According to this theory, rich

nations became wealthy because early on they were able to develop the “correct” beliefs, values, and practices—in

short, the correct culture—for trade, industrialization, and rapid economic growth to occur. These cultural traits

include a willingness to work hard, to abandon tradition in favor of new ways of thinking and doing things, and

to adopt a future orientation rather than one focused on maintaining present conditions. Thus Western European

nations began to emerge several centuries ago as economic powers because their populations adopted the kinds of

values and practices just listed. In contrast, nations in other parts of the world never became wealthy and remain

poor today because they never developed the appropriate values and practices. Instead, they continued to follow

traditional beliefs and practices that stymied industrial development and modernization.

According to modernization theory, poor nations are poor because their people never developed values such as an emphasis on hard

work.

United Nations Photo – OLS Brings Support to Strained Medical Services – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Modernization theory has much in common with the culture of poverty theory discussed earlier. It attributes

the poverty of poor nations to their failure to develop the “proper” beliefs, values, and practices necessary for

economic success both at the beginning of industrialization during the nineteenth century and in the two centuries

that have since transpired. Because modernization theory implies that people in poor nations do not have the talent

and ability to improve their lot, it may be considered a functionalist explanation of global inequality.

68 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Dependency Theory

The structural explanation for global stratification is called dependency theory, which may be considered a

conflict explanation of global inequality. Not surprisingly, this theory’s views sharply challenge modernization

theory’s assumptions (Packenham, 1992). Whereas modernization theory attributes global stratification to the

“wrong” cultural values and practices in poor nations, dependency theory blames global stratification on the

exploitation of these nations by wealthy nations. According to this view, poor nations never got the chance to

pursue economic growth because early on they were conquered and colonized by European ones. The European

nations stole the poor nations’ resources and either enslaved their populations or used them as cheap labor. They

installed their own governments and often prevented the local populace from getting a good education. As a result,

the colonized nations were unable to develop a professional and business class that would have enabled them to

enter the industrial age and to otherwise develop their economies. Along the way, wealthy nations sold their own

goods to colonized nations and forced them to run up enormous debt that continues to amount today.

In today’s world, huge multinational corporations continue to exploit the labor and resources of the poorest

nations, say dependency theorists. These corporations run sweatshops in many nations, in which workers toil

in inhumane conditions at extremely low wages (Sluiter, 2009). Often the corporations work hand-in-hand with

corrupt officials in the poor nations to strengthen their economic stake in the countries.

Comparing the Theories

Which makes more sense, modernization theory or dependency theory? As with many theories, both make sense

to some degree, but both have their faults. Modernization theory places too much blame on poor nations for

their own poverty and ignores the long history of exploitation of poor nations by rich nations and multinational

corporations alike. For its part, dependency theory cannot explain why some of the poorest countries are poor even

though they were never European colonies; neither can it explain why some former colonies such as Hong Kong

have been able to attain enough economic growth to leave the rank of the poorest nations. Together, both theories

help us understand the reasons for global stratification, but most sociologists would probably favor dependency

theory because of its emphasis on structural factors in the world’s historic and current economy.

The Lives of the World’s Poor

Poor nations are the least industrialized and most agricultural of all the world’s countries. They consist primarily

of nations in Africa and parts of Asia and constitute roughly half of the world’s population. Many of these nations

rely heavily on one or two crops, and if weather conditions render a crop unproductive in a particular season, the

nations’ hungry become even hungrier. By the same token, if economic conditions reduce the price of a crop or

other natural resource, the income from exports of these commodities plummets, and these already poor nations

become even poorer.

2.5 Global Poverty 69

People in poor nations live in the most miserable conditions possible.

United Nations Photo – Maslakh Camp for Displaced, Afghanistan – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

By any standard, the more than 1.4 billion people in poor nations live a desperate existence in the most miserable

conditions possible. They suffer from AIDS and other deadly diseases, live on the edge of starvation, and lack

indoor plumbing, electricity, and other modern conveniences that most Americans take for granted. Most of us

have seen unforgettable photos or video footage of African children with stick-thin limbs and distended stomachs

reflecting severe malnutrition.

It would be nice if these images were merely fiction, but unfortunately they are far too real. AIDS, malaria,

starvation, and other deadly diseases are common. Many children die before reaching adolescence, and many

adults die before reaching what in the richest nations would be considered middle age. Many people in the poorest

nations are illiterate, and a college education remains as foreign to them as their way of life would be to us. The

images of the world’s poor that we see in television news reports or in film documentaries fade quickly from

our minds. Meanwhile, millions of people on our planet die every year because they do not have enough to eat,

because they lack access to clean water or adequate sanitation, or because they lack access to medicine that is

found in every CVS, Rite Aid, and Walgreens in the United States. We now examine some specific dimensions

and consequences of global poverty.

Life Expectancy

When we look around the world, we see that global poverty is literally a matter of life and death. The clearest

evidence of this fact comes from data on life expectancy, or the average number of years that a nation’s citizens

can be expected to live. Life expectancy certainly differs within each nation, with some people dying younger and

others dying older, but poverty and related conditions affect a nation’s overall life expectancy to a startling degree.

Figure 2.7 Average Life Expectancy across the Globe (Years)

70 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Source: Adapted from Global Education Project. (2004). Human conditions: World life expectancy map. Retrieved from

http://www.theglobaleducationproject.org/earth/human-conditions.php.

A map of global life expectancy appears in Figure 2.7 “Average Life Expectancy across the Globe (Years)”. Life

expectancy is highest in North America, Western Europe, and certain other regions of the world and lowest in

Africa and South Asia, where life expectancy in many nations is some 30 years shorter than in other regions.

Another way of visualizing the relationship between global poverty and life expectancy appears in Figure 2.8

“Global Poverty and Life Expectancy, 2006”, which depicts average life expectancy for wealthy nations, upper-

middle-income nations, lower-middle-income nations, and poor nations. Men in wealthy nations can expect to live

76 years on average, compared to only 56 in poor nations; women in wealthy nations can expect to live 82 years,

compared to only 58 in poor nations. Life expectancy in poor nations is thus 20 and 24 years lower, respectively,

for the two sexes.

Figure 2.8 Global Poverty and Life Expectancy, 2006

Source: Data from World Bank. (2009). World development report 2009. Washington, DC: Author.

2.5 Global Poverty 71

Child Mortality

A key contributor to life expectancy and also a significant consequence of global poverty in its own right is child

mortality, the number of children who die before age 5 per 1,000 children. As Figure 2.9 “Global Poverty and

Child Mortality, 2006” shows, the rate of child mortality in poor nations is 135 per 1,000 children, meaning that

13.5 percent of all children in these nations die before age 5. In a few African nations, child mortality exceeds 200

per 1,000. In contrast, the rate in wealthy nations is only 7 per 1,000. Children in poor nations are thus about 19

times (13.5 ÷ 0.7) more likely to die before age 5 than children in wealthy nations.

Figure 2.9 Global Poverty and Child Mortality, 2006

Source: Data from World Bank. (2009). World development report 2009. Washington, DC: Author.

Sanitation and Clean Water

Two other important indicators of a nation’s health are access to adequate sanitation (disposal of human waste)

and access to clean water. When people lack adequate sanitation and clean water, they are at much greater risk

for life-threatening diarrhea, serious infectious diseases such as cholera and typhoid, and parasitic diseases such

as schistosomiasis (World Health Organization, 2010). About 2.4 billion people around the world, almost all of

them in poor and middle-income nations, do not have adequate sanitation, and more than 2 million, most of them

children, die annually from diarrhea. More than 40 million people worldwide, almost all of them again in poor

and middle-income nations, suffer from a parasitic infection caused by flatworms.

As Figure 2.10 “Global Stratification and Access to Adequate Sanitation, 2006” and Figure 2.11 “Global

Stratification and Access to Clean Water, 2006” show, access to adequate sanitation and clean water is strongly

related to national wealth. Poor nations are much less likely than wealthier nations to have adequate access to both

sanitation and clean water. Adequate sanitation is virtually universal in wealthy nations but is available to only 38

percent of people in poor nations. Clean water is also nearly universal in wealthy nations but is available to only

67 percent of people in poor nations.

Figure 2.10 Global Stratification and Access to Adequate Sanitation, 2006

72 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Source: Data from World Bank. (2010). Health nutrition and population statistics. Retrieved from http://databank.worldbank.org/ddp/

home.do.

Figure 2.11 Global Stratification and Access to Clean Water, 2006

Source: Data from World Bank. (2010). Health nutrition and population statistics. Retrieved from http://databank.worldbank.org/ddp/home.do.

Malnutrition

2.5 Global Poverty 73

About one-fifth of the population of poor nations, about 800 million individuals, are malnourished.

Dr. Lyle Conrad at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention- ID# 6874 – public domain.

Another health indicator is malnutrition. This problem is caused by a lack of good food combined with infections

and diseases such as diarrhea that sap the body of essential nutrients. About one-fifth of the population of poor

nations, or about 800 million individuals, are malnourished; looking just at children, in developing nations more

than one-fourth of children under age 5, or about 150 million altogether, are underweight. Half of all these children

live in only three nations: Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan; almost half the children in these and other South Asian

nations are underweight. Children who are malnourished are at much greater risk for fat and muscle loss, brain

damage, blindness, and death; perhaps you have seen video footage of children in Africa or South Asia who are so

starved that they look like skeletons. Not surprisingly, child malnutrition contributes heavily to the extremely high

rates of child mortality that we just examined and is estimated to be responsible for more than 5 million deaths of

children annually (United Nations Children’s Fund [UNICEF], 2006; World Health Organization, 2010).

Adult Literacy

Moving from the area of health, a final indicator of human development is adult literacy, the percentage of people

15 and older who can read and write a simple sentence. Once again we see that people in poor and middle-income

nations are far worse off (see Figure 2.12 “Global Poverty and Adult Literacy, 2008”). In poor nations, only about

69 percent of adults 15 and older can read and write a simple sentence. The high rate of illiteracy in poor nations

not only reflects their poverty but also contributes to it, as people who cannot read and write are obviously at a

huge disadvantage in the labor market.

Figure 2.12 Global Poverty and Adult Literacy, 2008

74 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Source: Data from World Bank. (2010). Health nutrition and population statistics. Retrieved from http://databank.worldbank.org/ddp/

home.do.

Applying Social Research

Unintended Consequences of Welfare Reform

Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was a major government program to help the poor from the 1930s tothe 1960s. Under this program, states allocated federal money to provide cash payments to poor families with children.Although the program was heavily criticized for allegedly providing an incentive to poor mothers both to have morechildren and to not join the workforce, research studies found little or no basis for this criticism. Still, many politiciansand much of the public accepted the criticism as true, and AFDC became so unpopular that it was replaced in 1997 by anew program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which is still a major program today.

TANF is more restrictive in many respects than AFDC was. In particular, it limits the amount of time a poor family canreceive federal funds to five years, and allows states to impose a shorter duration for funding, which many have done. Inaddition, it requires single parents in families receiving TANF funds to work at least thirty hours a week (or twenty hoursa week if they have a child under the age of 6) and two parents to work at least thirty-five hours per week combined.In most states, going to school to obtain a degree does not count as the equivalent of working and thus does not make aparent eligible for TANF payments. Only short-term programs or workshops to develop job skills qualify.

Did welfare reform involving TANF work? Many adults formerly on AFDC found jobs, TANF payments nationwide havebeen much lower than AFDC payments, and many fewer families receive TANF payments than used to receive AFDCpayments. All these facts lead many observers to hail TANF as a successful program. However, sociologists and otherscholars who study TANF families say the numbers are misleading because poor families have in effect been excludedfrom TANF funding because of its strict requirements. The reduced payments and lower number of funded familiesindicate the failure of TANF, they say, not its success.

Several problems explain why TANF has had these unintended consequences. First, many families are poor for manymore than five years, and the five-year time limit under TANF means that they receive financial help for only some ofthe years they live in poverty. Second, because the federal and state governments provide relatively little financial aid forchild care, many parents simply cannot afford to work, and if they don’t work, they lose their TANF payments. Third,jobs are certainly difficult to find, especially if, as is typical, a poor parent has relatively little education and few jobskills, and if parents cannot find a job, they again lose their TANF payments. Fourth, many parents cannot work becausethey have physical or mental health problems or because they are taking care of a family member or friend with a healthproblem; these parents, too, become ineligible for TANF payments.

Sociologist Lorna Rivera put a human face to these problems in a study of fifty poor women in Boston, Massachusetts.She lived among them, interviewed them individually, and conducted focus groups. She found that TANF worsened thesituation of these women for the reasons just stated, and concluded that welfare reform left these and other poor women“uneducated, underemployed, underpaid, and unable to effectively move themselves and their families forward.”

2.5 Global Poverty 75

Ironically, some studies suggest that welfare reform impaired the health of black women for several reasons. Many endedup with jobs with long bus commutes and odd hours, leading to sleep deprivation and less time for medical visits. Manyof these new workers also suddenly had to struggle to find affordable day care for their children. These problems arethought to have increased their stress levels and, in turn, harmed their health.

The research by social scientists on the effects of TANF reveals that the United States took a large step backwardwhen it passed welfare reform in the 1990s. Far from reducing poverty, welfare reform only worsened it. This researchunderscores the need for the United States to develop better strategies for reducing poverty similar to those used by otherWestern democracies, as discussed in the Note 2.19 “Lessons from Other Societies” box in this chapter.

Sources: (Blitstein, 2009; Mink, 2008; Parrott & Sherman, 2008; Rivera, 2008)

Key Takeaways

• People in poor nations live in the worst conditions possible. Deadly diseases are common, and manychildren die before reaching adolescence.

• According to the modernization theory, rich nations became rich because their peoples possessed certainvalues, beliefs, and practices that helped them become wealthy. Conversely, poor nations remained poorbecause their peoples did not possess these values, beliefs, and practices.

• According to the dependency theory, poor nations have remained poor because they have been exploited byrich nations and by multinational corporations.

For Your Review

1. Considering all the ways in which poor nations fare much worse than wealthy nations, which one seems toyou to be the most important problem that poor nations experience? Explain your answer.

2. Which theory of global poverty, modernization or dependency, makes more sense to you? Why?

References

Blitstein, R. (2009). Weathering the storm. Miller-McCune, 2(July–August), 48–57.

Dikhanov, Y. (2005). Trends in global income distribution, 1970–2000, and scenarios for 2015. New York, NY:

United Nations Development Programme.

Haughton, J., & Khandker, S. R. (2009). Handbook on poverty and inequality. Washington, DC: World Bank.

Mink, G. (2008). TANF reauthorization and opportunity to invest in America’s future. Paper presented to the ADA

Economic Policy Committee. Retrieved July 25, 2011, from http://www.adaction.org/pages/issues/all-policy-

resolutions/social-amp-domestic/issues-brief-no.-13-welfare-reform.php.

76 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Packenham, R. A. (1992). The dependency movement: Scholarship and politics in development studies.

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Parrott, S., & Sherman, A. (2008). TANF at 10: Program results are more mixed than often understood.

Washington, DC: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Rivera, L. (2008). Laboring to learn: Women’s literacy and poverty in the post-welfare era. Urbana, IL: University

of Illinois Press.

Rostow, W. W. (1990). The stages of economic growth: A non-communist manifesto (3rd ed.). New York, NY:

Cambridge University Press.

Sluiter, L. (2009). Clean clothes: A global movement to end sweatshops. New York, NY: Pluto Press.

United Nations Children’s Fund. (2006). Progress for children: A report card on nutrition. New York, NY: Author.

United Nations Development Programme. (2009). Human development report 2009. New York, NY: Author.

World Health Organization. (2010). Children’s environmental health. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/ceh/

risks/cehwater2/en/index.html.

World Health Organization. (2010). Water sanitation and health. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/

water_sanitation_health/diseases/malnutrition/en/.

2.5 Global Poverty 77

2.6 Reducing Poverty

Learning Objectives

1. Explain why the United States neglects its poor.

2. List any three potentially promising strategies to reduce US poverty.

3. Describe how to reduce global poverty from a sociological perspective.

As this chapter noted at the outset, the United States greatly reduced poverty during the 1960s through a series of

programs and policies that composed the so-called war on poverty. You saw evidence of the success of the war on

poverty in Figure 2.1 “US Poverty, 1959–2010”, which showed that the poverty rate declined from 22.2 percent

in 1960 to a low of 11.1 percent in 1973 before fluctuating from year to year and then rising since 2000. The Note

2.19 “Lessons from Other Societies” box showed that other democracies have much lower poverty rates than the

United States because, as many scholars believe, they have better funded and more extensive programs to help

their poor (Brady, 2009; Russell, 2011).

The lessons from the 1960s’ war on poverty and the experience of other democracies are clear: It is very possible

to reduce poverty if, and only if, a nation is willing to fund and implement appropriate programs and policies

that address the causes of poverty and that help the poor deal with the immediate and ongoing difficulties they

experience.

A major reason that the US poverty rate reached its low in 1973 and never went lower during the past four decades

is that the United States retreated from its war on poverty by cutting back on the programs and services it had

provided during that good war (Soss, et. al., 2007). Another major reason is that changes in the national economy

during the past few decades have meant that well-paying manufacturing jobs have been replaced by low-paying

service jobs with fewer benefits (Wilson, 2010). Yet this has also happened in other democracies, and their poverty

rates remain lower than the US rate because, unlike the United States, they have continued to try to help their poor

rather than neglect them.

Why does the United States neglect its poor? Many scholars attribute this neglect to the fact that many citizens

and politicians think the poor are poor because of their own failings. As summarized by sociologist Mark R. Rank

(Rank, 2011), these failings include “not working hard enough, failure to acquire sufficient skills, or just making

bad decisions.” By thus blaming the poor for their fate, citizens and politicians think the poor do not deserve to

have the US government help them, and so the government does not help, or at least not nearly as much as other

democracies do. We have seen that the facts do not support the myth that the poor lack motivation to work, but

that does not lessen the blame given the poor for being poor.

To renew the US effort to help the poor, it is essential that the actual facts about poverty become better known so

that a fundamental shift in thinking about poverty and the poor can occur. Rank (Rank, 2011) says that one aspect

of this shift must include the recognition, as noted at the beginning of this chapter, that “poverty affects us all”

because it costs so many tax dollars to help the poor and because a majority of the public can expect to be poor

or near poor at some point in their lives. A second aspect of this shift in thinking, adds Rank, is the recognition

(following a blaming-the-system approach) that poverty stems much more from the lack of opportunity, lack

of jobs, declining government help for the poor, and other structural failings of American society than from

individual failings of the poor themselves. A third aspect of this shift in thinking, he concludes, is that poverty

must become seen as a “moral problem” and as “an injustice of a substantial magnitude” (Rank, 2011). As he

forcefully argues, “Something is seriously wrong when we find that, in a country with the most abundant resources

in the world, there are children without enough to eat, families who cannot afford health care, and people sleeping

on the streets for lack of shelter” (Rank, 2011). This situation, he says, must become seen as a “moral outrage”

(Rank, 2011).

Sociologist Joe Soss (Soss, 2011) argues that a change in thinking is not enough for a renewed antipoverty effort

to occur. What is needed, he says, is political protest and other political activity by the poor and on behalf of

the poor. Soss notes that “political conflict and mass mobilization played key roles” in providing the impetus for

social-welfare programs in the 1930s and 1960s in the United States, and he adds that the lower poverty rates of

Western European democracies “are products of labor movements, unions, and parties that mobilized workers to

demand more adequate social supports.” These twin histories lead Soss to conclude that the United States will not

increase its antipoverty efforts unless a new wave of political activity by and on behalf of the poor arises. As he

argues, “History suggests that major antipoverty victories can be achieved. But they won’t be achieved by good

will and smart ideas alone. They’ll be won politically, when people—in poor communities, in advocacy groups, in

government, in the academy, and elsewhere—mobilize to advance antipoverty agendas in ways that make politics

as usual untenable.”

Antipoverty Programs and Policies

2.6 Reducing Poverty 79

To help reduce poverty, it is essential to help poor parents pay for child care.

Herald Post – Family Child Care – CC BY-NC 2.0.

If a renewed antipoverty effort does occur for whatever reason, what types of programs and policies show promise

for effectively reducing poverty? Here a sociological vision is essential. It is easy to understand why the hungry

schoolchildren described in the news story that began this chapter might be going without food during a very

faltering national economy. Yet a sociological understanding of poverty emphasizes its structural basis in bad

times and good times alike. Poverty is rooted in social and economic problems of the larger society rather than

in the lack of willpower, laziness, or other moral failings of poor individuals themselves. Individuals born into

poverty suffer from a lack of opportunity from their first months up through adulthood, and poverty becomes a

self-perpetuating, vicious cycle. To the extent a culture of poverty might exist, it is best seen as a logical and

perhaps even inevitable outcome of, and adaptation to, the problem of being poor and not the primary force

driving poverty itself.

This sort of understanding suggests that efforts to reduce poverty must address first and foremost the structural

basis for poverty while not ignoring certain beliefs and practices of the poor that also make a difference. An

extensive literature on poverty policy outlines many types of policies and programs that follow this dual approach

(Cancian & Danziger, 2009; Greenberg, et. al., 2007; Iceland, 2006; Lindsey, 2009; Moore et al., 2009; Rank,

2004). If these were fully adopted, funded, and implemented, as they are in many other democracies, they would

offer great promise for reducing poverty. As two poverty experts recently wrote, “We are optimistic that poverty

can be reduced significantly in the long term if the public and policymakers can muster the political will to pursue

a range of promising antipoverty policies” (M. Cancian & S. Danziger, 2009, p. 32).1

Although a full discussion

of these policies is beyond the scope of this chapter, the following measures are commonly cited as holding strong

potential for reducing poverty, and they are found in varying degrees in other Western democracies:

1. Adopt a national “full employment” policy for the poor, involving federally funded job training and

public works programs, and increase the minimum wage so that individuals working full-time will

earn enough to lift their families out of poverty.

2. Increase federal aid for the working poor, including higher earned income credits and child-care

subsidies for those with children.

3. Establish well-funded early childhood intervention programs, including home visitations by trained

professionals, for poor families.

4. Provide poor families with enough income to enable them to pay for food and housing.

5. Increase the supply of affordable housing.

6. Improve the schools that poor children attend and the schooling they receive and expand early

childhood education programs for poor children.

7. Provide better nutrition and health services for poor families with young children.

8. Establish universal health insurance.

9. Increase Pell Grants and other financial aid for higher education.

1. Cancian, M., & Danziger, S. H. (2009). Changing poverty, changing policies. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

80 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Global Poverty

Years of international aid to poor nations have helped them somewhat, but, as this chapter has shown, their

situation remains dire. International aid experts acknowledge that efforts to achieve economic growth in poor

nations have largely failed, but they disagree why this is so and what alternative strategies may prove more

successful (Cohen & Easterly, 2009).2

One very promising trend has been a switch from macro efforts focusing

on infrastructure problems and on social institutions, such as the schools, to micro efforts, such as providing cash

payments or small loans directly to poor people in poor nations (a practice called microfinancing) and giving

them bed nets to prevent mosquito bites (Banerjee & Duflo, 2011; Hanlon, Barrientos, & Hulme, 2010; Karlan

& Appel, 2011).3

However, the evidence on the success of these efforts is mixed (Bennett, 2009; The Economist,

2010).4

Much more to help the world’s poor certainly needs to be done.

In this regard, sociology’s structural approach is in line with dependency theory and suggests that global

stratification results from the history of colonialism and from continuing exploitation today of poor nations’

resources by wealthy nations and multinational corporations. To the extent such exploitation exists, global poverty

will lessen if and only if this exploitation lessens. A sociological approach also emphasizes the role that class,

gender, and ethnic inequality play in perpetuating global poverty. For global poverty to be reduced, gender and

ethnic inequality must be reduced.

Writers Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (2010)5

emphasize the need to focus efforts to reduce global

poverty of women. We have already seen one reason this emphasis makes sense: women are much worse off than

men in poor nations in many ways, so helping them is crucial for both economic and humanitarian reasons. An

additional reason is especially illuminating: When women in poor nations acquire extra money, they typically

spend it on food, clothing, and medicine, essentials for their families. However, when men in poor nations acquire

extra money, they often spend it on alcohol, tobacco, and gambling. This gender difference might sound like a

stereotype, but it does indicate that aid to women will help in many ways, while aid to men might be less effective

and often even wasted.

Key Takeaways

• According to some sociologists, a change in thinking about poverty and the poor and political action by andon behalf of the poor are necessary for a renewed effort to help poor Americans.

• Potentially successful antipoverty programs and policies to help the US poor include expanding theiremployment opportunities and providing them much greater amounts of financial and other aid.

• To help people in poor nations, gender and ethnic inequality must be addressed.

2. Cohen, J., & Easterly, W. (Eds.). (2009). What works in development? Thinking big and thinking small. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

3. Banerjee, A. V., & Duflo, E. (2011). Poor economics: A radical rethinking of the way to fight global poverty. New York, NY: PublicAffairs; Hanlon,

J., Barrientos, A., & Hulme, D. (2010). Just give money to the poor: The development revolution from the global south. Sterling, VA: Kumarian

Press; Karlan, D., & Appel, J. (2011). More than good intentions: How a new economics is helping to solve global poverty. New York, NY: Dutton.

4. Bennett, D. (2009, September 20). Small change. The Boston Globe. Retrieved from http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/09/20/

small_change_does_microlending_actually_fight_poverty/; The Economist. (2010). A better mattress. The Economist, 394(8673), 75–76.

5. Kristoff, N. D., & WuDunn, S. (2010). Half the sky: Turning oppression into opportunity for women worldwide. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

2.6 Reducing Poverty 81

For Your Review

1. Write a brief essay summarizing the changes in thinking that some sociologists argue must occur before arenewed effort to reduce poverty can take place.

2. Write a brief essay summarizing any four policies or programs that could potentially lower US poverty.

References

Brady, D. (2009). Rich democracies, poor people: How politics explain poverty. New York, NY: Oxford

University Press.

Cancian, M., & Danziger, S. H. (2009). Changing poverty, changing policies. New York, NY: Russell Sage

Foundation.

Greenberg, M., Dutta-Gupta, I., & Minoff, E. (2007). From poverty to prosperity: A national strategy to cut

poverty in half. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress.

Iceland, J. (2006). Poverty in America: A handbook. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Lindsey, D. (2009). Child poverty and inequality: Securing a better future for America’s children. New York, NY:

Oxford University Press.

Moore, K. A., Redd, Z., Burkhauser, M., Mbawa, K., & Collins, A. (2009). Children in poverty: Trends,

consequences, and policy options. Washington, DC: Child Trends. Retrieved from http://www.childtrends.org/

Files//Child_Trends-2009_04_07_RB_ChildreninPoverty.pdf.

Rank, M. R. (2004). One nation, underprivileged: Why American poverty affects us all. New York, NY: Oxford

University Press.

Rank, M. R. (2011). Rethinking American poverty. Contexts, 10(Spring), 16–21.

Russell, J. W. ( 2011). Double standard: Social policy in Europe and the United States (2nd ed.). Lanham, MD:

Rowman & Littlefield.

Soss, J. (2011). The poverty fight. Contexts, 10(2), 84.

Soss, J., Hacker, J. S., & Mettler, S. (Eds.). (2007). Remaking America: Democracy and public policy in an age

of inequality. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

Wilson, W. J. (2010). More than just race: Being black and poor in the inner city. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

82 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

2.7 End-of-Chapter Material

Summary

1. Poverty statistics are misleading in at least two ways. First, the way that poverty is measured is inadequatefor several reasons, and more accurate measures of poverty that have recently been developed suggest thatpoverty is higher than the official poverty measure indicates. Second, even if people live slightly above thepoverty line, they are still living in very difficult circumstances and are having trouble making ends meet.

2. Children, people of color, the South, and single-parent families headed by women have especially highpoverty rates. Despite what many Americans think, the most typical poor person is white, and most poorpeople who are able to work outside the home in fact do work.

3. To explain social stratification and thus poverty, functionalist theory says that stratification is necessary andinevitable because of the need to encourage people with the needed knowledge and skills to decide to pursuethe careers that are most important to society. Conflict theory says stratification exists because ofdiscrimination against, and blocked opportunities for, the have-nots of society. Symbolic interactionisttheory does not try to explain why stratification and poverty exist, but it does attempt to understand theexperience of being poor.

4. The individualistic explanation attributes poverty to individual failings of poor people themselves, while thestructuralist explanation attributes poverty to lack of jobs and lack of opportunity in the larger society.

5. Poverty has serious consequences in many respects. Among other problems, poor children are more likely togrow up to be poor, to have health problems, to commit street crime, and to have lower levels of formaleducation.

6. The nations of the world differ dramatically in wealth and other resources, with the poorest nations beingfound in Africa and parts of Asia.

7. Global poverty has a devastating impact on the lives of hundreds of millions of people throughout the world.Poor nations have much higher rates of mortality and disease and lower rates of literacy.

8. Modernization theory attributes global poverty to the failure of poor nations to develop the necessarybeliefs, values, and practices to achieve economic growth, while dependency theory attributes globalpoverty to the colonization and exploitation by European nations of nations in other parts of the world.

9. A sociological perspective suggests that poverty reduction in the United States and around the world canoccur if the structural causes of poverty are successfully addressed.

Using What You Know

It is December 20, and you have just finished final exams. In two days, you will go home for winter break and are lookingforward to a couple weeks of eating, sleeping, and seeing your high school friends. Your smartphone signals that someonehas texted you. When you read the message, you see that a friend is asking you to join her in serving a holiday supper onDecember 23 at a food pantry just a few miles from your campus. If you do that, you will not be able to get home untiltwo days after you had been planning to arrive, and you will miss a big high school “reunion” party set for the night ofthe twenty-third. What do you decide to do? Why?

What You Can Do

To help fight poverty and the effects of poverty, you may wish to do any of the following:

1. Contribute money to a local, state, or national organization that provides various kinds of aid to the poor.

2. Volunteer at a local food pantry or homeless shelter.

3. Start a canned food or used clothing drive on your campus.

4. Write letters or send e-mails to local, state, and federal officials that encourage them to expand antipovertyprograms.

84 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Chapter 3: Racial and Ethnic Inequality

Social Problems in the News

“Anger, Shock over Cross Burning in Calif. Community,” the headline said. This cross burning took place next to a blackwoman’s home in Arroyo Grande, California, a small, wealthy town about 170 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Theeleven-foot cross had recently been stolen from a nearby church.

This hate crime shocked residents and led a group of local ministers to issue a public statement that said in part, “Burningcrosses, swastikas on synagogue walls, hateful words on mosque doors are not pranks. They are hate crimes meant tofrighten and intimidate.” The head of the group added, “We live in a beautiful area, but it’s only beautiful if every singleperson feels safe conducting their lives and living here.”

Four people were arrested four months later for allegedly burning the cross and charged with arson, hate crime, terrorism,and conspiracy. Arroyo Grande’s mayor applauded the arrests and said in a statement, “Despite the fact that our city wasshaken by this crime, it did provide an opportunity for us to become better educated on matters relating to diversity.”

Sources: (Jablon, 2011; Lerner, 2011; Mann, 2011)

Cross burnings like this one recall the Ku Klux Klan era between the 1880s and 1960s, when white men dressed

in white sheets and white hoods terrorized African Americans in the South and elsewhere and lynched more than

3,000 black men and women. Thankfully, that era is long gone, but as this news story reminds us, racial issues

continue to trouble the United States.

In the wake of the 1960s urban riots, the so-called Kerner Commission (Kerner Commission, 1968)1

appointed

by President Lyndon Johnson to study the riots famously warned, “Our nation is moving toward two societies,

one black, one white—separate and unequal.” The commission blamed white racism for the riots and urged the

government to provide jobs and housing for African Americans and to take steps to end racial segregation.

More than four decades later, racial inequality in the United States continues to exist and in many ways has

worsened. Despite major advances by African Americans, Latinos, and other people of color during the past few

decades, they continue to lag behind non-Hispanic whites in education, income, health, and other social indicators.

The faltering economy since 2008 has hit people of color especially hard, and the racial wealth gap is deeper now

than it was just two decades ago.

Why does racial and ethnic inequality exist? What forms does it take? What can be done about it? This chapter

addresses all these questions. We shall see that, although racial and ethnic inequality has stained the United States

since its beginnings, there is hope for the future as long as our nation understands the structural sources of this

inequality and makes a concerted effort to reduce it. Later chapters in this book will continue to highlight various

dimensions of racial and ethnic inequality. Immigration, a very relevant issue today for Latinos and Asians and the

source of much political controversy, receives special attention in Chapter 15 “Population and the Environment”’s

discussion of population problems.

1. Kerner Commission. (1968). Report of the National Advisory Commission on civil disorders. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

References

Jablon, R. (2011, March 23). Anger, shock over cross burning in Calif. community. washingtonpost.com.

Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/03/23/AR2011032300301.html.

Kerner Commission. (1968). Report of the National Advisory Commission on civil disorders. New York, NY:

Bantam Books.

Lerner, D. (2011, July 22). Police chief says suspects wanted to “terrorize” cross burning victim. ksby.com.

Retrieved from http://www.ksby.com/news/police-chief-says-suspects-wanted-to-terrorize-cross-burning-victim/.

Mann, C. (2011, March 22). Cross burning in Calif. suburb brings FBI into hate crime investigation. cbsnews.com.

Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/.

86 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

3.3 Prejudice

Learning Objectives

1. Define prejudice, racism, and stereotypes.

2. Discuss the major social-psychological and sociological theories of prejudice.

3. Describe how the nature of prejudice has changed.

Prejudice and discrimination (discussed in the next section) are often confused, but the basic difference between

them is this: Prejudice is the attitude, while discrimination is the behavior. More specifically, racial and ethnic

prejudice refers to a set of negative attitudes, beliefs, and judgments about whole categories of people, and about

individual members of those categories, because of their perceived race and/or ethnicity. A closely related concept

is racism, or the belief that certain racial or ethnic groups are inferior to one’s own. Prejudice and racism are

often based on racial and ethnic stereotypes, or simplified, mistaken generalizations about people because of their

race and/or ethnicity. While cultural and other differences do exist among the various American racial and ethnic

groups, many of the views we have of such groups are unfounded and hence are stereotypes. An example of

the stereotypes that white people have of other groups appears in Figure 3.1 “Perceptions by Non-Latino White

Respondents of the Intelligence of White and Black Americans”, in which white respondents in the General Social

Survey (GSS), a recurring survey of a random sample of the US population, are less likely to think blacks are

intelligent than they are to think whites are intelligent.

Figure 3.1 Perceptions by Non-Latino White Respondents of the Intelligence of White and Black Americans

Source: Data from General Social Survey. (2010). Retrieved from http://sda.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/hsda?harcsda+gss10.

Explaining Prejudice

Where does racial and ethnic prejudice come from? Why are some people more prejudiced than others? Scholars

have tried to answer these questions at least since the 1940s, when the horrors of Nazism were still fresh in

people’s minds. Theories of prejudice fall into two camps, social-psychological and sociological. We will look at

social-psychological explanations first and then turn to sociological explanations. We will also discuss distorted

mass media treatment of various racial and ethnic groups.

Social-Psychological Explanations

One of the first social-psychological explanations of prejudice centered on the authoritarian personality (Adorno,

Frenkel-Brunswick, Levinson, & Sanford, 1950). According to this view, authoritarian personalities develop

in childhood in response to parents who practice harsh discipline. Individuals with authoritarian personalities

emphasize such things as obedience to authority, a rigid adherence to rules, and low acceptance of people (out-

groups) not like oneself. Many studies find strong racial and ethnic prejudice among such individuals (Sibley &

Duckitt, 2008). But whether their prejudice stems from their authoritarian personalities or instead from the fact

that their parents were probably prejudiced themselves remains an important question.

Authoritarian personalities are said to develop in childhood from harsh parental discipline and to be linked to racial and ethnic

88 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

prejudice. Although many people with authoritarian personalities are prejudiced, it remains unclear whether their prejudice stems

from their personalities or from their parents’ own prejudice.

Flickr – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Another early and still popular social-psychological explanation is called frustration theory (or scapegoat theory)

(Dollard, Doob, Miller, Mowrer, & Sears, 1939). In this view individuals with various problems become frustrated

and tend to blame their troubles on groups that are often disliked in the real world (e.g., racial, ethnic, and religious

minorities). These minorities are thus scapegoats for the real sources of people’s misfortunes. Several psychology

experiments find that when people are frustrated, they indeed become more prejudiced. In one early experiment,

college students who were purposely not given enough time to solve a puzzle were more prejudiced after the

experiment than before it (Cowen, Landes, & Schaet, 1959).

Sociological Explanations

One popular sociological explanation emphasizes conformity and socialization and is called social learning

theory. In this view, people who are prejudiced are merely conforming to the culture in which they grow up, and

prejudice is the result of socialization from parents, peers, the news media, and other various aspects of their

culture. Supporting this view, studies have found that people tend to become more prejudiced when they move

to areas where people are very prejudiced and less prejudiced when they move to locations where people are less

prejudiced (Aronson, 2008). If people in the South today continue to be more prejudiced than those outside the

South, as we discuss later, even though legal segregation ended more than four decades ago, the influence of their

culture on their socialization may help explain these beliefs.

Children and Our Future

Growing Up as Farmworkers’ Kids

In the large agricultural fields of California work thousands of farmworkers and their families. Adults and children alikelive in poor, crowded conditions and do backbreaking work in the hot sun, day after day after day.

Because their parents are migrant workers, many children attend a specific school for only a few weeks or months atmost before their parents move to another field in another town or even another state. At Sherwood Elementary School inSalinas, California, in the heart of the state’s agricultural sector, 97 percent of students live in or near poverty. With theirLatino backgrounds, more than three-fourths do not speak English well or at all, and many of their parents cannot read orwrite their own language, Spanish.

At the Sherwood school, according to a news report, many students “sleep beneath carports and live in such crampedquarters that their parents take them to the local truck stop to wash up before school.” A local high school teacher saidmany of his students see little of their parents, who spend most of their waking hours working in the fields. “They havelittle brothers and sisters to take care of, maybe cook for. Yet they’re supposed to turn in a 10-page paper by tomorrow? Imean, it’s unreal.”

These conditions have grievous consequences for California’s migrant farmworker children, almost half of whom fail tocomplete high school. The principal of the Sherwood Elementary School said the key strategy for her faculty and schoolwas “understanding where the students come from but also having high expectations.”

The plight of farmworkers’ children is just one aspect of the difficulties facing Latino children around the country. Thanks

3.3 Prejudice 89

to reproduction and immigration, the number of Latino children nationwide has grown significantly during the past fewdecades: in 2009, 23 percent of US kindergarten children were Latino, compared to only 10 percent in 1989. Thesegrowing numbers underscore the need to pay attention to the health and welfare of Latino children.

Against this backdrop, it is distressing to note that their health and welfare is not very good at all. About one-thirdof Latino children live in poverty. The average Latino child grows up in a poor neighborhood where almost half ofthe residents do not speak English fluently, where the schools are substandard, and where the high school dropout andteen unemployment rates are high. A number of factors, including their ethnicity, poverty, language barriers, and theimmigrant status of many of their parents, limit Latino children’s access to adequate health care and various kinds ofsocial services.

Amid all these problems, however, the situation of California’s farmworker children stands out as a nationalembarrassment for a prosperous country like the United States. As the country struggles to end racial and ethnicinequality, it must not forget the children of Salinas who have to use a truck stop to wash up before school.

Sources: P. L. Brown, 2011; Landale, McHale, & Booth, 2011; Tavernise, 2011

The mass media play a key role in how many people learn to be prejudiced. This type of learning happens because

the media often present people of color in a negative light. By doing so, the media unwittingly reinforce the

prejudice that individuals already have or even increase their prejudice (Larson, 2005). Examples of distorted

media coverage abound. Even though poor people are more likely to be white than any other race or ethnicity (see

Chapter 2 “Poverty”), the news media use pictures of African Americans far more often than those of whites in

stories about poverty. In one study, national news magazines, such as Time and Newsweek, and television news

shows portrayed African Americans in almost two-thirds of their stories on poverty, even though only about one-

fourth of poor people are African Americans. In the magazine stories, only 12 percent of the African Americans

had a job, even though in the real world more than 40 percent of poor African Americans were working at the time

the stories were written (Gilens, 1996). In a Chicago study, television news shows there depicted whites fourteen

times more often in stories of good Samaritans, even though whites and African Americans live in Chicago in

roughly equal numbers (Entman & Rojecki, 2001). Many other studies find that newspaper and television stories

about crime and drugs feature higher proportions of African Americans as offenders than is true in arrest statistics

(Surette, 2011). Studies like these show that the news media “convey the message that black people are violent,

lazy, and less civic minded” (Jackson, 1997, p. A27).

A second sociological explanation emphasizes economic and political competition and is commonly called group

threat theory (Quillian, 2006). In this view, prejudice arises from competition over jobs and other resources and

from disagreement over various political issues. When groups vie with each other over these matters, they often

become hostile toward each other. Amid such hostility, it is easy to become prejudiced toward the group that

threatens your economic or political standing. A popular version of this basic explanation is Susan Olzak’s (1992)

ethnic competition theory, which holds that ethnic prejudice and conflict increase when two or more ethnic groups

find themselves competing for jobs, housing, and other goals.

The competition explanation is the macro equivalent of the frustration/scapegoat theory already discussed.

Much of the white mob violence discussed earlier stemmed from whites’ concern that the groups they attacked

threatened their jobs and other aspects of their lives. Thus lynchings of African Americans in the South increased

when the Southern economy worsened and decreased when the economy improved (Tolnay & Beck, 1995).

Similarly, white mob violence against Chinese immigrants in the 1870s began after the railroad construction

that employed so many Chinese immigrants slowed and the Chinese began looking for work in other industries.

Whites feared that the Chinese would take jobs away from white workers and that their large supply of labor

90 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

would drive down wages. Their assaults on the Chinese killed several people and prompted the passage by

Congress of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 that prohibited Chinese immigration (Dinnerstein & Reimers,

2009).

During the 1870s, whites feared that Chinese immigrants would take away their jobs. This fear led to white mob violence against the

Chinese and to an act of Congress that prohibited Chinese immigration.

Wikimedia Commons – public domain.

Correlates of Prejudice

Since the 1940s, social scientists have investigated the individual correlates of racial and ethnic prejudice

(Stangor, 2009). These correlates help test the theories of prejudice just presented. For example, if authoritarian

personalities do produce prejudice, then people with these personalities should be more prejudiced. If frustration

also produces prejudice, then people who are frustrated with aspects of their lives should also be more prejudiced.

Other correlates that have been studied include age, education, gender, region of country, race, residence in

integrated neighborhoods, and religiosity. We can take time here to focus on gender, education, and region of

country and discuss the evidence for the racial attitudes of whites, as most studies do in view of the historic

dominance of whites in the United States.

The findings on gender are rather surprising. Although women are usually thought to be more empathetic than

men and thus to be less likely to be racially prejudiced, recent research indicates that the racial views of (white)

women and men are in fact very similar and that the two genders are about equally prejudiced (Hughes & Tuch,

2003). This similarity supports group threat theory, outlined earlier, in that it indicates that white women and men

are responding more as whites than as women or men, respectively, in formulating their racial views.

3.3 Prejudice 91

Findings on education and region of country are not surprising. Focusing again just on whites, less educated

people are usually more racially prejudiced than better-educated people, and Southerners are usually more

prejudiced than non-Southerners (Krysan, 2000). Evidence of these differences appears in Figure 3.2 “Education,

Region, and Opposition by Non-Latino Whites to a Close Relative Marrying an African American”, which

depicts educational and regional differences in a type of racial prejudice that social scientists call social distance,

or feelings about interacting with members of other races and ethnicities. The General Social Survey asks

respondents how they feel about a “close relative” marrying an African American. Figure 3.2 “Education, Region,

and Opposition by Non-Latino Whites to a Close Relative Marrying an African American” shows how responses

by white (non-Latino) respondents to this question vary by education and by Southern residence. Whites without

a high school degree are much more likely than those with more education to oppose these marriages, and

whites in the South are also much more likely than their non-Southern counterparts to oppose them. To recall the

sociological perspective (see Chapter 1 “Understanding Social Problems”), our social backgrounds certainly do

seem to affect our attitudes.

Figure 3.2 Education, Region, and Opposition by Non-Latino Whites to a Close Relative Marrying an African American

Source: Data from General Social Survey. (2010). Retrieved from http://sda.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/hsda?harcsda+gss10.

92 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

The Changing Nature of Prejudice

Although racial and ethnic prejudice still exists in the United States, its nature has changed during the past half-

century. Studies of these changes focus on whites’ perceptions of African Americans. Back in the 1940s and

before, an era of overt Jim Crow racism (also called traditional or old-fashioned racism) prevailed, not just in the

South but in the entire nation. This racism involved blatant bigotry, firm beliefs in the need for segregation, and the

view that blacks were biologically inferior to whites. In the early 1940s, for example, more than half of all whites

thought that blacks were less intelligent than whites, more than half favored segregation in public transportation,

more than two-thirds favored segregated schools, and more than half thought whites should receive preference

over blacks in employment hiring (Schuman, Steeh, Bobo, & Krysan, 1997).

The Nazi experience and then the civil rights movement led whites to reassess their views, and Jim Crow racism

gradually waned. Few whites believe today that African Americans are biologically inferior, and few favor

segregation. So few whites now support segregation and other Jim Crow views that national surveys no longer

include many of the questions that were asked a half-century ago.

But that does not mean that prejudice has disappeared. Many scholars say that Jim Crow racism has been replaced

by a more subtle form of racial prejudice, termed laissez-faire, symbolic, or modern racism, that amounts to a

“kinder, gentler, antiblack ideology” that avoids notions of biological inferiority (Bobo, Kluegel, & Smith, 1997,

p. 15; Quillian, 2006; Sears, 1988). Instead, it involves stereotypes about African Americans, a belief that their

poverty is due to their cultural inferiority, and opposition to government policies to help them. Similar views exist

about Latinos. In effect, this new form of prejudice blames African Americans and Latinos themselves for their

low socioeconomic standing and involves such beliefs that they simply do not want to work hard.

Evidence for this modern form of prejudice is seen in Figure 3.3 “Attribution by Non-Latino Whites of Blacks’

Low Socioeconomic Status to Blacks’ Low Innate Intelligence and to Their Lack of Motivation to Improve”,

which presents whites’ responses to two General Social Survey (GSS) questions that asked, respectively, whether

African Americans’ low socioeconomic status is due to their lower “in-born ability to learn” or to their lack of

“motivation and will power to pull themselves up out of poverty.” While only 8.5 percent of whites attributed

blacks’ status to lower innate intelligence (reflecting the decline of Jim Crow racism), about 48 percent attributed

it to their lack of motivation and willpower. Although this reason sounds “kinder” and “gentler” than a belief in

blacks’ biological inferiority, it is still one that blames African Americans for their low socioeconomic status.

Figure 3.3 Attribution by Non-Latino Whites of Blacks’ Low Socioeconomic Status to Blacks’ Low Innate Intelligence and to Their

Lack of Motivation to Improve

3.3 Prejudice 93

Source: Data from General Social Survey. (2010). Retrieved from http://sda.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/hsda?harcsda+gss10.

Prejudice and Public Policy Preferences

If whites do continue to believe in racial stereotypes, say the scholars who study modern prejudice, they are that

much more likely to oppose government efforts to help people of color. For example, whites who hold racial

stereotypes are more likely to oppose government programs for African Americans (Quillian, 2006). We can see

an example of this type of effect in Figure 3.4 “Racial Stereotyping by Non-Latino Whites and Their Opposition

to Government Spending to Help African Americans”, which compares two groups: whites who attribute blacks’

poverty to lack of motivation, and whites who attribute blacks’ poverty to discrimination. Those who cite lack of

motivation are more likely than those who cite discrimination to believe the government is spending too much to

help blacks.

Figure 3.4 Racial Stereotyping by Non-Latino Whites and Their Opposition to Government Spending to Help African Americans

Source: Data from General Social Survey. (2010). Retrieved from http://sda.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/hsda?harcsda+gss10.

94 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Whites who are racially prejudiced are more likely to favor harsher treatment of criminals and in particular are more likely to support

the death penalty.

Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 3.0.

Racial prejudice influences other public policy preferences as well. In the area of criminal justice, whites who

hold racial stereotypes or hostile feelings toward African Americans are more likely to be afraid of crime, to think

that the courts are not harsh enough, to support the death penalty, to want more money spent to fight crime, and to

favor excessive use of force by police (Barkan & Cohn, 2005; Unnever & Cullen, 2010).

If racial prejudice influences views on all these issues, then these results are troubling for a democratic society

like the United States. In a democracy, it is appropriate for the public to disagree on all sorts of issues, including

criminal justice. For example, citizens hold many reasons for either favoring or opposing the death penalty. But is

it appropriate for racial prejudice to be one of these reasons? To the extent that elected officials respond to public

opinion, as they should in a democracy, and to the extent that racial prejudice affects public opinion, then racial

prejudice may be influencing government policy on criminal justice and on other issues. In a democratic society,

it is unacceptable for racial prejudice to have this effect.

Key Takeaways

• Social-psychological explanations of prejudice emphasize authoritarian personalities and frustration, while

3.3 Prejudice 95

sociological explanations emphasize social learning and group threat.

• Education and region of residence are related to racial prejudice among whites; prejudice is higher amongwhites with lower levels of formal education and among whites living in the South.

• Jim Crow racism has been replaced by symbolic or modern racism that emphasizes the cultural inferiority ofpeople of color.

• Racial prejudice among whites is linked to certain views they hold about public policy. Prejudice isassociated with lower support among whites for governmental efforts to help people of color and withgreater support for a more punitive criminal justice system.

For Your Review

1. Think about the last time you heard someone say a remark that was racially prejudiced. What was said?What was your reaction?

2. The text argues that it is inappropriate in a democratic society for racial prejudice to influence public policy.Do you agree with this argument? Why or why not?

References

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Barkan, S. E., & Cohn, S. F. (2005). Why whites favor spending more money to fight crime: The role of racial

prejudice. Social Problems, 52, 300–314

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antiblack ideology. In S. A. Tuch & J. K. Martin (Eds.), Racial attitudes in the 1990s: Continuity and change (pp.

15–44). Westport, CT: Praeger.

Brown, P. L. (2011, March 13). Itinerant life weighs on farmworkers’ children. New York Times, p. A18

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Entman, R. M., & Rojecki, A. (2001). The black image in the white mind. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago

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Hughes, M., & Tuch, S. A. (2003). Gender differences in whites’ racial attitudes: Are women’s attitudes really

more favorable? Social Psychology Quarterly, 66, 384–401.

Jackson, D. Z. (1997, December 5). Unspoken during race talk. The Boston Globe, p. A27.

Krysan, M. (2000). Prejudice, politics, and public opinion: Understanding the sources of racial policy attitudes.

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& Littlefield.

Olzak, S. (1992). The dynamics of ethnic competition and conflict. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Quillian, L. (2006). New approaches to understanding racial prejudice and discrimination. Annual Review of

Sociology, 32, 299–328.

Schuman, H., Steeh, C., Bobo, L., & Krysan, M. (1997). Racial attitudes in America: Trends and interpretations

(Rev. ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sears, D. O. (1988). Symbolic racism. In P. A. Katz & D. A. Taylor (Eds.), Eliminating racism: Profiles in

controversy (pp. 53–84). New York, NY: Plenum.

Sibley, C. G., & Duckitt, J. (2008). Personality and prejudice: A meta-analysis and theoretical review. Personality

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3.3 Prejudice 97

3.4 Discrimination

Learning Objectives

1. Discuss Merton’s views on whether prejudice and discrimination always coincide.

2. Distinguish between individual discrimination and institutional discrimination.

3. Provide two examples of institutional discrimination.

Often racial and ethnic prejudice lead to discrimination against the subordinate racial and ethnic groups in a

given society. Discrimination in this context refers to the arbitrary denial of rights, privileges, and opportunities to

members of these groups. The use of the word arbitrary emphasizes that these groups are being treated unequally

not because of their lack of merit but because of their race and ethnicity.

Usually prejudice and discrimination go hand-in-hand, but Robert Merton (1949) stressed this is not always

so. Sometimes we can be prejudiced and not discriminate, and sometimes we might not be prejudiced and still

discriminate. Table 3.1 “The Relationship between Prejudice and Discrimination” illustrates his perspective. The

top-left cell and bottom-right cell consist of people who behave in ways we would normally expect. The top-left

one consists of “active bigots,” in Merton’s terminology, people who are both prejudiced and discriminatory. An

example of such a person is the white owner of an apartment building who dislikes people of color and refuses

to rent to them. The bottom-right cell consists of “all-weather liberals,” as Merton called them, people who are

neither prejudiced nor discriminatory. An example would be someone who holds no stereotypes about the various

racial and ethnic groups and treats everyone the same regardless of her or his background.

Table 3.1 The Relationship between Prejudice and Discrimination

Prejudiced?

Yes No

Discriminates?

Yes Active bigots Fair-weather liberals

No Timid bigots All-weather liberals

Source: Adapted from Merton, R. K. (1949). Discrimination and the American creed. In R. M. MacIver (Ed.), Discrimination and national

welfare (pp. 99–126). New York, NY: Institute for Religious Studies.

The remaining two cells of Table 3.1 “The Relationship between Prejudice and Discrimination” are the more

unexpected ones. On the bottom left, we see people who are prejudiced but who nonetheless do not discriminate;

Merton called them “timid bigots.” An example would be white restaurant owners who do not like people of color

but still serve them anyway because they want their business or are afraid of being sued if they do not serve them.

At the top right, we see “fair-weather liberals,” or people who are not prejudiced but who still discriminate. An

example would be white store owners in the South during the segregation era who thought it was wrong to treat

blacks worse than whites but who still refused to sell to them because they were afraid of losing white customers.

Individual Discrimination

The discussion so far has centered on individual discrimination, or discrimination that individuals practice in

their daily lives, usually because they are prejudiced but sometimes even if they are not prejudiced. Individual

discrimination is common, as Joe Feagin (1991), a former president of the American Sociological Association,

found when he interviewed middle-class African Americans about their experiences. Many of the people he

interviewed said they had been refused service, or at least received poor service, in stores or restaurants. Others

said they had been harassed by the police, and even put in fear of their lives, just for being black. Feagin concluded

that these examples are not just isolated incidents but rather reflect the larger racism that characterizes US society.

3.4 Discrimination 99

In February 2012, neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon

Martin as Martin was walking back from a 7-Eleven carrying some Skittles and iced tea. Critics said

Zimmerman was suspicious of Martin only because Martin was black.

Michael Fleshman – Trayvon_Martin_Occupy March 21 – CC BY-SA 2.0.

100 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Sociologist Joe Feagin’s study of middle-class African Americans found that many had been harassed by police and had otherwise

experienced various kinds of racial slights.

USAG- Humphreys – USAG-Humphreys teens participate in a focus group – CC BY 2.0.

Sociologist Denise Segura found that more than 40 percent of the Mexican American women she interviewed at a public university

had encountered workplace discrimination based on their ethnicity and/or gender.

Jodi Womack – DSC05104 – CC BY 2.0.

To many observers, the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in February 2012 was a deadly example of individual

discrimination. Martin, a 17-year-old African American, was walking in a gated community in Sanford, Florida,

as he returned from a 7-Eleven with a bag of Skittles and some iced tea. An armed neighborhood watch

3.4 Discrimination 101

volunteer, George Zimmerman, called 911 and said Martin looked suspicious. Although the 911 operator told

Zimmerman not to approach Martin, Zimmerman did so anyway; within minutes Zimmerman shot and killed the

unarmed Martin and later claimed self-defense. According to many critics of this incident, Martin’s only “crime”

was “walking while black.” As an African American newspaper columnist observed, “For every black man in

America, from the millionaire in the corner office to the mechanic in the local garage, the Trayvon Martin tragedy

is personal. It could have been me or one of my sons. It could have been any of us” (Robinson, 2012).

Much individual discrimination occurs in the workplace, as sociologist Denise Segura (Segura, 1992) documented

when she interviewed 152 Mexican American women working in white-collar jobs at a public university in

California. More than 40 percent of the women said they had encountered workplace discrimination based on their

ethnicity and/or gender, and they attributed their treatment to stereotypes held by their employers and coworkers.

Along with discrimination, they were the targets of condescending comments like “I didn’t know that there were

any educated people in Mexico that have a graduate degree.”

Institutional Discrimination

Individual discrimination is important to address, but at least as consequential in today’s world is institutional

discrimination, or discrimination that pervades the practices of whole institutions, such as housing, medical

care, law enforcement, employment, and education. This type of discrimination does not just affect a few

isolated people of color. Instead, it affects large numbers of individuals simply because of their race or ethnicity.

Sometimes institutional discrimination is also based on gender, disability, and other characteristics.

In the area of race and ethnicity, institutional discrimination often stems from prejudice, as was certainly true

in the South during segregation. However, just as individuals can discriminate without being prejudiced, so can

institutions when they engage in practices that seem to be racially neutral but in fact have a discriminatory effect.

Individuals in institutions can also discriminate without realizing it. They make decisions that turn out, upon close

inspection, to discriminate against people of color even if they did not mean to do so.

The bottom line is this: Institutions can discriminate even if they do not intend to do so. Consider height

requirements for police. Before the 1970s, police forces around the United States commonly had height

requirements, say five feet ten inches. As women began to want to join police forces in the 1970s, many found

they were too short. The same was true for people from some racial/ethnic backgrounds, such as Latinos, whose

stature is smaller on the average than that of non-Latino whites. Of course, even many white males were too short

to become police officers, but the point is that even more women, and even more men of certain ethnicities, were

too short.

This gender and ethnic difference is not, in and of itself, discriminatory as the law defines the term. The law allows

for bona fide (good faith) physical qualifications for a job. As an example, we would all agree that someone has

to be able to see to be a school bus driver; sight therefore is a bona fide requirement for this line of work. Thus

even though people who are blind cannot become school bus drivers, the law does not consider such a physical

requirement to be discriminatory.

102 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Institutional discrimination can occur even if this type of discrimination is not intended. Police forces used to have height

requirements, but these were deemed by courts to discriminate against women, Latinos, and other individuals. In response, police

forces lowered their height requirements.

Thomas Hawk – Oakland Police Memorial – CC BY-NC 2.0.

But were the height restrictions for police work in the early 1970s bona fide requirements? Women and members

of certain ethnic groups challenged these restrictions in court and won their cases, as it was decided that there

was no logical basis for the height restrictions then in effect. In short (pun intended), the courts concluded that

a person did not have to be five feet ten inches to be an effective police officer. In response to these court

challenges, police forces lowered their height requirements, opening the door for many more women, Latino men,

and some other men to join police forces (Appier, 1998). Whether police forces back then intended their height

requirements to discriminate, or whether they honestly thought their height requirements made sense, remains in

dispute. Regardless of the reason, their requirements did discriminate.

Institutional discrimination affects the life chances of people of color in many aspects of life today. To illustrate

this, we turn briefly to some examples of institutional discrimination that have been the subject of government

investigation and scholarly research.

3.4 Discrimination 103

Health Care

People of color have higher rates of disease and illness than whites, a fact explored further in Chapter 12 “Work

and the Economy”’s treatment of health and medicine. One question that arises is why their health is worse. One

possible answer involves institutional discrimination based on race and ethnicity.

Several studies use hospital records to investigate whether people of color receive optimal medical care, including

coronary bypass surgery, angioplasty, and catheterization. After taking the patients’ medical symptoms and needs

into account, these studies find that African Americans are much less likely than whites to receive the procedures

just listed. This is true when poor blacks are compared to poor whites and also when middle-class blacks are

compared to middle-class whites (Smedley, Stith, & Nelson, 2003). In a novel way of studying race and cardiac

care, one study performed an experiment in which several hundred doctors viewed videos of African American

and white patients, all of whom, unknown to the doctors, were actors. In the videos, each “patient” complained

of identical chest pain and other symptoms. The doctors were then asked to indicate whether they thought the

patient needed cardiac catheterization. The African American patients were less likely than the white patients to

be recommended for this procedure (Schulman et al., 1999).

Why does discrimination like this occur? It is possible, of course, that some doctors are racists and decide that the

lives of African Americans just are not worth saving, but it is far more likely that they have unconscious racial

biases that somehow affect their medical judgments. Regardless of the reason, the result is the same: African

Americans are less likely to receive potentially life-saving cardiac procedures simply because they are black.

Institutional discrimination in health care, then, is literally a matter of life and death.

Mortgages, Redlining, and Residential Segregation

When loan officers review mortgage applications, they consider many factors, including the person’s income,

employment, and credit history. The law forbids them to consider race and ethnicity. Yet African Americans and

Latinos are more likely than whites to have their mortgage applications declined (Blank, Venkatachalam, McNeil,

& Green, 2005). Because members of these groups tend to be poorer than whites and to have less desirable

employment and credit histories, the higher rate of mortgage rejections may be appropriate, albeit unfortunate.

To control for this possibility, researchers take these factors into account and in effect compare whites, African

Americans, and Latinos with similar incomes, employment, and credit histories. Some studies are purely

statistical, and some involve white, African American, and Latino individuals who independently visit the same

mortgage-lending institutions. Both types of studies find that African Americans and Latinos are still more likely

than whites with similar qualifications to have their mortgage applications rejected (Turner et al., 2002). We will

probably never know whether loan officers are consciously basing their decisions on racial prejudice, but their

practices still amount to racial and ethnic discrimination whether the loan officers are consciously prejudiced or

not.

There is also evidence of banks rejecting mortgage applications for people who wish to live in certain urban,

supposedly high-risk neighborhoods, and of insurance companies denying homeowner’s insurance or else

104 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

charging higher rates for homes in these same neighborhoods. Practices like these that discriminate against houses

in certain neighborhoods are called redlining, and they also violate the law (Ezeala-Harrison, Glover, & Shaw-

Jackson, 2008). Because the people affected by redlining tend to be people of color, redlining, too, is an example

of institutional discrimination.

Banks have rejected mortgage applications from people who wish to live in certain urban, high-risk neighborhoods. This practice,

called redlining, violates the law. Because many of the loan applicants who experience redlining are people of color, redlining is an

example of institutional discrimination.

Taber Andrew Bain – US Bank – CC BY 2.0.

Mortgage rejections and redlining contribute to another major problem facing people of color: residential

segregation. Housing segregation is illegal but is nonetheless widespread because of mortgage rejections and

other processes that make it very difficult for people of color to move out of segregated neighborhoods and into

unsegregated areas. African Americans in particular remain highly segregated by residence in many cities, much

more so than is true for other people of color. The residential segregation of African Americans is so extensive that

it has been termed hypersegregation and more generally called American apartheid (Massey & Denton, 1993).

In addition to mortgage rejections, a pattern of subtle discrimination by realtors and homeowners makes it

difficult for African Americans to find out about homes in white neighborhoods and to buy them (Pager, 2008).

For example, realtors may tell African American clients that no homes are available in a particular white

neighborhood, but then inform white clients of available homes. The now routine posting of housing listings on

the Internet might be reducing this form of housing discrimination, but not all homes and apartments are posted,

and some are simply sold by word of mouth to avoid certain people learning about them.

The hypersegregation experienced by African Americans cuts them off from the larger society, as many rarely

leave their immediate neighborhoods, and results in concentrated poverty, where joblessness, crime, and other

3.4 Discrimination 105

problems reign. For several reasons, then, residential segregation is thought to play a major role in the seriousness

and persistence of African American poverty (Rothstein, 2012; Stoll, 2008).

Employment Discrimination

Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned racial discrimination in employment, including hiring,

wages, and firing. However, African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans still have much lower earnings

than whites. Several factors explain this disparity, including the various structural obstacles discussed in Chapter

2 “Poverty”’s examination of poverty. Despite Title VII, however, an additional reason is that people of color

continue to face discrimination in hiring and promotion (Hirsh & Cha, 2008). It is again difficult to determine

whether such discrimination stems from conscious prejudice or from unconscious prejudice on the part of

potential employers, but it is racial discrimination nonetheless.

A now-classic field experiment documented such discrimination. Sociologist Devah Pager (2003) had young

white and African American men apply independently in person for entry-level jobs. They dressed the same and

reported similar levels of education and other qualifications. Some applicants also admitted having a criminal

record, while other applicants reported no such record. As might be expected, applicants with a criminal record

were hired at lower rates than those without a record. However, in striking evidence of racial discrimination

in hiring, African American applicants without a criminal record were hired at the same low rate as the white

applicants with a criminal record.

Key Takeaways

• People who practice racial or ethnic discrimination are usually also prejudiced, but not always. Some peoplepractice discrimination without being prejudiced, and some may not practice discrimination even thoughthey are prejudiced.

• Individual discrimination is common and can involve various kinds of racial slights. Much individualdiscrimination occurs in the workplace.

• Institutional discrimination often stems from prejudice, but institutions can also practice racial and ethnicdiscrimination when they engage in practices that seem to be racially neutral but in fact have adiscriminatory effect.

For Your Review

1. If you have ever experienced individual discrimination, either as the person committing it or as the personaffected by it, briefly describe what happened. How do you now feel when you reflect on this incident?

2. Do you think institutional discrimination occurs because people are purposely acting in a raciallydiscriminatory manner? Why or why not?

106 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

References

Appier, J. (1998). Policing women: The sexual politics of law enforcement and the LAPD. Philadelphia, PA:

Temple University Press.

Blank, E. C., Venkatachalam, P., McNeil, L., & Green, R. D. (2005). Racial discrimination in mortgage lending in

Washington, DC: A mixed methods approach. The Review of Black Political Economy, 33(2), 9–30.

Ezeala-Harrison, F., Glover, G. B., & Shaw-Jackson, J. (2008). Housing loan patterns toward minority borrowers

in Mississippi: Analysis of some micro data evidence of redlining. The Review of Black Political Economy, 35(1),

43–54.

Feagin, J. R. (1991). The continuing significance of race: Antiblack discrimination in public places. American

Sociological Review, 56, 101–116.

Hirsh, C. E., & Cha, Y. (2008). Understanding employment discrimination: A multilevel approach. Sociology

Compass, 2(6), 1989–2007.

Massey, D. S., & Denton, N. A. (1993). American apartheid: Segregation and the making of the underclass.

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Merton, R. K. (1949). Discrimination and the American creed. In R. M. MacIver (Ed.), Discrimination and

national welfare (pp. 99–126). New York, NY: Institute for Religious Studies.

Pager, D. (2008). The dynamics of discrimination. In A. C. Lin & D. R. Harris (Eds.), The colors of poverty: Why

racial and ethnic disparities exist (pp. 21–51). New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

Pager, D. (2003). The mark of a criminal record. American Journal of Sociology, 108, 937–975.

Robinson, E. (2012, March 23). Perils of walking while black. The Washington Post, p. A19.

Rothstein, R. (2012). Racial segregation continues, and even intensifies. Retrieved from http://www.epi.org/

publication/racial-segregation-continues-intensifies/.

Schulman, K. A., et al. (1999). The effect of race and sex on physicians’ recommendations for cardiac

catheterization. The New England Journal of Medicine, 340, 618–626.

Segura, D. A. (1992). Chicanas in white-collar jobs: “You have to prove yourself more.” In C. G. Ellison & W.

A. Martin (Eds.), Race and ethnic relations in the United States: Readings for the 21st century (pp. 79–88). Los

Angeles, CA: Roxbury.

Smedley, B. D., Stith, A. Y., & Nelson, A. R. (2003). Unequal treatment: Confronting racial and ethnic disparities

in health care. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Stoll, M. A. (2008). Race, place, and poverty revisited. In A. C. Lin & D. R. Harris (Eds.), The colors of poverty:

Why racial and ethnic disparities persist (pp. 201–231). New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

3.4 Discrimination 107

Turner, M. A., Freiberg, F., Godfrey, E., Herbig, C., Levy, D. K., & Smith, R. R. (2002). All other things being

equal: A paired testing study of mortgage lending institutions. Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press.

108 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

3.5 Dimensions of Racial and Ethnic Inequality

Learning Objectives

1. Describe any two manifestations of racial and ethnic inequality in the United States.

2. Explain how and why racial inequality takes a hidden toll on people of color.

3. Provide two examples of white privilege.

Racial and ethnic inequality manifests itself in all walks of life. The individual and institutional discrimination just

discussed is one manifestation of this inequality. We can also see stark evidence of racial and ethnic inequality in

various government statistics. Sometimes statistics lie, and sometimes they provide all too true a picture; statistics

on racial and ethnic inequality fall into the latter category. Table 3.2 “Selected Indicators of Racial and Ethnic

Inequality in the United States” presents data on racial and ethnic differences in income, education, and health.

Table 3.2 Selected Indicators of Racial and Ethnic Inequality in the United States

WhiteAfricanAmerican

Latino AsianNativeAmerican

Median family income, 2010 ($) 68,818 39,900 41,102 76,736 39,664

Persons who are college educated, 2010 (%) 30.3 19.8 13.9 52.4 14.9 (2008)

Persons in poverty, 2010 (%)9.9(non-Latino)

27.4 26.6 12.1 28.4

Infant mortality (number of infant deaths per 1,000births), 2006

5.6 12.9 5.4 4.6 8.3

Sources: Data from US Census Bureau. (2012). Statistical abstract of the United States: 2012. Washington, DC: US Government Printing

Office. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab; US Census Bureau. (2012). American FactFinder. Retrieved from

http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml; MacDorman, M., & Mathews, T. J. (2011). Infant Deaths—United States,

2000–2007. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 60(1), 49–51.

Asian Americans have higher family incomes than whites on the average. Although Asian Americans are often viewed as a “model

minority,” some Asians have been less able than others to achieve economic success, and stereotypes of Asians and discrimination

against them remain serious problems.

LindaDee2006 – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The picture presented by Table 3.2 “Selected Indicators of Racial and Ethnic Inequality in the United States”

is clear: US racial and ethnic groups differ dramatically in their life chances. Compared to whites, for example,

African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans have much lower family incomes and much higher rates

of poverty; they are also much less likely to have college degrees. In addition, African Americans and Native

Americans have much higher infant mortality rates than whites: Black infants, for example, are more than twice

as likely as white infants to die. Later chapters in this book will continue to highlight various dimensions of racial

and ethnic inequality.

Although Table 3.2 “Selected Indicators of Racial and Ethnic Inequality in the United States” shows that African

Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans fare much worse than whites, it presents a more complex pattern for

Asian Americans. Compared to whites, Asian Americans have higher family incomes and are more likely to hold

college degrees, but they also have a higher poverty rate. Thus many Asian Americans do relatively well, while

others fare relatively worse, as just noted. Although Asian Americans are often viewed as a “model minority,”

meaning that they have achieved economic success despite not being white, some Asians have been less able than

others to climb the economic ladder. Moreover, stereotypes of Asian Americans and discrimination against them

remain serious problems (Chou & Feagin, 2008). Even the overall success rate of Asian Americans obscures the

fact that their occupations and incomes are often lower than would be expected from their educational attainment.

They thus have to work harder for their success than whites do (Hurh & Kim, 1999).

110 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

The Increasing Racial/Ethnic Wealth Gap

At the beginning of this chapter, we noted that racial and ethnic inequality has existed since the beginning of the

United States. We also noted that social scientists have warned that certain conditions have actually worsened for

people of color since the 1960s (Hacker, 2003; Massey & Sampson, 2009).

Recent evidence of this worsening appeared in a report by the Pew Research Center (2011). The report focused on

racial disparities in wealth, which includes a family’s total assets (income, savings and investments, home equity,

etc.) and debts (mortgage, credit cards, etc.). The report found that the wealth gap between white households on

the one hand and African American and Latino households on the other hand was much wider than just a few

years earlier, thanks to the faltering US economy since 2008 that affected blacks more severely than whites.

According to the report, whites’ median wealth was ten times greater than blacks’ median wealth in 2007, a

discouraging disparity for anyone who believes in racial equality. By 2009, however, whites’ median wealth had

jumped to twenty times greater than blacks’ median wealth and eighteen times greater than Latinos’ median

wealth. White households had a median net worth of about $113,000, while black and Latino households had a

median net worth of only $5,700 and $6,300, respectively (see Figure 3.5 “The Racial/Ethnic Wealth Gap (Median

Net Worth of Households in 2009)”). This racial and ethnic difference is the largest since the government began

tracking wealth more than a quarter-century ago.

Figure 3.5 The Racial/Ethnic Wealth Gap (Median Net Worth of Households in 2009)

Source: Pew Research Center, 2011.

A large racial/ethnic gap also existed in the percentage of families with negative net worth—that is, those whose

debts exceed their assets. One-third of black and Latino households had negative net worth, compared to only

15 percent of white households. Black and Latino households were thus more than twice as likely as white

households to be in debt.

The Hidden Toll of Racial and Ethnic Inequality

An increasing amount of evidence suggests that being black in a society filled with racial prejudice,

3.5 Dimensions of Racial and Ethnic Inequality 111

discrimination, and inequality takes what has been called a “hidden toll” on the lives of African Americans

(Blitstein, 2009). As we shall see in later chapters, African Americans on the average have worse health than

whites and die at younger ages. In fact, every year there are an additional 100,000 African American deaths than

would be expected if they lived as long as whites do. Although many reasons probably explain all these disparities,

scholars are increasingly concluding that the stress of being black is a major factor (Geronimus et al., 2010).

In this way of thinking, African Americans are much more likely than whites to be poor, to live in high-crime

neighborhoods, and to live in crowded conditions, among many other problems. As this chapter discussed earlier,

they are also more likely, whether or not they are poor, to experience racial slights, refusals to be interviewed for

jobs, and other forms of discrimination in their everyday lives. All these problems mean that African Americans

from their earliest ages grow up with a great deal of stress, far more than what most whites experience. This

stress in turn has certain neural and physiological effects, including hypertension (high blood pressure), that

impair African Americans’ short-term and long-term health and that ultimately shorten their lives. These effects

accumulate over time: black and white hypertension rates are equal for people in their twenties, but the black rate

becomes much higher by the time people reach their forties and fifties. As a recent news article on evidence of this

“hidden toll” summarized this process, “The long-term stress of living in a white-dominated society ‘weathers’

blacks, making them age faster than their white counterparts” (Blitstein, 2009, p. 48).

Although there is less research on other people of color, many Latinos and Native Americans also experience

the various sources of stress that African Americans experience. To the extent this is true, racial and ethnic

inequality also takes a hidden toll on members of these two groups. They, too, experience racial slights, live under

disadvantaged conditions, and face other problems that result in high levels of stress and shorten their life spans.

White Privilege: The Benefits of Being White

American whites enjoy certain privileges merely because they are white. For example, they usually do not have to fear that a police

112 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

officer will stop them simply because they are white, and they also generally do not have to worry about being mistaken for a bellhop,

parking valet, or maid.

Loren Kerns – Day 73 – CC BY 2.0.

Before we leave this section, it is important to discuss the advantages that US whites enjoy in their daily lives

simply because they are white. Social scientists term these advantages white privilege and say that whites benefit

from being white whether or not they are aware of their advantages (McIntosh, 2007).

This chapter’s discussion of the problems facing people of color points to some of these advantages. For example,

whites can usually drive a car at night or walk down a street without having to fear that a police officer will

stop them simply because they are white. Recalling the Trayvon Martin tragedy, they can also walk down a street

without having to fear they will be confronted and possibly killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer. In addition,

whites can count on being able to move into any neighborhood they desire to as long as they can afford the rent or

mortgage. They generally do not have to fear being passed up for promotion simply because of their race. White

students can live in college dorms without having to worry that racial slurs will be directed their way. White

people in general do not have to worry about being the victims of hate crimes based on their race. They can be

seated in a restaurant without having to worry that they will be served more slowly or not at all because of their

skin color. If they are in a hotel, they do not have to think that someone will mistake them for a bellhop, parking

valet, or maid. If they are trying to hail a taxi, they do not have to worry about the taxi driver ignoring them

because the driver fears he or she will be robbed.

Social scientist Robert W. Terry (1981, p. 120) once summarized white privilege as follows: “To be white in

America is not to have to think about it. Except for hard-core racial supremacists, the meaning of being white is

having the choice of attending to or ignoring one’s own whiteness” (emphasis in original). For people of color

in the United States, it is not an exaggeration to say that race and ethnicity is a daily fact of their existence. Yet

whites do not generally have to think about being white. As all of us go about our daily lives, this basic difference

is one of the most important manifestations of racial and ethnic inequality in the United States.

Perhaps because whites do not have to think about being white, many studies find they tend to underestimate

the degree of racial inequality in the United States by assuming that African Americans and Latinos are much

better off than they really are. As one report summarized these studies’ overall conclusion, “Whites tend to have

a relatively rosy impression of what it means to be a black person in America. Whites are more than twice as

likely as blacks to believe that the position of African Americans has improved a great deal” (Vedantam, 2008, p.

A3). Because whites think African Americans and Latinos fare much better than they really do, that perception

probably reduces whites’ sympathy for programs designed to reduce racial and ethnic inequality.

Key Takeaways

• Compared to non-Latino whites, people of color have lower incomes, lower educational attainment, higherpoverty rates, and worse health.

• Racial and ethnic inequality takes a hidden toll on people of color, as the stress they experience impairs theirhealth and ability to achieve.

3.5 Dimensions of Racial and Ethnic Inequality 113

• Whites benefit from being white, whether or not they realize it. This benefit is called white privilege.

For Your Review

1. Write a brief essay that describes important dimensions of racial and ethnic inequality in the United States.

2. If you are white, describe a time when you benefited from white privilege, whether or not you realized it atthe time. If you are a person of color, describe an experience when you would have benefited if you hadbeen white.

References

Blitstein, R. (2009). Weathering the storm. Miller-McCune, 2(July–August), 48–57.

Chou, R. S., & Feagin, J. R. (2008). The myth of the model minority: Asian Americans facing racism. Boulder,

CO: Paradigm.

Geronimus, A. T., Hicken, M., Pearson, J., Seashols, S., Brown, K., & Cruz., T. D. (2010). Do US black

women experience stress-related accelerated biological aging? Human Nature: An Interdisciplinary Biosocial

Perspective, 21, 19–38.

Hacker, A. (2003). Two nations: Black and white, separate, hostile, unequal (Rev. ed.). New York, NY: Scribner.

Hurh, W. M., & Kim, K. C. (1999). The “success” image of Asian Americans: Its validity, and its practical and

theoretical implications. In C. G. Ellison & W. A. Martin (Eds.), Race and ethnic relations in the United States

(pp. 115–122). Los Angeles, CA: Roxbury.

Massey, D. S., & Sampson, R. J. (2009). Moynihan redux: Legacies and lessons. The ANNALS of the American

Academy of Political and Social Science, 621, 6–27.

McIntosh, P. (2007). White privilege and male privilege: A personal account of coming to see correspondence

through work in women’s studies. In M. L. Andersen & P. H. Collins (Eds.), Race, class, and gender: An

anthology (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Pew Research Center. (2011). Twenty-to-one: Wealth gaps rise to record highs between whites, blacks and

Hispanics. Washington, DC: Author.

Terry, R. W. (1981). The negative impact on white values. In B. P. Bowser & R. G. Hunt (Eds.), Impacts of racism

on white Americans (pp. 119–151). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

Vedantam, S. (2008, March 24). Unequal perspectives on racial equality. The Washington Post, p. A3.

114 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

3.6 Explaining Racial and Ethnic Inequality

Learning Objectives

1. Understand cultural explanations for racial and ethnic inequality.

2. Describe structural explanations for racial and ethnic inequality.

Why do racial and ethnic inequality exist? Why do African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and some

Asian Americans fare worse than whites? In answering these questions, many people have some very strong

opinions.

Biological Inferiority

One long-standing explanation is that blacks and other people of color are biologically inferior: They are naturally

less intelligent and have other innate flaws that keep them from getting a good education and otherwise doing

what needs to be done to achieve the American Dream. As discussed earlier, this racist view is no longer common

today. However, whites historically used this belief to justify slavery, lynchings, the harsh treatment of Native

Americans in the 1800s, and lesser forms of discrimination. In 1994, Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray

revived this view in their controversial book, The Bell Curve (Herrnstein & Murray, 1994), in which they argued

that the low IQ scores of African Americans, and of poor people more generally, reflect their genetic inferiority

in the area of intelligence. African Americans’ low innate intelligence, they said, accounts for their poverty and

other problems. Although the news media gave much attention to their book, few scholars agreed with its views,

and many condemned the book’s argument as a racist way of “blaming the victim” (Gould, 1994).

Cultural Deficiencies

Another explanation of racial and ethnic inequality focuses on supposed cultural deficiencies of African

Americans and other people of color (Murray, 1984). These deficiencies include a failure to value hard work and,

for African Americans, a lack of strong family ties, and are said to account for the poverty and other problems

facing these minorities. This view echoes the culture-of-poverty argument presented in Chapter 2 “Poverty” and

is certainly popular today. As we saw earlier, more than half of non-Latino whites think that blacks’ poverty is due

to their lack of motivation and willpower. Ironically some scholars find support for this cultural deficiency view

in the experience of many Asian Americans, whose success is often attributed to their culture’s emphasis on hard

work, educational attainment, and strong family ties (Min, 2005). If that is true, these scholars say, then the lack

of success of other people of color stems from the failure of their own cultures to value these attributes.

How accurate is the cultural deficiency argument? Whether people of color have “deficient” cultures remains

hotly debated (Bonilla-Silva, 2009). Many social scientists find little or no evidence of cultural problems in

minority communities and say the belief in cultural deficiencies is an example of symbolic racism that blames

the victim. Citing survey evidence, they say that poor people of color value work and education for themselves

and their children at least as much as wealthier white people do (Holland, 2011; Muhammad, 2007). Yet other

social scientists, including those sympathetic to the structural problems facing people of color, believe that certain

cultural problems do exist, but they are careful to say that these cultural problems arise out of the structural

problems. For example, Elijah Anderson (1999) wrote that a “street culture” or “oppositional culture” exists

among African Americans in urban areas that contributes to high levels of violent behavior, but he emphasized

that this type of culture stems from the segregation, extreme poverty, and other difficulties these citizens face in

their daily lives and helps them deal with these difficulties. Thus even if cultural problems do exist, they should

not obscure the fact that structural problems are responsible for the cultural ones.

Structural Problems

A third explanation for US racial and ethnic inequality is based in conflict theory and reflects the blaming-the-

system approach outlined in Chapter 1 “Understanding Social Problems”. This view attributes racial and ethnic

inequality to structural problems, including institutional and individual discrimination, a lack of opportunity in

education and other spheres of life, and the absence of jobs that pay an adequate wage (Feagin, 2006). Segregated

housing, for example, prevents African Americans from escaping the inner city and from moving to areas with

greater employment opportunities. Employment discrimination keeps the salaries of people of color much lower

than they would be otherwise. The schools that many children of color attend every day are typically overcrowded

and underfunded. As these problems continue from one generation to the next, it becomes very difficult for people

already at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder to climb up it because of their race and ethnicity (see Note 3.33

“Applying Social Research”).

Applying Social Research

The Poor Neighborhoods of Middle-Class African Americans

In a society that values equal opportunity for all, scholars have discovered a troubling trend: African American childrenfrom middle-class families are much more likely than white children from middle-class families to move down thesocioeconomic ladder by the time they become adults. In fact, almost half of all African American children born duringthe 1950s and 1960s to middle-class parents ended up with lower incomes than their parents by adulthood. Because thesechildren had parents who had evidently succeeded despite all the obstacles facing them in a society filled with racialinequality, we have to assume they were raised with the values, skills, and aspirations necessary to stay in the middleclass and even to rise beyond it. What, then, explains why some end up doing worse than their parents?

According to a recent study written by sociologist Patrick Sharkey for the Pew Charitable Trusts, one important answerlies in the neighborhoods in which these children are raised. Because of continuing racial segregation, many middle-class African American families find themselves having to live in poor urban neighborhoods. About half of AfricanAmerican children born between 1955 and 1970 to middle-class parents grew up in poor neighborhoods, but hardly anymiddle-class white children grew up in such neighborhoods. In Sharkey’s statistical analysis, neighborhood poverty wasa much more important factor than variables such as parents’ education and marital status in explaining the huge racialdifference in the eventual socioeconomic status of middle-class children. An additional finding of the study underscored

116 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

the importance of neighborhood poverty for adult socioeconomic status: African American children raised in poorneighborhoods in which the poverty rate declined significantly ended up with higher incomes as adults than those raisedin neighborhoods where the poverty rate did not change.

Why do poor neighborhoods have this effect? It is difficult to pinpoint the exact causes, but several probable reasonscome to mind. In these neighborhoods, middle-class African American children often receive inadequate schooling atrun-down schools, and they come under the influence of youths who care much less about schooling and who get intovarious kinds of trouble. The various problems associated with living in poor neighborhoods also likely cause a good dealof stress, which, as discussed elsewhere in this chapter, can cause health problems and impair learning ability.

Even if the exact reasons remain unclear, this study showed that poor neighborhoods make a huge difference. As a Pewofficial summarized the study, “We’ve known that neighborhood matters…but this does it in a new and powerful way.Neighborhoods become a significant drag not just on the poor, but on those who would otherwise be stable.” SociologistSharkey added, “What surprises me is how dramatic the racial differences are in terms of the environments in whichchildren are raised. There’s this perception that after the civil rights period, families have been more able to seek outany neighborhood they choose, and that…the racial gap in neighborhoods would whittle away over time, and that hasn’thappened.”

Data from the 2010 Census confirm that the racial gap in neighborhoods persists. A study by sociologist John R. Loganfor the Russell Sage Foundation found that African American and Latino families with incomes above $75,000 are morelikely to live in poor neighborhoods than non-Latino white families with incomes below $40,000. More generally, Loganconcluded, “The average affluent black or Hispanic household lives in a poorer neighborhood than the average lower-income white household.”

One implication of this neighborhood research is clear: to help reduce African American poverty, it is important to doeverything possible to improve the quality and economy of the poor neighborhoods in which many African Americanchildren, middle-class or poor, grow up.

Sources: Logan, 2011; MacGillis, 2009; Sharkey, 2009

As we assess the importance of structure versus culture in explaining why people of color have higher poverty

rates, it is interesting to consider the economic experience of African Americans and Latinos since the 1990s.

During that decade, the US economy thrived. Along with this thriving economy, unemployment rates for African

Americans and Latinos declined and their poverty rates also declined. Since the early 2000s and especially since

2008, the US economy has faltered. Along with this faltering economy, unemployment and poverty rates for

African Americans and Latinos increased.

To explain these trends, does it make sense to assume that African Americans and Latinos somehow had fewer

cultural deficiencies during the 1990s and more cultural deficiencies since the early 2000s? Or does it make

sense to assume that their economic success or lack of it depended on the opportunities afforded them by the US

economy? Economic writer Joshua Holland (2011) provides the logical answer by attacking the idea of cultural

deficiencies: “That’s obviously nonsense. It was exogenous economic factors and changes in public policies,

not manifestations of ‘black culture’ [or ‘Latino culture’], that resulted in those widely varied outcomes…While

economic swings this significant can be explained by economic changes and different public policies, it’s simply

impossible to fit them into a cultural narrative.”

Key Takeaways

• Although a belief in biological inferiority used to be an explanation for racial and ethnic inequality, this

3.6 Explaining Racial and Ethnic Inequality 117

belief is now considered racist.

• Cultural explanations attribute racial and ethnic inequality to certain cultural deficiencies among people ofcolor.

• Structural explanations attribute racial and ethnic inequality to problems in the larger society, includingdiscriminatory practices and lack of opportunity.

For Your Review

1. Which of the three explanations of racial and ethnic inequality makes the most sense to you? Why?

2. Why should a belief in the biological inferiority of people of color be considered racist?

References

Anderson, E. (1999). Code of the street: Decency, violence, and the moral life of the inner city. New York, NY:

W. W. Norton.

Bonilla-Silva, E. (2009). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in

the United States (3rd ed.). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Feagin, J. R. (2006). Systematic racism: A theory of oppression. New York, NY: Routledge.

Gould, S. J. (1994, November 28). Curveball. The New Yorker, pp. 139–149.

Herrnstein, R. J., & Murray, C. (1994). The bell curve: Intelligence and class structure in American life. New

York, NY: Free Press.

Holland, J. (2011, July 29). Debunking the big lie right-wingers use to justify black poverty and unemployment.

AlterNet. Retrieved from http://www.alternet.org/teaparty/151830/debunking_the_big_lie_right-

wingers_use_to_justify_black_poverty _and_unemployment_.

Logan, J. R. (2011). Separate and unequal: The neighborhood gap for blacks, Hispanics and Asians in

metropolitan America. New York, NY: US201 Project.

MacGillis, A. (2009, July 27). Neighborhoods key to future income, study finds. The Washington Post, p. A06.

Min, P. G. (Ed.). (2005). Asian Americans: Contemporary trends and issues (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

Publications.

Muhammad, K. G. (2007, December 9). White may be might, but it’s not always right. The Washington Post, p.

B3.

118 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Murray, C. (1984). Losing ground: American social policy, 1950–1980. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Sharkey, P. (2009). Neighborhoods and the black-white mobility gap. Washington, DC: Pew Charitable Trusts.

3.6 Explaining Racial and Ethnic Inequality 119

3.7 Reducing Racial and Ethnic Inequality

Learning Objectives

1. Summarize the debate over affirmative action.

2. Describe any three policies or practices that could reduce racial and ethnic inequality in the United States.

Now that we have examined race and ethnicity in the United States, what have we found? Where do we stand

in the second decade of the twenty-first century? Did the historic election of Barack Obama as president in 2008

signify a new era of equality between the races, as many observers wrote, or did his election occur despite the

continued existence of pervasive racial and ethnic inequality?

On the one hand, there is cause for hope. Legal segregation is gone. The vicious, “old-fashioned” racism that was

so rampant in this country into the 1960s has declined dramatically since that tumultuous time. People of color

have made important gains in several spheres of life, and African Americans and other people of color occupy

some important elected positions in and outside the South, a feat that would have been unimaginable a generation

ago. Perhaps most notably, Barack Obama has African ancestry and identifies as an African American, and on his

2008 election night people across the country wept with joy at the symbolism of his victory. Certainly progress

has been made in US racial and ethnic relations.

On the other hand, there is also cause for despair. Old-fashioned racism has been replaced by a modern, symbolic

racism that still blames people of color for their problems and reduces public support for government policies

to deal with their problems. Institutional discrimination remains pervasive, and hate crimes, such as the cross

burning that began this chapter, remain all too common. So does suspicion of people based solely on the color of

their skin, as the Trayvon Martin tragedy again reminds us.

If adequately funded and implemented, several types of programs and policies show strong promise of reducing

racial and ethnic inequality. We turn to these in a moment, but first let’s discuss affirmative action, an issue that

has aroused controversy since its inception.

People Making a Difference

College Students and the Southern Civil Rights Movement

The first chapter of this book included this famous quotation by anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a smallgroup of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” The beginningsof the Southern civil rights movement provide an inspirational example of Mead’s wisdom and remind us that youngpeople can make a difference.

Although there had been several efforts during the 1950s by African Americans to end legal segregation in the South,

the start of the civil rights movement is commonly thought to have begun on February 1, 1960. On that historic day, fourbrave African American students from the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina, dressed in coats andties, sat down quietly at a segregated lunch counter in a Woolworth’s store in the city of Greensboro and asked to beserved. When they were refused service, they stayed until the store closed at the end of the day, and then went home.They returned the next day and were joined by some two dozen other students. They were again refused service andsat quietly the rest of the day. The next day some sixty students and other people joined them, followed by some threehundred on the fourth day. Within a week, sit-ins were occurring at lunch counters in several other towns and cities insideand outside of North Carolina. In late July, 1960, the Greensboro Woolworth’s finally served African Americans, and theentire Woolworth’s chain desegregated its lunch counters a day later. Although no one realized it at the time, the civilrights movement had “officially” begun thanks to the efforts of a small group of college students.

During the remaining years of the heyday of the civil rights movement, college students from the South and North joinedthousands of other people in sit-ins, marches, and other activities to end legal segregation. Thousands were arrested, andat least forty-one were murdered. By risking their freedom and even their lives, they made a difference for millions ofAfrican Americans. And it all began when a small group of college students sat down at a lunch counter in Greensboroand politely refused to leave until they were served.

Sources: Branch, 1988; Southern Poverty Law Center, 2011

Affirmative Action

Affirmative action refers to special consideration for minorities and women in employment and education to

compensate for the discrimination and lack of opportunities they experience in the larger society. Affirmative

action programs were begun in the 1960s to provide African Americans and, later, other people of color and

women access to jobs and education to make up for past discrimination. President John F. Kennedy was the first

known official to use the term, when he signed an executive order in 1961 ordering federal contractors to “take

affirmative action” in ensuring that applicants are hired and treated without regard to their race and national origin.

Six years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson added sex to race and national origin as demographic categories for

which affirmative action should be used.

Although many affirmative action programs remain in effect today, court rulings, state legislation, and other

efforts have limited their number and scope. Despite this curtailment, affirmative action continues to spark much

controversy, with scholars, members of the public, and elected officials all holding strong views on the issue.

One of the major court rulings just mentioned was the US Supreme Court’s decision in Regents of the University

of California v. Bakke, 438 US 265 (1978). Allan Bakke was a 35-year-old white man who had twice been rejected

for admission into the medical school at the University of California, Davis. At the time he applied, UC–Davis

had a policy of reserving sixteen seats in its entering class of one hundred for qualified people of color to make up

for their underrepresentation in the medical profession. Bakke’s college grades and scores on the Medical College

Admission Test were higher than those of the people of color admitted to UC–Davis either time Bakke applied.

He sued for admission on the grounds that his rejection amounted to reverse racial discrimination on the basis of

his being white (Stefoff, 2005).

The case eventually reached the Supreme Court, which ruled 5–4 that Bakke must be admitted into the UC–Davis

medical school because he had been unfairly denied admission on the basis of his race. As part of its historic

but complex decision, the Court thus rejected the use of strict racial quotas in admission, as it declared that no

3.7 Reducing Racial and Ethnic Inequality 121

applicant could be excluded based solely on the applicant’s race. At the same time, however, the Court also

declared that race may be used as one of the several criteria that admissions committees consider when making

their decisions. For example, if an institution desires racial diversity among its students, it may use race as an

admissions criterion along with other factors such as grades and test scores.

Two more recent Supreme Court cases both involved the University of Michigan: Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 US 244

(2003), which involved the university’s undergraduate admissions, and Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 US 306 (2003),

which involved the university’s law school admissions. In Grutter the Court reaffirmed the right of institutions

of higher education to take race into account in the admissions process. In Gratz, however, the Court invalidated

the university’s policy of awarding additional points to high school students of color as part of its use of a point

system to evaluate applicants; the Court said that consideration of applicants needed to be more individualized

than a point system allowed.

Drawing on these Supreme Court rulings, then, affirmative action in higher education admissions on the basis of

race/ethnicity is permissible as long as it does not involve a rigid quota system and as long as it does involve an

individualized way of evaluating candidates. Race may be used as one of several criteria in such an individualized

evaluation process, but it must not be used as the only criterion.

The Debate over Affirmative Action

Opponents of affirmative action cite several reasons for opposing it (Connors, 2009). Affirmative action, they say,

is reverse discrimination and, as such, is both illegal and immoral. The people benefiting from affirmative action

are less qualified than many of the whites with whom they compete for employment and college admissions. In

addition, opponents say, affirmative action implies that the people benefiting from it need extra help and thus are

indeed less qualified. This implication stigmatizes the groups benefiting from affirmative action.

In response, proponents of affirmative action give several reasons for favoring it (Connors, 2009). Many say it

is needed to make up not just for past discrimination and a lack of opportunities for people of color but also for

ongoing discrimination and a lack of opportunity. For example, because of their social networks, whites are much

better able than people of color to find out about and to get jobs (Reskin, 1998). If this is true, people of color

are automatically at a disadvantage in the job market, and some form of affirmative action is needed to give them

an equal chance at employment. Proponents also say that affirmative action helps add diversity to the workplace

and to the campus. Many colleges, they note, give some preference to high school students who live in a distant

state in order to add needed diversity to the student body; to “legacy” students—those with a parent who went

to the same institution—to reinforce alumni loyalty and to motivate alumni to donate to the institution; and to

athletes, musicians, and other applicants with certain specialized talents and skills. If all these forms of preferential

admission make sense, proponents say, it also makes sense to take students’ racial and ethnic backgrounds into

account as admissions officers strive to have a diverse student body.

Proponents add that affirmative action has indeed succeeded in expanding employment and educational

opportunities for people of color, and that individuals benefiting from affirmative action have generally fared well

in the workplace or on the campus. In this regard research finds that African American students graduating from

selective US colleges and universities after being admitted under affirmative action guidelines are slightly more

122 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

likely than their white counterparts to obtain professional degrees and to become involved in civic affairs (Bowen

& Bok, 1998).

As this brief discussion indicates, several reasons exist for and against affirmative action. A cautious view is

that affirmative action may not be perfect but that some form of it is needed to make up for past and ongoing

discrimination and lack of opportunity in the workplace and on the campus. Without the extra help that affirmative

action programs give disadvantaged people of color, the discrimination and other difficulties they face are certain

to continue.

Other Programs and Policies

As indicated near the beginning of this chapter, one message from DNA evidence and studies of evolution is that

we are all part of one human race. If we fail to recognize this lesson, we are doomed to repeat the experiences

of the past, when racial and ethnic hostility overtook good reason and subjected people who happened to look

different from the white majority to legal, social, and violent oppression. In the democracy that is America, we

must try to do better so that there will truly be “liberty and justice for all.”

As the United States attempts, however haltingly, to reduce racial and ethnic inequality, sociology has much

insight to offer in its emphasis on the structural basis for this inequality. This emphasis strongly indicates that

racial and ethnic inequality has much less to do with any personal faults of people of color than with the structural

obstacles they face, including ongoing discrimination and lack of opportunity. Efforts aimed at such obstacles,

then, are in the long run essential to reducing racial and ethnic inequality (Danziger, Reed, & Brown, 2004; Syme,

2008; Walsh, 2011). Some of these efforts resemble those for reducing poverty discussed in Chapter 2 “Poverty”,

given the greater poverty of many people of color, and include the following:

1. Adopt a national “full employment” policy involving federally funded job training and public works

programs.

2. Increase federal aid for the working poor, including earned income credits and child-care subsidies for

those with children.

3. Establish and expand well-funded early childhood intervention programs, including home visitation by

trained professionals, for poor families, as well as adolescent intervention programs, such as Upward

Bound, for low-income teenagers.

4. Improve the schools that poor children attend and the schooling they receive, and expand early

childhood education programs for poor children.

5. Provide better nutrition and health services for poor families with young children.

6. Strengthen efforts to reduce teenage pregnancies.

7. Strengthen affirmative action programs within the limits imposed by court rulings.

8. Strengthen legal enforcement of existing laws forbidding racial and ethnic discrimination in hiring and

promotion.

9. Strengthen efforts to reduce residential segregation.

3.7 Reducing Racial and Ethnic Inequality 123

Key Takeaways

• There is reason to be both hopeful and less hopeful in regard to the future of racial and ethnic relations andinequality in the United States.

• Affirmative action continues to be a very controversial issue. Proponents think it is necessary to compensatefor past and continuing racial and ethnic discrimination and lack of opportunity, while opponents think itdiscriminates against qualified whites.

• A variety of policies and practices hold strong potential for reducing racial and ethnic inequality, providingthey are adequately funded and successfully implemented.

For Your Review

1. How hopeful are you in regard to the future of race and ethnicity in the United States? Explain your answer.

2. Do you favor or oppose affirmative action? Why?

References

Bowen, W. G., & Bok, D. C. (1998). The shape of the river: Long-term consequences of considering race in

college and university admissions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Branch, T. (1988). Parting the waters: America in the King years, 1954–1963. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Connors, P. (Ed.). (2009). Affirmative action. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven Press.

Danziger, S., Reed, D., & Brown, T. N. (2004). Poverty and prosperity: Prospects for reducing racial economic

disparities in the United States. Geneva, Switzerland: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.

Reskin, B. F. (1998). Realities of affirmative action in employment. Washington, DC: American Sociological

Association.

Southern Poverty Law Center. (2011). 41 lives for freedom. Retrieved from http://www.crmvet.org/mem/

41lives.htm.

Stefoff, R. (2005). The Bakke case: Challenging affirmative action. New York, NY: Marshall Cavendish

Benchmark.

Syme, S. L. (2008). Reducing racial and social-class inqualities in health: The need for a new approach. Health

Affairs, 27, 456–459.

124 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Walsh, R. (2011). Helping or hurting: Are adolescent intervention programs minimizing racial inequality?

Education & Urban Society, 43(3), 370–395.

3.7 Reducing Racial and Ethnic Inequality 125

3.8 End-of-Chapter Material

Summary

1. Racial and ethnic prejudice and discrimination have been an “American dilemma” in the United States eversince the colonial period. Slavery was only the ugliest manifestation of this dilemma. The urban riots of the1960s led to warnings about the racial hostility and discrimination confronting African Americans and othergroups, and these warnings continue down to the present.

2. Social scientists today tend to consider race more of a social category than a biological one for severalreasons. Race is thus best considered a social construction and not a fixed biological category.

3. Ethnicity refers to a shared cultural heritage and is a term increasingly favored by social scientists over race.Membership in ethnic groups gives many people an important sense of identity and pride but can also leadto hostility toward people in other ethnic groups.

4. Prejudice, racism, and stereotypes all refer to negative attitudes about people based on their membership inracial or ethnic categories. Social-psychological explanations of prejudice focus on scapegoating andauthoritarian personalities, while sociological explanations focus on conformity and socialization or oneconomic and political competition. Jim Crow racism has given way to modern or symbolic racism thatconsiders people of color to be culturally inferior.

5. Discrimination and prejudice often go hand in hand, but not always. People can discriminate without beingprejudiced, and they can be prejudiced without discriminating. Individual and institutional discriminationboth continue to exist in the United States.

6. Racial and ethnic inequality in the United States is reflected in income, employment, education, and healthstatistics. In their daily lives, whites enjoy many privileges denied to their counterparts in other racial andethnic groups.

7. On many issues Americans remain sharply divided along racial and ethnic lines. One of the most divisiveissues is affirmative action. Its opponents view it among other things as reverse discrimination, while itsproponents cite many reasons for its importance, including the need to correct past and presentdiscrimination against racial and ethnic minorities.

Using What You Know

After graduating college, you obtain a job in a medium-sized city in the Midwest and rent an apartment in a house ina nearby town. A family with an African American father and white mother has recently moved into a house down thestreet. You think nothing of it, but you begin to hear some of the neighbors expressing concern that the neighborhood“has begun to change.” Then one night a brick is thrown through the window of the new family’s home, and around thebrick is wrapped the message, “Go back to where you came from!” Since you’re new to the neighborhood yourself, youdon’t want to make waves, but you are also shocked by this act of racial hatred. You can speak up somehow or you canstay quiet. What do you decide to do? Why?

What You Can Do

To help reduce racial and ethnic inequality, you may wish to do any of the following:

1. Contribute money to a local, state, or national organization that tries to help youths of color at their schools,homes, or other venues.

2. Volunteer for an organization that focuses on policy issues related to race and ethnicity.

3. Volunteer for any programs at your campus that aim at enhancing the educational success of new students ofcolor; if no such programs exist, start one.

3.8 End-of-Chapter Material 127

3.1 Racial and Ethnic Inequality: A Historical Prelude

Learning Objectives

1. Describe the targets of nineteenth-century mob violence in US cities.

2. Discuss why the familiar saying “The more things change, the more they stay the same” applies to thehistory of race and ethnicity in the United States.

Race and ethnicity have torn at the fabric of American society ever since the time of Christopher Columbus,

when an estimated 1 million Native Americans populated the eventual United States. By 1900, their numbers had

dwindled to about 240,000, as tens of thousands were killed by white settlers and US troops and countless others

died from disease contracted from people with European backgrounds. Scholars say this mass killing of Native

Americans amounted to genocide (Brown, 2009).

African Americans also have a history of maltreatment that began during the colonial period, when Africans were

forcibly transported from their homelands to be sold as slaves in the Americas. Slavery, of course, continued in

the United States until the North’s victory in the Civil War ended it. African Americans outside the South were not

slaves but were still victims of racial prejudice. During the 1830s, white mobs attacked free African Americans

in cities throughout the nation, including Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh. The mob violence

stemmed from a “deep-seated racial prejudice…in which whites saw blacks as ‘something less than human’”

(Brown, 1975) and continued well into the twentieth century, when white mobs attacked African Americans in

several cities, with at least seven antiblack riots occurring in 1919 that left dozens dead. Meanwhile, an era of Jim

Crow racism in the South led to the lynching of thousands of African Americans, segregation in all facets of life,

and other kinds of abuses (Litwack, 2009).

During the era of Jim Crow racism in the South, several thousand African Americans were lynched.

US Library of Congress – public domain.

African Americans were not the only targets of native-born white mobs back then (Dinnerstein & Reimers, 2009).

As immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Eastern Europe, Mexico, and Asia flooded into the United States during the

nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they, too, were beaten, denied jobs, and otherwise mistreated. During

the 1850s, mobs beat and sometimes killed Catholics in cities such as Baltimore and New Orleans. During the

1870s, whites rioted against Chinese immigrants in cities in California and other states. Hundreds of Mexicans

were attacked and/or lynched in California and Texas during this period.

Nazi racism in the 1930s and 1940s helped awaken Americans to the evils of prejudice in their own country.

Against this backdrop, a monumental two-volume work by Swedish social scientist Gunnar Myrdal (Myrdal,

1944) attracted much attention when it was published. The book, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and

Modern Democracy, documented the various forms of discrimination facing blacks back then. The “dilemma”

referred to by the book’s title was the conflict between the American democratic ideals of egalitarianism and

liberty and justice for all and the harsh reality of prejudice, discrimination, and lack of equal opportunity.

The Kerner Commission’s 1968 report reminded the nation that little, if anything, had been done since Myrdal’s

book to address this conflict. Sociologists and other social scientists have warned since then that the status of

people of color has actually been worsening in many ways since this report was issued (Massey, 2007; Wilson,

2009). Evidence of this status appears in the remainder of this chapter.

3.1 Racial and Ethnic Inequality: A Historical Prelude 129

Key Takeaways

• US history is filled with violence and other maltreatment against Native Americans, blacks, and immigrants.

• Social scientists warn that the status of people of color has been worsening.

For Your Review

1. Describe why Myrdal said US race relations were an “American dilemma.”

2. How much did you learn in high school about the history of race and ethnicity in the United States? Do youthink you should have learned more?

References

Brown, D. A. (2009). Bury my heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian history of the American West. New York, NY:

Sterling Innovation.

Brown, R. M. (1975). Strain of violence: Historical studies of American violence and vigilantism. New York, NY:

Oxford University Press.

Dinnerstein, L., & Reimers, D. M. (2009). Ethnic Americans: A history of immigration. New York, NY: Columbia

University Press.

Litwack, L. F. (2009). How free is free? The long death of Jim Crow. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Massey, D. S. (2007). Categorically unequal: The American stratification system. New York, NY: Russell Sage

Foundation.

Myrdal, G. (1944). An American dilemma: The negro problem and modern democracy. New York, NY: Harper

and Brothers.

Wilson, W. J. (2009). The economic plight of inner-city black males. In E. Anderson (Ed.), Against the wall: Poor,

young, black, and male (pp. 55–70). Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

130 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

3.2 The Meaning of Race and Ethnicity

Learning Objectives

1. Critique the biological concept of race.

2. Discuss why race is a social construction.

3. Explain why ethnic heritages have both good and bad consequences.

To begin our understanding of racial and ethnic inequality, we first need to understand what race and ethnicity

mean. These terms may seem easy to define but are much more complex than their definitions suggest.

Race

Let’s start first with race, which refers to a category of people who share certain inherited physical characteristics,

such as skin color, facial features, and stature. A key question about race is whether it is more of a biological

category or a social category. Most people think of race in biological terms, and for more than three hundred years,

or ever since white Europeans began colonizing nations filled with people of color, people have been identified as

belonging to one race or another based on certain biological features.

It is certainly easy to see that people in the United States and around the world differ physically in some obvious

ways. The most noticeable difference is skin tone: Some groups of people have very dark skin, while others have

very light skin. Other differences also exist. Some people have very curly hair, while others have very straight hair.

Some have thin lips, while others have thick lips. Some groups of people tend to be relatively tall, while others

tend to be relatively short. Using such physical differences as their criteria, scientists at one point identified as

many as nine races: African, American Indian or Native American, Asian, Australian Aborigine, European (more

commonly called “white”), Indian, Melanesian, Micronesian, and Polynesian (Smedley, 2007).

Although people certainly do differ in these kinds of physical features, anthropologists, sociologists, and many

biologists question the value of these categories and thus the value of the biological concept of race (Smedley,

2007). For one thing, we often see more physical differences within a race than between races. For example, some

people we call “white” (or European), such as those with Scandinavian backgrounds, have very light skins, while

others, such as those from some Eastern European backgrounds, have much darker skins. In fact, some “whites”

have darker skin than some “blacks,” or African Americans. Some whites have very straight hair, while others

have very curly hair; some have blonde hair and blue eyes, while others have dark hair and brown eyes. Because

of interracial reproduction going back to the days of slavery, African Americans also differ in the darkness of

their skin and in other physical characteristics. In fact, it is estimated that at least 30 percent of African Americans

have some white (i.e., European) ancestry and that at least 20 percent of whites have African or Native American

ancestry. If clear racial differences ever existed hundreds or thousands of years ago (and many scientists doubt

such differences ever existed), in today’s world these differences have become increasingly blurred.

President Barack Obama had an African father and a white mother. Although his ancestry is equally black and white, Obama considers

himself an African American, as do most Americans. In several Latin American nations, however, Obama would be considered white

because of his white ancestry.

Steve Jurvetson – Barak Obama on the Primary – CC BY 2.0.

Another reason to question the biological concept of race is that an individual or a group of individuals is often

assigned to a race arbitrarily. A century ago, for example, Irish, Italians, and Eastern European Jews who left their

homelands were not regarded as white once they reached the United States but rather as a different, inferior (if

unnamed) race (Painter, 2010). The belief in their inferiority helped justify the harsh treatment they suffered in

their new country. Today, of course, we call people from all three backgrounds white or European.

In this context, consider someone in the United States who has a white parent and a black parent. What race is

this person? American society usually calls this person black or African American, and the person may adopt this

identity (as does President Barack Obama, who had a white mother and African father). But where is the logic for

doing so? This person, as well as President Obama, is as much white as black in terms of parental ancestry.

Or consider someone with one white parent and another parent who is the child of one black parent and one

white parent. This person thus has three white grandparents and one black grandparent. Even though this person’s

132 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

ancestry is thus 75 percent white and 25 percent black, she or he is likely to be considered black in the United

States and may well adopt this racial identity. This practice reflects the traditional one-drop rule in the United

States that defines someone as black if she or he has at least one drop of black blood, and that was used in the

antebellum South to keep the slave population as large as possible (Staples, 2005). Yet in many Latin American

nations, this person would be considered white (see Note 3.7 “Lessons from Other Societies”). With such arbitrary

designations, race is more of a social category than a biological one.

Lessons from Other Societies

The Concept of Race in Brazil

As the text discusses, race was long considered a fixed, biological category, but today it is now regarded as a socialconstruction. The experience of Brazil provides very interesting comparative evidence for this more accurate way ofthinking about race.

When slaves were first brought to the Americas almost four hundred years ago, many more were taken to Brazil, whereslavery was not abolished until 1888, than to the land that eventually became the United States. Brazil was then a colonyof Portugal, and the Portuguese used Africans as slave labor. Just as in the United States, a good deal of interracialreproduction has occurred since those early days, much of it initially the result of rape of women slaves by their owners,and Brazil over the centuries has had many more racial intermarriages than the United States. Also like the United States,then, much of Brazil’s population has multiracial ancestry. But in a significant departure from the United States, Braziluses different criteria to consider the race to which a person belongs.

Brazil uses the term preto, or black, for people whose ancestry is solely African. It also uses the term branco, or white,to refer to people whose ancestry is both African and European. In contrast, as the text discusses, the United Statescommonly uses the term black or African American to refer to someone with even a small amount of African ancestry andwhite for someone who is thought to have solely European ancestry or at least “looks” white. If the United States wereto follow Brazil’s practice of reserving the term black for someone whose ancestry is solely African and the term whitefor someone whose ancestry is both African and European, many of the Americans commonly called “black” would nolonger be considered black and instead would be considered white.

As sociologist Edward E. Telles (2006, p. 79) summarizes these differences, “[Blackness is differently understood inBrazil than in the United States. A person considered black in the United States is often not so in Brazil. Indeed, someU.S. blacks may be considered white in Brazil. Although the value given to blackness is similarly low [in both nations],who gets classified as black is not uniform.” The fact that someone can count on being considered “black” in one societyand not “black” in another society underscores the idea that race is best considered a social construction rather than abiological category.

Sources: Barrionuevo & Calmes, 2011; Klein & Luno, 2009; Telles, 2006

A third reason to question the biological concept of race comes from the field of biology itself and more

specifically from the studies of genetics and human evolution. Starting with genetics, people from different races

are more than 99.9 percent the same in their DNA (Begley, 2008). To turn that around, less than 0.1 percent of all

DNA in our bodies accounts for the physical differences among people that we associate with racial differences.

In terms of DNA, then, people with different racial backgrounds are much, much more similar than dissimilar.

Even if we acknowledge that people differ in the physical characteristics we associate with race, modern

evolutionary evidence reminds us that we are all, really, of one human race. According to evolutionary theory,

the human race began thousands and thousands of years ago in sub-Saharan Africa. As people migrated around

the world over the millennia, natural selection took over. It favored dark skin for people living in hot, sunny

climates (i.e., near the equator), because the heavy amounts of melanin that produce dark skin protect against

3.2 The Meaning of Race and Ethnicity 133

severe sunburn, cancer, and other problems. By the same token, natural selection favored light skin for people who

migrated farther from the equator to cooler, less sunny climates, because dark skins there would have interfered

with the production of vitamin D (Stone & Lurquin, 2007). Evolutionary evidence thus reinforces the common

humanity of people who differ in the rather superficial ways associated with their appearances: We are one human

species composed of people who happen to look different.

Race as a Social Construction

The reasons for doubting the biological basis for racial categories suggest that race is more of a social category

than a biological one. Another way to say this is that race is a social construction, a concept that has no objective

reality but rather is what people decide it is (Berger & Luckmann, 1963). In this view, race has no real existence

other than what and how people think of it.

This understanding of race is reflected in the problems, outlined earlier, in placing people with multiracial

backgrounds into any one racial category. We have already mentioned the example of President Obama. As

another example, golfer Tiger Woods was typically called an African American by the news media when he burst

onto the golfing scene in the late 1990s, but in fact his ancestry is one-half Asian (divided evenly between Chinese

and Thai), one-quarter white, one-eighth Native American, and only one-eighth African American (Leland &

Beals, 1997).

Historical examples of attempts to place people in racial categories further underscore the social constructionism

of race. In the South during the time of slavery, the skin tone of slaves lightened over the years as babies were

born from the union, often in the form of rape, of slave owners and other whites with slaves. As it became difficult

to tell who was “black” and who was not, many court battles over people’s racial identity occurred. People who

were accused of having black ancestry would go to court to prove they were white in order to avoid enslavement

or other problems (Staples, 1998).

Although race is a social construction, it is also true that race has real consequences because people do perceive

race as something real. Even though so little of DNA accounts for the physical differences we associate with

racial differences, that low amount leads us not only to classify people into different races but also to treat them

differently—and, more to the point, unequally—based on their classification. Yet modern evidence shows there is

little, if any, scientific basis for the racial classification that is the source of so much inequality.

Ethnicity

Because of the problems in the meaning of race, many social scientists prefer the term ethnicity in speaking

of people of color and others with distinctive cultural heritages. In this context, ethnicity refers to the shared

social, cultural, and historical experiences, stemming from common national or regional backgrounds, that make

subgroups of a population different from one another. Similarly, an ethnic group is a subgroup of a population with

a set of shared social, cultural, and historical experiences; with relatively distinctive beliefs, values, and behaviors;

and with some sense of identity of belonging to the subgroup. So conceived, the terms ethnicity and ethnic group

avoid the biological connotations of the terms race and racial group.

134 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

At the same time, the importance we attach to ethnicity illustrates that it, too, is in many ways a social

construction, and our ethnic membership thus has important consequences for how we are treated. In particular,

history and current practice indicate that it is easy to become prejudiced against people with different ethnicities

from our own. Much of the rest of this chapter looks at the prejudice and discrimination operating today in the

United States against people whose ethnicity is not white and European. Around the world today, ethnic conflict

continues to rear its ugly head. The 1990s and 2000s were filled with ethnic cleansing and pitched battles among

ethnic groups in Eastern Europe, Africa, and elsewhere. Our ethnic heritages shape us in many ways and fill many

of us with pride, but they also are the source of much conflict, prejudice, and even hatred, as the hate crime story

that began this chapter so sadly reminds us.

Key Takeaways

• Sociologists think race is best considered a social construction rather than a biological category.

• “Ethnicity” and “ethnic” avoid the biological connotations of “race” and “racial.”

For Your Review

1. List everyone you might know whose ancestry is biracial or multiracial. What do these individuals considerthemselves to be?

2. List two or three examples that indicate race is a social construction rather than a biological category.

References

Barrionuevo, A., & Calmes, J. (2011, March 21). President underscores similarities with Brazilians, but sidesteps

one. New York Times, p. A8.

Begley, S. (2008, February 29). Race and DNA. Newsweek. Retrieved from http://www.thedailybeast.com/

newsweek/blogs/lab-notes/2008/02/29/race-and-dna.html.

Berger, P., & Luckmann, T. (1963). The social construction of reality. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Klein, H. S., & Luno, F. V. (2009). Slavery in Brazil. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Leland, J., & Beals, G. (1997, May 5). In living colors: Tiger Woods is the exception that rules. Newsweek, 58–60.

Painter, N. I. (2010). The history of white people. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Smedley, A. (2007). Race in North America: Evolution of a worldview. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Staples, B. (1998, November 13). The shifting meanings of “black” and “white.” New York Times, p. WK14.

3.2 The Meaning of Race and Ethnicity 135

Staples, B. (2005, October 31). Why race isn’t as “black” and “white” as we think. New York Times, p. A18.

Stone, L., & Lurquin, P. F. (2007). Genes, culture, and human evolution: A synthesis. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Telles, E. E. (2006). Race in another America: The significance of skin color in Brazil. Princeton, NJ: Princeton

University Press.

136 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Chapter 4: Gender Inequality

Social Problems in the News

“$3.2M Awarded in Harassment Suit against Ex-Judge,” the headline said. A federal jury in Houston, Texas, awarded$3.2 million to three women, all county employees, who had accused a former judge of sexual harassment. Their suit saidthe judge had “hugged, groped, kissed and fondled them and had emailed them sexually explicit photographs,” accordingto a news report, and that county officials had ignored the judge’s behavior despite their knowledge of it. The judge hadresigned his position three years earlier after pleading no contest to several charges of misdemeanor assault related to hisphysical contact with several women. His only criminal penalty was to pay a fine of less than $3,000.

After the verdict was announced, the plaintiffs’ attorney said, “I am very proud of this verdict, and hope it sends amessage to all public officials that they are not above the law and should think twice before abusing power.” One of theplaintiffs recalled what it was like to have been harassed by the judge: “I felt alone, I felt small, I felt like he was themost powerful man in Brazoria County. I felt like there was nothing I could do. I felt scared.” At the same time, she wasencouraged by the jury’s verdict and the fact that other women had come forward to speak out about the judge’s behavior:“You don’t have to go through it alone. You can stand up for yourself.”

Sources: Cisneros, 2011; Tolson, 2011

Thanks to the contemporary women’s rights movement that began in the late 1960s, much has changed for women

and men in American society during the past half-century. Still, as this news story about sexual harassment

reminds us, much more still needs to be done. Despite tremendous advancements for women since the 1960s,

gender inequality persists and manifests itself in many ways. This chapter examines the major forms of gender

inequality and the reasons for its existence, and it outlines various steps our society should take to help ensure

equality between the sexes. Our discussion begins with a critical look at the concepts of sex and gender.

References

Cisneros, C. (2011, July 15). $3.2M settlement awarded in sexual harassment case. KTRK-TV. Retrieved from

http://abclocal.go.com/ktrk/story?section=news/local&id=8253455.

Tolson, M. (2011, July 15). $3.2M awarded in harassment suit against ex-judge. Houston Chronicle. Retrieved

from http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/7655717.html.

4.1 Understanding Sex and Gender

Learning Objectives

1. Define sex, gender, femininity, and masculinity.

2. Critically assess the evidence on biology, culture and socialization, and gender.

3. Discuss agents of gender socialization.

Although the terms sex and gender are sometimes used interchangeably and do complement each other, they

nonetheless refer to different aspects of what it means to be a woman or man in any society.

Sex refers to the anatomical and other biological differences between females and males that are determined at the

moment of conception and develop in the womb and throughout childhood and adolescence. Females, of course,

have two X chromosomes, while males have one X chromosome and one Y chromosome. From this basic genetic

difference spring other biological differences. The first to appear are the genitals that boys and girls develop in the

womb and that the doctor (or midwife) and parents look for when a baby is born (assuming the baby’s sex is not

already known from ultrasound or other techniques) so that the momentous announcement, “It’s a boy!” or “It’s

a girl!” can be made. The genitalia are called primary sex characteristics, while the other differences that develop

during puberty are called secondary sex characteristics and stem from hormonal differences between the two

sexes. Boys generally acquire deeper voices, more body hair, and more muscles from their flowing testosterone.

Girls develop breasts and wider hips and begin menstruating as nature prepares them for possible pregnancy

and childbirth. For better or worse, these basic biological differences between the sexes affect many people’s

perceptions of what it means to be female or male, as we next discuss.

Babies are born with anatomical and other biological differences that are determined at the moment of conception. These biological

differences define the baby’s sex.

Abby Bischoff – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Gender as a Social Construction

If sex is a biological concept, then gender is a social concept. It refers to the social and cultural differences a

society assigns to people based on their (biological) sex. A related concept, gender roles, refers to a society’s

expectations of people’s behavior and attitudes based on whether they are females or males. Understood in this

way, gender, like race as discussed in Chapter 3 “Racial and Ethnic Inequality”, is a social construction. How we

think and behave as females and males is not etched in stone by our biology but rather is a result of how society

expects us to think and behave based on what sex we are. As we grow up, we learn these expectations as we

develop our gender identity, or our beliefs about ourselves as females or males.

These expectations are called femininity and masculinity. Femininity refers to the cultural expectations we have of

girls and women, while masculinity refers to the expectations we have of boys and men. A familiar nursery rhyme

nicely summarizes these two sets of traits:

4.1 Understanding Sex and Gender 139

What are little boys made of?

Snips and snails,

And puppy dog tails,

That’s what little boys are made of.

What are little girls made of?

Sugar and spice,

And everything nice,

That’s what little girls are made of.

As this rhyme suggests, our traditional notions of femininity and masculinity indicate that we think females

and males are fundamentally different from each other. In effect, we think of them as two sides of the same

coin of being human. What we traditionally mean by femininity is captured in the adjectives, both positive

and negative, we traditionally ascribe to women: gentle, sensitive, nurturing, delicate, graceful, cooperative,

decorative, dependent, emotional, passive, and weak. Thus when we say that a girl or woman is very feminine,

we have some combination of these traits in mind: she is soft, dainty, pretty, and even a bit flighty. What we

traditionally mean by masculinity is captured in the adjectives, again both positive and negative, our society

traditionally ascribes to men: strong, assertive, brave, active, independent, intelligent, competitive, insensitive,

unemotional, and aggressive. When we say that a boy or man is very masculine, we have some combination of

these traits in mind: he is tough, strong, and assertive.

These traits might sound like stereotypes of females and males in today’s society, and to some extent they are,

but differences between women and men in attitudes and behavior do in fact exist (Aulette & Wittner, 2011). For

example, women cry more often than men do. Men are more physically violent than women. Women take care

of children more than men do. Women smile more often than men. Men curse and spit more often than women.

When women talk with each other, they are more likely to talk about their personal lives than men are when they

talk with each other. The two sexes even differ when they hold a cigarette (not that anyone should smoke!). When

a woman holds a cigarette, she usually has the palm of her cigarette-holding hand facing upward; when a man

holds a cigarette, he usually has his palm facing downward.

The Development of Gender Differences

What accounts for differences in female and male behavior and attitudes? Do the biological differences between

the sexes account for these other differences? Or do these latter differences stem, as most sociologists think,

from cultural expectations and from differences in the ways in which the sexes are socialized? These are critical

questions, for they ask whether the differences between boys and girls and women and men stem more from

biology or from society. If we think behavioral and other differences between the sexes are due primarily to their

respective biological makeups, we imply that these differences are inevitable or nearly so and that any attempt to

change them goes against biology and will likely fail.

For example, consider the obvious biological fact that women bear and nurse children and men do not. Couple this

140 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

with the common view that women are also more gentle and nurturing than men, and we end up with a “biological

recipe” for women to be the primary caretakers of children. Many people think this means women are therefore

much better suited than men to take care of children once they are born, and that the family might be harmed if

mothers work outside the home or if fathers are the primary caretakers. Figure 4.1 “Belief That Women Should

Stay at Home” shows that more than one-third of the public agrees that “it is much better for everyone involved

if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family.” To the extent this

belief exists, women may not want to work outside the home or, if they choose to do so, they then face difficulties

from employers, family, and friends. Conversely, men may not even think about wanting to stay at home and

may themselves face difficulties from employees, family, and friends if they want to do so. A belief in a strong

biological basis for differences between women and men implies, then, that there is little we can or should do to

change these differences. It implies that “anatomy is destiny,” and destiny is, of course, by definition inevitable.

Figure 4.1 Belief That Women Should Stay at Home

Agreement or disagreement with the statement that “it is much better for everyone involved if the man is

the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family.”

Source: Data from General Social Survey. (2010). Retrieved from http://sda.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/

hsda?harcsda+gss10.

This implication makes it essential to understand the extent to which gender differences do, in fact, stem from

biological differences between the sexes or, instead, stem from cultural and social influences. If biology is

paramount, then gender differences are perhaps inevitable and the status quo will remain. If culture and social

influences matter much more than biology, then gender differences can change and the status quo may give way.

With this backdrop in mind, let’s turn to the biological evidence for behavioral and other differences between the

sexes and then examine the evidence for their social and cultural roots.

4.1 Understanding Sex and Gender 141

Biology and Gender

Several biological explanations for gender roles exist, and we discuss two of the most important ones here.

One explanation is from the field of evolutionary psychology (Buss, 2012) and argues an evolutionary basis for

traditional gender roles.

Scholars advocating this view reason as follows (Thornhill & Gangestad, 2008). In prehistoric societies, two

major social roles existed (1) hunting or gathering food to relieve hunger, and (2) bearing and nursing children.

Because only women could perform the latter role, they were also the primary caretakers for children for several

years after birth. And because women were frequently pregnant, their roles as mothers confined them to the home.

Meanwhile, men were better suited than women for hunting because they were stronger and quicker than women.

In prehistoric societies, then, biology was indeed destiny: For biological reasons, men in effect worked outside

the home (hunted), while women stayed at home with their children.

Evolutionary reasons also explain why men are more violent than women. In prehistoric times, men who were

more willing to commit violence against and even kill other men would “win out” in the competition for female

mates. They thus were more likely than less violent men to produce offspring, who would then carry these males’

genetic violent tendencies.

If the human race evolved along these lines, evolutionary psychologists continue, natural selection favored

those societies where men were stronger, braver, and more aggressive and where women were more fertile and

nurturing. Such traits over the millennia became fairly instinctual, meaning that men’s and women’s biological

natures evolved differently. Men became, by nature, more assertive, daring, and violent than women, and women

became, by nature, more gentle, nurturing, and maternal than men. To the extent this is true, these scholars add,

traditional gender roles for women and men make sense from an evolutionary standpoint, and attempts to change

them go against the sexes’ biological natures. This in turn implies that existing gender inequality must continue

because it is rooted in biology. The title of a book presenting the evolutionary psychology argument summarizes

this implication: “Biology at Work: Rethinking Sexual Equality” (Browne, 2002).

142 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

According to some evolutionary psychologists, today’s gender differences in strength and physical aggression are ultimately rooted

in certain evolutionary processes that spanned millennia.

Vladimir Pustovit – Couple – CC BY 2.0.

Critics challenge the evolutionary explanation on several grounds (Begley, 2009; Fine, 2011). First, much greater

gender variation in behavior and attitudes existed in prehistoric times than the evolutionary explanation assumes.

Second, even if biological differences did influence gender roles in prehistoric times, these differences are largely

irrelevant in modern societies, in which, for example, physical strength is not necessary for survival. Third,

human environments throughout the millennia have simply been too diverse to permit the simple, straightforward

biological development that the evolutionary explanation assumes. Fourth, evolutionary arguments implicitly

justify existing gender inequality by implying the need to confine women and men to their traditional roles.

Recent anthropological evidence also challenges the evolutionary argument that men’s tendency to commit

violence was biologically transmitted. This evidence instead finds that violent men have trouble finding female

mates who would want them and that the female mates they find and the children they produce are often killed by

rivals to the men (Begley, 2009).

A second biological explanation for traditional gender roles attributes males’ higher levels of aggression to their

higher levels of testosterone (Mazur, 2009). Several studies find that males with higher levels of testosterone tend

to have higher levels of aggression. However, this correlation does not necessarily mean that their testosterone

increased their violence; as has been found in various animal species, it is also possible that their violence

increased their testosterone. Because studies of human males cannot for ethical and practical reasons manipulate

their testosterone levels, the exact meaning of the results from these testosterone-aggression studies must remain

unclear, according to a report by the National Academy of Sciences (Miczek, Mirsky, Carey, DeBold, & Raine,

1994).

4.1 Understanding Sex and Gender 143

Another line of research on the biological basis for sex differences in aggression involves children, including some

as young as ages 1 or 2, in various situations (Card, Stucky, Sawalani, & Little, 2008). They might be playing

with each other, interacting with adults, or writing down solutions to hypothetical scenarios given to them by a

researcher. In most of these studies, boys are more physically aggressive in thought or deed than girls, even at a

very young age. Other studies are more experimental in nature. In one type of study, a toddler will be playing with

a toy, only to have it removed by an adult. Boys typically tend to look angry and try to grab the toy back, while

girls tend to just sit there and whimper. Because these gender differences in aggression are found at very young

ages, researchers often say they must have some biological basis. However, critics of this line of research counter

that even young children have already been socialized along gender lines (Begley, 2009; Fine, 2011), a point to

which we return later in the chapter. To the extent this is true, gender differences in children’s aggression may

reflect socialization rather than biology.

In sum, biological evidence for gender differences certainly exists, but its interpretation remains very

controversial. It must be weighed against the evidence, to which we next turn, of cultural variations in the

experience of gender and of socialization differences by gender. One thing is clear: To the extent we accept

biological explanations for gender, we imply that existing gender differences and gender inequality must continue

to exist. As sociologist Linda L. Lindsey (2011, p. 52) notes, “Biological arguments are consistently drawn upon

to justify gender inequality and the continued oppression of women.” In contrast, cultural and social explanations

of gender differences and gender inequality promise some hope for change. Let’s examine the evidence for these

explanations.

Culture and Gender

Some of the most compelling evidence against a strong biological determination of gender roles comes from

anthropologists, whose work on preindustrial societies demonstrates some striking gender variation from one

culture to another. This variation underscores the impact of culture on how females and males think and behave.

Extensive evidence of this impact comes from anthropologist George Murdock (1937), who created the Standard

Cross-Cultural Sample of almost two hundred preindustrial societies studied by anthropologists. Murdock found

that some tasks in these societies, such as hunting and trapping, are almost always done by men, while other tasks,

such as cooking and fetching water, are almost always done by women. These patterns provide evidence for the

evolutionary argument presented earlier, as they probably stem from the biological differences between the sexes.

Even so, there were at least some societies in which women hunted and in which men cooked and fetched water.

144 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Anthropological research finds a good deal of variation in gender roles for certain tasks, including planting crops, milking, and

generating fires. Other tasks, such as hunting and trapping, are typically done by men while tasks such as cooking and fetching water

are typically done by women.

World Bank Photo Collection – Somo Samo village well – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

More important, Murdock found much greater gender variation in several of the other tasks he studied, including

planting crops, milking, and generating fires. Men primarily performed these tasks in some societies, women

primarily performed them in other societies, and in still other societies both sexes performed them equally.

Murdock’s findings illustrate how gender roles differ from one culture to another and imply they are not

biologically determined.

Anthropologists continue to investigate cultural differences in gender. Some of their most interesting findings

concern gender and sexuality (Brettell & Sargent, 2009). Although all societies distinguish “femaleness” and

“maleness,” additional gender categories exist in some societies. The Native Americans known as the Mohave,

for example, recognize four genders: a woman, a woman who acts like a man, a man, and a man who acts like a

woman. In some societies, a third, intermediary gender category is recognized. Anthropologists call this category

the berdache, who is usually a man who takes on a woman’s role. This intermediary category combines aspects of

both femininity and masculinity of the society in which it is found and is thus considered an androgynous gender.

Although some people in this category are born as intersexed individuals (formerly known as hermaphrodites),

meaning they have genitalia of both sexes, many are born biologically as one sex or the other but adopt an

androgynous identity.

Anthropologists have found another androgynous gender composed of women warriors in thirty-three Native

American groups in North America. Walter L. Williams (1997) calls these women “amazons” and notes that they

dress like men and sometimes even marry women. In some tribes girls exhibit such “masculine” characteristics

from childhood, while in others they may be recruited into “amazonhood.” In the Kaska Indians, for example, a

married couple with too many daughters would select one to “be like a man.” When she was about 5 years of

4.1 Understanding Sex and Gender 145

age, her parents would begin to dress her like a boy and have her do male tasks. Eventually she would grow up to

become a hunter.

The androgynous genders found by anthropologists remind us that gender is a social construction and not just

a biological fact. If culture does affect gender roles, socialization is the process through which culture has this

effect. What we experience as girls and boys strongly influences how we develop as women and men in terms of

behavior and attitudes. To illustrate this important dimension of gender, let’s turn to the evidence on socialization.

Socialization and Gender

Socialization is the process whereby individuals learn the culture of their society. Several agents of socialization

exist, including the family, peers, schools, the mass media, and religion, and all these institutions help to socialize

people into their gender roles and also help them develop their gender identity (Andersen & Hysock, 2011).

The Family

Socialization into gender roles begins in infancy, as almost from the moment of birth parents begin to socialize

their children as boys or girls without even knowing it (Begley, 2009; Eliot, 2011). Parents commonly describe

their infant daughters as pretty, soft, and delicate and their infant sons as strong, active, and alert, even though

neutral observers find no such gender differences among infants when they do not know the infants’ sex. From

infancy on, parents play with and otherwise interact with their daughters and sons differently. They play more

roughly with their sons—for example, by throwing them up in the air or by gently wrestling with them—and more

quietly with their daughters. When their infant or toddler daughters cry, they warmly comfort them, but they tend

to let their sons cry longer and to comfort them less. They give their girls dolls to play with and their boys action

figures and toy guns. While these gender differences in socialization are probably smaller now than a generation

ago, they certainly continue to exist. Go into a large toy store and you will see pink aisles of dolls and cooking

sets and blue aisles of action figures, toy guns, and related items.

Peers

Peer influences also encourage gender socialization. As they reach school age, children begin to play different

games based on their gender. Boys tend to play sports and other competitive team games governed by inflexible

rules and relatively large numbers of roles, while girls tend to play smaller, cooperative games such as hopscotch

and jumping rope with fewer and more flexible rules. Although girls are much more involved in sports now than a

generation ago, these gender differences in their play persist and continue to reinforce gender roles. For example,

boys’ games encourage them to be competitive, while girls’ games encourage them to become cooperative and

trusting. The patterns we see in adult males and females thus have roots in their play as young children (Lindsey,

2011) (see Note 4.13 “Children and Our Future”).

146 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Children and Our Future

Girls and Boys at Play

The text discusses how the types of games that girls and boys play influence their gender-role socialization. Let’s take acloser look at two early sociological studies that provided important evidence for this process.

Janet Lever (1978) studied fifth-grade children in three different communities in Connecticut. She watched them play andotherwise interact in school and also had the children keep diaries of their play and games outside school. Lever foundthat boys’ games were typically more complex than girls’ games: The boys’ games had a greater number of rules andmore specialized roles, and they also involved more individuals playing. She attributed these differences to socializationby parents, teachers, and other adults and argued that the complexity of boys’ play and games helped them to be betterable than girls to learn important social skills such as dealing with rules and coordinating actions to achieve goals.

A second sociologist, Barrie Thorne (1993), studied fourth- and fifth-graders in California and Michigan. The boystended to play team sports and other competitive games, while the girls tended to play cooperative games such as jumprope. These differences led Thorne to conclude that gender-role socialization stems not only from practices by adults butalso from the children’s own activities without adult involvement. When boys and girls interacted, it was often “girlsagainst the boys” in classroom spelling contests and in games such as tag. Thorne concluded that these “us against them”contests helped the children learn that boys and girls are two different and antagonistic sexes. Boys also tended to disruptgirls’ games more than the reverse and in this manner both exerted and learned dominance over females. In all theseways, children were not just the passive recipients of gender-role socialization from adults (their teachers), but they alsoplayed an active role in ensuring that such socialization occurred.

These two studies were among the first to emphasize the importance of children’s play for the gender-based traits andvalues that girls and boys learn, which in turn affect the choices they make for careers and other matters later in life.The rise in team sports opportunities for girls in the years since Lever and Thorne did their research is a welcomedevelopment, but young children continue to play in the ways that Lever and Thorne found. The body of research ongender differences in children’s play points to the need for teachers, parents, and other adults to encourage girls and boysalike to have a mixture of both competitive and cooperative games so that both sexes may develop a better balance ofvalues that are now commonly considered to be either feminine or masculine.

Schools

School is yet another agent of gender socialization. First of all, school playgrounds provide a location for the

gender-linked play activities just described to occur. Second, and perhaps more important, teachers at all levels

treat their female and male students differently in subtle ways of which they are probably not aware. They tend

to call on boys more often to answer questions in class and to praise them more when they give the right answer.

They also give boys more feedback about their assignments and other school work (Sadker & Sadker, 1994). At

all grade levels, many textbooks and other books still portray people in gender-stereotyped ways. It is true that

the newer books do less of this than older ones, but the newer books still contain some stereotypes, and the older

books are still used in many schools, especially those that cannot afford to buy newer volumes.

Mass Media

Gender socialization also occurs through the mass media (Renzetti, Curran, & Maier, 2012). On children’s

television shows, the major characters are male. On Nickelodeon, for example, the very popular SpongeBob

4.1 Understanding Sex and Gender 147

SquarePants is a male, as are his pet snail, Gary; his best friend, Patrick Star; their neighbor, Squidward Tentacles;

and SpongeBob’s employer, Eugene Crabs. Of the major characters in Bikini Bottom, only Sandy Cheeks is a

female. For all its virtues, Sesame Street features Bert, Ernie, Cookie Monster, and other male characters. Most

of the Muppets are males, and the main female character, Miss Piggy, depicted as vain and jealous, is hardly an

admirable female role model. As for adults’ prime-time television, more men than women continue to fill more

major roles in weekly shows, despite notable women’s roles in shows such as The Good Wife and Grey’s Anatomy.

Women are also often portrayed as unintelligent or frivolous individuals who are there more for their looks than

for anything else. Television commercials reinforce this image. Cosmetics ads abound, suggesting not only that

a major task for women is to look good but also that their sense of self-worth stems from looking good. Other

commercials show women becoming ecstatic over achieving a clean floor or sparkling laundry. Judging from the

world of television commercials, then, women’s chief goals in life are to look good and to have a clean house. At

the same time, men’s chief goals, judging from many commercials, are to drink beer and drive cars.

Women’s magazines reinforce the view that women need to be slender and wear many cosmetics in order to be considered beautiful.

Photo Editing Services Tucia.com – Glamour /Fashion Retouching by Tucia – CC BY 2.0.

Women’s and men’s magazines reinforce these gender images (Hesse-Biber, 2007; Milillo, 2008). Most of the

magazines intended for teenaged girls and adult women are filled with pictures of thin, beautiful models; advice

on dieting; cosmetics ads; and articles on how to win and please your man. Conversely, the magazines intended

for teenaged boys and men are filled with ads and articles on cars and sports, advice on how to succeed in careers

and other endeavors, and pictures of thin, beautiful (and sometimes nude) women. These magazine images again

suggest that women’s chief goals are to look good and to please men and that men’s chief goals are to succeed,

win over women, and live life in the fast lane.

148 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Religion

Another agent of socialization, religion, also contributes to traditional gender stereotypes. Many traditional

interpretations of the Bible yield the message that women are subservient to men (Tanenbaum, 2009). This

message begins in Genesis, where the first human is Adam, and Eve was made from one of his ribs. The major

figures in the rest of the Bible are men, and women are for the most part depicted as wives, mothers, temptresses,

and prostitutes; they are praised for their roles as wives and mothers and condemned for their other roles. More

generally, women are constantly depicted as the property of men. The Ten Commandments includes a neighbor’s

wife with his house, ox, and other objects as things not to be coveted (Exodus 20:17), and many biblical passages

say explicitly that women belong to men, such as this one from the New Testament: “Wives be subject to your

husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church. As the Church

is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands” (Ephesians 5:22–24).

Several passages in the Old Testament justify the rape and murder of women and girls. The Koran, the sacred

book of Islam, also contains passages asserting the subordinate role of women (Mayer, 2009).

A Final Word on the Sources of Gender

Scholars in many fields continue to debate the relative importance of biology and of culture and socialization for

how we behave and think as girls and boys and as women and men. The biological differences between females

and males lead many scholars and no doubt much of the public to assume that masculinity and femininity are to

a large degree biologically determined or at least influenced. In contrast, anthropologists, sociologists, and other

social scientists tend to view gender as a social construction. Even if biology does matter for gender, they say,

the significance of culture and socialization should not be underestimated. To the extent that gender is indeed

shaped by society and culture, it is possible to change gender and to help bring about a society where both men

and women have more opportunity to achieve their full potential.

Key Takeaways

• Sex is a biological concept, while gender is a social concept and refers to the social and cultural differencesa society assigns to people based on their sex.

• Several biological explanations for gender roles exist, but sociologists think culture and socialization aremore important sources of gender roles than biology.

• Families, schools, peers, the mass media, and religion are agents of socialization for the development ofgender identity and gender roles.

4.1 Understanding Sex and Gender 149

For Your Review

1. Write a short essay about one or two events you recall from your childhood that reflected or reinforced yourgender socialization.

2. Do you think gender roles are due more to biology or to culture and socialization? Explain your answer.

References

Andersen, M., & Hysock, D. (2011). Thinking about women: Sociological perspectives on sex and gender (9th

ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Aulette, J. R., & Wittner, J. (2011). Gendered worlds (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Begley, S. (2009, June 29). Don’t blame the caveman. Newsweek, 52–62.

Begley, S. (2009, September 14). Pink brain, blue brain: Claims of sex differences fall apart. Newsweek, 28

Brettell, C. B., & Sargent, C. F. (Eds.). (2009). Gender in cross-cultural perspective (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River,

NJ: Prentice Hall.

Browne, K. (2002). Biology at work: Rethinking sexual equality. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Buss, D. (2012). Evolutionary psychology: The new science of the mind (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ:

Pearson.

Card, N. A., Stucky, B. D., Sawalani, G. M., & Little, T. D. (2008). Direct and indirect aggression during

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4.1 Understanding Sex and Gender 151

4.2 Feminism and Sexism

Learning Objectives

1. Define feminism, sexism, and patriarchy.

2. Discuss evidence for a decline in sexism.

In the national General Social Survey (GSS), slightly more than one-third of the public agrees with this statement:

“It is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care

of the home and family.” Do you agree or disagree with this statement? If you are like the majority of college

students, you disagree.

Today a lot of women, and some men, will say, “I’m not a feminist, but…,” and then go on to add that they hold

certain beliefs about women’s equality and traditional gender roles that actually fall into a feminist framework.

Their reluctance to self-identify as feminists underscores the negative image that feminists and feminism have but

also suggests that the actual meaning of feminism may be unclear.

Feminism and sexism are generally two sides of the same coin. Feminism refers to the belief that women and men

should have equal opportunities in economic, political, and social life, while sexism refers to a belief in traditional

gender role stereotypes and in the inherent inequality between men and women. Sexism thus parallels the concept

of racial and ethnic prejudice discussed in Chapter 3 “Racial and Ethnic Inequality”. Women and people of color

are both said, for biological and/or cultural reasons, to lack certain qualities for success in today’s world.

Feminism as a social movement began in the United States during the abolitionist period before the Civil War. Elizabeth Cady Stanton

(left) and Lucretia Mott (right) were outspoken abolitionists who made connections between slavery and the oppression of women.

The US Library of Congress – public domain; The US Library of Congress – public domain.

Two feminist movements in US history have greatly advanced the cause of women’s equality and changed views

about gender. The first began during the abolitionist period, when abolitionists such as Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia

Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton began to see similarities between slavery and the oppression of women. This

new women’s movement focused on many issues but especially the right to vote, which women won in 1920. The

second major feminist movement began in the late 1960s, as women active in the Southern civil rights movement

turned their attention to women’s rights, and it is still active today. This movement has profoundly changed public

thinking and social and economic institutions, but, as we will soon see, much gender inequality remains.

Several varieties of feminism exist. Although they all share the basic idea that women and men should be equal

in their opportunities in all spheres of life, they differ in other ways (Hannam, 2012). Liberal feminism believes

that the equality of women can be achieved within our existing society by passing laws and reforming social,

economic, and political institutions. In contrast, socialist feminism blames capitalism for women’s inequality and

says that true gender equality can result only if fundamental changes in social institutions, and even a socialist

revolution, are achieved. Radical feminism, on the other hand, says that patriarchy (male domination) lies at the

root of women’s oppression and that women are oppressed even in noncapitalist societies. Patriarchy itself must

be abolished, they say, if women are to become equal to men. Finally, multicultural feminism emphasizes that

women of color are oppressed not only because of their gender but also because of their race and class. They thus

face a triple burden that goes beyond their gender. By focusing their attention on women of color in the United

States and other nations, multicultural feminists remind us that the lives of these women differ in many ways from

those of the middle-class women who historically have led US feminist movements.

4.2 Feminism and Sexism 153

The Growth of Feminism and the Decline of Sexism

What evidence is there for the impact of the contemporary women’s movement on public thinking? The GSS, the

Gallup poll, and other national surveys show that the public has moved away from traditional views of gender

toward more modern ones. Another way of saying this is that the public has moved from sexism toward feminism.

To illustrate this, let’s return to the GSS statement that it is much better for the man to achieve outside the home

and for the woman to take care of home and family. Figure 4.2 “Change in Acceptance of Traditional Gender

Roles in the Family, 1977–2010” shows that agreement with this statement dropped sharply during the 1970s and

1980s before leveling off afterward to slightly more than one-third of the public.

Figure 4.2 Change in Acceptance of Traditional Gender Roles in the Family, 1977–2010

Percentage agreeing that “it is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family.”

Source: Data from General Social Surveys. (1977–2010). Retrieved from http://sda.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/hsda?harcsda+gss10.

Another GSS question over the years has asked whether respondents would be willing to vote for a qualified

woman for president of the United States. As Figure 4.3 “Change in Willingness to Vote for a Qualified Woman

for President” illustrates, this percentage rose from 74 percent in the early 1970s to a high of 96.2 percent in

2010. Although we have not yet had a woman president, despite Hillary Rodham Clinton’s historic presidential

primary campaign in 2007 and 2008 and Sarah Palin’s presence on the Republican ticket in 2008, the survey

evidence indicates the public is willing to vote for one. As demonstrated by the responses to the survey questions

on women’s home roles and on a woman president, traditional gender views have indeed declined.

Figure 4.3 Change in Willingness to Vote for a Qualified Woman for President

154 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Source: Data from General Social Survey. (2010). Retrieved from http://sda.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/hsda?harcsda+gss10.

Key Takeaways

• Feminism refers to the belief that women and men should have equal opportunities in economic, political,and social life, while sexism refers to a belief in traditional gender role stereotypes and in the inherentinequality between men and women.

• Sexist beliefs have declined in the United States since the early 1970s.

For Your Review

1. Do you consider yourself a feminist? Why or why not?

2. Think about one of your parents or of another adult much older than you. Does this person hold moretraditional views about gender than you do? Explain your answer.

References

Hannam, J. (2012). Feminism. New York, NY: Pearson Longman.

4.2 Feminism and Sexism 155

4.3 Dimensions of Gender Inequality

Learning Objectives

1. Summarize the status of women around the world today.

2. Understand the extent of and reasons for gender inequality in income and the workplace in the UnitedStates.

3. Understand the extent of and reasons for sexual harassment.

The primary focus of this chapter is gender inequality in the United States, but it is also important to discuss

gender inequality worldwide. While American women are unequal to men in many respects, women’s situation

throughout much of the world is especially dire. Accordingly, we first examine the global inequality of women

before turning our attention to the United States.

The Global Inequality of Women

The problem of global poverty first discussed in Chapter 2 “Poverty” is especially severe for women. Although,

as Chapter 2 “Poverty” noted, more than 1.4 billion people on earth are desperately poor, their ranks include more

than their fair share of women, who are estimated to make up 70 percent of the world’s poor. Because women

tend to be poorer than men worldwide, they are more likely than men to experience all the problems that poverty

causes, including malnutrition and disease. But they also suffer additional problems. Some of these problems

derive from women’s physiological role of childbearing, and some arise from how they are treated simply because

they are women.

Let’s first look at childbearing. One of the most depressing examples of how global poverty affects women is

maternal mortality, or the number of women who die during childbirth for every 100,000 live births. More than

500,000 women die worldwide annually from complications during pregnancy or childbirth. Maternal mortality

usually results from one or more of the following: inadequate prenatal nutrition, disease and illness, and inferior

obstetrical care, all of which are much more common in poor nations than in wealthy nations. In wealthy nations,

the rate of maternal mortality is 14 per 100,000 births, but in poor nations the rate is a distressingly high 590 per

100,000 births, equivalent to almost 6 deaths for every 1,000 births. Women in poor nations are thus forty-two

times more likely than those in wealthy nations to die from complications during pregnancy or childbirth (World

Bank, 2012).

In India and Pakistan, thousands of new wives every year are murdered in dowry deaths because they have not provided their

husbands a suitable amount of money and goods.

Wikimedia Commons – CC BY 2.0.

In addition to these problems, women in poor nations fare worse than men in other ways because of how they

are treated as women. One manifestation of this fact is the violence they experience (World Health Organization,

2010).World Health Organization/London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. (2010). Preventing intimate

partner and sexual violence against women: Taking action and generating evidence. Geneva, Switzerland:

Author. About one-third of women worldwide have been raped or beaten, leading Amnesty International (2004)

to call violence against women “the greatest human rights scandal of our times.” Although violence against

women certainly occurs in wealthy nations, it is more common and extreme in poor and middle-income nations,

and in nations where women’s inequality (as reflected by criteria such as their labor force participation and

their educational attainment) is especially high (Kaya & Cook, 2010). More than half of women in Uganda, for

example, have been physically or sexually abused (Amnesty International, 2010). Many young women in India

who work outside the home have been raped by male high-school dropouts who think these women lack virtue

and should be punished with rape (Polgreen, 2011). In India and Pakistan, thousands of women are killed every

year in dowry deaths, in which a new wife is murdered by her husband and/or his relatives if she does not pay

the groom money or goods (Kethineni & Srinivasan, 2009). In many countries, young girls routinely have their

genitals cut out, often with no anesthesia, in what has been termed female genital mutilation, a practice that is

thought to affect more than 100 million girls and women across the earth and has been called an act of torture

(Kristoff, 2011; Rogo, Subayi, & Toubia, 2007).

Sex trafficking is another major problem in countries like Cambodia, India, Nepal, and Thailand, where young

girls are often stolen from their parents and forced to work as prostitutes in what amounts to sexual slavery. The

number of girls (and sometimes boys) under age 18 who work as sex slaves is thought to reach into the millions

and to be larger than the number of African slaves during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Kristoff &

WuDunn, 2010).

4.3 Dimensions of Gender Inequality 157

Beyond violence, women in poor nations are less likely than their male counterparts to get a higher education,

and girls are less likely than boys to attend primary school. Women are also less likely than men to work in jobs

that pay a decent wage and to hold political office. In many poor nations, girls are less likely than boys to receive

adequate medical care when they become ill and are more likely than boys to die before age 5. In all these ways,

women and girls in poor nations especially suffer.

In stark contrast, women in wealthy democratic nations fare much better than their counterparts in poor nations.

In many wealthy democracies, women’s status vis-à-vis men is higher than in the United States. The Note 4.23

“Lessons from Other Societies” box discusses this situation further.

Lessons from Other Societies

Women in the Nordic Nations

The United Nations Development Programme ranks nations on a “gender empowerment measure” of women’sinvolvement in their nation’s economy and political life (United Nations Development Programme, 2009). Of the 109nations included in the measure, Sweden ranks first, followed by Norway, Finland, and Denmark. The remaining Nordicnation, Iceland, ranks eighth. The other nations in the top ten are the Netherlands, Belgium, Australia, Germany, andNew Zealand. Canada ranks twelfth, and the United States ranks only eighteenth. In trying to understand why the UnitedStates ranks this low and what it might be able to do to increase its empowerment of women, the experience of the Nordicnations provides some important lessons.

The Nordic nations rank at the top of the gender empowerment measure largely because they have made a concertedeffort to boost women’s involvement in the business and political worlds (Sumer, Smithson, Guerreiro, & Granlund,2008). They are all social democratic welfare states characterized by extensive government programs and other efforts topromote full economic and gender equality.

For example, Norway’s government provides day care for children and adult care for older or disabled individuals, andit also provides forty-four weeks of paid parental leave after the birth of a child. Parents can also work fewer hourswithout losing income until their child is 2 years of age. All these provisions mean that women are much more likely thantheir American counterparts to have the freedom and economic means to work outside the home, and they have takenadvantage of this opportunity. As a recent analysis concluded, “It has been extremely important for women that socialrights have been extended to cover such things as the caring of young children and elderly, sick and disabled membersof society. In the Nordic countries, women have been more successful than elsewhere in combining their dual role asmothers and workers, and social policy arrangements are an integral part of the gender equality policy” (Kangas & Palme,2009, p. 565).

The lesson for the United States is clear: An important reason for the Nordic nations’ high gender empowerment rankingis government policy that enables women to work outside the home if they want to do so. The experience of these nationsindicates that greater gender equality might be achieved in the United States if it adopted policies similar to those foundin these nations that make it easier for women to join and stay in the labor force.

Gender Inequality in the United States

We have said that the women’s movement changed American life in many ways but that gender inequality

persists in the United States. Let’s look at examples of such inequality, much of it taking the form of institutional

discrimination, which, as we saw in Chapter 3 “Racial and Ethnic Inequality”, can occur even if it is not intended

to happen. We start with gender inequality in income and the workplace and then move on to a few other spheres

of life.

158 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

The Gender Gap in Income

In the last few decades, women have entered the workplace in increasing numbers, partly, and for many women

mostly, out of economic necessity, and partly out of desire for the sense of self-worth and other fulfillment that

comes with work. In February 2012, 57.9 percent of US women aged 16 or older were in the labor force, compared

to only 43.3 percent in 1970; comparable figures for men were 70.3 percent in 2012 and 79.7 percent in 1970

(Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012). Thus while women’s labor force participation continues to lag behind men’s,

this gender gap has narrowed. The figures just cited include women of retirement age. When we just look at

younger women, labor force participation is even higher. For example, 74.7 percent of women aged 35–44 were

in the labor force in 2011, compared to only 46.8 percent in 1970.

Despite the workplace gains women have made, problems persist. Perhaps the major problem is a gender gap

in income. Women have earned less money than men ever since records started being kept (Reskin & Padavic,

2002). In the United States in the early 1800s, full-time women workers in agriculture and manufacturing earned

less than 38 percent of what men earned. By 1885, they were earning about 50 percent of what men earned

in manufacturing jobs. As the 1980s began, full-time women workers’ median weekly earnings were about 65

percent of men’s. Women have narrowed the gender gap in earnings since then: Their weekly earnings now (2011)

are 82.2 percent of men’s among full-time workers ages 16 and older (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012). Still, this

means that for every $10,000 men earn, women earn only about $8,220. To turn that around, for every $10,000

women earn, men earn $12,156. This gap amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars over a lifetime of working.

Women have earned less money than men ever since records started being kept. Women now earn about 81 percent of what men earn.

John Jacobi – receptionist answering phone at suburban eye care – CC BY 2.0.

As Table 4.1 “Median Annual Earnings of Full-Time, Year-Round Workers Aged 25–64 by Educational

Attainment, 2010*” shows, this gender gap exists for all levels of education and even increases with higher

levels of education. On the average, women with a bachelor’s degree or higher and working full time earn almost

$18,000 less per year than their male counterparts.

4.3 Dimensions of Gender Inequality 159

Table 4.1 Median Annual Earnings of Full-Time, Year-Round Workers Aged 25–64 by Educational Attainment, 2010*

High schooldropout

High schooldegree

Some college or associate’sdegree

Bachelor’s degree orhigher

Men 25,272 36,920 43,940 69,160

Women 20,176 28,236 33,176 51,272

Difference 5,096 8,684 10,764 17,888

Gender gap (%; women÷ men)

79.8 76.5 75.5 74.1

* Median weekly earnings × 52 weeks

Source: US Department of Labor. (2011). Highlights of women’s earnings in 2010. Washington, DC: Author.

What accounts for the gender gap in earnings? A major reason is sex segregation in the workplace, which accounts

for up to 45 percent of the gender gap (Kelley, 2011; Reskin & Padavic, 2002). Although women have increased

their labor force participation, the workplace remains segregated by gender. Almost half of all women work in a

few low-paying clerical and service (e.g., waitressing) jobs, while men work in a much greater variety of jobs,

including high-paying ones. Table 4.2 “Gender Segregation in the Workplace for Selected Occupations, 2010”

shows that many jobs are composed primarily of women or of men. Part of the reason for this segregation is that

socialization affects what jobs young men and women choose to pursue, and part of the reason is that women and

men do not want to encounter difficulties they may experience if they took a job traditionally assigned to the other

sex. A third reason is that sex-segregated jobs discriminate against applicants who are not the “right” sex for that

job. Employers may either consciously refuse to hire someone who is the “wrong” sex for the job or have job

requirements (e.g., height requirements) and workplace rules (e.g., working at night) that unintentionally make it

more difficult for women to qualify for certain jobs. Although such practices and requirements are now illegal,

they still continue. The sex segregation they help create contributes to the continuing gender gap between female

and male workers. Occupations dominated by women tend to have lower wages and salaries. Because women are

concentrated in low-paying jobs, their earnings are much lower than men’s (Reskin & Padavic, 2002).

This fact raises an important question: Why do women’s jobs pay less than men’s jobs? Is it because their jobs

are not important and require few skills (recalling the functional theory of stratification discussed in Chapter 2

“Poverty”)? The evidence indicates otherwise: Women’s work is devalued precisely because it is women’s work,

and women’s jobs thus pay less than men’s jobs because they are women’s jobs (Magnusson, 2009).

Table 4.2 Gender Segregation in the Workplace for Selected Occupations, 2010

160 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Occupation Female workers (%) Male workers (%)

Preschool and kindergarten teachers 97.0 3.0

Speech-language pathologists 96.3 3.7

Secretaries and administrative assistants 96.1 3.9

Dental hygienists 95.1 4.9

Registered nurses 91.1 8.9

Food servers (waiters/waitresses) 71.1 29.9

Pharmacists 53.0 47.0

Physicians 32.3 67.7

Lawyers 31.5 68.5

Dentists 25.5 64.5

Computer software engineers 20.9 79.1

Electricians 1.5 98.5

Carpenters 1.4 98.5

Source: Data from US Census Bureau. (2012). Statistical abstract of the United States: 2012. Washington, DC: US Government Printing

Office. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab.

Studies of comparable worth support this argument (Levanon, England, & Allison, 2009). Researchers rate

various jobs in terms of their requirements and attributes that logically should affect the salaries they offer: the

importance of the job, the degree of skill it requires, the level of responsibility it requires, the degree to which the

employee must exercise independent judgment, and so forth. They then use these dimensions to determine what

salary a job should offer. Some jobs might be better on some dimensions and worse on others but still end up with

the same predicted salary if everything evens out.

4.3 Dimensions of Gender Inequality 161

Some women’s jobs pay less than men’s jobs even though their comparable worth is equal to or even higher than the men’s jobs. For

example, a social worker, depicted here, may earn less money than a probation officer, even though calculations based on comparable

worth would predict that a social worker should earn at least as much.

Wikimedia Commons – CC BY 2.0.

When researchers make their calculations, they find that certain women’s jobs pay less than men’s even though

their comparable worth is equal to or even higher than the men’s jobs. For example, a social worker may earn less

money than a probation officer, even though calculations based on comparable worth would predict that a social

worker should earn at least as much. The comparable worth research demonstrates that women’s jobs pay less

than men’s jobs of comparable worth and that the average working family would earn several thousand dollars

more annually if pay scales were reevaluated based on comparable worth and women were paid more for their

work.

Even when women and men work in the same jobs, women often earn less than men, and men are more likely

than women to hold leadership positions in these occupations. Government data provide ready evidence of the

lower incomes women receive even in the same occupations. For example, among full-time employees, female

marketing and sales managers earn only 66 percent of what their male counterparts earn; female human resource

managers earn only 80 percent of what their male counterparts earn; female claims adjusters earn only 77 percent;

female accountants earn only 75 percent; female elementary and middle school teachers earn only 91 percent; and

even female secretaries and clerical workers earn only 91 percent (US Department of Labor, 2011).

One reason for these differences, and for women’s lower earnings in general, is their caregiving responsibilities

(Chang, 2010). Women are more likely than men to have the major, and perhaps the sole, responsibility for taking

care of children and aging parents or other adults who need care. This responsibility limits their work hours

and often prompts them to drop out of the labor force. If women rejoin the labor force after their children start

162 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

school, or join for the first time, they are already several years behind men who began working at an earlier age.

Economics writer David Leonhardt (2010, p. B1) explains this dynamic: “Many more women take time off from

work. Many more women work part time at some point in their careers. Many more women can’t get to work

early or stay late. And our economy exacts a terribly steep price for any time away from work—in both pay and

promotions. People often cannot just pick up where they have left off. Entire career paths are closed off. The hit

to earnings is permanent.”

We can see evidence of this “hit” when we examine the gender gap in earnings by age. This gap is relatively low

for people in their early twenties, when women earn 93.8 percent of what men earn, but rises during the next

two decades of age as more and more women bear and raise children (see Figure 4.4 “Gender, Age, and Median

Weekly Earnings of Full-Time Employees, 2010”).

Figure 4.4 Gender, Age, and Median Weekly Earnings of Full-Time Employees, 2010

Source: U.S. Department of Labor. (2011). Highlights of Women’s Earnings in 2010. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor.

Still, when variables like number of years on the job, number of hours worked per week, and size of firm are taken

into account, gender differences in earnings diminish but do not disappear altogether, and it is very likely that sex

discrimination (conscious or unconscious) by employers accounts for much of the remaining disparity.

Some of the sex discrimination in employment reflects the existence of two related phenomena, the glass ceiling

and the glass escalator. Women may be promoted in a job only to find they reach an invisible “glass ceiling”

beyond which they cannot get promoted, or they may not get promoted in the first place. In the largest US

corporations, women constitute only about 16 percent of the top executives, and women executives are paid much

less than their male counterparts (Jenner & Ferguson, 2009). Although these disparities stem partly from the

fact that women joined the corporate ranks much more recently than men, they also reflect a glass ceiling in the

corporate world that prevents qualified women from rising up above a certain level (Hymowitz, 2009). Men, on

the other hand, can often ride a “glass escalator” to the top, even in female occupations. An example is seen in

elementary school teaching, where principals typically rise from the ranks of teachers. Although men constitute

only about 16 percent of all public elementary school teachers, they account for about 41 percent of all elementary

school principals (Aud et al., 2011).

4.3 Dimensions of Gender Inequality 163

Women constitute only about 16 percent of the top executives in the largest US corporations, and women executives are paid much

less than their male counterparts. These disparities reflect a “glass ceiling” that limits women’s opportunities for promotion.

Baltic Development Forum – Kristovskis meeting – CC BY 2.0.

Whatever the reasons for the gender gap in income, the fact that women make so much less than men means

that female-headed families are especially likely to be poor. In 2010, almost 32 percent of these families lived

in poverty, compared to only 6 percent of married-couple families (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, & Smith, 2011). As

noted in Chapter 2 “Poverty”, the term feminization of poverty refers to the fact that female-headed households are

especially likely to be poor. The gendering of poverty in this manner is one of the most significant manifestations

of gender inequality in the United States.

Sexual Harassment

Another workplace problem (including schools) is sexual harassment, which, as defined by federal guidelines and

legal rulings and statutes, consists of unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or physical conduct

of a sexual nature that is used as a condition of employment or promotion or that interferes with an individual’s

job performance and creates an intimidating or hostile environment.

Although men can be, and are, sexually harassed, women are more often the targets of sexual harassment. This

gender difference exists for at least two reasons, one cultural and one structural. The cultural reason centers on the

depiction of women and the socialization of men. As our discussion of the mass media and gender socialization

indicated, women are still depicted in our culture as sexual objects that exist for men’s pleasure. At the same time,

164 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

our culture socializes men to be sexually assertive. These two cultural beliefs combine to make men believe that

they have the right to make verbal and physical advances to women in the workplace. When these advances fall

into the guidelines listed here, they become sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a common experience. In surveys of women employees, up to two-thirds of respondents report

having been sexually harassed.

Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 4.0.

The second reason that most targets of sexual harassment are women is more structural. Reflecting the gendered

nature of the workplace and of the educational system, typically the men doing the harassment are in a position

of power over the women they harass. A male boss harasses a female employee, or a male professor harasses

a female student or employee. These men realize that subordinate women may find it difficult to resist their

advances for fear of reprisals: A female employee may be fired or not promoted, and a female student may receive

a bad grade.

How common is sexual harassment? This is difficult to determine, as the men who do the sexual harassment are

not about to shout it from the rooftops, and the women who suffer it often keep quiet because of the repercussions

just listed. But anonymous surveys of women employees in corporate and other settings commonly find that

40–65 percent of the respondents report being sexually harassed (Rospenda, Richman, & Shannon, 2009). In a

survey of 4,501 women physicians, 36.9 percent reported being sexually harassed either in medical school or in

their practice as physicians (Frank, Brogan, & Schiffman, 1998). In studies of college students, almost one-third

of women undergraduates and about 40 percent of women graduate students report being sexually harassed by a

faculty member (Clodfelter, Turner, Hartman, & Kuhns, 2010).

Studies of people who have been sexually harassed find that they often experience various psychological

problems. The Note 4.29 “Applying Social Research” box discusses this body of research further.

4.3 Dimensions of Gender Inequality 165

Applying Social Research

The Long-Term Mental Health Consequences of Sexual Harassment

Despite the fact that sexual harassment is illegal, most women (and men) who are sexually harassed do not bringcourt action. Two reasons explain their decision not to sue: they fear being fired and/or they worry they will not bebelieved. But another reason has to do with the mental and emotional consequences of being sexually harassed. Theseconsequences include relationship problems, a loss of self-esteem, fatigue, depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, and afeeling of powerlessness. These effects are similar to those for posttraumatic stress disorder and are considered symptomsof what has been termed sexual harassment trauma syndrome. This syndrome, and perhaps especially the feeling ofpowerlessness, are thought to help explain why sexual harassment victims hardly ever bring court action and otherwiseoften keep quiet. According to law professor Theresa Beiner, the legal system should become more aware of thesepsychological consequences as it deals with the important question in sexual harassment cases of whether harassmentactually occurred. If a woman keeps quiet about the harassment, it is too easy for judges and juries to believe, as happensin rape cases, that the woman originally did not mind the behavior that she now says is harassment.

Should the legal system begin to make better use of social science research on sexual harassment trauma syndrome, arecent study by sociologist Jason N. Houle and colleagues provides important new evidence for legal officials to consider.The authors note two faults in prior sexual harassment research. First, most studies have focused on workers in a singleoccupation, such as lawyers, or in a single organization, such as a university campus, rather than in a diverse set ofoccupations and organizations. Second, because most studies have examined workers at only one point in time, they havebeen unable to study the long-term psychological consequences of sexual harassment.

To correct these deficiencies, Houle et al. analyzed data from a study of 1,010 ninth-graders in St. Paul, Minnesota, thatfollowed them from 1988 to 2004, when they were 30 or 31 years old. The study included measures of the respondents’experience of sexual harassment at several periods over the study’s sixteen-year time span (ages 14–18, 19–26, 29–30,and 30–31), their level of psychological depression, and their sociodemographic background. Focusing on depression atages 30 or 31, the authors found that sexual harassment at ages 14–18 did not affect the chances of depression at ages30–31, but that sexual harassment during any of the other three age periods did increase the chances of depression atages 30–31. These results held true for both women and men who had been harassed. The authors concluded that the“effects of harassment are indeed lasting, as harassment experiences early in the career were associated with heighteneddepressive symptoms nearly 10 years later.”

In finding long-term effects of sexual harassment on women and men in a variety of occupations and organizationalsettings, Houle et al.’s study made an important contribution to our understanding of the psychological consequences ofsexual harassment. Its findings underscore the need for workplaces and campuses to do everything possible to eliminatethis illegal and harmful behavior and perhaps will prove useful in sexual harassment lawsuits.

Sources: Beiner, 2005; Houle, Staff, Mortimer, Uggen, & Blackstone, 2011; Willness, Steel, & Lee, 2007

Women of Color: A Triple Burden

Earlier we mentioned multicultural feminism, which stresses that women of color face difficulties for three

reasons: their gender, their race, and, often, their social class, which is frequently near the bottom of the

socioeconomic ladder. They thus face a triple burden that manifests itself in many ways.

For example, women of color experience extra income inequality. Earlier we discussed the gender gap in earnings,

with women earning 82.2 percent of what men earn, but women of color face both a gender gap and a racial/ethnic

gap. Table 4.3 “The Race/Ethnicity and Gender Gap in Annual Earnings for Full-Time, Year-Round Workers,

2010*” depicts this double gap for full-time workers. We see a racial/ethnic gap among both women and men, as

African Americans and Latinos of either gender earn less than whites. We also see a gender gap between men and

166 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

women, as women earn less than men within any race/ethnicity. These two gaps combine to produce an especially

high gap between African American and Latina women and white men: African American women earn only about

70 percent of what white men earn, and Latina women earn only about 60 percent of what white men earn.

Table 4.3 The Race/Ethnicity and Gender Gap in Annual Earnings for Full-Time, Year-Round Workers, 2010*

Annual earnings ($) Percentage of white male earnings

Men

White (non-Hispanic) 44,200 —

Black 32,916 74.5

Latino 26,416 59.8

Women

White (non-Hispanic) 35,568 80.5

Black 30,784 69.7

Latina 26,416 59.8

* Median weekly earnings × 52 weeks

Source: US Department of Labor. (2011). Highlights of women’s earnings in 2010. Washington, DC: Author.

These differences in income mean that African American and Latina women are poorer than white women.

We noted earlier that almost 32 percent of all female-headed families are poor. This figure masks race/ethnic

differences among such families: 24.8 percent of families headed by non-Latina white women are poor, compared

to 41.0 percent of families headed by African American women and also 44.5 percent of families headed by

Latina women (DeNavas-Walt et al., 2011). While white women are poorer than white men, African American

and Latina women are clearly poorer than white women.

Household Inequality

Gender inequality occurs within families and households. We will talk more about this aspect of family life in

Chapter 10 “The Changing Family”, but briefly discuss here one significant dimension of gender-based household

inequality: housework. Someone has to do housework, and that someone is usually a woman. It takes many hours

a week to clean the bathrooms, cook, shop in the grocery store, vacuum, and do everything else that needs to be

done. The research evidence indicates that women married to or living with men spend two to three times as many

hours per week on housework as men spend (Gupta & Ash, 2008). This disparity holds true even when women

work outside the home, leading sociologist Arlie Hochschild (Hochschild, 1989) to observe in a widely cited book

that women engage in a “second shift” of unpaid work when they come home from their paying job.

The good news is that gender differences in housework time are smaller than a generation ago. The bad news

is that a large gender difference remains. As one study summarized the evidence on this issue, “Women invest

significantly more hours in household labor than do men despite the narrowing of gender differences in recent

4.3 Dimensions of Gender Inequality 167

years” (Bianchi, Milkie, Sayer, & Robinson, 2000, p. 196). In the realm of household work, then, gender

inequality persists.

Key Takeaways

• Among full-time workers, women earn about 79.4 percent of men’s earnings. This gender gap in earningsstems from several factors, including sex segregation in the workplace and the lower wages and salariesfound in occupations that involve mostly women.

• Sexual harassment results partly from women’s subordinate status in the workplace and may involve up totwo-thirds of women employees.

• Women of color may face a “triple burden” of difficulties based on their gender, their race/ethnicity, andtheir social class.

For Your Review

1. Do you think it is fair for occupations dominated by women to have lower wages and salaries than thosedominated by men? Explain your answer.

2. If you know a woman who works in a male-dominated occupation, interview her about any difficulties shemight be experiencing as a result of being in this sort of situation.

References

Amnesty International. (2004). It’s in our hands: Stop violence against women. Summary. London, United

Kingdom: Author.

Amnesty International. (2010). “I can’t afford justice”: Violence against women in Uganda continues unpunished

and unchecked. London, United Kingdom: Author.

Aud, S., Hussar, W., Kena, G., Bianco, K., Frohlich, L., Kemp, J., & Tahan, K. (2011). The condition of education

2011 (NCES 2011-033). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington,

DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2011/2011033.pdf.

Beiner, T. (2005). Gender myths v. working realities: Using social science to reformulate sexual harassment law.

New York, NY: New York University Press.

Bianchi, S. M., Milkie, M. A., Sayer, L. C., & Robinson, J. P. (2000). Is anyone doing the housework? Trends in

the gender division of household labor. Social Forces, 79(1), 191–228.

Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2012). 2012 employment and earnings online. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved

from http://www.bls.gov/opub/ee/home.htm.

168 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Chang, M. L. (2010). Shortchanged: Why women have less wealth and what can be done about it. New York, NY:

Oxford University Press.

Clodfelter, T. A., Turner, M. G., Hartman, J. L., & Kuhns, J. B. (2010). Sexual harassment victimization during

emerging adulthood. Crime & Delinquency, 56(3), 455–481.

DeNavas-Walt, C., Proctor, B. D., & Smith, J. C. (2011). Income, poverty, and health insurance coverage in the

United States: 2010 (Current Population Reports, P60-239). Washington, DC: US Census Bureau.

Frank, E., Brogan, D., & Schiffman, M. (1998). Prevalence and correlates of harsssment among US women

physicians. Archives of Internal Medicine, 158(4), 352–358.

Gupta, S., & Ash, M. (2008). Whose money, whose time? A nonparametric approach to modeling time spent on

housework in the United States. Feminist Economics, 14(1), 93–120.

Hochschild, A. (1989). The second shift: Working parents and the revolution at home. New York, NY: Viking.

Houle, J. N., Staff, J., Mortimer, J. T., Uggen, C., & Blackstone, A. (2011). The impact of sexual harassment on

depressive symptoms during the early occupational career. Society and Mental Health, 1, 89–105.

Hymowitz, C. (2009, May 1). For executive women, it can be lonely at the top. Forbes. Retrieved from

http://www.forbes.com.

Jenner, L., & Ferguson, R. (2009). 2008 catalyst census of women corporate officers and top earners of the

FP500. New York, NY: Catalyst.

Kangas, O., & Palme, J. (2009). Making social policy work for economic development: The Nordic experience.

International Journal of Social Welfare, 18(s1), S62–S72.

Kaya, Y., & Cook, K. J. (2010). A cross-national analysis of physical intimate partner violence against women.

International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 5, 423–444.

Kelley, L. (2011, April 12). Today is equal pay day: Women still earn 77 cents to a man’s dollar. AlterNet.

Retrieved from http://www.alternet.org/rss/1/557442/

today_is_equal_pay_day%557443A_women_still_earn_557477_cents_to_a_man %557445C’s_dollar/; Reskin,

B., & Padavic, I. (2002). Women and men at work (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Kethineni, S., & Srinivasan, M. (2009). Police handling of domestic violence cases in Tamil Nadu, India. Journal

of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 25, 202–213.

Kristoff, N. D. (2011, May 12). A rite of torture for girls. New York Times, p. A29.

Kristoff, N. D., & WuDunn, S. (2010). Half the sky: Turning oppression into opportunity for women worldwide.

New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Leonhardt, D. (2010, August 4). A labor market punishing to mothers. New York Times, B1.

Levanon, A., England, P., & Allison, P. (2009). Occupational feminization and pay: Assessing causal dynamics

using 1950–2000 US census data. Social Forces, 88(2), 865–891.

4.3 Dimensions of Gender Inequality 169

Magnusson, C. (2009). Gender, occupational prestige, and wages: A test of devaluation theory. European

Sociological Review, 25(1), 87–101.

Polgreen, L. (2011, March 27). Rapes of women show clash of old and new India. New York Times, p. A8.

Reskin, B., & Padavic, I. (2002). Women and men at work (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Rogo, K., Subayi, T., & Toubia, N. (2007). Female genital cutting, women’s health and development: The role of

the World Bank. Washington, DC: Africa Region Human Development Department.

Rospenda, K. M., Richman, J. A., & Shannon, C. A. (2009). Prevalence and mental health correlates of

harassment and discrimination in the workplace: Results from a national study. Journal of Interpersonal Violence,

24(5), 819–843.

Sumer, S., Smithson, J., Guerreiro, M. D., & Granlund, L. (2008). Becoming working mothers: Reconciling work

and family at three particular workplaces in Norway, the UK, and Portugal. Community, Work & Family, 11(4),

365–384.

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Labor.

Willness, C. R., Steel, P., & Lee, K. (2007). A meta-analysis of the antecedents and consequences of workplace

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Author.

170 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

4.4 Violence against Women: Rape and Sexual Assault

Learning Objectives

1. Describe the extent of rape and sexual assault.

2. Explain why rape and sexual assault occur.

Susan Griffin (1971, p. 26) began a classic essay on rape in 1971 with this startling statement: “I have never been

free of the fear of rape. From a very early age I, like most women, have thought of rape as a part of my natural

environment—something to be feared and prayed against like fire or lightning. I never asked why men raped; I

simply thought it one of the many mysteries of human nature.”

When we consider interpersonal violence of all kinds—homicide, assault, robbery, and rape and sexual

assault—men are more likely than women to be victims of violence. While true, this fact obscures another fact:

Women are far more likely than men to be raped and sexually assaulted. They are also much more likely to be

portrayed as victims of pornographic violence on the Internet and in videos, magazines, and other outlets. Finally,

women are more likely than men to be victims of domestic violence, or violence between spouses and others with

intimate relationships. The gendered nature of these acts against women distinguishes them from the violence

men suffer. Violence is directed against men not because they are men per se, but because of anger, jealousy, and

the sociological reasons discussed in Chapter 8 “Crime and Criminal Justice”’s treatment of deviance and crime.

But rape and sexual assault, domestic violence, and pornographic violence are directed against women precisely

because they are women. These acts are thus an extreme manifestation of the gender inequality women face in

other areas of life. We discuss rape and sexual assault here but will leave domestic violence for Chapter 10 “The

Changing Family” and pornography for Chapter 9 “Sexual Behavior”.

The Extent and Context of Rape and Sexual Assault

Our knowledge about the extent and context of rape and reasons for it comes from three sources: the FBI Uniform

Crime Reports (UCR) and the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), both discussed in Chapter 8 “Crime

and Criminal Justice”, and surveys of and interviews with women and men conducted by academic researchers.

From these sources we have a fairly good if not perfect idea of how much rape occurs, the context in which it

occurs, and the reasons for it. What do we know?

Up to one-third of US women experience a rape or sexual assault, including attempts, at least once in their

lives.

Wikimedia Commons – public domain.

According to the UCR, which are compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) from police reports,

88,767 reported rapes (including attempts, and defined as forced sexual intercourse) occurred in the United States

in 2010 (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2011). Because women often do not tell police they were raped, the

NCVS, which involves survey interviews of thousands of people nationwide, probably yields a better estimate of

rape; the NCVS also measures sexual assaults in addition to rape, while the UCR measures only rape. According

to the NCVS, 188,380 rapes and sexual assaults occurred in 2010 (Truman, 2011). Other research indicates that

up to one-third of US women will experience a rape or sexual assault, including attempts, at least once in their

lives (Barkan, 2012). A study of a random sample of 420 Toronto women involving intensive interviews yielded

an even higher figure: Two-thirds said they had experienced at least one rape or sexual assault, including attempts.

The researchers, Melanie Randall and Lori Haskell (1995, p. 22), concluded that “it is more common than not for

a woman to have an experience of sexual assault during their lifetime.”

Studies of college students also find a high amount of rape and sexual assault. About 20–30 percent of women

students in anonymous surveys report being raped or sexually assaulted (including attempts), usually by a male

172 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

student they knew beforehand (Fisher, Cullen, & Turner, 2000; Gross, Winslett, Roberts, & Gohm, 2006). Thus

at a campus of 10,000 students of whom 5,000 are women, about 1,000–1,500 women will be raped or sexually

assaulted over a period of four years, or about 10 per week in a four-year academic calendar. The Note 4.33

“People Making a Difference” box describes what one group of college students did to help reduce rape and sexual

assault at their campus.

People Making a Difference

College Students Protest against Sexual Violence

Dickinson College is a small liberal-arts campus in the small town of Carlisle, Pennsylvania. But in the fight againstsexual violence, it loomed huge in March 2011, when up to 150 students conducted a nonviolent occupation of thecollege’s administrative building for three days to protest rape and sexual assault on their campus. While they read, ate,and slept inside the building, more than 250 other students held rallies outside, with the total number of protesters easilyexceeding one-tenth of Dickinson’s student enrollment. The protesters held signs that said “Stop the silence, our safetyis more important than your reputation” and “I value my body, you should value my rights.” One student told a reporter,“This is a pervasive problem. Almost every student will tell you they know somebody who’s experienced sexual violenceor have experienced it themselves.”

Feeling that college officials had not done enough to help protect Dickinson’s women students, the students occupyingthe administrative building called on the college to set up an improved emergency system for reporting sexual assaults,to revamp its judicial system’s treatment of sexual assault cases, to create a sexual violence prevention program, and todevelop a new sexual misconduct policy.

Rather than having police or security guards take the students from the administrative building and even arrest them,Dickinson officials negotiated with the students and finally agreed to their demands. Upon hearing this good news, theoccupying students left the building on a Saturday morning, suffering from a lack of sleep and showers but cheered thatthey had won their demands. A college public relations official applauded the protesters, saying they “have indelibly lefttheir mark on the college. We’re all very proud of them.” On this small campus in a small town in Pennsylvania, a fewhundred college students had made a difference.

Sources: Jerving, 2011; Pitz, 2011

The public image of rape is of the proverbial stranger attacking a woman in an alleyway. While such rapes do

occur, most rapes actually happen between people who know each other. A wide body of research finds that 60–80

percent of all rapes and sexual assaults are committed by someone the woman knows, including husbands, ex-

husbands, boyfriends, and ex-boyfriends, and only 20–35 percent by strangers (Barkan, 2012). A woman is thus

two to four times more likely to be raped by someone she knows than by a stranger.

In 2011, sexual assaults of hotel housekeepers made major headlines after the head of the International Monetary

Fund was arrested for allegedly sexually assaulting a hotel housekeeper in New York City; the charges were later

dropped because the prosecution worried about the housekeeper’s credibility despite forensic evidence supporting

her claim. Still, in the wake of the arrest, news stories reported that hotel housekeepers sometimes encounter male

guests who commit sexual assault, make explicit comments, or expose themselves. A hotel security expert said in

one news story, “These problems happen with some regularity. They’re not rare, but they’re not common either.”

A housekeeper recalled in the same story an incident when she was vacuuming when a male guest appeared: “[He]

reached to try to kiss me behind my ear. I dropped my vacuum, and then he grabbed my body at the waist, and

he was holding me close. It was very scary.” She ran out of the room when the guest let her leave but did not

call the police. A hotel workers union official said housekeepers often refused to report sexual assault and other

4.4 Violence against Women: Rape and Sexual Assault 173

incidents to the police because they were afraid they would not be believed or that they would get fired if they did

so (Greenhouse, 2011, p. B1).

Explaining Rape and Sexual Assault

Sociological explanations of rape fall into cultural and structural categories similar to those presented earlier for

sexual harassment. Various “rape myths” in our culture support the absurd notion that women somehow enjoy

being raped, want to be raped, or are “asking for it” (Franiuk, Seefelt, & Vandello, 2008). One of the most famous

scenes in movie history occurs in the classic film Gone with the Wind, when Rhett Butler carries a struggling

Scarlett O’Hara up the stairs. She is struggling because she does not want to have sex with him. The next scene

shows Scarlett waking up the next morning with a satisfied, loving look on her face. The not-so-subtle message is

that she enjoyed being raped (or, to be more charitable to the film, was just playing hard to get).

A related cultural belief is that women somehow ask or deserve to be raped by the way they dress or behave. If

she dresses attractively or walks into a bar by herself, she wants to have sex, and if a rape occurs, well, then, what

did she expect? In the award-winning film The Accused, based on a true story, actress Jodie Foster plays a woman

who was raped by several men on top of a pool table in a bar. The film recounts how members of the public

questioned why she was in the bar by herself if she did not want to have sex and blamed her for being raped.

A third cultural belief is that a man who is sexually active with a lot of women is a stud and thus someone admired

by his male peers. Although this belief is less common in this day of AIDS and other STDs, it is still with us. A

man with multiple sex partners continues to be the source of envy among many of his peers. At a minimum, men

are still the ones who have to “make the first move” and then continue making more moves. There is a thin line

between being sexually assertive and sexually aggressive (Kassing, Beesley, & Frey, 2005).

These three cultural beliefs—that women enjoy being forced to have sex, that they ask or deserve to be raped, and

that men should be sexually assertive or even aggressive—combine to produce a cultural recipe for rape. Although

most men do not rape, the cultural beliefs and myths just described help account for the rapes that do occur.

Recognizing this, the contemporary women’s movement began attacking these myths back in the 1970s, and the

public is much more conscious of the true nature of rape than a generation ago. That said, much of the public still

accepts these cultural beliefs and myths, and prosecutors continue to find it difficult to win jury convictions in

rape trials unless the woman who was raped had suffered visible injuries, had not known the man who raped her,

and/or was not dressed attractively (Levine, 2006).

Structural explanations for rape emphasize the power differences between women and men similar to those

outlined earlier for sexual harassment. In societies that are male dominated, rape and other violence against

women is a likely outcome, as they allow men to demonstrate and maintain their power over women. Supporting

this view, studies of preindustrial societies and of the fifty states of the United States find that rape is more

common in societies where women have less economic and political power (Baron & Straus, 1989; Sanday, 1981).

Poverty is also a predictor of rape; although rape in the United States transcends social class boundaries, it does

seem more common among poorer segments of the population than among wealthier segments, as is true for other

types of violence (Truman & Rand, 2010). Scholars think the higher rape rates among the poor stem from poor

174 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

men trying to prove their “masculinity” by taking out their economic frustration on women (Martin, Vieraitis, &

Britto, 2006).

Key Takeaways

• Up to one-third of US women experience a rape or sexual assault, including attempts, in their lifetime.

• Rape and sexual assault result from a combination of structural and cultural factors. In states and nationswhere women are more unequal, rape rates tend to be higher.

For Your Review

1. What evidence and reasoning indicate that rape and sexual assault are not just the result of psychologicalproblems affecting the men who engage in these crimes?

2. Write a brief essay in which you critically evaluate the cultural beliefs that contribute to rape and sexualassault.

References

Barkan, S. E. (2012). Criminology: A sociological understanding (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Baron, L., & Straus, M. A. (1989). Four theories of rape in American society: A state-level analysis. New Haven,

CT: Yale University Press.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2011). Crime in the United States, 2010. Washington, DC: Author.

Fisher, B. S., Cullen, F. T., & Turner, M. G. (2000). The sexual victimization of college women. Washington, DC:

National Institute of Justice.

Franiuk, R., Seefelt, J., & Vandello, J. (2008). Prevalence of rape myths in headlines and their effects on attitudes

toward rape. Sex Roles, 58(11/12), 790–801.

Greenhouse, S. (2011, May 21). Sexual affronts a known hotel hazard. New York Times, p. B1.

Griffin, S. (1971, September). Rape: The all-American crime. Ramparts, 10, 26–35.

Gross, A. M., Winslett, A., Roberts, M., & Gohm, C. L. (2006). An examination of sexual violence against college

women. Violence Against Women, 12, 288–300.

Jerving, S. (2011, March 4). Pennsylvania students protest against sexual violence and administrators respond.

The Nation. Retrieved from http://www.thenation.com/blog/159037/pennsylvania-students-protests-against-

sexual-violence-and-administrators-respond.

4.4 Violence against Women: Rape and Sexual Assault 175

Kassing, L. R., Beesley, D., & Frey, L. L. (2005). Gender role conflict, homophobia, age, and education as

predictors of male rape myth acceptance. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 27(4), 311–328.

Levine, K. L. (2006). The intimacy discount: Prosecutorial discretion, privacy, and equality in the statuory rape

caseload. Emory Law Journal, 55(4), 691–749.

Martin, K., Vieraitis, L. M., & Britto, S. (2006). Gender equality and women’s absolute status: A test of the

feminist models of rape. Violence Against Women, 12, 321–339.

Pitz, M. (2011, March 6). Dickinson College to change sexual assault policy after sit-in. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Retrieved from http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11065/1130102-1130454.stm.

Randall, M., & Haskell, L. (1995). Sexual violence in women’s lives: Findings from the women’s safety project,

a community-based survey. Violence Against Women, 1, 6–31.

Sanday, P. R. (1981). The Socio-Cultural Context of Rape: A Cross-Cultural Study. Journal of Social Issues, 37,

5–27.

Truman, J. L., & Rand, M. R. (2010). Criminal victimization, 2009. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

176 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

4.5 The Benefits and Costs of Being Male

Learning Objectives

1. List some of the benefits of being male.

2. List some of the costs of being male.

Most of the discussion so far has been about women, and with good reason: In a sexist society such as our own,

women are the subordinate, unequal sex. But gender means more than female, and a few comments about men are

in order.

Benefits

We have already discussed gender differences in occupations and incomes that favor men over women. In a

patriarchal society, men have more wealth than women and more influence in the political and economic worlds

more generally.

Men profit in other ways as well. In Chapter 3 “Racial and Ethnic Inequality”, we talked about white privilege,

or the advantages that whites automatically have in a racist society whether or not they realize they have these

advantages. Many scholars also talk about male privilege, or the advantages that males automatically have in a

patriarchal society whether or not they realize they have these advantages (McIntosh, 2007).

A few examples illustrate male privilege. Men can usually walk anywhere they want or go into any bar they

want without having to worry about being raped or sexually harassed. Susan Griffin was able to write “I have

never been free of the fear of rape” because she was a woman; it is no exaggeration to say that few men could

write the same thing and mean it. Although some men are sexually harassed, most men can work at any job they

want without having to worry about sexual harassment. Men can walk down the street without having strangers

make crude remarks about their looks, dress, and sexual behavior. Men can ride the subway system in large

cities without having strangers grope them, flash them, or rub their bodies against them. Men can apply for most

jobs without worrying about being rejected because of their gender, or, if hired, not being promoted because

of their gender. We could go on with many other examples, but the fact remains that in a patriarchal society,

men automatically have advantages just because they are men, even if race/ethnicity, social class, and sexual

orientation affect the degree to which they are able to enjoy these advantages.

Costs

Yet it is also true that men pay a price for living in a patriarchy. Without trying to claim that men have

it as bad as women, scholars are increasingly pointing to the problems men face in a society that promotes

male domination and traditional standards of masculinity such as assertiveness, competitiveness, and toughness

(Kimmel & Messner, 2010). Socialization into masculinity is thought to underlie many of the emotional problems

men experience, which stem from a combination of their emotional inexpressiveness and reluctance to admit to,

and seek help for, various personal problems (Wong & Rochlen, 2005). Sometimes these emotional problems

build up and explode, as mass shootings by males at schools and elsewhere indicate, or express themselves in

other ways. Compared to girls, for example, boys are much more likely to be diagnosed with emotional disorders,

learning disabilities, and attention deficit disorder, and they are also more likely to commit suicide and to drop out

of high school.

Men experience other problems that put themselves at a disadvantage compared to women. They commit much

more violence than women do and, apart from rape and sexual assault, also suffer a much higher rate of violent

victimization. They die earlier than women and are injured more often. Because men are less involved than

women in child rearing, they also miss out on the joy of parenting that women are much more likely to experience.

Growing recognition of the problems males experience because of their socialization into masculinity has led to

increased concern over what is happening to American boys. Citing the strong linkage between masculinity and

violence, some writers urge parents to raise their sons differently in order to help our society reduce its violent

behavior (Corbett, 2011). In all these respects, boys and men—and our nation as a whole—are paying a very real

price for being male in a patriarchal society.

Key Takeaways

• In a patriarchal society, males automatically have certain advantages, including a general freedom from fearof being raped and sexually assaulted and from experiencing job discrimination on the basis of their gender.

• Men also suffer certain disadvantages from being male, including higher rates of injury, violence, and deathand a lower likelihood of experiencing the joy that parenting often brings.

For Your Review

1. What do you think is the most important advantage, privilege, or benefit that men enjoy in the UnitedStates? Explain your answer.

2. What do you think is the most significant cost or disadvantage that men experience? Again, explain youranswer.

178 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

References

Corbett, K. (2011). Boyhoods: Rethinking masculinities. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Kimmel, M. S., & Messner, M. A. (Eds.). (2010). Men’s lives (8th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

McIntosh, P. (2007). White privilege and male privilege: A personal account of coming to see correspondence

through work in women’s studies. In M. L. Andersen & P. H. Collins (Eds.), Race, class, and gender: An

anthology (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Wong, Y. J., & Rochlen, A. B. (2005). Demystifying men’s emotional behavior: New directions and implications

for counseling and research. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 6, 62–72.

4.5 The Benefits and Costs of Being Male 179

4.6 Reducing Gender Inequality

Learning Objectives

1. Describe any three policies or programs that should help reduce gender inequality.

2. Discuss possible ways of reducing rape and sexual assault.

Gender inequality is found in varying degrees in most societies around the world, and the United States is no

exception. Just as racial/ethnic stereotyping and prejudice underlie racial/ethnic inequality (see Chapter 3 “Racial

and Ethnic Inequality”), so do stereotypes and false beliefs underlie gender inequality. Although these stereotypes

and beliefs have weakened considerably since the 1970s thanks in large part to the contemporary women’s

movement, they obviously persist and hamper efforts to achieve full gender equality.

A sociological perspective reminds us that gender inequality stems from a complex mixture of cultural and

structural factors that must be addressed if gender inequality is to be reduced further than it already has been since

the 1970s. Despite changes during this period, children are still socialized from birth into traditional notions of

femininity and masculinity, and gender-based stereotyping incorporating these notions still continues. Although

people should certainly be free to pursue whatever family and career responsibilities they desire, socialization

and stereotyping still combine to limit the ability of girls and boys and women and men alike to imagine less

traditional possibilities. Meanwhile, structural obstacles in the workplace and elsewhere continue to keep women

in a subordinate social and economic status relative to men.

To reduce gender inequality, then, a sociological perspective suggests various policies and measures to address the

cultural and structural factors that help produce gender inequality. These steps might include, but are not limited

to, the following:

1. Reduce socialization by parents and other adults of girls and boys into traditional gender roles.

2. Confront gender stereotyping by the popular and news media.

3. Increase public consciousness of the reasons for, extent of, and consequences of rape and sexual

assault, sexual harassment, and pornography.

4. Increase enforcement of existing laws against gender-based employment discrimination and against

sexual harassment.

5. Increase funding of rape-crisis centers and other services for girls and women who have been raped

and/or sexually assaulted.

6. Increase government funding of high-quality day-care options to enable parents, and especially

mothers, to work outside the home if they so desire, and to do so without fear that their finances or

their children’s well-being will be compromised.

7. Increase mentorship and other efforts to boost the number of women in traditionally male occupations

and in positions of political leadership.

As we consider how best to reduce gender inequality, the impact of the contemporary women’s movement must

be neither forgotten nor underestimated. Since it began in the late 1960s, the women’s movement has generated

important advances for women in almost every sphere of life. Brave women (and some men) challenged the

status quo by calling attention to gender inequality in the workplace, education, and elsewhere, and they brought

rape and sexual assault, sexual harassment, and domestic violence into the national consciousness. For gender

inequality to continue to be reduced, it is essential that a strong women’s movement continue to remind us of the

sexism that still persists in American society and the rest of the world.

Reducing Rape and Sexual Assault

As we have seen, gender inequality also manifests itself in the form of violence against women. A sociological

perspective tells us that cultural myths and economic and gender inequality help lead to rape, and that the rape

problem goes far beyond a few psychopathic men who rape women. A sociological perspective thus tells us that

our society cannot just stop at doing something about these men. Instead it must make more far-reaching changes

by changing people’s beliefs about rape and by making every effort to reduce poverty and to empower women.

This last task is especially important, for, as Randall and Haskell (1995, p. 22) observed, a sociological perspective

on rape “means calling into question the organization of sexual inequality in our society.”

Aside from this fundamental change, other remedies, such as additional and better funded rape-crisis centers,

would help women who experience rape and sexual assault. Yet even here women of color face an additional

barrier. Because the antirape movement was begun by white, middle-class feminists, the rape-crisis centers they

founded tended to be near where they live, such as college campuses, and not in the areas where women of color

live, such as inner cities and Native American reservations. This meant that women of color who experienced

sexual violence lacked the kinds of help available to their white, middle-class counterparts (Matthews, 1989), and

despite some progress, this is still true today.

Key Takeaways

• Certain government efforts, including increased financial support for child care, should help reduce genderinequality.

• If gender inequality lessens, rape and sexual assault should decrease as well.

For Your Review

1. To reduce gender inequality, do you think efforts should focus more on changing socialization practices oron changing policies in the workplace and schools? Explain your answer.

4.6 Reducing Gender Inequality 181

2. How hopeful are you that rape and sexual assault will decrease significantly in your lifetime?

References

Matthews, N. A. (1989). Surmounting a legacy: The expansion of racial diversity in a local anti-rape movement.

Gender & Society, 3, 518–532.

Randall, M., & Haskell, L. (1995). Sexual violence in women’s lives: Findings from the women’s safety project,

a community-based survey. Violence Against Women, 1, 6–31.

182 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

4.7 End-of-Chapter Material

Summary

1. Sex is a concept that refers to biological differences between females and males, while gender is a conceptthat refers to a society’s expectations of how females and males should think and behave.

2. In understanding gender differences, scholars continue to debate the value of biological explanations.Biological explanations are provocative but ultimately imply that gender differences are inevitable and thatthe status quo must be maintained. In contrast, cultural and socialization explanations imply some hope forchanging gender roles and for reducing gender inequality.

3. Many studies emphasize that socialization leads children in the United States to adopt the gender rolesassociated with femininity and masculinity. Parents view and interact with their daughters and sonsdifferently, and children continue to learn their gender roles from their peers, schools, the mass media, andreligion.

4. Feminism refers to the belief that women should be equal to men. With feminism defined in this way, manymore people hold feminist beliefs than might be willing to admit to it.

5. Gender inequality in the workplace is manifested through the gender gap in earnings and through sexualharassment. Women earn only about 80 percent of what men earn. Several reasons account for this gap,including sex segregation in the workplace, women’s caring roles, the devaluing of women’s work, andoutright sex discrimination by employers. Sexual harassment against women is quite common and stemsfrom cultural beliefs about women’s and men’s roles and structural differences in the workplace in powerbetween women and men.

6. Women of color experience a triple burden based on their gender, race/ethnicity, and social class. Eventhough white women earn less money and are poorer than white men, women of color earn less money andare poorer than white women.

7. Violence against women is another manifestation of gender inequality. Research shows that up to one-thirdof US women will be raped or sexually assaulted and that about 70–80 percent of their assailants will bemen they know.

8. In a patriarchal society men enjoy privileges just for being male, whether or not they recognize theseprivileges. At the same time, men also experience disadvantages, including violent behavior andvictimization and higher rates of certain emotional problems than those experienced by women.

Using What You Know

A friend of yours is working twenty hours per week in a local restaurant during the academic year to earn money for hertuition. She tells you that her manager has pressured her to go out on a date with him and has hinted she could be firedif she refuses. Your friend likes working there otherwise and makes good tips, but she is now dreading having to go towork. With the tight job market, she fears not being able to find other work if she quits, and she’s afraid of being fired ornot believed if she complains to state authorities. She asks you what she should do. What do you tell her?

What You Can Do

To help reduce gender inequality, you may wish to do any of the following:

1. Contribute money to a local, state, or national organization that provides treatment to adolescent girls withdrug, alcohol, or other problems.

2. Volunteer at a rape crisis center or for a rape hotline.

3. Start or join a group on your campus that focuses on gender issues.

4. Start or join a group on your campus or in the local community that focuses on getting middle-school girlsmore interested in math and the sciences.

184 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Chapter 5: Sexual Orientation and Inequality

Social Problems in the News

“Miami Beach to Fire Two Officers in Gay Beating at Park,” the headline said. City officials in Miami Beach, Florida,announced that the city would fire two police officers accused of beating a gay man two years earlier and kicking andarresting a gay tourist who came to the man’s defense. The tourist said he called 911 when he saw two officers, who wereworking undercover, beating the man and kicking his head. According to his account, the officers then shouted antigayslurs at him, kicked him, and arrested him on false charges. The president of Miami Beach Gay Pride welcomed the newsof the impending firing. “It sets a precedent that you can’t discriminate against anyone and get away with it,” he said.“[The two officers] tried to cover it up and arrested the guy. It’s an abuse of power. Kudos to the city. They’ve taken itseriously.”

Source: Smiley & Rothaus, 2011

From 1933 to 1945, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime exterminated 6 million Jews in the Holocaust, but it also

persecuted millions of other people, including gay men. Nazi officials alleged that these men harbored what

they termed a “degeneracy” that threatened Germany’s “disciplined masculinity.” Calling gay men “antisocial

parasites” and “enemies of the state,” the Nazi government arrested more than 100,000 men for violating a law

against homosexuality, although it did not arrest lesbians because it valued their child-bearing capacity. At least

5,000 gay men were imprisoned, and many more were put in mental institutions. Several hundred other gay men

were castrated, and up to 15,000 were placed in concentration camps, where most died from disease, starvation, or

murder. As the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (2011) summarizes these events, “Nazi Germany did

not seek to kill all homosexuals. Nevertheless, the Nazi state, through active persecution, attempted to terrorize

German homosexuals into sexual and social conformity, leaving thousands dead and shattering the lives of many

more.”

This terrible history reminds us that sexual orientation has often resulted in inequality of many kinds, and, in

the extreme case of the Nazis, inhumane treatment that included castration, imprisonment, and death. The news

story that began this chapter makes clear that sexual orientation still results in violence, even if this violence falls

short of what the Nazis did. Although the gay rights movement has achieved much success, sexual orientation

continues to result in other types of inequality as well. This chapter examines the many forms of inequality

linked to sexual orientation today. It begins with a conceptual discussion of sexual orientation before turning to

its history, explanation, types of inequality, and other matters.

References

Smiley, D. & Rothaus, S. (2011, July 25). Miami Beach to fire two officers in gay beating at park. The Miami

Herald. Retrieved from http://miamiherald.typepad.com/gaysouthflorida/2011/07/miami-beach-to-fire-two-cops-

who-beat-falsely-arrested-gay-man-at-flamingo-park.html.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. (2011). Nazi persecution of homosexuals 1933–1945. Retrieved

August 14, 2011, from http://www.ushmm.org/museum/exhibit/online/hsx/.

186 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

5.1 Understanding Sexual Orientation

Learning Objectives

1. Define sexual orientation and gender identity.

2. Describe what percentage of the US population is estimated to be LGBT.

3. Summarize the history of sexual orientation.

4. Evaluate the possible reasons for sexual orientation.

Sexual orientation refers to a person’s preference for sexual relationships with individuals of the other sex

(heterosexuality), one’s own sex (homosexuality), or both sexes (bisexuality). The term also increasingly refers

to transgender (also transgendered) individuals, those whose behavior, appearance, and/or gender identity (the

personal conception of oneself as female, male, both, or neither) departs from conventional norms. Transgendered

individuals include transvestites (those who dress in the clothing of the opposite sex) and transsexuals (those

whose gender identity differs from their physiological sex and who sometimes undergo a sex change). A

transgender woman is a person who was born biologically as a male and becomes a woman, while a transgender

man is a person who was born biologically as a woman and becomes a man. As you almost certainly know,

gay is the common term now used for any homosexual individual; gay men or gays is the common term

used for homosexual men, while lesbian is the common term used for homosexual women. All the types of

social orientation just outlined are often collectively referred to by the shorthand LGBT (lesbian/gay/bisexual/

transgender). As you almost certainly also know, the term straight is used today as a synonym for heterosexual.

Counting Sexual Orientation

We will probably never know precisely how many people are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered. One

problem is conceptual. For example, what does it mean to be gay or lesbian? Does one need to actually have

sexual relations with a same-sex partner to be considered gay? What if someone is attracted to same-sex partners

but does not actually engage in sex with such persons? What if someone identifies as heterosexual but engages

in homosexual sex for money (as in certain forms of prostitution) or for power and influence (as in much prison

sex)? These conceptual problems make it difficult to determine the extent of homosexuality (Gates, 2011).

It is difficult for several reasons to know exactly how many people are LGBT.

thaths – A gay couple watching the parade – CC BY-NC 2.0.

A second problem is empirical. Even if we can settle on a definition of homosexuality, how do we then determine

how many people fit this definition? For better or worse, our best evidence of the number of gays and lesbians

in the United States comes from surveys that ask random samples of Americans various questions about their

sexuality. Although these are anonymous surveys, some individuals may be reluctant to disclose their sexual

activity and thoughts to an interviewer. Still, scholars think that estimates from these surveys are fairly accurate

but also that they probably underestimate by at least a small amount the number of gays and lesbians.

During the 1940s and 1950s, sex researcher Alfred C. Kinsey carried out the first notable attempt to estimate the

number of gays and lesbians (Kinsey, Pomeroy, & Martin, 1948; Kinsey, Pomeroy, Martin, & Gebhard, 1953).

His project interviewed more than 11,000 white women and men about their sexual experiences, thoughts, and

attractions, with each subject answering hundreds of questions. While most individuals had experiences and

feelings that were exclusively heterosexual, a significant number had experiences and feelings that were either

exclusively homosexual or both heterosexual and homosexual in varying degrees. These findings led Kinsey

to reject the popular idea back then that a person is necessarily either heterosexual or homosexual (or straight

or gay, to use the common modern terms). As he wrote, “It is a characteristic of the human mind that tries to

dichotomize in its classification of phenomena…Sexual behavior is either normal or abnormal, socially acceptable

or unacceptable, heterosexual or homosexual; and many persons do not want to believe that there are gradations

in these matters from one to the other extreme” (Kinsey et al., 1953, p. 469). Perhaps Kinsey’s most significant

and controversial finding was that gradations did, in fact, exist between being exclusively heterosexual on the one

hand and exclusively homosexual on the other hand. To reflect these gradations, he developed the well-known

Kinsey Scale, which ranks individuals on a continuum ranging from 0 (exclusively heterosexual) to 6 (exclusively

homosexual).

188 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

In terms of specific numbers, Kinsey found that (a) 37 percent of males and 13 percent of females had had at least

one same-sex experience; (b) 10 percent of males had mostly homosexual experiences between the ages of 16 and

55, while up to 6 percent of females had mostly homosexual experiences between the ages of 20 and 35; (c) 4

percent of males were exclusively homosexual after adolescence began, compared to 1–3 percent of females; and

(d) 46 percent of males either had engaged in both heterosexual and homosexual experiences or had been attracted

to persons of both sexes, compared to 14 percent of females.

An estimated 3.8 percent of the US adult population identifies as LGBT. This figure amounts to about 9 million people.

Nathan Rupert – Crazy fun loving lesbian couple – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

More recent research updates Kinsey’s early findings and, more important, uses nationally representative samples

of Americans (which Kinsey did not use). In general, this research suggests that Kinsey overstated the numbers of

Americans who have had same-sex experiences and/or attractions. A widely cited survey carried out in the early

1990s by researchers at the University of Chicago found that 2.8 percent of men and 1.4 percent of women self-

identified as gay/lesbian or bisexual, with greater percentages reporting having had sexual relations with same-

sex partners or being attracted to same-sex persons (see Table 5.1 “Prevalence of Homosexuality in the United

States”). In the 2010 General Social Survey (GSS), 1.8 percent of men and 3.3 percent of women self-identified

as gay/lesbian or bisexual. In the 2006–2008 National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) conducted by the federal

5.1 Understanding Sexual Orientation 189

government (Chandra, Mosher, Copen, & Sionean, 2011), 2.8 percent of men self-identified as gay or bisexual,

compared to 4.6 percent of women (ages 18–44 for both sexes).

Table 5.1 Prevalence of Homosexuality in the United States

Activity, attraction, or identity Men (%) Women (%)

Find same-sex sexual relations appealing 4.5 5.6

Attracted to people of same sex 6.2 4.4

Identify as gay or bisexual 2.8 1.4

At least one sex partner of same sex during past year among those sexually active 2.7 1.3

At least one sex partner of same sex since turning 18 4.9 4.1

Source: Data from Laumann, E. O., Gagnon, J. H., Michael, R. T., & Michaels, S. (1994). The social organization of sexuality. Chicago, IL:

University of Chicago Press.

These are all a lot of numbers, but demographer Gary J. Gates (2011) drew on the most recent national survey

evidence to come up with the following estimates for adults 18 and older:

• 3.5 percent of Americans identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, and 0.3 percent are transgender; these

figures add up to 3.8 percent of Americans, or 9 million people, who are LGBT.

• 3.4 percent of women and 3.6 percent of men identify as LGB.

• 66.7 percent of LGB women identify as bisexual, and 33.3 percent identify as lesbian; 33.3 percent of

LGB men identify as bisexual, and 66.7 percent identify as gay. LGB women are thus twice as likely

as LGB men to identify as bisexual.

• 8.2 percent of Americans, or 19 million people, have engaged in same-sex sexual behavior, with

women twice as likely as men to have done so.

• 11 percent of Americans, or 25.6 million people, report having some same-sex sexual attraction, with

women twice as likely as men to report such attraction.

The overall picture from these estimates is clear: Self-identified LGBT people comprise only a small percentage of

the US population, but they amount to about 9 million adults and undoubtedly a significant number of adolescents.

In addition, the total number of people who, regardless of their sexual orientation, have had a same-sex experience

is probably at least 19 million, and the number who have had same-sex attraction is probably at least 25 million.

Sexual Orientation in Historical Perspective

Based on what is known about homosexuality in past societies, it should be no surprise that so many people

in the United States identify as gay/lesbian or have had same-sex experiences. This historical record is clear:

Homosexuality has existed since ancient times and in some societies has been rather common or at least fully

accepted as a normal form of sexual expression.

190 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

In the great city of Athens in ancient Greece, male homosexuality (to be more precise, sexual relations between a

man and a teenaged boy and, less often, between a man and a man) was not only approved but even encouraged.

According to classical scholar K. J. Dover (1989, p. 12), Athenian society “certainly regarded strong homosexual

desire and emotion as normal,” in part because it also generally “entertained a low opinion of the intellectual

capacity and staying-power of women.” Louis Crompton (2003, p. 2), who wrote perhaps the definitive history of

homosexuality, agrees that male homosexuality in ancient Greece was common and notes that “in Greek history

and literature…the abundance of accounts of homosexual love overwhelms the investigator.” He adds,

Greek lyric poets sing of male love from almost the earliest fragments down to the end of classical times…Vase-painters

portray scores of homoerotic scenes, hundreds of inscriptions celebrate the love of boys, and such affairs enter into the lives of

a long catalogue of famous Greek statesmen, warriors, artists, and authors. Though it has often been assumed that the love of

males was a fashion confined to a small intellectual elite during the age of Plato, in fact it was pervasive throughout all levels

of Greek society and held an honored place in Greek culture for more than a thousand years, that is, from before 600 B.C.E. to

about 400 C.E.

Male homosexuality in ancient Rome was also common and accepted as normal sexuality, but it took a different

form from than in ancient Greece. Ancient Romans disapproved of sexual relations between a man and a freeborn

male youth, but they approved of relations between a slave master and his youthful male slave. Sexual activity of

this type was common. As Crompton (2003, p. 80) wryly notes, “Opportunities were ample for Roman masters”

because slaves comprised about 40 percent of the population of ancient Rome. However, these “opportunities” are

best regarded as violent domination by slave masters over their slaves.

By the time Rome fell in 476 CE, Europe had become a Christian continent. Influenced by several passages in the

Bible that condemn homosexuality, Europeans considered homosexuality a sin, and their governments outlawed

same-sex relations. If discovered, male homosexuals (or any men suspected of homosexuality) were vulnerable

to execution for the next fourteen centuries, and many did lose their lives. During the Middle Ages, gay men and

lesbians were stoned, burned at the stake, hanged, or beheaded, and otherwise abused and mistreated. Crompton

(2003, p. 539) calls these atrocities a “routine of terror” and a “kaleidoscope of horrors.” Hitler’s persecution of

gay men several centuries after the Middle Ages ended had ample precedent in European history.

In contrast to the European treatment of gay men and lesbians, China and Japan from ancient times onward viewed

homosexuality much more positively in what Crompton (2003, p. 215) calls an “unselfconscious acceptance

of same-sex relations.” He adds that male love in Japan during the 1500s was “a national tradition—one the

Japanese thought natural and meritorious” (Crompton, 2003, p. 412) and very much part of the samurai (military

nobility) culture of preindustrial Japan. In China, both male and female homosexuality were seen as normal

and even healthy sexual outlets. Because Confucianism, the major Chinese religion when the Common Era

began, considered women inferior, it considered male friendships very important and thus may have unwittingly

promoted same-sex relations among men. Various artistic and written records indicate that male homosexuality

was fairly common in China over the centuries, although the exact numbers can never be known. When China

began trading and otherwise communicating with Europe during the Ming dynasty, its tolerance for homosexuality

shocked and disgusted Catholic missionaries and other Europeans. Some European clergy and scientists even

blamed earthquakes and other natural disasters in China on this tolerance.

In addition to this body of work by historians, anthropologists have also studied same-sex relations in small,

5.1 Understanding Sexual Orientation 191

traditional societies. In many of these societies, homosexuality is both common and accepted as normal sexual

behavior. In one overview of seventy-six societies, the authors found that almost two-thirds regarded

homosexuality as “normal and socially acceptable for certain members of the community” (Ford & Beach, 1951,

p. 130). Among the Azande of East Africa, for example, young warriors live with each other and are not allowed

to marry. During this time, they often have sex with younger boys. Among the Sambia of New Guinea, young

males live separately from females and have same-sex relations for at least a decade. It is felt that the boys would

be less masculine if they continued to live with their mothers and that the semen of older males helps young boys

become strong and fierce (Edgerton, 1976).

This brief historical and anthropological overview provides ready evidence of what was said at its outset:

Homosexuality has existed since ancient times and in some societies has been rather common or at least fully

accepted as a normal form of sexual expression. Although Western society, influenced by the Judeo-Christian

tradition, has largely condemned homosexuality since Western civilization began some 2,000 years ago, the great

civilizations of ancient Greece and ancient China and Japan until the industrial age approved of homosexuality.

In these civilizations, male homosexuality was fairly common, and female homosexuality was far from unknown.

Same-sex relations are also fairly common in many of the societies that anthropologists have studied. Although

Western societies have long considered homosexuality sinful and unnatural and more generally have viewed it

very negatively, the historical and anthropological record demonstrates that same-sex relationships are far from

rare. They thus must objectively be regarded as normal expressions of sexuality.

In fact, some of the most famous individuals in Western political, literary, and artistic history certainly or probably

engaged in same-sex relations, either sometimes or exclusively: Alexander the Great, Hans Christian Andersen,

Marie Antoinette, Aristotle, Sir Francis Bacon, James Baldwin, Leonard Bernstein, Lord Byron, Julius Caesar,

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick the Great, Leonardo de Vinci, Herman Melville, Michelangelo, Plato, Cole

Porter, Richard the Lionhearted, Eleanor Roosevelt, Socrates, Gertrude Stein, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Henry David

Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Tennessee Williams, Oscar Wilde, and Virginia Woolf, to name just a few. Regardless or

perhaps in some cases because of their sexuality, they all made great contributions to the societies in which they

lived.

Explaining Sexual Orientation

We have seen that it is difficult to determine the number of people who are gay/lesbian or bisexual. It is even more

difficult to determine why some people have these sexual orientations while most do not, and scholars disagree

on the “causes” of sexual orientation (Engle, McFalls, Gallagher, & Curtis, 2006; Sheldon, Pfeffer, Jayaratne,

Feldbaum, & Petty, 2007). Determining the origins of sexual orientation is not just an academic exercise. When

people believe that the roots of homosexuality are biological or that gays otherwise do not choose to be gay,

they are more likely to have positive or at least tolerant views of same-sex behavior. When they believe that

homosexuality is instead merely a personal choice, they are more likely to disapprove of it (Sheldon et al., 2007).

For this reason if for no other, it is important to know why some people are gay or bisexual while most are not.

Studies of the origins of sexual orientation focus mostly on biological factors and on social and cultural factors,

and a healthy scholarly debate exists on the relative importance of these two sets of factors.

192 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Biological Factors

Research points to certain genetic and other biological roots of sexual orientation but is by no means conclusive.

One line of research concerns genetics. Although no “gay gene” has been discovered, studies of identical twins

find they are more likely to have the same sexual orientation (gay or straight) than would be expected from chance

alone (Kendler, Thornton, Gilman, & Kessler, 2000; Santtila et al., 2008). Because identical twins have the same

DNA, this similarity suggests, but does not prove, a genetic basis for sexual orientation. Keep in mind, however,

that any physical or behavioral trait that is totally due to genetics should show up in both twins or in neither twin.

Because many identical twins do not have the same sexual orientation, this dissimilarity suggests that genetics are

far from the only cause of sexual orientation, to the extent they cause it at all. Several methodological problems

also cast doubt on findings from many of these twin studies. A recent review concluded that the case for a genetic

cause of sexual orientation is far from proven: “Findings from genetic studies of homosexuality in humans have

been confusing—contradictory at worst and tantalizing at best—with no clear, strong, compelling

Despite scholarly speculation, sexual orientation does not appear to be affected by the level of prenatal hormones.

il-young ko – pregnant – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Another line of research concerns brain anatomy, as some studies find differences in the size and structure of

the hypothalamus, which controls many bodily functions, in the brains of gays versus the brains of straights

(Allen & Gorski, 1992). However, other studies find no such differences (Lasco, Jordan, Edgar, Petito, & Byne,

2002). Complicating matters further, because sexual behavior can affect the hypothalamus (Breedlove, 1997), it

is difficult to determine whether any differences that might be found reflect the influence of the hypothalamus on

sexual orientation, or instead the influence of sexual orientation on the hypothalamus (Sheldon et al., 2007).

A third line of biological research concerns hormonal balance in the womb, with scientists speculating that the

level of prenatal androgen affects which sexual orientation develops. Because prenatal androgen levels cannot be

5.1 Understanding Sexual Orientation 193

measured, studies typically measure it only indirectly in the bodies of gays and straights by comparing the lengths

of certain fingers and bones that are thought to be related to prenatal androgen. Some of these studies suggest that

gay men had lower levels of prenatal androgen than straight men and that lesbians had higher levels of prenatal

androgen than straight women, but other studies find no evidence of this connection (Martin & Nguyen, 2004;

Mustanski, Chivers, & Bailey, 2002). A recent review concluded that the results of the hormone studies are “often

inconsistent” and that “the notion that non-heterosexual preferences may reflect [deviations from normal prenatal

hormonal levels] is not supported by the available data” (Rahman, 2005, p. 1057).

Social and Cultural Factors

Sociologists usually emphasize the importance of socialization over biology for the learning of many forms of

human behavior. In this view, humans are born with “blank slates” and thereafter shaped by their society and

culture, and children are shaped by their parents, teachers, peers, and other aspects of their immediate social

environment while they are growing up.

Given this standard sociological position, one might think that sociologists generally believe that people are gay

or straight not because of their biology but because they learn to be gay or straight from their society, culture, and

immediate social environment. This, in fact, was a common belief of sociologists about a generation ago (Engle

et al., 2006). In a 1988 review article, two sociologists concluded that “evidence that homosexuality is a social

construction [learned from society and culture] is far more powerful than the evidence for a widespread organic

[biological] predisposition toward homosexual desire” (Risman & Schwartz, 1988, p. 143). The most popular

introductory sociology text of the era similarly declared, “Many people, including some homosexuals, believe

that gays and lesbians are simply ‘born that way.’ But since we know that even heterosexuals are not ‘born that

way,’ this explanation seems unlikely…Homosexuality, like any other sexual behavior ranging from oral sex to

sadomasochism to the pursuit of brunettes, is learned” (Robertson, 1987, p. 243).

However, sociologists’ views of the origins of sexual orientation have apparently changed since these passages

were written. In a recent national survey of a random sample of sociologists, 22 percent said male homosexuality

results from biological factors, 38 percent said it results from both biological and environmental (learning) factors,

and 39 percent said it results from environmental factors (Engle et al., 2006). Thus 60 percent (= 22 + 38) thought

that biology totally or partly explains male homosexuality, almost certainly a much higher figure than would have

been found a generation ago had a similar survey been done.

In this regard, it is important to note that 77 percent (= 38 + 39) of the sociologists still feel that environmental

factors, or socialization, matter as well. Scholars who hold this view believe that sexual orientation is partly or

totally learned from one’s society, culture, and immediate social environment. In this way of thinking, we learn

“messages” from all these influences about whether it is OK or not OK to be sexually attracted to someone from

our own sex and/or to someone from the opposite sex. If we grow up with positive messages about same-sex

attraction, we are more likely to acquire this attraction. If we grow up with negative messages about same-sex

attraction, we are less likely to acquire it and more likely to have heterosexual desire.

It is difficult to do the necessary type of research to test whether socialization matters in this way, but the historical

and cross-cultural evidence discussed earlier provides at least some support for this process. Homosexuality was

194 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

generally accepted in ancient Greece, ancient China, and ancient Japan, and it also seemed rather common in those

societies. The same connection holds true in many of the societies that anthropologists have studied. In contrast,

homosexuality was condemned in Europe from the very early part of the first millennium CE, and it seems to have

been rather rare (although it is very possible that many gays hid their sexual orientation for fear of persecution

and death).

So where does this leave us? What are the origins of sexual orientation? The most honest answer is that we do

not yet know its origins. As we have seen, many scholars attribute sexual orientation to still unknown biological

factor(s) over which individuals have no control, just as individuals do not decide whether they are left-handed

or right-handed. Supporting this view, many gays say they realized they were gay during adolescence, just as

straights would say they realized they were straight during their own adolescence; moreover, evidence (from toy,

play, and clothing preferences) of future sexual orientation even appears during childhood (Rieger, Linsenmeier,

Bailey, & Gygax, 2008). Other scholars say that sexual orientation is at least partly influenced by cultural norms,

so that individuals are more likely to identify as gay or straight and be attracted to their same sex or opposite sex

depending on the cultural views of sexual orientation into which they are socialized as they grow up. At best,

perhaps all we can say is that sexual orientation stems from a complex mix of biological and cultural factors that

remain to be determined.

The official stance of the American Psychological Association (APA) is in line with this view. According

to the APA, “There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a

heterosexual, bisexual, gay, or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic,

hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that

permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think

that nature and nurture both play complex roles; most people experience little or no sense of choice about their

sexual orientation” (American Psychological Association, 2008, p. 2).

Although the exact origins of sexual orientation remain unknown, the APA’s last statement is perhaps the most

important conclusion from research on this issue: Most people experience little or no sense of choice about their

sexual orientation. Because, as mentioned earlier, people are more likely to approve of or tolerate homosexuality

when they believe it is not a choice, efforts to educate the public about this research conclusion should help the

public become more accepting of LGBT behavior and individuals.

Key Takeaways

• An estimated 3.8 percent, or 9 million, Americans identify as LGBT.

• Homosexuality seems to have been fairly common and very much accepted in some ancient societies as wellas in many societies studied by anthropologists.

• Scholars continue to debate the extent to which sexual orientation stems more from biological factors orfrom social and cultural factors and the extent to which sexual orientation is a choice or not a choice.

5.1 Understanding Sexual Orientation 195

For Your Review

1. Do you think sexual orientation is a choice, or not? Explain your answer.

2. Write an essay that describes how your middle school and high school friends talked about sexualorientation generally and homosexuality specifically.

References

Allen, L. S., & Gorski, R. A. (1992). Sexual orientation and the size of the anterior commissure in the human

brain. PNAS, 89, 7199–7202.

American Psychological Association. (2008). Answers to your questions: For a better understanding of sexual

orientation and homosexuality. Washington, DC: Author.

Breedlove, M. S. (1997). Sex on the brain. Nature, 389, 801.

Chandra, A., Mosher, W. D., Copen, C., & Sionean, C. (2011). Sexual behavior, sexual attraction, and sexual

identity in the United States: Data from the 2006–2008 national survey of family growth (National Health

Statistics Reports: Number 36). Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. Retrieved from

http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhsr/nhsr036.pdf.

Crompton, L. (2003). Homosexuality and civilization. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Dover, K. J. (1989). Greek homosexuality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Edgerton, R. (1976). Deviance: A cross-cultural perspective. Menlo Park, CA: Cummings Publishing.

Engle, M. J., McFalls, J. A., Jr., Gallagher, B. J., III, & Curtis, K. (2006). The attitudes of American sociologists

toward causal theories of male homosexuality. The American Sociologist, 37(1), 68–76.

Ford, C. S., & Beach, F. A. (1951). Patterns of sexual behavior. New York: Harper and Row.

Gates, G. J. (2011). How many people are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender? Los Angeles, CA: Williams

Institute.

Kendler, K. S., Thornton, L. M., Gilman, S. E., & Kessler, R. C. (2000). Sexual orientation in a US national

sample of twin and nontwin sibling pairs. American Journal of Psychiatry, 157, 1843–1846.

Kinsey, A. C., Pomeroy, W. B., & Martin, C. E. (1948). Sexual behavior in the human male. Philadelphia, PA: W.

B. Saunders.

Kinsey, A. C., Pomeroy, W. B., Martin, C. E., & Gebhard, P. H. (1953). Sexual behavior in the human female.

Philadelphia, PA: W. B. Saunders.

196 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Lasco, M. A., Jordan, T. J., Edgar, M. A., Petito, C. K., & Byne, W. (2002). A lack of dimporphism of sex or

sexual orientation in the human anterior commissure. Brain Research, 986, 95–98.

Martin, J. T., & Nguyen, D. H. (2004). Anthropometric analysis of homosexuals and heterosexuals: Implications

for early hormone exposure. Hormones and Behavior, 45, 31–39.

Mustanski, B. S., Chivers, M. L., & Bailey, J. M. (2002). A critical review of recent biological research on human

sexual orientation. Annual Review of Sex Research, 13, 89–140.

Rahman, Q. (2005). The neurodevelopment of human sexual orientation. Neuroscience Biobehavioral Review,

29(7), 1057–1066.

Rieger, G., Linsenmeier, J. A. W., Bailey, J. M., & Gygax, L. (2008). Sexual orientation and childhood gender

nonconformity: Evidence from home videos. Developmental Psychology, 44(1), 46–58.

Risman, B., & Schwartz, P. (1988). Sociological research on male and female homosexuality. Annual Review of

Sociology, 14, 125–147.

Robertson, I. (1987). Sociology. New York, NY: Worth.

Santtila, P., Sandnabba, N. K., Harlaar, N., Varjonen, M., Alanko, K., & Pahlen, B. v. d. (2008). Potential for

homosexual response is prevalent and genetic. Biological Psychology, 77, 102–105.

Sheldon, J. P., Pfeffer, C. A., Jayaratne, T. E., Feldbaum, M., & Petty, E. M. (2007). Beliefs about the etiology of

homosexuality and about the ramifications of discovering its possible genetic origin. Journal of Homosexuality,

52(3/4), 111–150.

5.1 Understanding Sexual Orientation 197

5.2 Public Attitudes about Sexual Orientation

Learning Objectives

1. Understand the extent and correlates of heterosexism.

2. Understand the nature of public opinion on other issues related to sexual orientation.

3. Describe how views about LGBT issues have changed since a few decades ago.

As noted earlier, views about gays and lesbians have certainly been very negative over the centuries in the areas of

the world, such as Europe and the Americas, that mostly follow the Judeo-Christian tradition. There is no question

that the Bible condemns homosexuality, with perhaps the most quoted Biblical passages in this regard found in

Leviticus:

• “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable” (Leviticus 18:22).

• “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They

must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads” (Leviticus 20:13).

The Bible contains several passages that appear to condemn homosexuality.

Sean MacEntee – Bible – CC BY 2.0.

The important question, though, is to what extent these passages should be interpreted literally. Certainly very

few people today believe that male homosexuals should be executed, despite what Leviticus 20:13 declares. Still,

many people who condemn homosexuality cite passages like Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13 as reasons for

their negative views.

This is not a theology text, but it is appropriate to mention briefly two points that many religious scholars

make about what the Bible says about homosexuality (Helminiak, 2000; Via & Gagnon, 2003). First, English

translations of the Bible’s antigay passages may distort their original meanings, and various contextual studies of

the Bible suggest that these passages did not, in fact, make blanket condemnations about homosexuality.

Second, and perhaps more important, most people “pick and choose” what they decide to believe from the Bible

and what they decide not to believe. Although the Bible is a great source of inspiration for many people, most

individuals are inconsistent when it comes to choosing which Biblical beliefs to believe and about which beliefs

not to believe. For example, if someone chooses to disapprove of homosexuality because the Bible condemns

it, why does this person not also choose to believe that gay men should be executed, which is precisely what

Leviticus 20:13 dictates? Further, the Bible calls for many practices and specifies many penalties that even very

devout people do not follow or believe. For example, most people except for devout Jews do not keep kosher,

even though the Bible says that everyone should do this, and most people certainly do not believe people who

commit adultery, engage in premarital sex, or work on the Sabbath should be executed, even though the Bible says

that such people should be executed. Citing the inconsistency with which most people follow Biblical commands,

many religious scholars say it is inappropriate to base public views about homosexuality on what the Bible says

about it.

We now turn our attention to social science evidence on views about LGBT behavior and individuals. We first

look at negative attitudes and then discuss a few other views.

The Extent of Heterosexism in the United States

We saw in earlier chapters that racism refers to negative views about, and practices toward, people of color, and

that sexism refers to negative views about, and practices toward, women. Heterosexism is the analogous term for

negative views about, and discriminatory practices toward, LGBT individuals and their sexual behavior.

There are many types of negative views about LGBT and thus many ways to measure heterosexism. The General

Social Survey (GSS), given regularly to a national sample of US residents, asks whether respondents think that

“sexual relations between two adults of the same sex” are always wrong, almost always wrong, sometimes wrong,

or not wrong at all. In 2010, almost 46 percent of respondents said same-sex relations are “always wrong,” and

43 percent responded they are “not wrong at all” (see Figure 5.1 “Opinion about “Sexual Relations between Two

Adults of the Same Sex,” 2010”).

Figure 5.1 Opinion about “Sexual Relations between Two Adults of the Same Sex,” 2010

5.2 Public Attitudes about Sexual Orientation 199

Source: Data from General Social Survey. (2010). Retrieved from http://sda.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/hsda?harcsda+gss10.

As another way of measuring heterosexism, the Gallup poll asks whether “gay or lesbian relations” are “morally

acceptable or morally wrong” (Gallup, 2011). In 2011, 56 percent of Gallup respondents answered “morally

acceptable,” while 39 percent replied “morally wrong.”

Although Figure 5.1 “Opinion about “Sexual Relations between Two Adults of the Same Sex,” 2010” shows

that 57.3 percent of Americans (= 45.7 + 3.7 + 7.9) think that same-sex relations are at least sometimes wrong,

public views regarding LGBT have notably become more positive over the past few decades. We can see evidence

of this trend in Figure 5.2 “Changes in Opinion about “Sexual Relations between Two Adults of the Same

Sex,” 1973–2010”, which shows that the percentage of GSS respondents who say same-sex relations are “always

wrong” has dropped considerably since the GSS first asked this question in 1973, while the percentage who

respond “not wrong at all” has risen considerably, with both these changes occurring since the early 1990s.

Figure 5.2 Changes in Opinion about “Sexual Relations between Two Adults of the Same Sex,” 1973–2010

200 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Source: Data from General Social Surveys. (1973–2010). Retrieved from http://sda.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/hsda?harcsda+gss10.

Trends in Gallup data confirm that public views regarding homosexuality have become more positive in recent

times. Recall that 56 percent of Gallup respondents in 2011 called same-sex relations “morally acceptable,”

while 39 percent replied “morally wrong.” Ten years earlier, these percentages were 40 percent and 53 percent,

respectively, representing a marked shift in public opinion in just a decade.

Correlates of Heterosexism

Scholars have investigated the sociodemographic factors that predict heterosexist attitudes. Reflecting the

sociological axiom that our social backgrounds influence our attitudes and behavior, several aspects of our social

backgrounds influence views about gays and lesbians. Among the most influential of these factors are gender, age,

education, region of residence, and religion. We can illustrate each of these influences with the GSS question on

whether same-sex relations are wrong, using the response “always wrong” as a measure of heterosexism.

• Gender. Men are somewhat more heterosexist than women (see part a of Figure 5.3 “Correlates of

Heterosexism (Percentage Saying That Same-Sex Relations Are “Always Wrong”)”).

• Age. Older people are considerably more heterosexist than younger people (see part b of Figure 5.3

“Correlates of Heterosexism (Percentage Saying That Same-Sex Relations Are “Always Wrong”)”).

• Education. Less educated people are considerably more heterosexist than more educated people (see

part c of Figure 5.3 “Correlates of Heterosexism (Percentage Saying That Same-Sex Relations Are

“Always Wrong”)”).

• Region of residence. Southerners are more heterosexist than non-Southerners (see part d ofFigure 5.3

“Correlates of Heterosexism (Percentage Saying That Same-Sex Relations Are “Always Wrong”)”).

• Religion. Religious people are considerably more heterosexist than less religious people (see part e of

Figure 5.3 “Correlates of Heterosexism (Percentage Saying That Same-Sex Relations Are “Always

Wrong”)”).

Figure 5.3 Correlates of Heterosexism (Percentage Saying That Same-Sex Relations Are “Always Wrong”)

5.2 Public Attitudes about Sexual Orientation 201

202 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Source: Data from General Social Survey. (2010). Retrieved from http://sda.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/hsda?harcsda+gss10.

5.2 Public Attitudes about Sexual Orientation 203

Because young people are especially likely to be accepting of homosexuality, attitudes about LGBT issues should continue to improve

as the older population passes away.

hepingting – CB106492 – CC BY-SA 2.0.

The age difference in heterosexism is perhaps particularly interesting. Many studies find that young people—those

younger than 30—are especially accepting of homosexuality and of same-sex marriage. As older people, who

have more negative views, pass away, it is likely that public opinion as a whole will become more accepting of

homosexuality and issues related to it. Scholars think this trend will further the legalization of same-sex marriage

and the establishment of other laws and policies that will reduce the discrimination and inequality that the LGBT

community experiences (Gelman, Lax, & Phillips, 2010).

Opinion on the Origins of Sexual Orientation

Earlier we discussed scholarly research on the origins of sexual orientation. In this regard, it is interesting to note

that the US public is rather split over the issue of whether sexual orientation is in-born or instead the result of

environmental factors, and also over the closely related issue of whether it is something people are able to choose.

A 2011 Gallup poll asked, “In your view, is being gay or lesbian something a person is born with, or due to factors

such as upbringing and environment?” (Jones, 2011). Forty percent of respondents replied that sexual orientation

is in-born, while 42 percent said it stems from upbringing and/or environment. The 40 percent in-born figure

represented a sharp increase from the 13 percent figure that Gallup obtained when it first asked this question in

1977. A 2010 CBS News poll, asked, “Do you think being homosexual is something people choose to be, or do

you think it is something they cannot change?” (CBS News, 2010). About 36 percent of respondents replied that

homosexuality is a choice, while 51 percent said it is something that cannot be changed, with the remainder saying

they did not know or providing no answer. The 51 percent “cannot change” figure represented an increase from

the 43 percent figure that CBS News obtained when it first asked this question in 1993.

Other Views

The next section discusses several issues that demonstrate inequality based on sexual orientation. Because these

issues are so controversial, public opinion polls have included many questions about them. We examine public

views on some of these issues in this section.

A first issue is same-sex marriage. The 2010 GSS asked whether respondents agree that “homosexual couples

should have the right to marry one another”: 53.3 percent of respondents who expressed an opinion agreed with

this statement, and 46.7 percent disagreed, indicating a slight majority in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage

(SDA, 2010). In 2011, an ABC News/Washington Post poll asked about same-sex marriage in a slightly different

way: “Do you think it should be legal or illegal for gay and lesbian couples to get married?” A majority, 51

percent, of respondents replied “legal,” and 45 percent replied “illegal” (Langer, 2011). Although only bare

majorities now favor legalizing same-sex marriage, public views on this issue have become much more positive

in recent years. We can see dramatic evidence of this trend in Figure 5.4 “Changes in Opinion about Same-Sex

Marriage, 1988–2010 (Percentage Agreeing That Same-Sex Couples Should Have the Right to Marry; Those

204 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Expressing No Opinion Excluded from Analysis)”, which shows that the percentage agreeing with the GSS

question on the right of same-sex couples to marry has risen considerably during the past quarter-century.

Figure 5.4 Changes in Opinion about Same-Sex Marriage, 1988–2010 (Percentage Agreeing That Same-Sex Couples Should Have

the Right to Marry; Those Expressing No Opinion Excluded from Analysis)

Source: Data from General Social Surveys. (1988–2010). Retrieved from http://sda.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/hsda?harcsda+gss10.

In a related topic, public opinion about same-sex couples as parents has also become more favorable in recent

years. In 2007, 50 percent of the public said that the increasing number of same-sex couples raising children was

“a bad thing” for society. By 2011, this figure had declined to 35 percent, a remarkable decrease in just four years

(Pew Research Center, 2011).

A second LGBT issue that has aroused public debate involves the right of gays and lesbians to serve in the

military, which we discuss further later in this chapter. A 2010 ABC News/Washington Post poll asked whether

“gays and lesbians who do not publicly disclose their sexual orientation should be allowed to serve in the military”

(Mokrzycki, 2010). About 83 percent of respondents replied they “should be allowed,” up considerably from the

63 percent figure that this poll obtained when it first asked this question in 1993 (Saad, 2008).

A third issue involves the right of gays and lesbians to be free from job discrimination based on their sexual

orientation, as federal law does not prohibit such discrimination. A 2008 Gallup poll asked whether “homosexuals

should or should not have equal rights in terms of job opportunities.” About 89 percent of respondents replied that

there “should be” such rights, and only 8 percent said there “should not be” such rights. The 89 percent figure

represented a large increase from the 56 percent figure that Gallup obtained in 1977 when Gallup first asked this

question.

Two Brief Conclusions on Public Attitudes

We have had limited space to discuss public views on LGBT topics, but two brief conclusions are apparent

from the discussion. First, although the public remains sharply divided on various LGBT issues and much of the

public remains heterosexist, views about LGBT behavior and certain rights of the LGBT community have become

markedly more positive in recent decades. This trend matches what we saw in earlier chapters regarding views

5.2 Public Attitudes about Sexual Orientation 205

concerning people of color and women. The United States has without question become less racist, less sexist,

and less heterosexist since the 1970s.

Second, certain aspects of people’s sociodemographic backgrounds influence the extent to which they do, or

do not, hold heterosexist attitudes. This conclusion is not surprising, as sociology has long since demonstrated

that social backgrounds influence many types of attitudes and behaviors, but the influence we saw earlier of

sociodemographic factors on heterosexism was striking nonetheless. These factors would no doubt also be

relevant for understanding differences in views on other LGBT issues. As you think about your own views,

perhaps you can recognize why you might hold these views based on your gender, age, education, and other

aspects of your social background.

Key Takeaways

• Views about LGBT behavior have improved markedly since a generation ago. More than half the US publicnow supports same-sex marriage.

• Males, older people, the less educated, Southerners, and the more religious exhibit higher levels ofheterosexism than their counterparts.

For Your Review

1. Reread this section and indicate how you would have responded to every survey question discussed in thesection. Drawing on the discussion of correlates of heterosexism, explain how knowing about thesecorrelates helps you understand why you hold your own views.

2. Why do you think public opinion about LGBT behavior and issues has become more positive during thepast few decades?

References

CBS News. (2010, June 9). CBS News poll: Views of gays and lesbians. Retrieved from

http://www.cbsnews.com/htdocs/pdf/poll_gays_lesbians_060910.pdf.

Gallup. (2011). Gay and lesbian rights. Gallup. Retrieved September 4, 2011, from http://www.gallup.com/poll/

1651/gay-lesbian-rights.aspx.

Gelman, A., Lax, J., & Phillips, J. (2010, August 22). Over time, a gay marriage groundswell. New York Times, p.

WK3.

Helminiak, D. A. (2000). What the Bible really says about homosexuality. Tajique, NM: Alamo Square Press.

206 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Jones, Jeffrey M. (2011). Support for legal gay relations hits new high. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/

poll/147785/Support-Legal-Gay-Relations-Hits-New-High.aspx.

Langer, Gary. (2011). Support for gay marriage reaches a milestone. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/

Politics/support-gay-marriage-reaches-milestone-half-americans-support/story?id=13159608#.T66_kp9YtQp.

Mokrzycki, Mike. (2010). Support for gays in the military crosses ideological, party lines. Retrieved from

http://abcnews.go.com/PollingUnit/poll-support-gays-military-crosses-ideological-party-lines/

story?id=9811516#.T67A659YtQo.

Pew Research Center. (2011). 35%—Disapprove of gay and lesbian couples raising children. Retrieved from

http://pewresearch.org/databank/dailynumber/?NumberID=1253.

Saad, Lydia. (2008). Americans evenly divided on morality of homosexuality. Retrieved from

http://www.gallup.com/poll/108115/americans-evenly-divided-morality-homosexuality.aspx.

SDA. (2010). GSS 1972–2010 cumulative datafile. Retrieved from http://sda.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/

hsda?harcsda+gss10.

Via, D. O., & Gagnon, R. A. J. (2003). Homosexuality and the Bible: Two views. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

5.2 Public Attitudes about Sexual Orientation 207

5.3 Inequality Based on Sexual Orientation

Learning Objectives

1. Understand the behavioral, psychological, and health effects of bullying and other mistreatment of theLGBT community.

2. Evaluate the arguments for and against same-sex marriage.

3. Provide three examples of heterosexual privilege.

Until just a decade ago, individuals who engaged in consensual same-sex relations could be arrested in many

states for violating so-called sodomy laws. The US Supreme Court, which had upheld such laws in 1986, finally

outlawed them in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas, 539 US 558, by a 6–3 vote. The majority opinion of the court

declared that individuals have a constitutional right under the Fourteenth Amendment to engage in consensual,

private sexual activity.

Until the Supreme Court’s Lawrence v. Texas ruling just a decade ago, individuals who engaged in consensual same-sex relations

could be arrested in many states.

philippe leroyer – Kiss In (08) – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Despite this landmark ruling, the LGBT community continues to experience many types of problems. In this

regard, sexual orientation is a significant source of social inequality, just as race/ethnicity, gender, and social

class are sources of social inequality. We examine manifestations of inequality based on sexual orientation in this

section.

Bullying and Violence

The news story that began this chapter concerned the reported beatings of two gay men. Bullying and violence

against adolescents and adults thought or known to be gay or lesbian constitute perhaps the most serious

manifestation of inequality based on sexual orientation. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (2011),

1,277 hate crimes (violence and/or property destruction) against gays and lesbians occurred in 2010, although this

number is very likely an underestimate because many hate crime victims do not report their victimization to the

police. An estimated 25 percent of gay men have been physically or sexually assaulted because of their sexual

orientation (Egan, 2010), and some have been murdered. Matthew Shepard was one of these victims. He was a

student at the University of Wyoming in October 1998 when he was kidnapped by two young men who tortured

him, tied him to a fence, and left him to die. When found almost a day later, he was in a coma, and he died a few

days later. Shepard’s murder prompted headlines around the country and is credited with winning public sympathy

for the problems experienced by the LGBT community (Loffreda, 2001).

Gay teenagers and straight teenagers thought to be gay are very often the targets of taunting, bullying, physical

assault, and other abuse in schools and elsewhere (Denizet-Lewis, 2009). Survey evidence indicates that 85

percent of LGBT students report being verbally harassed at school, and 40 percent report being verbally harassed;

72 percent report hearing antigay slurs frequently or often at school; 61 percent feel unsafe at school, with 30

percent missing at least one day of school in the past month for fear of their safety; and 17 percent are physically

assaulted to the point they need medical attention (Kosciw, Greytak, Diaz, & Bartkiewicz, 2010).

The bullying, violence, and other mistreatment experienced by gay teens have significant educational and mental

health effects. The most serious consequence is suicide, as a series of suicides by gay teens in fall 2010 reminded

the nation. During that period, three male teenagers in California, Indiana, and Texas killed themselves after

reportedly being victims of antigay bullying, and a male college student also killed himself after his roommate

broadcast a live video of the student making out with another male (Talbot, 2010).

In other effects, LGBT teens are much more likely than their straight peers to skip school; to do poorly in their

studies; to drop out of school; and to experience depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem (Mental Health America,

2011). These mental health problems tend to last at least into their twenties (Russell, Ryan, Toomey, Diaz, &

Sanchez, 2011). According to a 2011 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), LGBT

teens are also much more likely to engage in risky and/or unhealthy behaviors such as using tobacco, alcohol, and

other drugs, having unprotected sex, and even not using a seatbelt (Kann et al., 2011). Commenting on the report,

a CDC official said, “This report should be a wake-up call. We are very concerned that these students face such

dramatic disparities for so many different health risks” (Melnick, 2011).

Ironically, despite the bullying and other mistreatment that LBGT teens receive at school, they are much more

likely to be disciplined for misconduct than straight students accused of similar misconduct. This disparity is

greater for girls than for boys. The reasons for the disparity remain unknown but may stem from unconscious

bias against gays and lesbians by school officials. As a scholar in educational psychology observed, “To me, it

5.3 Inequality Based on Sexual Orientation 209

is saying there is some kind of internal bias that adults are not aware of that is impacting the punishment of this

group” (St. George, 2010).

This candlelight vigil honored the memory of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, who was tortured, tied, to a fence, and left to

die in Wyoming in 1998. He was in a coma when he was found and died a few days later.

Elvert Barnes – 21.MatthewShepard.CandleVigil.WDC.14October1998 – CC BY 2.0.

Children and Our Future

The Homeless Status of LGBT Teens

Many LGBT teens are taunted, bullied, and otherwise mistreated at school. As the text discusses, this mistreatment affectstheir school performance and psychological well-being, and some even drop out of school as a result. We often think ofthe home as a haven from the realities of life, but the lives of many gay teens are often no better at home. If they comeout (disclose their sexual orientation) to their parents, one or both parents often reject them. Sometimes they kick theirteen out of the home, and sometimes the teen leaves because the home environment has become intolerable. Regardlessof the reason, a large number of LGBT teens become homeless. They may be living in the streets, but they may also beliving with a friend, at a homeless shelter, or at some other venue. But the bottom line is that they are not living at homewith a parent.

The actual number of homeless LGBT teens will probably never be known, but a study in Massachusetts of more than6,300 high school students was the first to estimate the prevalence of their homelessness using a representative sample.The study found that 25 percent of gay or lesbian teens and 15 percent of bisexual teens are homeless in the state,compared to only 3 percent of heterosexual teens. Fewer than 5 percent of the students in the study identified themselvesas LGB, but they accounted for 19 percent of all the homeless students who were surveyed. Regardless of their sexualorientation, some homeless teens live with a parent or guardian, but the study found that homeless LGBT teens weremore likely than their heterosexual counterparts to be living without a parent.

Being homeless adds to the problems that many LGBT teens already experience. Regardless of sexual orientation,homeless people of all ages are at greater risk for victimization by robbers and other offenders, hunger, substance abuse,and mental health problems.

210 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

The study noted that LGBT teen homelessness may be higher in other states because attitudes about LGBT status aremore favorable in Massachusetts than in many other states. Because the study was administered to high school students,it may have undercounted LGBT teens, who are more likely to be absent from school.

These methodological limitations should not obscure the central message of the study as summarized by one of itsauthors: “The high risk of homelessness among sexual minority teens is a serious problem requiring immediate attention.These teens face enormous risks and all types of obstacles to succeeding in school and are in need of a great deal ofassistance.”

Sources: Connolly, 2011; Corliss, Goodenow, Nichols, & Austin, 2011

Employment Discrimination

Federal law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, nationality, sex, or religion. Notice that this

list does not include sexual orientation. It is entirely legal under federal law for employers to refuse to hire

LGBT individuals or those perceived as LGBT, to fire an employee who is openly LGBT or perceived as LGBT,

or to refuse to promote such an employee. Twenty-one states do prohibit employment discrimination based on

sexual orientation, but that leaves twenty-nine states that do not prohibit such discrimination. Employers in these

states are entirely free to refuse to hire, fire, or refuse to promote LGBT people (openly LGBT or perceived as

LGBT) as they see fit. In addition, only fifteen states prohibit employment discrimination based on gender identity

(transgender), which leaves thirty-five states in which employers may practice such discrimination (Human Rights

Campaign, 2011).

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would prohibit job discrimination based on sexual

orientation or gender identity, has been proposed in Congress but has not come close to passing. In response to

the absence of legal protection for LGBT employees, many companies have instituted their own policies. As of

March 2011, 87 percent of the Fortune 500 companies, the largest 500 corporations in the United States, had

policies prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination, and 46 percent had policies prohibiting gender identity

discrimination (Human Rights Campaign, 2011).

National survey evidence shows that many LGBT people have, in fact, experienced workplace discrimination

(Sears & Mallory, 2011). In the 2008 GSS, 27.1 percent of LGB respondents said they had been verbally

harassed at work during the past five years, and 7.1 percent said they had been either fired or not hired during

the same period (SDA, 2008). In other surveys that are not based on nationally representative samples, the

percentage of LGB respondents who report workplace harassment or discrimination exceeds the GSS’s figures.

Not surprisingly, more than one-third of LGB employees say they conceal their sexual orientation in their

workplace. Transgender people appear to experience more employment problems than LGB people, as 78 percent

of transgender respondents in one study reported some form of workplace harassment or discrimination. Scholars

have also conducted field experiments in which they send out resumes or job applicants to prospective employers.

The resumes are identical except that some mention the applicant is LGB, while the others do not indicate

sexual orientation. The job applicants similarly either say they are LGB or do not say this. The LGB resumes

and applicants are less likely than their non-LGB counterparts to receive a positive response from prospective

employers.

5.3 Inequality Based on Sexual Orientation 211

LGBT people who experience workplace harassment and discrimination suffer in other ways as well (Sears &

Mallory, 2011). Compared to LGBT employees who do not experience these problems, they are more likely to

have various mental health issues, to be less satisfied with their jobs, and to have more absences from work.

Applying Social Research

How Well Do the Children of Same-Sex Couples Fare?

Many opponents of same-sex marriage claim that children are better off if they are raised by both a mother and afather and that children of same-sex couples fare worse as a result. As the National Organization for Marriage (NationalOrganization for Marriage, 2011) states, “Two men might each be a good father, but neither can be a mom. The ideal forchildren is the love of their own mom and dad. No same-sex couple can provide that.”

Addressing this contention, social scientists have studied the children of same-sex couples and compared them to thechildren of heterosexual parents. Although it is difficult to have random, representative samples of same-sex couples’children, a growing number of studies find that these children fare at least as well psychologically and in other respectsas heterosexual couples’ children.

Perhaps the most notable published paper in this area appeared in the American Sociological Review, the preeminentsociology journal, in 2001. The authors, Judith Stacey and Timothy J. Biblarz, reviewed almost two dozen studies thathad been done of same-sex couples’ children. All these studies yielded the central conclusion that the psychological well-being of these children is no worse than that of heterosexual couples’ children. As the authors summarized this conclusionand its policy implications, “Because every relevant study to date shows that parental sexual orientation per se has nomeasurable effect on the quality of parent-child relationships or on children’s mental health or social adjustment, there isno evidentiary basis for considering parental sexual orientation in decisions about children’s ‘best interest.’”

Biblarz and Stacey returned to this issue in a 2010 article in the Journal of Marriage and the Family, the preeminentjournal in its field. This time they reviewed almost three dozen studies published since 1990 that compared thechildren of same-sex couples (most of them lesbian parents) to those of heterosexual couples. They again found thatthe psychological well-being and social adjustment of same-sex couples’ children was at least as high as those ofheterosexual couples’ children, and they even found some evidence that children of lesbian couples fare better in somerespects than those of heterosexual couples. Although the authors acknowledged that two parents are generally betterfor children than one parent, they concluded that the sexual orientation of the parents makes no difference overall. Asthey summarized the body of research on this issue: “Research consistently has demonstrated that despite prejudice anddiscrimination children raised by lesbians develop as well as their peers. Across the standard panoply of measures, studiesfind far more similarities than differences among children with lesbian and heterosexual parents, and the rare differencesmainly favor the former.”

This body of research, then, contributes in important ways to the national debate on same-sex marriage. If children ofsame-sex couples indeed fare well, as the available evidence indicates, concern about these children’s welfare should playno part in this debate.

Same-Sex Marriage

Same-sex marriage has been one of the most controversial social issues in recent years. Nearly 650,000 same-

sex couples live together in the United States (Gates, 2012). Many of them would like to marry, but most are not

permitted by law to marry. In May 2012, President Obama endorsed same-sex marriage.

212 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

The issue of same-sex marriage has aroused much controversy in recent years. As of June 2012, same-sex couples could marry in

only seven states and the District of Columbia.

Elvert Barnes – 70a Marriage Equality US Capitol – CC BY-SA 2.0.

We saw earlier that a narrow margin of Americans now favors the right of same-sex couples to marry, and that

public opinion in favor of same-sex marriage has increased greatly in recent times. As of June 2012, same-sex

marriage was legal in seven states (Connecticut, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York,

Vermont, and Washington) and the District of Columbia. Nine other states permitted same-sex couples to form

civil unions or domestic partnerships, which provide some or many of the various legal benefits that married

spouses enjoy. In the remaining thirty-five states, same-sex couples may not legally marry or form civil unions or

domestic partnerships. The federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), passed in 1996 (and under legal dispute at

the time of this writing), prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage. This means that even when same-sex

couples legally marry because their state allows them to, they do not enjoy the various federal tax, inheritance,

and other benefits that married couples enjoy. Most of the states that do not allow same-sex marriage also have

laws that prohibit recognition of same-sex marriages performed in the states that allow them.

Arguments against same-sex marriage. Opponents of same-sex marriage make at least three central points

(Emrich, 2009; National Organization for Marriage, 2011). First, and in no particular order, marriage is intended

to procreate the species, and same-sex couples cannot reproduce. Second, the children that same-sex couples do

have through adoption or artificial means experience various psychological problems because their parents are

gay or lesbian and/or because they do not have both a father and a mother. Third, allowing gays and lesbians to

marry would undermine the institution of marriage.

Arguments for same-sex marriage. In reply, proponents of same-sex marriage make their own points (Barkan,

Marks, & Milardo, 2009; Human Rights Campaign, 2009). First, many heterosexual couples are allowed to marry

even though they will not have children, either because they are not able to have them, because they do not wish to

have them, or because they are beyond childbearing age. Second, studies show that children of same-sex couples

5.3 Inequality Based on Sexual Orientation 213

are at least as psychologically healthy as the children of opposite-sex couples (see Note 5.12 “Children and Our

Future”). Third, there is no evidence that legalizing same-sex marriage has weakened the institution of marriage

in the few states and other nations that have legalized it (see Note 5.14 “Lessons from Other Societies”).

Lessons from Other Societies

Same-Sex Marriage in the Netherlands

At the time of this writing, same-sex marriage was legal in ten nations: Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Iceland, theNetherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, and Sweden. All these nations have legalized it since 2001, whenthe Netherlands became the first country to do so. Because more than a decade has passed since this notable event, itis informative to examine how, if at all, legalization has affected the lives of gays and lesbians and the institution ofmarriage itself in the Netherlands.

One thing is clear: There is no evidence that the institution of marriage in the Netherlands has in any respect becomeweaker because same-sex couples have been allowed to marry since 2001. Heterosexual couples continue to marry, andthe institution appears at least as strong as it was before 2001. It also seems clear that same-sex marriages are working andthat same-sex married couples’ unions are accepted as normal features of contemporary Dutch life. As Vera Bergkamp,a gay rights leader in the Netherlands said, “Gay marriage is Holland’s best export because we have shown that it ispossible.”

In an interesting development, same-sex couples have not exactly rushed to marry. There was an initial spurt in 2001,and many such couples have married since. However, the Dutch government estimates that only 20 percent of same-sexcouples have married compared to 80 percent of heterosexual couples.

Three reasons may account for this disparity. First, there is less pressure from family and friends for same-sex couplesto marry than for heterosexual couples to marry. As Bergkamp put it, “For heterosexuals, it’s normal when you’re in asteady relationship for more than a year, that a lot of people start asking, ‘well when are you getting married?’ With twowomen or two men you don’t get that yet.” Second, fewer same-sex couples than heterosexual couples decide to marry inorder to have children. Third, gays and lesbians in the Netherlands are thought to be somewhat more individualistic thantheir heterosexual counterparts.

The same-sex couples who have married in the Netherlands seem happy to have done so, at least according to anecdotalevidence. As one same-sex spouse reflected on her marriage, “It was a huge step. For me it was incredible…I’d been tomy brother’s wedding and my sister’s wedding and their spouses were welcomed into the family. Now finally I was ableto have my family take my partner in. The moment we got married there was a switch, she was now one of us.”

The experience of the Netherlands is mirrored in the other nine nations that have legalized same-sex marriage.Legalization seems to be working from all accounts, and the institution of marriage seems to be thriving at least as wellas in other nations. As the first openly gay member of the Dutch parliament who played a key role in legalization wrylydescribed its outcome, “Heterosexual couples did not turn away from the institution of marriage, and nor did the worldisolate my country. After the Netherlands acted, civilization as we know it didn’t end.” As the United States continues todebate same-sex marriage, it has much to learn from the Netherlands and the other nations that have legalized this formof marriage.

Sources: Ames, 2011; Badgett, 2009; Dittrich, 2011

Although the children of same-sex couples fare at least as well as those of heterosexual couples, it is still difficult

in many states for same-sex couples to adopt a child. Two states at the time of this writing, Mississippi and Utah,

prohibit adoptions by same-sex couples, but half of the other states make it very difficult for these adoptions to

occur (Tavernise, 2011). For example, in some states social workers are required to prefer married heterosexual

couples over same-sex couples in adoption decisions. Moreover, several states require that a couple must be

married to be adopted; in these states, a single gay or lesbian may adopt, but not a same-sex couple. Still, adoptions

214 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

by same-sex couples have become more numerous in recent years because of the number of children waiting for

adoption and because public opinion about gays and lesbians has become more favorable.

Costs of the Illegality of Same-Sex Marriage

Marriage provides many legal rights, benefits, and responsibilities for the two spouses. Because same-sex couples

are not allowed to marry in most states and, even if they do marry, are currently denied federal recognition of

their marriage, they suffer materially in numerous ways. In fact, there are more than 1,000 federal rights that

heterosexual married couples receive that no married same-sex couple is allowed to receive (Shell, 2011).

We have space here to list only a few of the many costs that the illegality of same-sex marriage imposes on same-

sex couples who cannot marry and on the same-sex couples whose marriages are not federally recognized (Human

Rights Campaign, 2009):

• Spouses have visitation rights if one of them is hospitalized as well as the right to make medical

decisions if one spouse is unable to do so; same-sex couples do not have these visitation rights.

• Same-sex couples cannot file joint federal tax returns or joint state tax returns (in the states that do not

recognize same-sex marriage), potentially costing each couple thousands of dollars every year in taxes

they would not have to pay if they were able to file jointly.

• Spouses receive Social Security survivor benefits averaging more than $5,500 annually when a spouse

dies; same-sex couples do not receive these benefits.

• Many employers who provide health insurance coverage for the spouse of an employee do not provide

this coverage for a same-sex partner; when they do provide this coverage, the employee must pay taxes

on the value of the coverage.

• When a spouse dies, the surviving spouse inherits the deceased spouse’s property without paying estate

taxes; the surviving partner of a same-sex couple must pay estate taxes.

Notice that many of these costs are economic. It is difficult to estimate the exact economic costs of the illegality

of same-sex marriage, but one analysis estimated that these costs can range from $41,000 to as much as $467,000

over the lifetime of a same-sex couple, depending on their income, state of residence, and many other factors

(Bernard & Leber, 2009).

Military Service

LGBT individuals traditionally were not permitted to serve in the US military. If they remained in the closet

(hid evidence of their sexual orientation), of course, they could serve with impunity, but many gays and lesbians

in the military were given dishonorable discharges when their sexual orientation was discovered. Those who

successfully remained in the closet lived under continual fear that their sexual orientation would become known

and they would be ousted from the military.

5.3 Inequality Based on Sexual Orientation 215

As a presidential candidate in 1992, Bill Clinton said he would end the ban on LGBT people in the military. After

his election, his intention to do so was met with fierce opposition by military leaders, much of the Congress, and

considerable public opinion. As a compromise, in 1993 the government established the so-called don’t-ask, don’t-

tell (DADT) policy. DADT protected members of the military from being asked about their sexual orientation, but

it also stipulated that they would be discharged from the military if they made statements or engaged in behavior

that indicated an LGBT orientation. Because DADT continued the military ban on LGBT people, proponents

of allowing them to serve in the military opposed the policy and continued to call for the elimination of any

restrictions regarding sexual orientation for military service.

In response to a lawsuit, a federal judge in 2010 ruled that DADT was unconstitutional. Meanwhile, Barack

Obama had also called for the repeal of DADT, both as a presidential candidate and then as president. In late 2010,

Congress passed legislation repealing DADT, and President Obama signed the legislation, which took effect in

September 2011. Official discrimination against gays and lesbians in the military has thus ended, and they may

now serve openly in the nation’s armed forces. It remains to be seen, however, whether they will be able to serve

without facing negative experiences such as verbal and physical abuse.

Physical and Mental Health

It is well known that HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome)

racked the LGBT community beginning in the 1980s. Many gays and lesbians eventually died from AIDS-related

complications, and HIV and AIDS remain serious illnesses for gays and straights alike. An estimated 1.2 million

Americans now have HIV, and about 35,000 have AIDS. Almost 50,000 Americans are diagnosed with HIV

annually, and more than half of these new cases are men who have had sex with other men. Fortunately, HIV

can now be controlled fairly well by appropriate medical treatment (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,

2011).

It is less well known that LGBT adults have higher rates than straight adults of other physical health problems

and also of mental health problems (Frost, Lehavot, & Meyer, 2011; Institute of Medicine, 2011). These problems

are thought to stem from the stress that the LGBT community experiences from living in a society in which

they frequently encounter verbal and physical harassment, job discrimination, a need for some to conceal their

sexual identity, and lack of equal treatment arising from the illegality of same-sex marriage. We saw earlier that

LGBT secondary school students experience various kinds of educational and mental health issues because of

the mistreatment they encounter. By the time LGBT individuals reach their adult years, the various stressors they

have experienced at least since adolescence have begun to take a toll on their physical and mental health.

216 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

The stress of being LGBT in a society that disapproves of this sexual orientation is thought to account for the greater likelihood of

LGBT people to have physical and mental health problems.

Patrik Nygren – LGBT rights – CC BY-SA 2.0.

Because stress is thought to compromise immune systems, LGBT individuals on the average have lower immune

functioning and lower perceived physical health than straight individuals. Because stress impairs mental health,

they are also more likely to have higher rates of depression, loneliness, low self-esteem, and other psychiatric

and psychological problems, including a tendency to attempt suicide (Sears & Mallory, 2011). Among all LGBT

individuals, those who have experienced greater levels of stress related to their sexual orientation have higher

levels of physical and mental health problems than those who have experienced lower levels of stress. It is

important to keep in mind that these various physical and mental health problems do not stem from an LGBT

sexual orientation in and of itself, but rather from the experience of living as an LGBT individual in a homophobic

(disliking LGBT behavior and individuals) society.

Despite the health problems that LGBT people experience, medical students do not learn very much about these

problems. A recent survey of medical school deans found that one-third of medical schools provide no clinical

training about these health issues, and that students in the medical schools that do provide training still receive

only an average of five hours of training (Obedin-Maliver et al., 2011). The senior author of the study commented

on its findings, “It’s great that a lot of schools are starting to teach these topics. But the conversation needs to go

deeper. We heard from the deans that a lot of these important LGBT health topics are completely off the radar

screens of many medical schools” (White, 2011).

Heterosexual Privilege

In earlier chapters, we discussed the related concepts of white privilege and male privilege. To recall, simply

5.3 Inequality Based on Sexual Orientation 217

because they are white, whites can go through their daily lives without worrying about or experiencing the many

kinds of subtle and not-so-subtle negative events that people of color experience. Moreover, simply because they

are male, men can go through their daily lives without worrying about or experiencing the many kinds of subtle

and not-so-subtle negative events that women experience. Whether or not they are conscious of it, therefore,

whites and men are automatically privileged compared to people of color and women, respectively.

An analogous concept exists in the study of sexual orientation and inequality. This concept is heterosexual

privilege, which refers to the many advantages that heterosexuals (or people perceived as heterosexuals) enjoy

simply because their sexual orientation is not LGBT. There are many such advantages, and we have space to list

only a few:

• Heterosexuals can be out day or night or at school or workplaces without fearing that they will be

verbally harassed or physically attacked because of their sexuality or that they will hear jokes about

their sexuality.

• Heterosexuals do not have to worry about not being hired for a job, about being fired, or not being

promoted because of their sexuality.

• Heterosexuals can legally marry everywhere in the United States and receive all the federal, state, and

other benefits that married couples receive.

• Heterosexuals can express a reasonable amount of affection (holding hands, kissing, etc.) in public

without fearing negative reactions from onlookers.

• Heterosexuals do not have to worry about being asked why they prefer opposite-sex relations, being

criticized for choosing their sexual orientation, or being urged to change their sexual orientation.

• Heterosexual parents do not have to worry about anyone questioning their fitness as parents because of

their sexuality.

• Heterosexuals do not have to feel the need to conceal their sexual orientation.

• Heterosexuals do not have to worry about being accused of trying to “push” their sexuality onto other

people.

People Making a Difference

Improving the Family Lives of LGBT Youth

Many organizations and agencies around the country aim to improve the lives of LGBT teens. One of them is the FamilyAcceptance Project (FAP) at San Francisco State University, which focuses on the family problems that LGBT teens oftenexperience. According to its website, FAP is “the only community research, intervention, education and policy initiativethat works to decrease major health and related risks for [LGBT] youth, such as suicide, substance abuse, HIV andhomelessness—in the context of their families. We use a research-based, culturally grounded approach to help ethnically,socially and religiously diverse families decrease rejection and increase support for their LGBT children.”

To accomplish its mission, FAP engages in two types of activities: research and family support services. In the researcharea, FAP has published some pioneering studies of the effects of school victimization and of family rejection andacceptance on the physical and mental health of LGBT teens during their adolescence and into their early adulthood. Inthe family support services area, FAP provides confidential advice, information, and counseling to families with one ormore LGBT children or adolescents, and it also has produced various educational materials for these families and for

218 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

professionals who deal with LGBT issues. At the time of this writing, FAP was producing several documentary videosfeaturing LGBT youth talking about their family situations and other aspects of their lives. Its support services and writtenmaterials are available in English, Spanish, and Cantonese.

Through its pioneering efforts, the Family Acceptance Project is one of many organizations making a difference in thelives of LGBT youth. For further information about FAP, visit http://familyproject.sfsu.edu.

Key Takeaways

• Bullying, taunting, and violence are significant problems for the LGBT community.

• LGBT people are at greater risk for behavioral and physical and mental health problems because of themany negative experiences they encounter.

• Federal law does not protect LGBT individuals from employment discrimination.

• The children of same-sex couples fare at least as well as children of heterosexual couples.

For Your Review

1. Do you know anyone who has ever been bullied and taunted for being LGBT or for being perceived asLGBT? If so, describe what happened.

2. Write a brief essay in which you summarize the debate over same-sex marriage, provide your own view, andjustify your view.

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5.3 Inequality Based on Sexual Orientation 221

5.4 Improving the Lives of the LGBT Community

Learning Objective

1. Understand which measures show promise of reducing inequality based on sexual orientation.

The inequality arising from sexual orientation stems from long-standing and deep-rooted prejudice against

nonheterosexual attraction and behavior and against the many people whose sexual orientation is not heterosexual.

We have seen in this chapter that attitudes about and related to same-sex sexuality have become markedly more

positive since a generation ago. Reflecting this trend, the number of openly gay elected officials and candidates

for office has increased greatly since a generation ago, and the sexual orientation of candidates appears to be

a nonissue in many areas of the nation (Page, 2011). In a 2011 Gallup poll, two-thirds of Americans said they

would vote for a gay candidate for president, up from only one-fourth of Americans in 1978 (Page, 2011). Also

in 2011, the US Senate confirmed the nomination of the first openly gay man for a federal judgeship (Milbank,

2011). To paraphrase the slogan of a nationwide campaign aimed at helping gay teens deal with bullying and other

mistreatment, it is getting better.

Much of this improvement must be credited to the gay rights movement that is popularly thought to have begun

in June 1969 in New York City after police raided a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn and arrested several people

inside. A crowd of several hundred people gathered and rioted in protest that night and the next night. The gay

rights movement had begun.

Despite the advances this movement has made and despite the improvement in public attitudes about LGBT

issues, we have seen in this chapter that LGBT people continue to experience many types of inequality and other

problems. As with inequality based on race and/or ethnicity, social class, and gender, there is much work still to

be done to reduce inequality based on sexual orientation.

For such inequality to be reduced, it is certainly essential that heterosexuals do everything possible in their

daily lives to avoid any form of mistreatment of LGBT individuals and to treat them as they would treat any

heterosexual. Beyond this, certain other measures should help address LGBT inequality. These measures might

include, but are not limited to, the following:

1. Parents should make clear to their children that all sexual orientations are equally valid. Parents whose

child happens to be LGBT should love that child at least as much as they would love a heterosexual

child.

2. School programs should continue and strengthen their efforts to provide students a positive

environment in regard to sexual orientation and to educate them about LGBT issues. Bullying and

other harassment of LGBT students must not be tolerated. In 2011, California became the first state to

require the teaching of gay and lesbian history; other states should follow this example.

3. Federal law should prohibit employment discrimination against LGBT people, and same-sex marriages

should become legal throughout the United States. In the meantime, new legislation should provide

same-sex couples the same rights, responsibilities, and benefits that heterosexual married couples

have.

4. Police should continue to educate themselves about LGBT issues and should strengthen their efforts to

ensure that physical attacks on LGBT people are treated at least as seriously as attacks on heterosexual

people are treated.

Key Takeaways

• Although the gay rights movement has made significant advances, many types of inequality based on sexualorientation continue to exist.

• Several measures should be begun or continued to reduce inequality based on sexual orientation.

For Your Review

1. Is there a gay rights advocacy group on your campus? If so, what is your opinion of it?

2. How do you think parents should react if their teenaged daughter or son comes out to them? Explain youranswer.

References

Milbank, D. (2011, July 18). In a “quiet moment,” gay judge makes history. The Washington Post. Retrieved from

http://www.washingtonpost.com/.

Page, S. (2011, July 20). Gay candidates gain acceptance. USA Today. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/

news/politics/index.

5.4 Improving the Lives of the LGBT Community 223

5.5 End-of-Chapter Material

Summary

1. Sexual orientation refers to a person’s preference for sexual relationships with individuals of the other sex,one’s own sex, or both sexes. The term also increasingly refers to transgender individuals, whose behavior,appearance, and/or gender identity departs from conventional norms.

2. According to national survey evidence, almost 4 percent of American adults identify as LGBT (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender), a figure equivalent to 9 million adults. Almost 20 million have engaged in same-sexrelations.

3. Male homosexuality in ancient Greece and Rome seems to have been accepted and rather common, butEurope, the Americas, and other areas influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition have long viewedhomosexuality very negatively. In many societies studied by anthropologists, homosexuality is rathercommon and considered a normal form of sexuality.

4. Scholars continue to debate whether sexual orientation is more the result of biological factors or social andcultural factors. Related to this debate, the public is fairly split over the issue of whether sexual orientationis a choice or something over which people have no control.

5. Heterosexism in the United States is higher among men than among women, among older people thanyounger people, among the less educated than among the more highly educated, among Southerners thanamong non-Southerners, and among more religious people than among less religious people. Levels ofheterosexism have declined markedly since a generation ago.

6. Sexual orientation is a significant source of inequality. LGBT individuals experience bullying, taunting, andviolence; they may experience employment discrimination; and they are not allowed to marry in most states.Because of the stress of living as LGBT, they are at greater risk than heterosexuals for several types ofphysical and mental health problems.

Using What You Know

You’re working in a medium-sized office and generally like your coworkers. However, occasionally you hear them makejokes about gays and lesbians. You never laugh at these jokes, but neither have you ever said anything critical about them.Your conscience is bothering you, but you also know that if you tell your supervisor or coworkers that their joking makesyou feel uncomfortable, they may get angry with you and even stop talking to you. What do you decide to do?

What You Can Do

To help reduce inequality based on sexual orientation, you may wish to do any of the following:

1. Start or join an LGBT advocacy group on your campus.

2. Write a letter to the editor in favor of same-sex marriage.

3. Urge your US Senators and Representative to pass legislation prohibiting employment discrimination on thebasis of sexual orientation.

4. Work for a social service agency in your local community that focuses on the needs of LGBT teens.

5.5 End-of-Chapter Material 225

Chapter 6: Aging and Ageism

Social Problems in the News

“Still Working: Economy Forcing Retirees to Re-enter Workforce,” the headline said. The story featured four seniors,ranging in age from 66 to their eighties, in southern California who had retired several years ago but were now trying toget back into the labor force. Because of the faltering economy and rising costs, they were having trouble affording theirretirement. They were also having trouble finding a job, in part because they lacked the computer skills that are virtuallya necessity in today’s world to find and perform a job. One of the unemployed seniors was a retired warehouse workerwho did not know how to fill out a job application online. He said, “To say I have computer skills—no, I don’t. But I canlearn. I will do anything to get work.” An official in California’s Office on Aging indicated that employers who hire olderpeople would be happy they did so: “You know the person’s going to come in and you know they’re going to accomplishsomething while they’re there. And, they are a wellspring of knowledge.”

Source: Barkas, 2011

The number of older Americans is growing rapidly. As this news story suggests, they have much to contribute to

our society. Yet they also encounter various problems because of their advanced age. We appreciate our elderly

but also consider them something of a burden. We also hold unfortunate stereotypes of them and seemingly view

old age as something to be shunned. Television commercials and other advertisements extol the virtues of staying

young by “washing away the gray” and by removing all facial wrinkles. In our youth-obsessed culture, older

people seem to be second-class citizens. This chapter discusses views about aging and the ways in which old age

is a source of inequality.

References

Barkas, S. (2011, September 5). Still working: Economy forcing retirees to re-enter workforce. The Desert Sun.

Retrieved from http://www.mydesert.com.

6.5 Problems Facing Older Americans

Learning Objectives

1. Present a brief sociodemographic profile of the US elderly.

2. Discuss the several problems experienced by the US elderly.

3. Describe how the social attitudes of older Americans generally differ from those of younger Americans.

We now turn our attention to older people in the United States. We first sketch a demographic profile of our elderly

and then examine some of the problems they face because of their age and because of ageism.

Who Are the Elderly?

Table 6.2 “Demographic Composition of the Elderly, 2010” presents the demographic composition of Americans

aged 65 or older. Slightly more than half the elderly are 65–74 years of age, and about 57 percent are female,

reflecting males’ shorter life spans as discussed earlier. About 80 percent of the elderly are non-Latino whites,

compared to about 66 percent in the population as a whole; 8.6 percent are African American, compared to about

13 percent of the population; and 7.0 percent are Latino, compared to 15 percent of the population. The greater

proportion of whites among the elderly and lower proportions of African Americans and Latinos reflects these

groups’ life expectancy differences discussed earlier and also their differences in birth rates.

Table 6.2 Demographic Composition of the Elderly, 2010

Age

65–74 years 52.3%

75–84 years 33.4%

85 years and over 14.3%

Gender

Female 56.9%

Male 43.1%

Race and/or ethnicity*

White, non-Latino 80.1%

African American 8.6%

Latino 7.0%

Asian/Pacific Islander 3.5%

Amer. Ind., Esk., Aleut. 0.6%

Two or more races 0.7%

Living in poverty 9.0%

Marital status

Married 57.6%

Widowed 28.1%

Divorced 10.0%

Never married 4.3%

Years of school completed

0–8 years 10.2%

1–3 years of high school 10.3%

High school graduate 36.4%

1–3 years of college 20.6%

College graduate 22.5%

Labor force participation

Employed 16.2%

Unemployed 1.2%

Not in labor force 82.6%

Household income*

* 2009 data

228 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Under $15,000 18.8%

$15,000–$24,999 20.7%

$25,000–$34,999 15.4%

$35,000–49,999 15.1%

$50,000–$74,999 14.2%

$75,000–$99,999 6.5%

$100,000 and over 9.4%

* 2009 data

Source: Data from US Census Bureau. (2012). Statistical abstract of the United States: 2012. Washington, DC: US Government Printing

Office. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab.

The lower proportions of African Americans and Latinos among the elderly partly reflect these groups’ lower life expectancies.

Evgeni Zotov – Grandparents – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The percentage of elders living in poverty is 9.0, compared to 15.1 percent of the entire population. Although most

elders have fixed incomes, the fact that their family size is usually one or two means that they are less likely than

younger people to live in poverty. In fact, today’s elderly are financially much better off than their grandparents

were, thanks to Social Security, Medicare (the federal health insurance program for older Americans), pensions,

and their own assets. We will revisit the health and financial security of elders a little later.

Turning to education, about 22 percent of the elderly are college graduates, compared to about 29 percent of the

6.5 Problems Facing Older Americans 229

population as a whole. This difference reflects the fact that few people went to college when today’s elderly were

in their late teens and early twenties. However, it is still true that today’s elders are better educated than any

previous generation of elders. Future generations of the elderly will be even better educated than those now.

While most elders are retired and no longer in the labor force, about 16 percent do continue to work (see Table

6.2 “Demographic Composition of the Elderly, 2010”). These seniors tend to be in good health and to find their

jobs psychologically satisfying. Compared to younger workers, they miss fewer days of work for health or other

reasons and are less likely to quit their jobs for other opportunities (Sears, 2009).

Although we emphasized earlier that many older Americans do not fit the negative image with which they are

portrayed, it is still true that they face special problems because of their age and life circumstances and because of

ageism. We discuss some of these here.

Physical and Mental Health

Perhaps the problem that comes most readily to mind is health, or, to be more precise, poor health. It is true

that many older people remain in good health and are fully able to function mentally and physically (Rowe et

al., 2010). Still, the biological and psychological effects of aging do lead to greater physical and mental health

problems among the elderly than in younger age groups, as we briefly discussed earlier. These problems are

reflected in responses to the General Social Survey (GSS) question, “Would you say your own health, in general,

is excellent, good, fair, or poor?” Figure 6.6 “Age and Self-Reported Health” shows that the elderly are more

likely than the nonelderly to report that their health is only fair or poor.

Figure 6.6 Age and Self-Reported Health

Source: Data from General Social Survey. (2010). Retrieved from http://sda.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/hsda?harcsda+gss10.

The elderly’s perception of their own health is supported by government estimates of chronic health conditions

for older Americans. Of all people aged 65 or older not living in a nursing home or other institution, almost 50

percent have arthritis, 56 percent have high blood pressure, 32 percent have heart disease, 35 percent have hearing

loss, 18 percent have vision problems, and 19 percent have diabetes (these numbers add up to more than 100

percent as people may have several health conditions) (Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics,

2010). These rates are much higher than those for younger age groups.

230 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

The elderly also suffer from dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, which affects almost 13 percent of people

65 or older (Alzheimer’s Association, 2009). Another mental health problem is depression, which affects almost

15 percent of people 65 or older. Because of mental or physical disability, about two-thirds of all people 65 or

older need help with at least one “daily living” activity, such as preparing a meal (Federal Interagency Forum on

Aging-Related Statistics, 2010).

Older people visit the doctor and hospital more often than younger people. Partly for this reason, adequate health care for the elderly

is of major importance.

Ted Van Pelt – The Coopers – CC BY 2.0.

If the elderly have more health problems, then adequate care for them is of major importance. They visit the doctor

and hospital more often than their middle-aged counterparts. Medicare covers about one-half of their health-care

costs; this is a substantial amount of coverage but still forces many seniors to pay thousands of dollars annually

themselves. Some physicians and other health-care providers do not accept Medicare “assignment,” meaning that

the patient must pay an even higher amount. Moreover, Medicare pays little or nothing for long-term care in

nursing homes and other institutions and for mental health services. All these factors mean that older Americans

can still face high medical expenses or at least pay high premiums for private health insurance.

In addition, Medicare costs have risen rapidly along with other health-care costs. Medicare expenditures soared

from about $37 billion in 1980 to more than $500 billion today (see Figure 6.7 “Medicare Expenditures,

1980–2010”). As the population continues to age and as health-care costs continue to rise, Medicare expenses will

continue to rise as well, making it increasingly difficult to find the money to finance Medicare.

Figure 6.7 Medicare Expenditures, 1980–2010

6.5 Problems Facing Older Americans 231

Source: Data from Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. (n.d.). National health expenditure data. Retrieved from

http://www.hhs.gov.

Nursing Home Care

While most older Americans live by themselves or with their families, a small minority live in group settings. A

growing type of group setting is the continuous care retirement community, a setting of private rooms, apartments,

and/or condominiums that offers medical and practical care to those who need it. In some such communities,

residents eat their meals together, while in others they cook for themselves. Usually these communities offer

above-average recreational facilities and can be very expensive, as some require a lifetime contract or at least

monthly fees that can run into the thousands of dollars.

Nursing homes are often understaffed to save costs and are also generally not subject to outside inspection. These conditions help

contribute to the neglect of nursing home residents.

232 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Sheila – Christian Nursing Home – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

For elders who need high-level medical care or practical support, nursing homes are the primary option. About

16,100 nursing homes exist, and 3.9 percent of Americans 65 or older live in them (Federal Interagency Forum

on Aging-Related Statistics, 2010). About three-fourths of all nursing home residents are women. Almost all

residents receive assistance in bathing and showering, 80 percent receive help in using the bathroom, and one-

third receive help in eating.

As noted earlier, Medicare does not pay for long-term institutional care for most older Americans. Because

nursing home care costs at least $70,000 yearly, residents can quickly use up all their assets and then, ironically,

become eligible for payments from Medicaid, the federal insurance program for people with low incomes.

If one problem of nursing homes is their expense, another problem is the quality of care they provide. Because

their residents are typically in poor physical and/or mental health, their care must be the best possible, as they can

do little to help themselves if their care is substandard. As more people enter nursing homes in the years ahead,

the quality of nursing home care will become even more important. Yet there is much evidence that nursing home

care is often substandard and is replete with neglect and abuse (DeHart, Webb, & Cornman, 2009).

Financial Security and Employment

Earlier we noted that the elderly are less likely than younger age groups to live in poverty and that their financial

status is much better than that of previous generations of older people. One reason for this is Social Security: If

Social Security did not exist, the poverty rate of the elderly would be 45 percent, or five times higher than the

actual rate (Kerby, 2012). Without Social Security, then, nearly half of all people 65 or older would be living in

official poverty, and this rate would be even much higher for older women and older persons of color. However,

this brief summary of their economic well-being obscures some underlying problems (Carr, 2010; Crawthorne,

2008).

First, recall Chapter 2 “Poverty”’s discussion of episodic poverty, which refers to the drifting of many people into

and out of poverty as their jobs and other circumstances change. Once they become poor, older people are more

likely than younger ones to stay poor, as younger people have more job and other opportunities to move out of

poverty. Recall also that the official poverty rate obscures the fact that many people live just above it and are “near

poor.” This is especially true of the elderly, who, if hit by large medical bills or other expenses, can hardly afford

to pay them.

Second, the extent of older Americans’ poverty varies by sociodemographic factors and is much worse for some

groups than for others (Carr, 2010). Older women, for example, are more likely than older men to live in poverty

for at least two reasons. Because women earn less than men and are more likely to take time off from work

during their careers, they have lower monthly Social Security benefits than men and smaller pensions from their

employers. As well, women outlive men and thus use up their savings. Racial and ethnic disparities also exist

among the elderly, reflecting poverty disparities in the entire population, as older people of color are much more

likely than older whites to live in poverty (Carr, 2010). Among women 65 and older, 9 percent of whites live in

poverty, compared to 27 percent of African Americans, 12 percent of Asians, and 21 percent of Hispanics.

6.5 Problems Facing Older Americans 233

Older women are more likely than older men to live in poverty.

Christian Haugen – Old woman feeding the pigeon – CC BY 2.0.

Third, monthly Social Security benefits are tied to people’s earnings before retirement; the higher the earnings,

the higher the monthly benefit. Thus a paradox occurs: People who earn low wages will get lower Social Security

benefits after they retire, even though they need higher benefits to make up for their lower earnings. In this

manner, the income inequality that exists before retirement continues to exist after it.

This paradox reflects a wider problem involving Social Security. However helpful it might be in aiding older

Americans, the aid it provides lags far behind comparable programs in other wealthy Western nations (see Note

6.27 “Lessons from Other Societies”). Social Security payments are low enough that almost one-third of the

elderly who receive no other income assistance live in official poverty. For all these reasons, Social Security is

certainly beneficial for many older Americans, but it remains inadequate compared to what other nations provide.

Lessons from Other Societies

Aging Policy and Programs in the Netherlands and Sweden

A few years ago, AARP assessed quality-of-life issues for older people and the larger society in sixteen wealthydemocracies (the nations of North America and Western Europe, along with Australia and Japan). Each nation was rated(on a scale of 1–5, with 5 being the highest score) on seventeen criteria, including life expectancy, health care for theelderly, pension coverage, and age-discrimination laws. Of the sixteen nations, the Netherlands ranked first, with a totalscore of 64, while Italy ranked last, with a score of 48; the United States was thirteenth, with a score of 50. Despite itsimmense wealth, then, the United States lagged behind most other democracies. Because a “perfect” score would havebeen 85 (17 × 5), even the Netherlands fell short of an ideal quality of life as measured by the AARP indicators.

Why did the United States not rank higher? The experience of the Netherlands and Sweden, both of which have longerlife expectancies than the United States, points to some possible answers. In the Netherlands, everyone at age 65 receives

234 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

a full pension that does not depend on how much money they earned while they were working, and everyone thus gets thesame amount. This amount is larger than the average American gets, because Social Security does depend on earnings andmany people earned fairly low amounts during their working years. As a result, Dutch elderly are much less likely thantheir American counterparts to be poor. The Dutch elderly (and also the nonelderly) have generous government insurancefor medical problems and for nursing home care; this financial help is much higher than older Americans obtain throughMedicare.

As one example, the AARP article mentioned an elderly Dutch woman who had cancer surgery and thirty-twochemotherapy treatments, for which she paid nothing. In the United States, the chemotherapy treatments would have costat least $30,000. Medicare would have covered only 80 percent of this amount, leaving a patient to pay $6,000.

The Netherlands also helps its elderly in other ways. One example is that about one-fourth of that nation’s elderly receiveregular government-subsidized home visits by health-care professionals and/or housekeepers; this practice enables theelderly to remain independent and avoid having to enter a nursing home. In another example, the elderly also receiveseven days of free riding on the nation’s rail system.

Sweden has a home-care visitation program that is similar to the Netherlands’ program. Many elderly are visited twicea day by a care assistant who helps them bathe and dress in the morning and go to bed at night. The care assistant alsoregularly cleans their residence and takes them out for exercise. The Swedish government pays about 80 percent of thecosts of this assistance and subsidizes the remaining cost for elderly who cannot afford it. Like the Netherlands’ program,Sweden’s program helps the elderly to remain independent and live at home rather than enter a nursing institution.

Compared to the United States, then, other democracies generally provide their elderly less expensive or free health care,greater financial support during their retirement, and home visits by health-care professionals and other assistants. Inthese and other ways, these other governments encourage “active aging.” Adoption of similar policies in the United Stateswould improve the lives of older Americans and perhaps prolong their life spans.

Sources: Edwards, 2004; Hartlapp & Schmid, 2008; Ney, 2005

Older people who want to work may have trouble finding employment because of age discrimination and other factors.

Wikimedia Commons – CC BY 2.0.

6.5 Problems Facing Older Americans 235

Workplace Ageism

Older Americans also face problems in employment. Recall that about 16 percent of seniors remain employed.

Other elders may wish to work but are retired or unemployed because several obstacles make it difficult for them

to find jobs. First, many workplaces do not permit the part-time working arrangements that many seniors favor.

Second, and as the opening news story indicated, the rise in high-tech jobs means that older workers would need to

be retrained for many of today’s jobs, and few retraining programs exist. Third, although federal law prohibits age

discrimination in employment, it exists anyway, as employers do not think older people are “up to” the job, even

though the evidence indicates they are good, productive workers (Berger, 2009; Roscigno, 2010). Finally, earnings

above a certain level reduce Social Security benefits before full retirement age, leading some older people to avoid

working at all or to at least limit their hours. All these obstacles lead seniors to drop out of the labor force or to

remain unemployed (Gallo, Brand, Teng, Leo-Summers, & Byers, 2009).

Age discrimination in the workplace merits some further discussion. According to sociologist Vincent J. Roscigno

(2010), survey evidence suggests that more than half of older workers have experienced or observed age

discrimination in the workplace, and more than 80 percent of older workers have experienced or observed jokes,

disrespect, or other prejudicial comments about old age. Roscigno notes that workplace ageism receives little

news media attention and has also been neglected by social scientists. This is so despite the related facts that

ageism in the workplace is common and that the older people who experience this discrimination suffer financial

loss and emotional problems. Roscigno (2010, p. 17) interviewed several victims of age discrimination and later

wrote, “Many conveyed fear of defaulting on mortgages or being unable to pay for their children’s college

after being pushed out of their jobs. Others expressed anger and insecurity over the loss of affordable health

insurance or pension benefits…Just as prevalent and somewhat surprising to me in these discussions were the

less-tangible, yet deeper social-psychological and emotional costs that social science research has established for

racial discrimination or sexual harassment, for instance, but are only now being considered in relation to older

workers.”

One of the people Roscigno interviewed was a maintenance worker who was laid off after more than two decades

of working for his employer. This worker was both hurt and angry. “They now don’t want to pay me my pension,”

he said. “I was a good worker for them and always did everything they asked. I went out of my way to help train

people and make everything run smoothly, so everybody was happy and it was a good place to work. And now

this is what I get, like I never really mattered to them. It’s just not right” (Roscigno, 2010, p. 17).

Bereavement and Social Isolation

“We all need someone we can lean on,” as a famous Rolling Stones song goes. Most older Americans do have

adequate social support networks, which, as we saw earlier, are important for their well-being. However, a

significant minority of elders live alone and do not see friends and relatives as often as they wish. Bereavement

takes a toll, as elders who might have been married for many years suddenly find themselves living alone. Here a

gender difference again exists. Because women outlive men and are generally younger than their husbands, they

are three times more likely than men (42 percent compared to 13 percent) to be widowed and thus much more

likely to live alone (see Table 6.3 “Living Arrangements of Noninstitutionalized Older Americans, 2010”).

236 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Table 6.3 Living Arrangements of Noninstitutionalized Older Americans, 2010

Men (%) Women (%)

Living alone 19 41

Living with spouse 70 37

Other arrangement 11 21

Source: Data from Administration on Aging. (2011). A profile of older Americans: 2011. Retrieved from http://www.aoa.gov/aoaroot/

aging_statistics/Profile/2011/docs/2011profile.pdf.

Many elders have at least one adult child living within driving distance, and such children are an invaluable

resource. At the same time, however, some elders have no children, because either they have outlived their

children or they never had any. As baby boomers begin reaching their older years, more of them will have no

children because they were more likely than previous generations to not marry and/or to not have children if they

did marry. Baby boomers thus face a relative lack of children to help them when they enter their “old-old” years

(Leland, 2010).

Bereavement is always a difficult experience, but because so many elders lose a spouse, it is a particular problem

in their lives. The grief that usually follows bereavement can last several years and, if it becomes extreme, can

involve anxiety, depression, guilt, loneliness, and other problems. Of all these problems, loneliness is perhaps the

most common and the most difficult to overcome.

Elder Abuse

Some seniors fall prey to their own relatives who commit elder abuse against them. Such abuse involves one or

more of the following: physical or sexual violence, psychological or emotional abuse, neglect of care, or financial

exploitation (Novak, 2012). Accurate data are hard to come by since few elders report their abuse, but estimates

say that at least 10 percent of older Americans have suffered at least one form of abuse, amounting to hundreds of

thousands of cases annually. However, few of these cases come to the attention of the police or other authorities

(National Center on Elder Abuse, 2010).

Although we may never know the actual extent of elder abuse, it poses a serious health problem for the elders

who are physically, sexually, and/or psychologically abused or neglected, and it may even raise their chances of

dying. One study of more than 2,800 elders found that those who were abused or neglected were three times more

likely than those who were not mistreated to die during the next thirteen years. This difference was found even

after injury and chronic illness were taken into account (Horn, 1998).

A major reason for elder abuse seems to be stress. The adult children and other relatives who care for elders often

find it an exhausting, emotionally trying experience, especially if the person they are helping needs extensive help

with daily activities. Faced with this stress, elders’ caregivers can easily snap and take out their frustrations with

physical violence, emotional abuse, or neglect of care.

6.5 Problems Facing Older Americans 237

Senior Power: Older Americans as a Political Force

Older Americans often hold strong views on issues that affect them directly, such as Medicare and Social Security.

In turn, politicians often work to win the older vote and shape their political stances accordingly.

During the past few decades, older people have become more active politically on their own behalf.

Marc Nozell – Bernie Sanders – CC BY-NC 2.0.

To help address all the problems discussed in the preceding pages, several organizations have been established

since the 1980s to act as interest groups in the political arena on behalf of older Americans (Walker, 2006).

One of the most influential groups is the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), which is open to

people 50 or older. AARP provides travel and other discounts to its members and lobbies Congress and other

groups extensively on elderly issues. Its membership numbers about 40 million, or 40 percent of the over-50

population. Some critics say AARP focuses too much on its largely middle-class membership’s self-interests

instead of working for more far-reaching economic changes that might benefit the older poor; others say its efforts

on Medicare, Social Security, and other issues do benefit the elderly from all walks of life. This controversy aside,

AARP is an influential force in the political arena because of its numbers and resources.

A very different type of political organization of the elderly was the Gray Panthers, founded by the late Maggie

Kuhn in 1970 (Kuhn, Long, & Quinn, 1991). Although this group has been less newsworthy since Kuhn’s death

in 1995, at its height it had some eighty-five local chapters across the nation and 70,000 members and supporters.

A more activist organization than AARP and other lobbying groups for the elderly, the Gray Panthers took more

liberal stances. For example, it urged the establishment of a national health-care service and programs to increase

affordable housing for the elderly.

As older Americans have engaged the political process on their own behalf, critics have charged that programs

for the elderly are too costly to the nation, that the elderly are better off than groups like AARP claim, and that

new programs for the elderly will take even more money from younger generations and leave them insufficient

238 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

funds for their own retirement many years from now. Their criticism, which began during the 1980s, is termed the

generational equity argument (Williamson, McNamara, & Howling, 2003).

Advocates for the elderly say the generational equity critics exaggerate the financial well-being of older

Americans and neglect the fact that many older Americans, especially women and those of color, are poor or near

poor and thus need additional government aid. Anything we can do now to help the aged, they continue, will

also help future generations of the elderly. As Lenard W. Kaye (1994, p. 346) observed in an early critique of

the generational equity movement, “In the long run, all of us can expect to live into extended old age, barring

an unexpected fatal illness or accident. To do injustice to our current generation of elders, by means of policy

change, can only come back to haunt us as each and every one of us—children, young families, and working

people—move toward the latter stages of the life course.”

People Making a Difference

College Students Helping Senior Citizens

After Hurricane Irene swept up the East Coast in August 2011, many towns and cities faced severe flooding. One of thesetowns was Cranford, New Jersey, just southwest of Newark. Streets and hundreds of homes flooded, and many residents’belongings were ruined.

Union County College, which has campuses in Cranford and a few other towns, came to Cranford residents’ aid. As thecollege president explained in late August, “Many of the town’s residents are senior citizens. Even though the fall termwon’t begin until Sept. 1, we’ve still got a number of strong men and women on campus to help residents clear out theirbasements and help move whatever people needed moved.”

Led by the dean of college life, a dozen or so students went house-to-house on a Cranford street that experienced theworst flooding to aid the town’s senior citizens and younger ones as well. The dean later recalled, “Everyone we met wasjust so happy to see us there helping out. Sometimes they had plenty of work for us. Other times, they just smiled andsaid they were glad to know we cared.”

A news report summarized the impact of the students’ assistance: “In the coming weeks and months, Cranford residentswill be able to recover what their town lost to Irene. But they may never forget the damage Irene caused, nor are theylikely to forget how Union County College’s students came to help them in their time of need.” At a time of crisis, thestaff and students of Union County College in the small town of Cranford, New Jersey, made a big difference in the livesof Cranford’s senior citizens and younger residents alike.

Source: Cranford Chronicle, 2011

Key Takeaways

• The US elderly experience several health problems, including arthritis, high blood pressure, heart disease,hearing loss, vision problems, diabetes, and dementia.

• Nursing home care in the United States is very expensive and often substandard; neglect and abuse ofnursing home residents is fairly common.

• Despite help from Social Security, many older Americans face problems of financial security.

• It is difficult to determine the actual extent of elder abuse, but elder abuse often has serious consequencesfor the health and lives of older Americans.

6.5 Problems Facing Older Americans 239

• During the last few decades, older Americans have been active in the political process on their own behalfand today are an important political force in the United States.

For Your Review

1. What do you think is the worst or most serious problem facing the US elderly? Explain your answer.

2. The text suggests that the lives of the US elderly would be improved if the United States were to adopt someof the policies and practices that other nations have for their elderly. Explain why you agree or disagree withthis suggestion.

References

Alzheimer’s Association. (2009). 2009 Alzheimer’s disease facts and figures. Chicago, IL: Author.

Berger, E. D. (2009). Managing age discrimination: An examination of the techniques used when seeking

employment. The Gerontologist, 49(3), 317–332.

Carr, D. (2010). Golden years? Poverty among older Americans. Contexts, 9(1), 62–63.

Cranford Chronicle. (2011, August 31). County College students help Cranford residents cleanup. Cranford

Chronicle. Retrieved from http://www.nj.com/cranford/index.ssf/2011/2008/

county_college_students_help_c.html.

Crawthorne, A. (2008). Elderly poverty: The challenge before us. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress.

DeHart, D., Webb, J., & Cornman, C. (2009). Prevention of elder mistreatment in nursing homes: Competencies

for direct-care staff. Journal of Elder Abuse & Neglect, 21(4), 360–378.

Edwards, M. (2007). As Good As It Gets: What Country Takes the Best Care of Its Older Citizens? In D. S. Eitzen

(Ed.), Solutions to Social Problems: Lessons from Other Societies (4th ed., pp. 76–85). Boston, MA: Allyn &

Bacon.

Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics. (2010). Older Americans 2010: Key indicators of well-

being. Washington, DC: US Goverment Printing Office.

Gallo, W. T., Brand, J. E., Teng, H.-M., Leo-Summers, L., & Byers, A. L. (2009). Differential impact of

involuntary job loss on physical disability among older workers: Does predisposition matter? Research on Aging,

31(3), 345–360.

Hartlapp, M., & Schmid, G. (2008). Labour market policy for “active ageing” in Europe: Expanding the options

for retirement transitions. Journal of Social Policy, 37(3), 409–431.

240 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Horn, D. (1998, August 17). Bad news on elder abuse. Time, p. 82.

Kaye, L. W. (1994). Generational equity: Pitting young against old. In J. Robert B. Enright (Ed.), Perspectives in

social gerontology (pp. 343–347). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Kerby, S. (2012). Debunking poverty myths and racial stereotypes. Washington, DC: Center for American

Progress.

Kuhn, M., Long, C., & Quinn, L. (1991). No stone unturned: The life and times of Maggie Kuhn. New York, NY:

Ballantine Books.

Leland, J. (2010, April 25). A graying population, a graying work force. New York Times, p. A14.

National Center on Elder Abuse. (2010). Why should I care about elder abuse? Washington, DC: Author.

Ney, S. (2005). Active aging policy in Europe: Between path dependency and path departure. Ageing

International, 30, 325–342.

Novak, M. (2012). Issues in aging (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Roscigno, V. J. (2010). Ageism in the American workplace. Contexts, 9(1), 16–21.

Rowe, J. W., Berkman, L. F., Binstock, R., Boersch-Supan, A., Cacioppo, J., Carsternsen, L., et al. (2010). Policies

and politics for an aging America. Contexts, 9(1), 22–27.

Sears, D. (2009, September 6). Myths busted on older workers’ job performance. TheLadders. Retrieved from

http://www.career-line.com/job-search-news/myths-busted-on-older-workers-job-performance/.

Walker, A. (2006). Aging and politics: An international perspective. In R. H. Binstock & L. K. George (Eds.),

Handbook of aging and the social sciences (6th ed., pp. 338–358). New York, NY: Academic Press.

Williamson, J. B., McNamara, T. K., & Howling, S. A. (2003). Generational equity, generational interdependence,

and the framing of the debate over social security reform. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 30(3), 3–14.

6.5 Problems Facing Older Americans 241

6.6 Reducing Ageism and Helping Older Americans

Learning Objectives

1. Understand the contradictory impulses that make it difficult to predict the future for older Americans.

2. Discuss any two programs or policies that should help address some of the problems facing olderAmericans.

We have seen some contradictory impulses that make it difficult to predict the status of older Americans in the

decades ahead. On the one hand, the large number of baby boomers will combine with increasing longevity to

swell the ranks of the elderly; this process has already begun and will accelerate during the coming years. The

inevitable jump in the size of the aged population may strain Social Security, Medicare, and other programs for

the aged. On the other hand, the baby boomer generation will reach its old age as a much better educated and more

healthy and wealthy group than any previous generation. It will likely participate in the labor force, politics, and

other arenas more than previous generations of elders and, as has been true for some time, exert a good deal of

influence on national political and cultural affairs.

Although this sounds like a rosier picture, several concerns remain. Despite the relative affluence of the baby

boomers, segments of the group, especially among women and people of color, remain mired in poverty, and these

segments will continue to be once they reach their older years. Moreover, the relative health of the baby boomers

means that they will outlive previous generations of the aged. Yet as more of them reach the ranks of the “old-

old,” they will become frailer and require care from health-care professionals and organizations and from social

support networks. As noted earlier, some may not have children and will be in even more need of help.

Although older Americans fare much better than their counterparts in poor nations, they fare not nearly as well as

their counterparts in other wealthy democracies, which generally provide many more extensive and better-funded

programs and services for their elderly. Older Americans also continue to confront stereotypes and prejudicial

attitudes that add to the burden many of them already face from the biological process of aging.

A sociological understanding of aging and ageism reminds us that many of the problems that older Americans

face are ultimately rooted not in their chronological age but rather in the stereotypes about them and in the lack

of adequate social programs like those found throughout other Western nations. This understanding also reminds

us that the older Americans who face the most severe problems of health, health care, and financial security

are women and people of color and that their more severe problems reflect the many inequalities they have

experienced throughout the life course, long before they reached their older years. These inequalities accumulate

over the years to leave them especially vulnerable when they finally arrive into their sixties.

With this understanding, it becomes clear that efforts to improve the lives of older Americans must focus on

providing them with more numerous and more extensive social services and programming of many kinds and

on reducing the stereotypes and prejudicial attitudes that many Americans hold of older people. Possibilities

involving improved social services and programming might be drawn from the example provided by other

Western nations and include the following (Rowe et al., 2010; Uhlenberg, 2009):

1. An expansion of Social Security to provide a much more comfortable life for all older Americans,

regardless of their earnings history, and thus regardless of their gender and race/ethnicity.

2. An expansion of Medicare and other health aid for older Americans to match the level of health-care

assistance provided by many other Western nations. In one particular area that needs attention,

Medicare pays for nursing home care only after nursing home patients use up most of their own assets,

leaving a patient’s spouse with severe financial problems. Other Western nations pay for nursing home

care from the outset, and the United States should adopt this practice.

3. The establishment of more flexible work hours, job-sharing arrangements, and other policies that

would enhance the ability of older people to work part-time or full-time.

4. Increase paid and volunteer opportunities for older adults to help take care of young children and

adolescents, especially those who are poor or otherwise disadvantaged, in schools and other settings,

creating a win-win situation for both the older adults and the children.

5. As with stereotypical and prejudicial views based on gender and on race/ethnicity, greater educational

efforts should be launched to reduce stereotyping and prejudicial attitudes based on aging. Like sexism

and racism, ageism has no place in a nation like the United States, which has historically promised

equality and equal opportunity for all.

Beyond all these measures, aging scholars emphasize the need to help future older populations by investing in

younger people. As a group of several scholars has noted, “Many of the key determinants of successful aging are

cumulative, occurring throughout the lifetime and, importantly, starting in early childhood. The people who will

turn 65 between 2050 and 2070 have already been born. If we want to promote their health and well-being into

old age, we need to begin now, when they are infants and children. Childhood and early adolescent experiences

leave a footprint for many functions in older age. Failing to invest in education and health throughout childhood

and young adulthood is short-sighted” (Rowe et al., 2010, p. 24).

Key Takeaways

• Although the number of older Americans will be increasing in the years ahead, the baby boomers who arenow reaching old age will be better educated and wealthier than older Americans of past generations.

• Efforts to help older Americans would benefit from relying on the models practiced by other Westerndemocracies.

For Your Review

1. What do you think is the most important action the United States should take to help older Americans?

2. Does it make sense for the United States to follow the example of other democracies as it tries to help older

6.6 Reducing Ageism and Helping Older Americans 243

Americans, or is the United States different enough from these nations that it does not make sense to do so?Explain your answer.

References

Rowe, J. W., Berkman, L. F., Binstock, R., Boersch-Supan, A., Cacioppo, J., Carsternsen, L., et al. (2010). Policies

and politics for an aging America. Contexts, 9(1), 22–27.

Uhlenberg, P. (2009). Children in an aging society. Journal of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and

Social Sciences, 64B(4), 489–496.

244 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

6.7 End-of-Chapter Material

Summary

1. Gerontology is the study of aging. Gerontologists study the biological, psychological, and social dimensionsof aging. Social gerontologists focus on social aging and distinguish several dimensions of aging, whichrefers to changes in people’s roles and relationships as they age.

2. The perception and experience of aging vary from one society to another and within a given society overtime.

3. Sociological explanations of aging include disengagement theory, activity theory, and conflict theory.Disengagement theory emphasizes the need of society to disengage its elders from their previous roles topave the way for a younger and presumably more able generation to take over those roles. In contrast,activity theory assumes that elders need to remain active to enhance their physical and mental health.Conflict theory emphasizes ageism, or discrimination and prejudice against the elderly, and the structuralbarriers society poses to elders’ economic and other aspects of overall well-being.

4. Life expectancy differs dramatically around the world and within the United States, where it’s lower for menand lower for people of color. Because life expectancy has increased, people are living longer, resulting in a“graying of society.” In the United States, the imminent entrance of the baby boom generation into its olderyears will further fuel a large rise in the number of older Americans. This graying of society may straintraditional economic and medical programs for their care and affect views of aging and the elderly.

5. Although aging involves several physiological and psychological changes, negative stereotypes of aging andthe elderly exaggerate the extent and impact of these changes. Proper exercise, nutrition, and stressreduction can minimize the effects of aging, as can religious involvement and informal social supportnetworks.

6. As a diverse group, older Americans differ greatly in terms of wealth and poverty, education, health, andother dimensions. They face several problems because of their age, including illness and disability, financialsecurity, employment obstacles, and elder abuse. For several reasons, older Americans generally hold moreconservative views on social and moral issues. At the same time, groups working on behalf of olderAmericans in the political arena have succeeded in bringing elder issues to the attention of public officialsand political parties.

7. As the ranks of older Americans swell in the years ahead, elders will be better educated and wealthier thantheir predecessors, but their sheer numbers may impose considerable strain on social institutions. Alreadythere are signs of perceived conflict between the needs of the elderly and those of younger generations.However, advocates for older Americans believe that efforts to help elders now will in the long run helpyounger Americans when they finally reach their old age.

Using What You Know

It is about twenty years from now, and a close friend of yours is facing a difficult decision. Her mother is in failing healthand might have the onset of dementia. It has become increasingly apparent that she can no longer live alone, and yourfriend is trying to decide whether to have her mother come live with her, to arrange for in-home care for her, or to placeher into residential care. What advice do you give to your friend?

What You Can Do

To help reduce inequality based on aging and ageism and the problems facing older people, you may wish to do any ofthe following:

1. Volunteer at a senior citizens’ center, residential care facility, or nursing home.

2. Write a letter to the editor about media stereotypes about older people.

3. Start a group on your campus to educate students about the problems facing senior citizens.

246 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

6.1 The Concept and Experience of Aging

Learning Objectives

1. Define social gerontology.

2. Distinguish biological aging, psychological aging, and social aging.

Because we all want to live into old age, the study of age and aging helps us understand something about ourselves and a stage in the

life course we all hope to reach.

Carl Nenzén Lovén – Grandpa – CC BY 2.0.

Here is why you should want to know about aging and the problems older people face: You will be old someday.

At least you will be old if you do not die prematurely from an accident, cancer, a heart attack, some other medical

problem, murder, or suicide. Although we do not often think about aging when we are in our late teens and early

twenties, one of our major goals in life is to become old. By studying age and aging and becoming familiar with

some of the problems facing the elderly now and in the future, we are really studying something about ourselves

and a stage in the life course we all hope to reach.

The study of aging is so important and popular that it has its own name, gerontology. Social gerontology is the

study of the social aspects of aging (Novak, 2012). The scholars who study aging are called gerontologists. The

people they study go by several names, most commonly “older people,” “elders,” and “the elderly.” The latter

term is usually reserved for those 65 or older, while “older people” and “elders” often include people in their

fifties as well as those 60 or older.

Dimensions of Aging

Age and aging have four dimensions. The dimension most of us think of is chronological age, defined as the

number of years since someone was born. A second dimension is biological aging, which refers to the physical

changes that “slow us down” as we get into our middle and older years. For example, our arteries might clog up,

or problems with our lungs might make it more difficult for us to breathe. A third dimension, psychological aging,

refers to the psychological changes, including those involving mental functioning and personality, that occur as we

age. Gerontologists emphasize that chronological age is not always the same thing as biological or psychological

age. Some people who are 65, for example, can look and act much younger than some who are 50.

The fourth dimension of aging is social. Social aging refers to changes in a person’s roles and relationships, both

within their networks of relatives and friends and in formal organizations such as the workplace and houses of

worship. Although social aging can differ from one individual to another, it is also profoundly influenced by

the perception of aging that is part of a society’s culture. If a society views aging positively, the social aging

experienced by individuals in that society will be more positive and enjoyable than in a society that views

aging negatively. As we shall see, though, the perception of aging in the United States is not very positive, with

important consequences for our older citizens.

Key Takeaways

• The study of the elderly and aging helps us understand problems in a state of the life course we all hope toreach.

• Biological aging refers to the physical changes that accompany the aging process, while psychological agingrefers to the psychological changes that occur.

• Social aging refers to the changes in a person’s roles and relationships as the person ages.

248 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

For Your Review

1. Think about an older person whom you know. To what extent has this person experienced psychologicalaging? To what extent has this person experienced social aging?

2. The text states that the perception of aging in the United States is not very positive. What do you thinkaccounts for this?

References

Novak, M. (2012). Issues in aging (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

6.1 The Concept and Experience of Aging 249

6.2 Perspectives on Aging

Learning Objectives

1. State the assumptions of disengagement, activity, and conflict theories of aging.

2. Critically assess these three theories.

Recall that social aging refers to changes in people’s roles and relationships in a society as they age. Social

gerontologists have tried to explain how and why the aging process in the United States and other societies occurs.

Their various explanations, summarized in Table 6.1 “Theory Snapshot”, help us understand patterns of social

aging. They fall roughly into either the functionalist, social interactionist, or conflict approaches discussed in

Chapter 1 “Understanding Social Problems”.

Table 6.1 Theory Snapshot

Theoreticalperspective

Major assumptions

Disengagementtheory

To enable younger people to assume important roles, a society must encourage its older people todisengage from their previous roles and to take on roles more appropriate to their physical and mentaldecline. This theory is considered a functionalist explanation of the aging process.

Activity theoryOlder people benefit themselves and their society if they continue to be active. Their positive perceptionsof the aging process are crucial to their ability to remain active. This theory is considered aninteractionist explanation of the aging process.

Conflict theoryOlder people experience age-based prejudice and discrimination. Inequalities among the aged exist alongthe lines of gender, race/ethnicity, and social class. This theory falls into the more general conflict theoryof society.

One of the first explanations was called disengagement theory (Cumming & Henry, 1961). This approach assumed

that all societies must find ways for older people’s authority to give way to younger people. A society thus

encourages its elderly to disengage from their previous roles and to take on roles more appropriate to their physical

and mental decline. In this way, a society effects a smooth transition of its elderly into a new, more sedentary

lifestyle and ensures that their previous roles will be undertaken by a younger generation that is presumably

more able to carry out these roles. Because disengagement theory assumes that social aging preserves a society’s

stability and that a society needs to ensure that disengagement occurs, it is often considered a functionalist

explanation of the aging process.

A critical problem with this theory was that it assumes that older people are no longer capable of adequately

performing their previous roles. However, older people in many societies continue to perform their previous roles

quite well. In fact, society may suffer if its elderly do disengage, as it loses their insight and wisdom. It is also true

that many elders cannot afford to disengage from their previous roles; if they leave their jobs, they are also leaving

needed sources of income, as the opening news story discussed, and if they leave their jobs and other roles, they

also reduce their social interaction and the benefits it brings.

Today most social gerontologists prefer activity theory, which assumes that older people benefit both themselves

and their society if they remain active and try to continue to perform the roles they had before they aged (Choi &

Kim, 2011). As they perform their roles, their perception of the situations they are in is crucial to their perception

of their aging and thus to their self-esteem and other aspects of their psychological well-being. Because activity

theory focuses on the individual and her or his perception of the aging process, it is often considered a social

interactionist explanation of social aging.

One criticism of activity theory is that it overestimates the ability of the elderly to maintain their level of activity:

Although some elders can remain active, others cannot. Another criticism is that activity theory is too much of an

individualistic approach, as it overlooks the barriers many societies place to successful aging. Some elders are less

able to remain active because of their poverty, gender, and social class, as these and other structural conditions

may adversely affect their physical and mental health. Activity theory overlooks these conditions.

Explanations of aging grounded in conflict theory put these conditions at the forefront of their analyses. A conflict

theory of aging, then, emphasizes the impact of ageism, or negative views about old age and prejudice and

discrimination against the elderly (Novak, 2012). According to this view, older workers are devalued because they

are no longer economically productive and because their higher salaries (because of their job seniority), health

benefits, and other costs drive down capitalist profits. Conflict theory also emphasizes inequality among the aged

along gender, race/ethnicity, and social class lines. Reflecting these inequalities in the larger society, some elders

are quite wealthy, but others are very poor.

One criticism of conflict theory is that it blames ageism on modern, capitalist economies. However, negative

views of the elderly also exist to some extent in modern, socialist societies and in preindustrial societies.

Capitalism may make these views more negative, but such views can exist even in societies that are not

capitalistic.

Key Takeaways

• Disengagement theory assumes that all societies must find ways for older people’s authority to give way toyounger people. A society thus encourages its elderly to disengage from their previous roles and to take onroles more appropriate to their physical and mental decline.

• Activity theory assumes that older people will benefit both themselves and their society if they remainactive and try to continue to perform the roles they had before they aged.

For Your Review

1. Which theory of aging—disengagement theory, activity theory, or conflict theory—makes the most sense toyou? Why?

6.2 Perspectives on Aging 251

References

Choi, N. G., & Kim, J. (2011). The effect of time volunteering and charitable donations in later life on

psychological wellbeing. Ageing & Society, 31(4), 590–610.

Cumming, E., & Henry, W. E. (1961). Growing old: The process of disengagement. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Novak, M. (2012). Issues in aging (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

252 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

6.3 Life Expectancy and the Graying of Society

Learning Objectives

1. Describe the differences in life expectancy around the world.

2. List the potential problems associated with the growing proportion of older individuals in poor nations.

3. Explain the evidence for inequality in US life expectancy.

When we look historically and cross-culturally, we see that old age is a relative term, since few people in

preindustrial times or in poor countries today reach the age range that most Americans would consider to be

old, say 65 or older. When we compare contemporary societies, we find that life expectancy, or the average

age to which people can be expected to live, varies dramatically across the world. As Figure 6.1 “Average Life

Expectancy across the Globe (Years)” illustrates, life expectancy in North America, most of Europe, and Australia

averages 75 years or more, while life expectancy in most of Africa averages less than 60 years (Population

Reference Bureau, 2011).

Figure 6.1 Average Life Expectancy across the Globe (Years)

Source: Adapted from Population Reference Bureau. (2011). The world at 7 billion: World population data sheet: Life expectancy.

Retrieved from http://www.prb.org/publications/datasheets/2011/world-population-data-sheet/world-map.aspx#/map/lifeexp.

What accounts for these large disparities? The major factor is the wealth or poverty of a nation, as the wealthiest

nations have much longer life expectancies than the poorest ones. This is true because, as Chapter 2 “Poverty”

noted, the poorest nations by definition have little money and few other resources. They suffer from hunger, AIDS,

and other diseases, and they lack indoor plumbing and other modern conveniences found in almost every home in

the wealthiest nations. As a result, they have high rates of infant and childhood mortality, and many people who

make it past childhood die prematurely from disease, starvation, and other problems.

These differences mean that few people in these societies reach the age of 65 that Western nations commonly mark

as the beginning of old age. Figure 6.2 “Percentage of Population Aged 65 or Older, 2011” depicts the percentage

of each nation’s population that is 65 or older. Not surprisingly, the nations of Africa have very low numbers of

people 65 or older. In Uganda, for example, only 3 percent of the population is at least 65, compared to 13 percent

of Americans and 20–21 percent of Germans and Italians.

Figure 6.2 Percentage of Population Aged 65 or Older, 2011

Source: Adapted from Population Reference Bureau. (2011). 2011 world population data sheet. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://www.prb.org/pdf11/

2011population-data-sheet_eng.pdf.

Despite these international disparities, life expectancy overall has been increasing around the world. It was

only 46 years worldwide in the early 1950s but was 69 in 2009 and is expected to reach about 75 by 2050

(Population Reference Bureau, 2011). This means that the number of people 65 or older is growing rapidly; they

are expected to reach almost 1.5 billion worldwide by 2050, three times their number today and five times their

number just twenty years ago (United Nations Population Division, 2011). Despite international differences in

life expectancy and the elderly percentage of the population, the world as a whole is decidedly “graying,” with

important implications for the cost and quality of elder care and other issues.

254 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Older people now constitute 15 percent of the combined population of wealthy nations, but they will account for 26 percent by 2050.

Pedro Ribeiro Simões – Warming the bones – CC BY 2.0.

As life expectancy rises in poor nations, these nations will experience special problems (Hayutin, 2007). One

problem will involve paying for the increased health care that older people in these nations will require. Because

these nations are so poor, they will face even greater problems than the industrial world in paying for such care

and for other programs and services their older citizens will need. Another problem stems from the fact that many

poor nations are beginning or continuing to industrialize and urbanize. As they do so, traditional family patterns,

including respect for the elderly and the continuation of their roles and influence, may weaken. One reason for

this is that urban families have smaller dwelling units in which to accommodate their elderly relatives and lack

any land onto which they can build new housing. Families in poor nations will thus find it increasingly difficult to

accommodate their elders.

Life Expectancy in the United States

Life expectancy has been increasing in the United States along with the rest of the world (see Figure 6.3 “Changes

in US Life Expectancy at Birth, 1900–2010”). It rose rapidly in the first half of the twentieth century and has

increased steadily since then. From a low of 47.3 years in 1900, it rose to about 71 years in 1970 and 77 years

in 2000 and to more than 78 years in 2010. Americans born in 2010 will thus be expected to live about 31 years

longer than those born a century earlier.

Figure 6.3 Changes in US Life Expectancy at Birth, 1900–2010

6.3 Life Expectancy and the Graying of Society 255

Sources: Data from Arias, E. (2010). United States life tables, 2006. National Vital Statistics Reports, 58(21), 1–40.

During the next few decades, the numbers of the elderly will increase rapidly thanks to the large baby boom

generation born after World War II (from 1946 to 1964) that is now entering its mid-sixties. Figure 6.4 “Past and

Projected Percentage of US Population Aged 65 or Older, 1900–2050” shows the rapid rise of older Americans

(65 or older) as a percentage of the population that is expected to occur. Elders numbered about 3.1 million in

1900 (4.1 percent of the population), number about 40 million today, and are expected to reach 89 million by 2050

(20.2 percent of the population). The large increase in older Americans overall has been called the graying of

America and will have important repercussions for elderly care and other aspects of old age in the United States,

as we discuss later.

Figure 6.4 Past and Projected Percentage of US Population Aged 65 or Older, 1900–2050

Source: Data from Administration on Aging. (n.d.). Projected future growth of the older population by age: 1900–2050. Retrieved

from http://www.aoa.gov/AoARoot/Aging_Statistics/future_growth/future_growth.aspx.

Inequality in Life Expectancy

We have seen that inequality in life expectancy exists around the world, with life expectancy lower in poor

256 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

nations than in wealthy nations. Inequality in life expectancy also exists within a given society along gender, race/

ethnicity, and social class lines.

For gender, the inequality is in favor of women, who for both biological and social reasons outlive men across

the globe. In the United States, for example, girls born in 2007 could expect to live 80.4 years on the average, but

boys only 75.4 years.

In most countries, race and ethnicity combine with social class to produce longer life expectancies for the

(wealthier) dominant race, which in the Western world is almost always white. The United States again reflects

this international phenomenon: Whites born in 2007 could expect to live 78.4 years on the average, but African

Americans only 73.6 years. In fact, gender and race combine in the United States to put African American males

at a particular disadvantage, as they can expect to live only 70.0 years (see Figure 6.5 “Sex, Race, and Life

Expectancy for US Residents Born in 2007”). The average African American male will die almost 11 years earlier

than the average white woman.

Figure 6.5 Sex, Race, and Life Expectancy for US Residents Born in 2007

Source: Data from National Center for Health Statistics, US Department of Health and Human Services. (2010). Health, United

States, 2010, with special feature on death and dying. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus/hus10.pdf.

Key Takeaways

• Life expectancy differs widely around the world and is much higher in wealthy nations than in poor nations.

• Life expectancy has also been increasing around the world, including in the United States, and theincreasing number of older people in the decades ahead will pose several serious challenges.

• Inequality in life expectancy exists within a given society along gender, race/ethnicity, and social class lines.

For Your Review

1. As our nation and the world both “gray,” what do you think is the most important problem that will stem

6.3 Life Expectancy and the Graying of Society 257

from the increasing number of older people?

2. Write a short essay in which you discuss the problems that an elderly person you know, perhaps agrandparent, has experienced related to being older.

References

Hayutin, A. M. (2007). Graying of the global population. Public Policy & Aging Report, 17(4), 12–17.

Population Reference Bureau. (2011). 2011 world population data sheet. Washington, DC: Author.

United Nations Population Division. (2011). World population prospects: The 2010 revision. New York, NY:

Author.

258 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

6.4 Biological and Psychological Aspects of Aging

Learning Objectives

1. Describe any four biological changes associated with aging.

2. List any three steps that individuals can try to undertake to achieve successful aging.

Like many other societies, the United States has a mixed view of aging and older people. While we generally

appreciate our elderly, we have a culture oriented toward youth, as evidenced by the abundance of television

characters in their twenties and lack of those in their older years. As individuals, we do our best not to look

old, as the many ads for wrinkle creams and products to darken gray hair attest. Moreover, when we think of

the elderly, negative images often come to mind. We often think of someone who has been slowed by age both

physically and mentally. She or he may have trouble walking up steps, picking up heavy grocery bags, standing

up straight, or remembering recent events. The term senile often comes to mind, and phrases like “doddering

old fool,” “geezer,” and other disparaging remarks sprinkle our language when we talk about them. Meanwhile,

despite some improvement, the elderly are often portrayed in stereotypical ways on television and in movies (Lee,

Carpenter, & Meyers, 2007).

How true is this negative image? What do we know of physical and psychological changes among the elderly?

How much of what we think we know about aging and the elderly is a myth, and how much is reality?

Gerontologists have paid special attention to answering these questions (Novak, 2012).

Biological changes certainly occur as we age. The first signs are probably in our appearance. Our hair begins

to turn gray, our (male) hairlines recede, and a few wrinkles set in. The internal changes that often accompany

aging are more consequential, among them being that (a) fat replaces lean body mass, and many people gain

weight; (b) bone and muscle loss occur; (c) lungs lose their ability to take in air, and our respiratory efficiency

declines; (d) the functions of the cardiovascular and renal (kidney) systems decline; (e) the number of brain cells

declines, as does brain mass overall; and (f) vision and hearing decline. Cognitive and psychological changes also

occur. Learning and memory begin declining after people reach their seventies; depression and other mental and/

or emotional disorders can set in; and dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, can occur.

Because our society values youthfulness, many people try to do their best not to look old.

FoundryParkInn – Men’s Facial – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

All these conditions yield statistics such as follows: about half of people 65 or older have arthritis or high blood

pressure; almost one-fifth have coronary heart disease; more than one-fifth have diabetes; and about 60 percent of

women in their seventies have osteoporosis (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention & The Merck Company

Foundation, 2007; Crawthorne, 2008).

Still, the nature and extent of all these changes vary widely among older people. Some individuals are frail at 65,

while others remain vigorous well into their seventies and beyond. People can be “old” at 60 or even 50, while

others can be “young” at 80. Many elders are no longer able to work, but others remain in the labor force. All in

all, then, most older people do not fit the doddering image myth and can still live a satisfying and productive life

(Rowe et al., 2010).

Enhancing Vitality for Successful Aging

To what extent are the effects of biological and psychological aging the inevitable results of chronological aging?

260 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Gerontologists are still trying to understand what causes these effects, and their explanations center on such things

as a declining immune system, the slowing of cellular replication, and other processes that need not concern us

here.

One thing is clear: We can all take several steps to help us age better, because what we do as we enter our older

years matters much more than genetics (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention & The Merck Company

Foundation, 2007; Crawthorne, 2008). To the extent this is true, the effects of biological and psychological aging

are not necessarily inevitable, and “successful aging” is possible. The steps highlighted in the gerontological

literature are by now almost a cliché, but regular exercise, good nutrition, and stress reduction stand at the top of

most gerontologists’ recommendations for continued vitality in later life. In fact, Americans live about ten years

less than an average set of genes should let them live because they do not exercise enough and because they eat

inadequate diets.

Research by social gerontologists suggests at least two additional steps older people can take if they want

“successful aging.” The first is involvement in informal, personal networks of friends, neighbors, and relatives.

The importance of such networks is one of the most thoroughly documented in the social gerontological literature

(Binstock & George, 2006) (see Note 6.23 “Applying Social Research”). Networks enhance successful aging

for at least two reasons. First, they provide practical support, such as help buying groceries and visiting the

doctor, to the elderly who need it. Second, they help older people maintain their self-esteem, meet their desire for

friendships, and satisfy other emotional needs.

Children and Our Future

Grandparents Raising Grandchildren

An increasing number of grandparents are raising their grandchildren. Almost 6 million children, or about 8 percent of allchildren, live in a household headed by a grandparent, up from 4.5 million in 2000. Grandparents are the sole caregiverfor almost 3 million of these children because the child’s parents are absent for several reasons: The parents may havedied, they may be in jail or prison or have been unable to deal with substance abuse, a child may have been removed froma parent because of parental abuse, or a child may have been abandoned.

In the remaining households where a parent is present, grandparents (usually the grandmother) are still the primarycaregivers or at least play a major role in raising the child; the same is true of many grandparents who live neartheir grown child’s home. In today’s faltering economy, many grandparents are also helping their children out with theexpenses of raising their grandchild and running a home. As a family expert with AARP explained, “Grandparents havebecome the family safety net, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. While they will continue to enjoy theirtraditional roles, including spending on gifts for grandchildren, I see them increasingly paying for the extras that parentsare struggling to keep up with—sports, camps, tutoring or other educational needs, such as music lessons.”

Estella Hyde, 65, and her husband live near Erie, Pennsylvania. They began raising their granddaughter, who startedcollege in fall 2011, when she was one-year-old after her mother said she did not want to raise her. Ms. Hyde called formore government assistance for people in her situation: “It never happens in a happy situation where a son or daughtercomes and says, ‘I need you to raise a child for me.’ We were very lucky, we were able to financially take care of her andsupport her. But many grandparent caregivers need other sources of assistance.”

Many grandparents consider the caregiving and financial support they provide for a grandchild to be both a joy and aprivilege. But as their numbers grow, many such grandparents are also finding their involvement to also be somewhatof a physical and/or financial burden. As their numbers continue to grow, it will be important for the federal and stategovernments to provide them the assistance that Estella Hyde advocated.

Sources: Whitley & Kelley, 2007; Yen, 2011

6.4 Biological and Psychological Aspects of Aging 261

A second step for successful aging suggested by scholarly research is religious involvement (Moberg, 2008),

which enhances psychological well-being for at least two reasons. As people worship in a congregation, they

interact with other congregants and, as just noted, enhance their social support networks. Moreover, as they

practice their religious faith, they reduce their stress and can cope better with personal troubles. For both these

reasons, attendance at religious services and the practice of prayer are thought to enhance psychological well-

being among older people. Some elders cannot attend religious services regularly because they have health

problems or are no longer able to drive a car. But prayer and other private devotional activities remain significant

for many of them. To the extent that religion makes a difference for elders’ well-being, health-care facilities and

congregations should do what they can to enable older adults to attend religious services and to otherwise practice

their religious faith.

Applying Social Research

Friendships and Successful Aging

As the text discusses, social networks improve the lives of older Americans by providing both practical and emotionalsupport. Early research on social networks and aging focused more on relatives than on friends. Rebecca G. Adams,former president of the Southern Sociological Society, was one of the first sociologists to emphasize the role that friendscan also play in the lives of the elderly. She interviewed seventy older women who lived in a Chicago suburb and askedthem many questions about the extent and quality of their friendships.

In one of her most important findings, Adams discovered that the women reported receiving more help from friends thanother researchers had assumed was the case. The women were somewhat reluctant to ask friends for help but did so whenfamily members were not available and when they would not overly inconvenience the friends whom they asked for help.Adams also found that “secondary” friendships—those involving friends that a woman spent time with but with whomshe was not especially close—were more likely than “primary” friendships (very close friendships) to contribute to herinterviewees’ psychological well-being, as these friendships enabled the women to meet new people, to become involvedin new activities, and thus to be engaged with the larger society. This finding led Adams to conclude that one shouldnot underestimate how important friends are to older people, particularly to the elderly without family. Friends are animportant source of companionship and possibly a more important source of service support than most of the currentliterature suggests.

Adams also asked the women about their friendships with men. The seventy women she interviewed reported 670friendships, of which only 3.6 percent were with men. (About 91 percent were with other women, and 6 percent werewith couples.) Although prior research had assumed that the number of these friendships is small because there are sofew unmarried elderly men compared to the number of unmarried elderly women, Adams discovered from her interviewssome additional reasons. Her respondents interpreted any friendship with a man as a courting or romantic friendship,which they thought would be viewed negatively by their children and by their peers. Adopting a traditional gender-roleorientation, they also expected any man they might marry to be able to protect them physically and financially. Yet theyalso realized that any elderly man they might know would be very likely unable to do so. For all these reasons, they shiedaway from friendships with men.

Work by Adams and other social scientists on the friendships and other aspects of the social support systems for olderAmericans has contributed greatly to our understanding of the components of successful aging. Practically speaking, itpoints to the need for programs and other activities to make it easier for the elderly to develop and maintain friendshipswith both sexes to improve their ability to meet both their practical and emotional needs.

Sources: Adams, 1985, 1986; Roscow, 1967

262 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Key Takeaways

• Certain biological, cognitive, and psychological changes occur as people age. These changes reinforce thenegative view of the elderly, but this view nonetheless reflects stereotypes and myths about aging and theelderly.

• Regular exercise, good nutrition, stress reduction, involvement in personal networks, and religiousinvolvement all enhance successful aging.

For Your Review

1. Do you think the negative view of older people that is often found in our society is an unfair stereotype, ordo you think there is actually some truth to this stereotype? Explain your answer.

2. Referring back to Chapter 1 “Understanding Social Problems”’s discussion of Émile Durkheim, how doesresearch that documents the importance of personal networks for successful aging reflect Durkheim’sinsights?

References

Adams, R. G. (1985). People would talk: Normative barriers to cross-sex friendships for elderly women. The

Gerontologist, 25, 605–611.

Adams, R. G. (1986). Secondary friendship networks and psychological well-being among elderly women.

Activities, Adaptation, and Aging, 8, 59–72.

Binstock, R. H., & George, L. K. (Eds.). (2006). Handbook of aging and the social sciences (6th ed.). Boston:

Academic Press.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention & The Merck Company Foundation. (2007). The state of aging and

health in America 2007. Whitehouse Station, NJ: Merck Company Foundation.

Crawthorne, A. (2008). Elderly poverty: The challenge before us. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress.

Lee, M. M., Carpenter, B., & Meyers, L. S. (2007). Representations of older adults in television advertisements.

Journal of Aging Studies, 21(1), 23–30.

Moberg, D. O. (2008). Spirituality and aging: Research and implications. Journal of Religion, Spirituality &

Aging, 20, 95–134.

Novak, M. (2012). Issues in aging (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Roscow, I. (1967). Social integration of the aged. New York, NY: Free Press.

6.4 Biological and Psychological Aspects of Aging 263

Rowe, J. W., Berkman, L. F., Binstock, R., Boersch-Supan, A., Cacioppo, J., Carsternsen, L., et al. (2010). Policies

and politics for an aging America. Contexts, 9(1), 22–27.

Whitley, D. M., & Kelley, S. J. (2007). Grandparents raising grandchildren: A call to action. Washington, DC:

Administration for Children and Families.

Yen, H. (2011, August 25). Grandparents play a bigger role in child-rearing. Associated Press. Retrieved from

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/26/grandparents-play-a-bigge_n_937945.html.

264 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Chapter 7: Alcohol and Other Drugs

Social Problems in the News

“Why Do College Students Love Getting Wasted?” the headline asked. Ohio University sociologist Thomas Vander Ven,author of a recent book on college drinking, was interviewed for this news story and had several answers to this question.First, drinking helps lessen college students’ anxieties about their courses, social relationships, and other matters. Second,it helps them have a good time and develop close friendships, including perhaps a romantic or sexual partner. Third, andperhaps most important, they drink because it’s fun. He also noted that when students get drunk, the other students whotake care of them learn something about adult responsibility.

Vander Ven said that when students drink, “They’re more likely to say and do things that they normally wouldn’tdo—show affection to their peers, get angry at them, get more emboldened to sing and dance and take risks and act crazyand there’s a ton of laughing that goes on. It creates this world of adventure. It creates war stories. It creates bondingrituals.” He added, “When things go wrong—the getting sick, the getting arrested, the getting upset—it gives them anopportunity to care for one another, to deliver social support. So you’ve got young adults who, for the first time, aretaking care of a sick person, staying up all night with them, consoling them when they’re upset. It’s an opportunity forthem to try on adult roles.”

Source: Rogers, 2011

This news story points to two central facts that are often forgotten in discussions about alcohol and other

drugs. First, because of a combination of physiological, psychological, and social factors, drugs make us feel

good. Second, because drugs make us feel good, many people want to use them, come hell or high water. To

acknowledge these two basic facts is not meant to excuse the use of alcohol and other drugs, which cause serious

individual and societal problems. But it is meant to indicate why the United States and other nations have found

it so difficult to deal with drug use.

This difficulty in turn points to the need to understand why people use alcohol and other drugs, including the

influence of our sociodemographic backgrounds on the likelihood of using them. This chapter examines these and

other aspects of drug use before turning to the important issue of social and political policy regarding drug use.

References

Rogers, T. (2011, August 28). Why do college students love getting wasted? Salon.com. Retrieved from

http://www.salon.com/life/education/?story=/mwt/feature/2011/2008/2028/college_drinking_interview.

7.1 Drug Use in History

Learning Objectives

1. Discuss the presence of drugs in ancient times.

2. Summarize the use of drugs in the United States during the nineteenth century.

3. Explain the racial basis for decisions to ban opium, cocaine, and marijuana in the United States.

Shakespeare once wrote that “what’s past is prologue.” This familiar phrase means that what happened in the past

provides a context for, and can help to understand and predict, the future. To the extent that the past is prologue,

the history of drug use provides a sobering lesson: Drug use has been common since ancient times and has been

common in almost every society. As a recent book on drug policy states, “People have used chemicals to alter

their state of mind since before there were written records” (Kleiman, Caulkins, & Hawken, 2011, p. xviii). If

past is indeed prologue, then it is no surprise that drug use remains common in contemporary nations despite

considerable efforts to reduce it.

One manifestation of the long history of drug use is that humans have used mind-altering plants since prehistoric

times. “Early humans discovered that eating some plants gave a feeling of relaxation, happiness, drowsiness, or

peace,” one scholar writes. “Some gave a feeling of increased energy, alertness, and stamina. And some caused

strange sensations, terrifying visions, or a profoundly different awareness” (Gahlinger, 2004, p. 5).

Ancient Greeks drank poppy juice, which contained opium, around 300 BCE. Use of other drugs was also common in ancient times.

Tilemahos Efthimiadis – National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece – CC BY 2.0.

Examples of drug use thousands of years ago abound (Escohotado, 2010; Faupel, Horowitz, & Weaver, 2010;

Goodman, Sherratt, & Lovejoy, 2007). Mead, an alcoholic drink made from fermented honey, was first used about

8000 BCE, and beer and berry wines were first used about 6000 BCE. The ancient Sumerians used opium starting

about 5000 BCE. Ancient Egypt used alcohol in 3500 BCE, while ancient China used cannabis (the source of

marijuana) around 3000 BCE. Ancient people in what is now Switzerland ate poppy seeds (the source of opium)

in 2500 BCE. Coca leaves (the source of cocaine) have been chewed for thousands of years. Folk medicines made

from plants and herbs have also been used since ancient times. People in ancient Palestine drank wine in 350

BCE. Ancient Greeks drank poppy juice in 300 BCE. In about the same period, South American tribes used a

hallucinogen called cohoba, made from mimosa beans. The Chinese and other Asians were using opium regularly

by 1000 CE. Native Americans used tobacco before being discovered by Columbus in 1492. The use of various

drugs has also been common in the many societies that anthropologists have studied (Durant & Thakker, 2003;

Page & Singer, 2010).

Sociologist Erich Goode (2008, p. 176) summarizes the history of drug use as follows: “Humans have been

ingesting drugs for thousands of years. And throughout recorded time, significant numbers of nearly every society

on earth have used one or more drugs to achieve certain desired physical or mental states. Drug use comes close

to being a universal, both worldwide and throughout history.”

Drug Use in US History

This history of drug use includes the United States, where past is again prologue. During the colonial era, tobacco

was a major crop in Virginia and other colonies thanks to slave labor. After being processed, it was commonly

used by colonists and also exported to Europe in great quantities (Gately, 2001). From the earliest colonial days,

alcohol was another drug used in great quantities, as “Americans were drinkers right from the start” (Genzlinger,

2011, p. C1). The Mayflower, the celebrated ship that brought the first Puritans to what eventually became the

United States, was filled with barrels of beer. In colonial New England, rum manufacturing was a major industry,

and rum drinking was common. During the early 1770s, New England had more than 140 rum distilleries, and

rum consumption in the colonies averaged 7.5 million gallons annually. This massive drinking has led one author

to call rum “the real spirit of 1776” (Williams, 2006). Rum was also a major export to Europe and elsewhere. In

addition to rum, colonists routinely drank beer and hard cider.

During the nineteenth century, Americans began to use drugs other than alcohol in great quantities. One popular

drug was coffee. Before the Civil War, Americans who drank coffee had to buy green (unroasted) coffee beans

in bulk and roast their own coffee. Then in 1865, John Arbuckle, a Pittsburgh grocer, began selling roasted

coffee inside a new invention—the paper bag. His bagged coffee was an instant hit across the nation, other coffee

manufacturers followed suit, and coffee use by Americans greatly increased.

Alcohol also remained a very popular drug, and use of this drug during the 1800s was probably greater than during

colonial America. Two reasons help account for this trend (Faupel et al., 2010). One reason was the western

frontier. As the nation moved west, many of the explorers and settlers who led the way were men who were

unmarried or, if married, men who had left their families behind. To put it mildly, they drank a lot, fought a lot, and

gambled a lot. A second reason was that many Irish immigrants came to the United States during a great wave of

immigration that began in the mid-nineteenth century. Although it might sound like a stereotype, the Irish drank a

7.1 Drug Use in History 267

lot of alcohol back in their homeland, and they continued to do so once they reached the United States. Regardless

of who was drinking, heavy alcohol use contributed greatly to poverty, to physical assaults and homicides, and to

domestic violence and other family problems.

Three other popular drugs in this era were opium, cocaine, and marijuana. Use of these drugs was so common that

nineteenth-century America has been called a “dope fiend’s paradise” (Brecher, 1973). A brief discussion of these

drugs’ histories will underscore the widespread use of drugs in the American past and also racial issues that arose

when laws were passed to ban these drugs (Musto, 1999).

Opium

During the decades before and after the Civil War, the use of opium was extremely common (Goode, 2012).

Beyond making people feel good, opium is an effective painkiller and cough suppressant. Accordingly, it was

a staple in many patent medicines, elixirs and tonics, sold back then in apothecaries, general stores, and other

venues. Large numbers of people from all social backgrounds used these opium-laced medicines for problems

such as depression, headaches, menstrual cramps, and toothaches. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that

the United States was a nation of opium users during this period; an estimated 500,000 Americans were addicted

to opium by the end of the century. As anthropologist Robert B. Edgerton (1976, pp. 57–58) summarizes the

situation, “The use of opium was widespread in all segments of American society. Children were calmed with

opium derivatives, women used many popular patent medicines which were liberally larded with opiates, and

‘opium dens’ were probably present in all cities and most towns as well.”

Opium was a common ingredient in nineteenth-century tonics and elixirs that were sold widely to the public.

camarelius – _DSC_5554 rot cr alt – CC BY-NC 2.0.

268 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Attendance at opium dens (the equivalent of today’s bar or tavern, with opium the drug of choice rather than

alcohol) was a popular activity for the Chinese immigrants who began coming to the United States during the

1850s to help build the nation’s railroads and perform other jobs. White workers feared their growing numbers

as a threat to their jobs, and racial prejudice against the Chinese increased. Politicians, labor unions, and other

parties began to focus on the Chinese habit of smoking opium at opium dens and warned that the Chinese were

kidnapping little white children, taking them to the opium dens, and turning them into “opium fiends.” This

campaign had two effects: it increased prejudice against the Chinese, and it increased public concern about opium.

This rising concern led San Francisco in 1875 to become the first locality to ban opium dens. Other California

cities did the same, and the state itself banned opium dens in 1881. Three decades later, the federal government

banned the manufacture, sale, and use of opium (except for use with a physician’s prescription) when it passed the

Harrison Narcotics Act in 1914.

Cocaine

Cocaine was another drug that was very popular in the nineteenth century, beginning in the 1880s, thanks in

part to enthusiastic claims by Sigmund Freud and American physicians that cocaine could help relieve asthma,

depression, hay fever, sexual impotence, toothache pain, and a host of other problems. Like opium, cocaine was a

popular ingredient in the many patent medicines that people bought at various stores, and the US Army Surgeon-

General advocated its medical use. It was a major ingredient in a new beverage introduced in 1886, Coca-Cola,

which became an instant hit because people naturally felt so good when they drank Coke! During the next two

decades, however, concern grew about cocaine’s effects. Some of this concern was fueled by the absurd belief that

African Americans who used cocaine became extra strong, dangerous, and even invulnerable to bullets. Cocaine

was heavily taxed by the 1914 Harrison Narcotics Act and later banned.

Marijuana

A third legal drug during the late nineteenth century was marijuana. It joined opium and cocaine in being

a common ingredient in patent medicines, and it was a popular drug for problems like migraine headaches,

menstrual cramps, and toothache pain. After the Mexican Revolution of 1910, Mexicans moved to the United

States in increased numbers and brought with them their habit of marijuana use. Whites feared that Mexicans

would take their jobs, and, similar to what happened with opium and Chinese immigrants during the 1870s, began

to charge that Mexicans who used marijuana would become violent and more likely to rape and murder innocent

white victims. This racially prejudiced claim increased concern about marijuana and helped lead to the federal

Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 that banned its use.

This brief history shows that drug use has been part of the American culture ever since the nation began. If past

is prologue, it should come as no surprise that drugs remain part of the American culture today, and it should also

come as no surprise that efforts to reduce or eliminate drug use often meet with much resistance and little success.

As the United States continues to try to deal with drug use, these basic facts must not be forgotten.

7.1 Drug Use in History 269

Key Takeaways

• Drug use has been common since ancient times.

• Alcohol was widely drunk in colonial America. During the latter nineteenth century, opium, marijuana, andcocaine were legal drugs that were also widely used.

• Racial prejudice played an important role in decisions during the late nineteenth century and early twentiethcentury to ban opium, marijuana, and cocaine.

For Your Review

1. Were you surprised to read that mind-altering drug use has been common since ancient times? Why or whynot?

2. Were you surprised to read that racial prejudice helped lead to bans on opium, marijuana, and cocaine? Whyor why not?

References

Brecher, E. M. (1973). Licit and illicit drugs. Boston, MA: Little, Brown.

Durant, R., & Thakker, J. (2003). Substance use and abuse: Cultural and historical perspectives. Thousand Oaks,

CA: Sage Publications.

Edgerton, R. (1976). Deviance: A cross-cultural perspective. Menlo Park, CA: Cummings.

Escohotado, A. (2010). The general history of drugs (G. W. Robinette, Trans.). Valparasio, Chile: Graffiti Milante

Press.

Faupel, C. E., Horowitz, A. M., & Weaver., G. S. (2010). The sociology of American drug use. New York, NY:

Oxford University Press.

Gahlinger, P. (2004). Illegal drugs: A complete guide to their history, chemistry, use, and abuse. New York, NY:

Penguin.

Gately, I. (2001). Tobacco: The story of how tobacco seduced the world. New York, NY: Grove Press.

Genzlinger, N. (2011, October 1). Bellying up to the time when America went dry. New York Times, p. C1.

Goode, E. (2008). Deviant behavior (8th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Goode, E. (2012). Drugs in American society (8th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

270 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Goodman, J., Sherratt, A., & Lovejoy, P. E. (Eds.). (2007). Consuming habits: Drugs in history and anthropology

(2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Kleiman, M. A. R., Caulkins, J. P., & Hawken, A. (2011). Drugs and drug policy: What everyone needs to know.

New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Musto, D. F. (1999). The American disease: Origins of narcotic control (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford

University Press.

Page, B., & Singer, M. (2010). Comprehending drug use: Ethnographic Research at the social margins. New

Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Williams, I. (2006). Rum: a social and sociable history of the real spirit of 1776. New York, NY: Nation Books.

7.1 Drug Use in History 271

7.2 Drugs and Drug Use Today

Learning Objectives

1. Summarize the different types of drugs.

2. Explain the various harms caused by alcohol and tobacco.

3. Understand the effects of marijuana, cocaine, and other illegal drugs.

A drug may be defined as any substance other than food that, when taken into the body, affects the structure and/or

functioning of the body. Defined this way, many common substances contain drugs or are drugs: coffee, No-Doz,

and other products to keep us alert; aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and other pain relievers; Tums, Rolaids,

and other products that reduce heartburn; Metamucil and other products that reduce constipation; Robitussin,

Sudafed, and other cold medicines; and so forth. If you have ever used one of these products, you are technically

a drug user, however silly that might sound.

Many prescription drugs also certainly exist: Prozac and other antidepressants; Valium and other tranquilizers;

Lipitor and other cholesterol drugs; Yasmin, Yaz and other birth control pills; Viagra and other products that

relieve erectile dysfunction; and so forth. Sales of these prescription drugs amount to tens of billions of dollars

annually.

The following substances are also drugs: alcohol, ecstasy, cocaine, heroin, marijuana, LSD, methamphetamine,

PCP, and tobacco. Much has been written about these drugs, and we will discuss them further later in this section.

But note that two of these drugs, alcohol and tobacco, are legal after a certain age, while the remaining drugs are

illegal.

One of the problems in deciding how to think about and deal with drugs is that this distinction between legal drugs

and illegal drugs has no logical basis. It makes sense to assume that the illegal drugs should be the ones that are

the most dangerous and cause the most physical and social harm, but that is not true. Rather, alcohol and tobacco

cause the most harm even though they are legal. As Kleiman et al. (2011, p. xviii) note about alcohol, “When we

read that one in twelve adults suffers from a substance abuse disorder or that 8 million children are living with an

addicted parent, it is important to remember that alcohol abuse drives those numbers to a much greater extent than

does dependence on illegal drugs.” Tobacco kills about 435,000 Americans annually by causing premature death,

and alcohol kills about 85,000 annually through its effects on the liver and other body organs (Mokdad, Marks,

Stroup, & Gerberding, 2004).

Putting these numbers together, some 520,000 Americans die annually from alcohol and tobacco use. Meanwhile,

the physiological effects of all illegal drugs combined kill an estimated 17,000 Americans annually (Mokdad et

al., 2004), a number that is only just above the number of annual deaths (16,500) from nonsteroidal inflammatory

drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin and ibuprofen (Frech & Go, 2009). Figure 7.1 “Annual Deaths from Legal and

Illegal Drugs” depicts the huge difference between deaths from alcohol and tobacco as legal drugs and from illegal

drugs.

Figure 7.1 Annual Deaths from Legal and Illegal Drugs

Source: Mokdad, A. H., Marks, J. S., Stroup, D. F., & Gerberding, J. L. (2004). Actual causes of death in the United States, 2000.

Journal of the American Medical Association, 291(10), 1238–1245.

We return to the issue of the relative harm of legal and illegal drugs toward the end of the chapter when we discuss

drug policy. In the meantime, keep in mind two related facts: (1) all drugs can be dangerous, and (2) some drugs

are much more dangerous than others. Two aspirins are safe to take, but a bottle of aspirin can kill someone. Two

cups of coffee a day are fine, but drinking many cups a day can cause anxiety, insomnia, and headaches. One drink

of alcohol is safe to take, but several drinks in a short time amount to binge drinking, and long-term use of alcohol

can kill someone. One snort of cocaine is usually safe, but even one snort can result in a sudden fatal heart attack,

and long-term use often has serious health consequences.

Types of Drugs

Drugs are commonly classified into certain categories according to their physiological effects. All drugs may

make us feel good, but they do so in different ways. Because some drugs are much more potent than other

drugs, there is much variation within each category. Partly because many drugs have multiple effects, many

different classifications of drugs exist. A common classification includes the following categories: depressants,

hallucinogens, marijuana, narcotics, and stimulants.

Depressants

Depressants slow down the activity of the central nervous system. Depending on the specific drug, they help

induce drowsiness and relaxation, and they can reduce anxiety and pain. Several types of depressants exist.

Analgesics reduce pain and include over-the-counter products such as aspirin, acetaminophen (the major

ingredient in Tylenol), and ibuprofen (the major ingredient in Advil and Motrin), and many prescription medicines

that contain acetaminophen. Sedatives help people relax and include alcohol, barbiturates, and sleep medicines

7.2 Drugs and Drug Use Today 273

such as Sominex and Tylenol PM (both over-the-counter) and Ambien and Valium (both prescription). Large

doses of depressants may lead to physical dependence and sometimes death.

Hallucinogens

Hallucinogens are mind-altering drugs that cause delusions or hallucinations. Their ranks include ecstasy, LSD,

mescaline, and PCP. Many people who use a hallucinogen report that the mind-altering effects of the drug provide

them a truly wonderful experience, but many also find the effects to be troubling at best and horrible and terrifying

at worst. Long-term effects include hallucinations that occur without any drug use preceding them.

Marijuana

Marijuana is by far the most popular illegal drug in the United States.

Modern Scribe Photography – Maryjane 4-20-2010 (420) – CC BY-ND 2.0.

Because marijuana’s effects do not fit neatly into any other category of drug, marijuana (along with its close

cousin, hashish) is often considered to be its own category. As we will see later, it is by far the most popular illegal

drug in the United States. Its effects include distortion of time and space, euphoria, hunger, increased sensory

perception, and relaxation.

274 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Narcotics

Narcotics are sometimes classified under depressants because they slow down the central nervous system, but

they are often still considered as their own category. They are highly effective at relieving pain and are a common

substance in prescription medicines for severe pain. By definition, all narcotics are derived from opium, either

in its natural form or in a synthesized form. Examples of narcotics include codeine, heroin, methadone, and

morphine. In addition to relieving pain, narcotics may induce drowsiness, euphoria, and relaxation. Although

narcotics do not damage bodily organs, they are very physically addictive, and high doses can be fatal.

Stimulants

Stimulants have the opposite effect of depressants by speeding up the central nervous system. They increase

alertness and energy and can produce euphoria or anxiety. Some are legal and some are illegal, and many

very different drugs are all considered stimulants: caffeine, cocaine, methamphetamine and other amphetamines,

nicotine (tobacco), and Ritalin. Stimulants can be very physically addictive, and nicotine is thought to be more

addictive than heroin. While caffeine is very safe as long as someone does not have too many cups of coffee daily,

many other stimulants may have dangerous short-term or long-term side effects on the cardiovascular system.

Not all drugs can be discussed in one chapter. In choosing which drugs to discuss in a book on social problems,

it makes sense to discuss the drugs that probably concern Americans the most. We thus focus in the remainder of

this section mostly on alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, cocaine, and heroin.

Legal Drugs

As noted earlier, alcohol and tobacco (nicotine) are two legal drugs that are very common and that together kill

hundreds of thousands of Americans annually. According to national survey evidence collected by the Substance

Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) of the federal government, most people 12 and

older (as well as many younger than 18) have tried alcohol, and over half the public drinks currently (defined as

having had at least one drink in the past month). While many people have tried tobacco, only slightly more than

one-fourth of the public uses it currently (at least once during the past month). Table 7.1 “Prevalence of Alcohol

and Tobacco Use, Ages 12 and Older, 2010*” summarizes the prevalence of alcohol and nicotine use. Translating

some of these percentages into actual numbers, almost 70 million Americans are current tobacco users (mostly by

smoking cigarettes), and 131 million are current alcohol users.

Table 7.1 Prevalence of Alcohol and Tobacco Use, Ages 12 and Older, 2010*

7.2 Drugs and Drug Use Today 275

Lifetime Past year Past month

Alcohol 82.5 66.4 51.8

Tobacco 68.7 32.8 27.4

* Percentage using in designated time period

Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2011). Results from the 2010 national survey on drug use and health:

Summary of national findings. Rockville, MD: Author.

With this backdrop, we now discuss these two legal but very harmful drugs in greater detail.

Alcohol

Moderate alcohol use (more than one drink per day for an adult female and two drinks per day for an adult male)

is relatively safe for most people and may even have health benefits (Harvard School of Public Health, 2012).

The problem is that many people drink much more than moderately. As the Harvard School of Public Health

(2012) explains, “If all drinkers limited themselves to a single drink a day, we probably wouldn’t need as many

cardiologists, liver specialists, mental health professionals, and substance abuse counselors. But not everyone who

likes to drink alcohol stops at just one. While most people drink in moderation, some don’t.”

SAMHSA survey data show the extent of such problem drinking, as its survey measures both binge drinking (five

or more drinks on the same occasion—within two hours of each other—on at least one day in the past month)

and heavy drinking (binge drinking on at least five days in the past month). Table 7.2 “Prevalence of Binge and

Heavy Alcohol Use, 2010*” presents the relevant data for people 12 and older and also for those aged 18–20, the

customary age for people in their first two years of college.

Table 7.2 Prevalence of Binge and Heavy Alcohol Use, 2010*

Ages 12 and older Ages 18–20

Binge use 23.1 33.3

Heavy use 6.7 11.3

* Percentage engaging in alcohol use

Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2011). Results from the 2010 national survey on drug use and health:

Summary of national findings. Rockville, MD: Author.

As Table 7.2 “Prevalence of Binge and Heavy Alcohol Use, 2010*” indicates, almost one-fourth of all people

12 and older and one-third of those aged 18–20 engage in binge drinking, while almost 7 percent and about 11

percent, respectively, engage in heavy drinking. The figures for those 12 and older translate to almost 59 million

binge drinkers and 17 million heavy drinkers. These numbers show that tens of millions of people abuse alcohol

annually and underscore the problem of dealing with problem drinking.

276 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

The amount of alcohol consumed annually by occasional, moderate, and heavy drinkers is staggering. The

relevant data appear in Table 7.3 “Alcohol Consumption in the United States, 2010”. Americans drink 7.6 billion

gallons of alcohol annually, equivalent to 126 billion standard drinks. This number of drinks works out to 496

drinks per person annually for the 12 and older population and 748 drinks per person for the 12 and older

population that drinks at all. Keep in mind that this is just an average. The heavy drinkers identified in Table 7.2

“Prevalence of Binge and Heavy Alcohol Use, 2010*” have many more than 748 drinks every year, while light

drinkers have only a relative handful of drinks.

Table 7.3 Alcohol Consumption in the United States, 2010

Number of gallons Equivalent number of standard drinks*

Beer 6.4 billion 68.2 billion

Wine 713.2 million 18.3 billion

Spirits 463.1 million 39.5 billion

Total 7.6 billion 126.0 billion

* one drink = 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of spirits

Source: Beer Institute. (2011). Brewers almanac, 2011. Washington, DC: Author.

The Drinking Culture and the Alcohol Industry

As noted earlier, alcohol has a long history in the United States and an even longer history in much of the rest of

the world. When we think about the tens of millions of Americans who drink at least occasionally, the ads for beer

and wine and hard liquor that appear regularly in the popular media, and the thousands of bars and related venues

across the country, it is certainly no exaggeration to say that we have a drinking culture.

Once upon a time, the federal and state governments tried to eliminate this culture. We are speaking, of course,

about Prohibition. The passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution in January 1919 banned the

manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol; the ban took effect a year later. For reasons we will discuss later,

the ban was eventually deemed a failure, and the passage of the Twenty-First Amendment in 1933 repealed the

Eighteenth Amendment. The manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol became legal once again.

Alcohol manufacturing and sales are a major industry worldwide today. Several alcohol companies rank among

the largest corporations in the world as well as in the United States (Jernigan, 2009). US alcohol sales amount to

about $160 billion annually, and they rose by 20 percent in the 2010–2011 period during the faltering economy

(Smith, 2011). The amount of money the public spends on alcohol equals 12.5 percent of what it spends on food

(US Department of Agriculture, 2011). The alcohol industry provides about 2 million jobs annually, more than

$40 billion in wages, and more than $50 billion in taxes, and it contributes more than $160 billion to the annual

national economy (Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, 2011). All these figures show that the alcohol

industry plays a significant role in the US economy.

7.2 Drugs and Drug Use Today 277

Despite this role, if the United States does indeed have a drinking culture, the alcohol industry bears a major share

of the responsibility. As the American Medical Association (2004) has stated,

Like the tobacco industry, the alcohol industry produces a legal, widely consumed drug; is dominated by relatively few

producers; and utilizes a powerful combination of advertising dollars, savvy marketing, political campaign contributions,

and sophisticated lobbying tactics to create and maintain an environment favorable to its economic and political interests. It

requires the recruitment of new, youthful drinkers to maintain and build its customer base…As a chemical that affects our

bodies, alcohol is a powerful drug resulting in more premature deaths and illnesses than all illicit drugs combined. Yet the

industry has shaped public opinion and forced government to treat it not as a drug but as a cultural artifact, a valued legal

commodity, almost a food, even a necessity of life.

As just one example of how the alcohol industry promotes its “powerful drug,” the headline of a recent news

article declared that the “alcohol companies go online to lure young drinkers” (Gardner, 2010). According to the

report, alcohol companies are increasingly using Facebook and other social media to persuade young people to

buy and drink their products. Not surprisingly, many of these young targets turn out to be under the legal drinking

age of 21 because they are easily able to gain access to alcohol sites. This problem led a public health professor to

observe, “Close to 5,000 people under the age of 21 die of alcohol overuse each year. Virtual worlds show all of

the appeal and none of the consequences of alcohol use and undercut efforts to reduce the incidence of underage

drinking. At this point, alcohol companies appear limited only by their imaginations and pocketbooks” (Gardner,

2010).

The alcohol industry is a major part of the US and worldwide economies and provides about 2 million jobs annually in the United

States.

amateur photography by michel – Aardwolf Brewing Company – CC BY 2.0.

278 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Consequences of Alcohol Abuse

Despite alcohol’s immense popularity, the fact remains that more than 18 million Americans abuse it (Harvard

School of Public Health, 2012). This heavy rate of abuse means that alcohol has serious personal and social

consequences. One set of consequences involves personal health. We noted earlier that alcohol abuse is

responsible for about 85,000 deaths annually through the physiological damage it does. Heavy alcohol use can

destroy the liver, increase blood pressure, weaken the heart and immune system, and cause sexual dysfunction. It

can lead to neurological problems and also raises the risk of incurring several kinds of cancer. Binge drinking can

cause serious immediate health problems because it may lead to someone overdosing on alcohol. About 800,000

adults are hospitalized every year for alcohol overdoses, and tens of thousands more are hospitalized because

they have consumed alcohol along with prescription narcotic pain medications, a combination that can be deadly

(National Institutes of Health, 2011).

In addition to these health problems, alcohol use is responsible for more than 16,000 traffic fatalities annually,

and it plays an important role in violent crime (Felson, Teasdale, & Burchfield, 2008). As almost anyone with an

alcoholic family member can attest, alcohol abuse can also cause many problems for families, including domestic

violence and divorce and the stress that results from having to deal with someone’s alcoholism on a daily basis.

(The Note 7.13 “Children and Our Future” box discusses the impact of parental alcoholism on children.) Alcohol

abuse costs the United States more than $185 billion each year in medical expenses, lost earnings because of

alcohol-related illness or premature death, lost earnings by victims of violent crime, and alcohol-caused traffic

accidents (Harvard School of Public Health, 2012).

Children and Our Future

Children of Alcoholics

As with so many social problems, one of the saddest consequences of alcohol abuse involves children. About one-fifthof children have lived with an alcoholic parent or other adult. Whether because alcoholism is partly inherited or becausechildren tend to use their parents as role models, children of alcoholics are four times more likely than children ofnonalcoholics to become alcoholics themselves by the time they reach adulthood.

Because living with an alcoholic parent is often both chaotic and unpredictable, it is no surprise that children of alcoholicsoften experience a great deal of stress and other difficulties that may also account for their greater tendency to becomealcoholics. Compared to other children, they are more likely to be neglected and/or abused by their parents, and theyare also more likely to miss school, have lower grades, and engage in disruptive behavior. In addition, they are at greatrisk for eating disorders and substance abuse other than alcohol abuse. The stress they experience can also harm theirneurological development and immune system and put them at greater risk for different kinds of illness and disease.Children of alcoholics are also at greater risk for several kinds of psychological and emotional problems. These include(1) guilt, because they may blame themselves for their parent’s drinking; (2) anxiety, because they worry about theirparent’s health and may see their parents arguing and fighting; (3) embarrassment that leads them not to invite friendsover to visit nor to ask another adult for help; (4) lack of trust in other people, because they have learned not to trust theiralcoholic parent; and (5) anger, confusion, and depression.

One special problem that children of alcoholics face is that they are “forced into adulthood.” They often find themselveshaving to care for younger siblings and even for their alcoholic parent. By taking on such a heavy responsibility, they ineffect become adults at too tender an age. This responsibility weighs on them and helps account for the psychological andemotional difficulties they often experience.

Mental health professionals strongly advise that children of alcoholics receive counseling and other kinds of support

7.2 Drugs and Drug Use Today 279

to help them deal with their family experiences. Group support programs for teenaged children may be very helpful.Perhaps the best known such program is Alateen, which also services teenagers who want help dealing with an alcoholicfriend. Teenagers at Alateen meetings share their experiences, learn how to deal with the special difficulties that stemfrom having a relative or friend with an alcohol problem, and provide emotional support for each other. One importantmessage they learn from Alateen is that they are in no way responsible for the alcoholism of their parent, other relative,or friend.

Alateen has helped many young people, as this testimonial from “Lizzy” attests: “Alateen has helped me a lot over theyears…From the day I went to my first meeting, the door to my happiness was flung open. With the help of the AlateenGroup Sponsors and my fellow teens, my life has become what I always wanted it to be. My goal for success in theprogram was fulfilled. I have been given a second chance at life and I have Alateen to thank for that.”

Young children and teenagers are resilient, but children of alcoholics have to be especially resilient. Programs likeAlateen help give them a second chance.

Sources: Alateen, 2011; American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 2006; James, 2008

College Students

Alcohol abuse is also a problem on college and university campuses across the United States. Based on the

SAMHSA survey evidence discussed earlier, full-time college students ages 18–22 drink more often and more

heavily than their peers who are not in college (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration,

2008). Among full-time college students ages 18–20, who are all too young to drink legally, about 40 percent have

engaged in binge drinking in the past month, and 17 percent have engaged in heavy drinking as defined earlier.

Binge drinking on and off campus is so common that binge drinkers consume 91 percent of all the alcohol that

college students drink.

Binge drinking by college students has many serious consequences (Center for Science in the Public Interest,

2008; National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, 2007). The following are consequences with

approximate figures:

• Binge drinkers are much more likely than other students to miss class, get poor grades, be injured,

have unprotected sex, and to drive after drinking.

• Six hundred thousand college students suffer alcohol-related injuries (from motor vehicle crashes and

other accidents) each year, and 1,700 die from these injuries.

• Thirty thousand college students need medical attention annually to treat alcohol overdosing.

• Seven hundred thousand students are assaulted annually by a student who has been drinking, and three

hundred students die from these assaults.

• Students who attend colleges with high rates of binge drinking are more likely to experience sleep

disruption, property damage, and physical and sexual assaults than those who attend colleges with low

rates of binge drinking.

280 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Tobacco and Nicotine

Nicotine, the major drug in tobacco, is another legal but very dangerous drug. As we saw earlier, its use kills four

times as many people every year as those killed by alcohol use. Tobacco is a slow poison. If it were not already a

legal drug used by millions, and a company had just manufactured cigarettes for the first time, the Food and Drug

Administration would never approve this product. Fortunately for tobacco companies, nicotine does not distort

perception the way that alcohol and many other psychoactive drugs do. Someone smoking or otherwise using

tobacco can safely drive a car, operate machinery, and so forth, and someone “under the influence” of tobacco

does not become violent.

Tobacco is a slow poison. If it were a new drug, it would not be approved for public consumption.

Raul Lieberwirth – cigarette – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

If you have ever watched any number of pre-1970s movies or television shows like “Mad Men” that portray life

back then, you know that the United States used to have a tobacco culture the way it now has an alcohol culture.

Many, many people smoked cigarettes, and a large number smoked cigars or pipes. This particular drug culture

began to abate in the 1970s after much evidence mounted about the deaths and other serious health effects of

tobacco use and especially about the dangers of second-hand smoke. Whereas college students a generation ago

often sat in smoke-filled classrooms and Americans generally sat in smoke-filled restaurants and other venues,

today most Americans can count on being in enclosed public spaces in which smoking is banned.

Even so, we have already seen that more than one-fourth of Americans 12 and older, or some 70 million people,

are still current users (past month) of tobacco. Almost one-fifth of American adults (18 and older), or 45.3 million

7.2 Drugs and Drug Use Today 281

adults, smoke cigarettes daily or occasionally (King, Dube, Kaufmann, Shaw, & Pechacek, 2011). Thanks to the

greater knowledge about tobacco’s health effects, public education campaigns about these effects, heavy taxes on

cigarettes, and changing attitudes about tobacco, these numbers represent a significant decline from a generation

ago.

Tobacco use causes more preventable death and illness in the United States than any other cause of death; if no

one used tobacco, the more than 400,000 tobacco-related deaths each year would not occur. As we think about

tobacco, this startling statistic needs to be kept in mind: About half of all cigarette smokers will one day die from

a premature death caused by a smoking-related illness (King et al., 2011). To repeat what was said just earlier,

nicotine is a slow poison.

Tobacco kills in several ways. Smoking causes 80–90 percent of all lung cancers, and it greatly increases the risk

of emphysema and other lung disease, coronary heart disease, and stroke. In addition to lung cancer, tobacco use

also causes several other cancers, including bladder cancer, cervical cancer, esophageal cancer, stomach cancer,

and throat cancer. Women who smoke are at greater risk for lower bone density and hip fracture when they get

older.

The economics of tobacco use are also worth knowing. Americans spend about $90 billion annually on tobacco

products, with most of this amount spent on cigarettes (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011). They

purchase more than 300 billion cigarettes annually, with most of the cigarettes sold by three companies. Cigarette

smoking is estimated to cost almost $200 billion annually in medical expenses and lost economic productivity.

This works out to a national economic loss of about $10.50 for every pack of cigarettes that is sold.

One interesting and very important fact about the economics of cigarette smoking is what happens when the

cost of cigarettes is increased. Most smokers begin their deadly habit during adolescence or young adulthood.

Because this is a period of their lives when they do not have much money, increases in the cost of cigarettes

are particularly useful in persuading some of these young people not to buy cigarettes. Government data indicate

that every 10 percent increase in the price of cigarettes reduces cigarette consumption among young people by

4 percent (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011). A similar but smaller effect occurs among older

smokers.

Earlier we said that the alcohol industry plays a major role in the amount of drinking that occurs in the United

States. The same is true of the tobacco industry and smoking. This industry spends about $15 billion annually—or

an average of $41 million daily—in advertising, sponsorship of public events, and other activities to promote its

deadly product, and for many years hid or distorted data about the deadly effects of cigarette smoking (Brandt,

2009). Because of funding cutbacks during the recent faltering economy, the states have reduced their media

campaigns and other efforts aimed at reducing smoking. This reduction, combined with the tobacco industry’s

huge promotional spending, leads one public health professor to lament, “The tobacco companies are winning the

battle” (Martin, 2011).

Illegal Drugs

The SAMHSA survey also gathers data from its thousands of respondents about illegal drug use. Table 7.4

282 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

“Prevalence of Illegal Drug Use, Ages 12 and Older, 2010*” presents these data for several illegal drugs and

shows that use of these drugs is far from rare.

Table 7.4 Prevalence of Illegal Drug Use, Ages 12 and Older, 2010*

Lifetime Past year Past month

Any illegal drug 47.1 15.3 8.9

Illegal drug other than marijuana 30.0 8.1 3.6

Marijuana/hashish 41.9 11.5 6.9

Cocaine/crack 14.7 1.8 0.6

Hallucinogens 14.8 1.8 0.5

Heroin 1.6 0.2 0.1

Stimulants 8.5 1.1 0.4

Nonmedical use of prescription-type drugs† 20.4 6.3 2.7

* Percentage using in designated time period

† Includes stimulants

Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2011). Results from the 2010 national survey on drug use and health:

Summary of national findings. Rockville, MD: Author.

The following figure from Table 7.5 “Prevalence of Illegal Drug Use, Ages 18–20, 2010*” is striking: 47.1 percent

of all Americans ages 12 and older have used an illegal drug at least once in their lifetimes. This percentage

translates to almost 120 million people. In terms of lifetime use, the single most popular illegal drug is easily

marijuana, but 30 percent of Americans, or 76 million people, have used an illegal drug other than marijuana.

Almost 15 percent, or more than 37 million people, have used cocaine/crack or hallucinogens, and more than 20

percent, or almost 52 million people, have used prescription drugs illegally. These percentages and the numbers

of people associated with them all indicate that lifetime illegal drug use in the United States is widespread.

Despite this fact, most public health experts are primarily concerned with current (past month) illegal drug use.

The percentages for past-month (and also past-year) use in Table 7.5 “Prevalence of Illegal Drug Use, Ages 18–20,

2010*” are noticeably smaller than those for lifetime use. They indicate that most people who have used illegal

drugs in their lifetimes are no longer using them, or at least have not used them in the past year or past month.

Most of these lifetime users tried their illegal drug once, twice, or a few times and then stopped using it, and some

may have used it more often but then stopped. In any event, it is the current, past-month users who raise the most

concern for our society in general and for the public health and legal communities and other sectors of our society

that deal with illegal drug use and its effects.

In looking at current illegal drug use, we see that 8.9 percent of the public falls into this category. This percentage

translates to almost 23 million Americans, no small number by any means. Their favorite illegal drug is marijuana

(and hashish), but 3.6 percent, or 9 million people, have used an illegal drug other than marijuana in the past

month. These users favor prescription drugs used for nonmedical reasons. Despite the publicity that cocaine/crack

7.2 Drugs and Drug Use Today 283

still receives, less than 1 percent of the public has used it in the past month, and less than 2 percent has used

it in the past year. These small percentages, though, still translate to 1.5 million people and 5.5 million people,

respectively.

The percentages in Table 7.4 “Prevalence of Illegal Drug Use, Ages 12 and Older, 2010*” underestimate the

problem of illegal drug use in at least two respects. First, the SAMHSA survey does not include people whose

illegal drug use is especially high: the homeless, runaway teenagers, jail and prison inmates, and youths in

detention centers. Second, and conversely, the SAMHSA survey includes people whose illegal drug use is

relatively low—namely, young adolescents and people in their middle age and older years. For this reason, it is

instructive to examine the prevalence of illegal drug use among the people who are in their “prime” ages for it:

those who are 18–20 years old. Accordingly, Table 7.5 “Prevalence of Illegal Drug Use, Ages 18–20, 2010*”

presents the appropriate figures for Americans in this age group.

Table 7.5 Prevalence of Illegal Drug Use, Ages 18–20, 2010*

Lifetime Past year Past month

Any illegal drug 52.8 37.7 23.1

Illegal drug other than marijuana 31.2 19.1 8.0

Marijuana/hashish 46.4 32.7 20.3

Cocaine/crack 8.5 4.1 1.2

Hallucinogens 14.1 7.9 2.3

Heroin 1.6 0.5 0.2

Stimulants 7.8 3.9 1.3

Nonmedical use of prescription-type drugs† 24.5 14.5 5.9

* Percentage using in designated time period

† Includes stimulants

Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2011). Results from the 2010 national survey on drug use and health:

Summary of national findings. Rockville, MD: Author.

Take a moment to compare the percentages in Table 7.5 “Prevalence of Illegal Drug Use, Ages 18–20, 2010*”

for ages 18–20 to the percentages in Table 7.4 “Prevalence of Illegal Drug Use, Ages 12 and Older, 2010*” for

ages 12 and older. When you do this, you will see that past-year and past-month illegal drug use is generally much

higher for people ages 18–20 than for everyone 12 and older. More than one-third of the 18–20 age group have

used an illegal drug in the past year, and almost one-fourth are current users, having used an illegal drug in the

past month. As with the 12 and older population, their drug of choice is clearly marijuana, with nonmedical use

of prescription-type drugs a distant second.

This last statement is important to keep in mind. In terms of percentages, the major illegal drug is marijuana. Very

low percentages of Americans use other illegal drugs when we consider current use and past-year use, although a

greater number have experimented with other illegal drugs in their lifetimes. As we have seen, however, the low

284 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

percentages for the other illegal drugs still translate into millions of Americans who are current users of illegal

drugs other than marijuana. It is also true that drugs like heroin and cocaine/crack are used more heavily in large

cities than in smaller cities and towns and rural areas. Although these drugs are only rarely used nationwide, they

are a particular problem in large urban areas.

With this backdrop in mind, we now discuss a few illegal drugs in further detail.

Marijuana

As we have seen, marijuana is easily the most widely used illegal drug in the United States. The percentages

for marijuana use in Table 7.4 “Prevalence of Illegal Drug Use, Ages 12 and Older, 2010*” translate to 106

million people who have ever used marijuana, 29 million people who used it in the past year, and 17 million

people who used it in the past month (current users). As Table 7.5 “Prevalence of Illegal Drug Use, Ages 18–20,

2010*” showed, marijuana use is especially high among young people: One-third of people ages 18–20 have used

marijuana in the past year, and one-fifth are current users.

Marijuana use can cause several problems (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2010). Marijuana distorts

perception, impairs coordination, and can cause short-term memory loss, and people who are high from marijuana

may be unable to safely drive a motor vehicle or operate machinery. In addition, regular pot smokers are at risk for

respiratory problems, though not lung cancer. Chronic marijuana use is also associated with absence from school

and the workplace and with social relationship problems, although it is difficult to determine whether marijuana

is causing these effects or whether the association exists because someone with personal problems begins using

marijuana regularly.

Despite these problems, marijuana is almost certainly the most benign illegal drug in terms of health and social

consequences, and it is also much more benign than either alcohol or tobacco (Drug Policy Alliance, 2011;

Faupel et al., 2010). As noted earlier, these latter two drugs kill about 520,000 Americans annually. In contrast,

marijuana has probably never killed anyone, and its use has not been associated with any cancers. Alcohol use

is a risk factor for violent behavior, but marijuana use is a risk factor for mellow behavior; if everyone who now

uses alcohol instead smoked marijuana, our violent crime rate would probably drop significantly! Despite some

popular beliefs, marijuana is generally not physiologically addictive, it does not reduce ambition and motivation,

and it does not act as a “gateway drug” that leads to the use of more dangerous drugs (Hanson, Venturelli, &

Fleckenstein, 2012). A review of the evidence on marijuana summarized research findings as follows: “Studies

of long-term marijuana smokers do not produce gross or major clinical, psychiatric, psychological, or social

difference between users and nonusers, or between heavier and lighter users” (Goode, 2008, p. 247).

While not entirely safe, then, marijuana is much safer, both on an individual basis and on a societal basis, than

either alcohol or tobacco. Even so, it remains an illegal drug. This fact underscores our earlier observation that

the legality or illegality of drugs has no logical basis. If the personal and social harm caused by a drug determined

whether it is legal or not, then it would be logical for marijuana to be legal and for alcohol or tobacco to be illegal.

For better or worse, though, the millions of marijuana users have broken the law. In most states, marijuana

possession is a crime punishable by a jail or prison term that depends on the amount of marijuana involved.

Fourteen states (Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi,

7.2 Drugs and Drug Use Today 285

Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon) have decriminalized simple possession of small

amounts of marijuana: They treat possession as a minor offense similar to a traffic violation and punish it with

only a small fine. Most of these states decriminalized the drug in the 1970s after a national commission with

members appointed by the US Congress and by President Richard Nixon recommended taking this action. There is

no evidence that marijuana use in these states increased compared to use in the states that have not decriminalized

marijuana (Beckett & Herbert, 2008). In fact, marijuana use in the nation declined sharply in the 1980s, the first

decade after decriminalization began, both in the states that decriminalized pot possession and in the states that

did not decriminalize it.

Cocaine

Cocaine produces a high that is considered more pleasurable than that for any other drug. According to sociologist

Erich Goode (2008, p. 288), “Cocaine’s principal effects are exhilaration, elation, and euphoria—voluptuous,

joyous feelings accompanied by a sense of grandiosity.” As a stimulant, cocaine also increases energy, alertness,

and a sense of self-confidence. It is not physiologically addictive, but it is considered psychologically addictive:

The high it produces is so pleasurable that some users find they need to keep using it.

Cocaine is a particularly addictive drug because of the high degree of pleasurable feelings it causes.

Nightlife of Revelry – Cocaine – CC BY 2.0.

Cocaine is made from coca plants grown in South America. It most often appears in a powdered form that is

sniffed (or, to use the more common term for this method, snorted). The high it produces takes some time to occur

but may last up to thirty minutes once it does arrive. A more potent form, crack cocaine (or, more commonly,

286 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

crack), is made by heating a mixture of powdered cocaine, baking soda, and water. A user then heats the mixture

that remains and breathes in the vapors that result. Crack produces an immediate, intense high and is a relatively

inexpensive drug. These features made crack a very popular drug when it was first introduced into US cities in the

1980s (Faupel et al. 2010). Street gangs fought each other to control its distribution and sale, much as organized

crime gangs fought each other over alcohol distribution and sale during Prohibition.

Cocaine and crack use has declined since the 1970s and 1980s, but, as Table 7.5 “Prevalence of Illegal Drug Use,

Ages 18–20, 2010*” showed, almost 15 percent of the public has used cocaine at least once; this number translates

to some 37 million Americans. Still, past-year use is only 1.8 percent, and past-month (current) use is only 0.6

percent. Cocaine use thus must be considered rare in percentage terms. At the same time, these percentages

translate to 4.5 million and 1.5 million Americans, respectively. These are not small numbers. Moreover, past-year

and past-month cocaine use is higher among young people, as Table 7.5 “Prevalence of Illegal Drug Use, Ages

18–20, 2010*” showed. Further, crack use remains a problem in the nation’s urban areas.

In terms of health risks, cocaine is a much more dangerous drug than marijuana. As a stimulant, cocaine speeds

up the central nervous system. Because it does so much more intensely than most other stimulants, its use poses

special dangers for the cardiovascular system (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2011). In particular, it can

disrupt the heart’s normal rhythm and cause ventricular fibrillations, and it can speed up the heart and raise blood

pressure. An overdose of cocaine can thus be deadly, and long-term use produces an increased risk of stroke,

seizure, and heart disease. Because cocaine also constricts blood vessels in the brain, long-term use raises the risk

of attention deficit, memory loss, and other cognitive problems. Long-term abuse has also caused panic attacks,

paranoia, and even psychosis.

Heroin

Heroin is derived from opium (and more immediately from morphine, an opium derivative) and is almost

certainly the most notorious opiate. It was one of the popular opiate drugs that, as discussed earlier, were used

so widely during the late nineteenth century. Heroin was first marketed as a painkiller and cough suppressant by

the company that makes Bayer aspirin. As the United States became more concerned about opium use, Bayer

Laboratories discontinued heroin marketing in 1910, and heroin, like other opiates, was banned under the 1914

Harrison Narcotic Act.

Although Table 7.4 “Prevalence of Illegal Drug Use, Ages 12 and Older, 2010*” shows that its use is minuscule

in percentage terms, these percentages translate to 600,000 people who have used heroin in the past year, and

240,000 who have used in the past month. Because these users are concentrated in the nation’s large cities, heroin,

like crack, is a special problem for these areas.

Like other narcotics, heroin use produces a feeling of euphoria. After it is injected, “the user feels a flash, a rush,

which has been described as an intense, voluptuous, orgasmlike sensation. Following this is the feeling of well-

being, tranquility, ease, and calm, the sensation that everything in the user’s life is just fine. Tensions, worries,

problems, the rough edges of life—all seem simply to melt away” (Goode, 2008, pp. 308–309).

Although heroin use is uncommon, it continues to capture the public’s concern more than perhaps any other illegal

drug. As sociologist Goode (2008, pp. 307–308) has observed,

7.2 Drugs and Drug Use Today 287

For decades, it was the most feared, the most dreaded, the “hardest” drug; heroin has virtually defined the drug problem. In

spite of being somewhat overshadowed since the mid-1980s by cocaine, and specifically crack, heroin probably remains the

single substance the American public is most likely to point to as an example of a dangerous drug. Until recently, disapproval

of any level of heroin use was greater than for any other drug. And, until recently, heroin addicts were the most stigmatized of

all drug users. Heroin is the epitome of the illicit street drug. Its association in the public mind with street crime, even today,

is probably stronger than for any other drug. The stereotype of the junkie is that he or she is by nature a lowlife, an outcast, a

“deviant,” a dweller in the underworld, an unsavory, untrustworthy character to be avoided at any cost.

Users typically take heroin into their body by injecting it into a vein. This mode of administration is undoubtedly

a major reason for the public’s very negative image of heroin users. Indeed, the image of a heroin addict “shooting

up” is one that has appeared in many movies and television shows past and present. Many heroin addicts share

their needles, a practice that increases their risk of contracting HIV and hepatitis.

The public’s image and concern about heroin is partly deserved in some ways and partly undeserved in other

ways. Like other opiates, heroin is extremely physiologically addictive, although not as addictive as nicotine. But

also like other opiates, heroin does not damage body organs. The emaciated look we often associate with heroin

users stems not from the drug itself but from the low-caliber lifestyles that heroin addicts tend to live and their

decisions to spend the little money they have on heroin rather than on food and a healthier lifestyle. An overdose

of heroin can certainly kill, just as overdoses of other drugs can kill. One reason heroin overdoses occur is that

heroin users cannot know for sure the purity of the heroin they buy illegally and thus may inject an unsafe dose to

get high.

Prescription Drug Abuse

Table 7.4 “Prevalence of Illegal Drug Use, Ages 12 and Older, 2010*” showed that about one-fifth of Americans

have used prescription drugs for nonmedical purposes. This type of use is illegal. It constitutes the most

widespread illegal drug use other than marijuana use and has grown in recent years, especially among adolescents.

The prescription drugs that are most often abused are those containing narcotics, tranquilizers, and stimulants; two

of the most common brands that are abused are OxyContin and Vicodin. Because prescription drugs are beneficial

for so many people even if they are abused, our nation faces a special difficulty in dealing with the abuse of these

drugs. As the head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse explains, “The challenges we face are much more

complex because we need to address the needs of patients in pain, while protecting those at risk for substance

use disorders” (Zuger, 2011, p. D1). Thus according to a news report, “These drugs must be somehow legal and

illegal, encouraged yet discouraged, tightly regulated yet easily available” (Zuger, 2011, p. D1).

288 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Many prescription drug abusers use drugs obtained from their own prescriptions or from prescriptions of friends or relatives.

sharyn morrow – the husband’s vicodin – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Most prescription drug abusers have their own prescriptions or obtain their drugs from friends, acquaintances,

or relatives who have their own prescriptions. Whatever the source, some of these prescriptions are obtained

legitimately—for actual medical conditions—and then abused, and some are obtained after feigning a medical

condition. Many experts fault physicians for overprescribing painkillers and other prescription drugs.

Prescription drug abuse is thought to be growing for two reasons (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2005). First,

physicians’ prescriptions for painkillers and other drugs continue to rise, creating a greater supply of prescription

drugs that can be abused. Second, online pharmacies and pain clinics have made it easier to obtain prescription

drugs, with or without an actual prescription.

The Note 7.14 “Applying Social Research” box discusses the roots of adolescent prescription drug abuse in family

and school factors. The importance of these factors reinforces the sociological view that the origins of drug use

often lie beyond the individual and in the social environment.

Applying Social Research

Prescription Drug Abuse by Adolescents

Despite the importance of prescription drug abuse, social science research on its causes is relatively sparse. In one of thefirst studies to examine the social origins of adolescent prescription drug abuse, sociologist Jason A. Ford analyzed dataon adolescents in the national survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration thatis discussed elsewhere in this chapter. Drawing on the large body of work that attributes drug use in part to weak social

7.2 Drugs and Drug Use Today 289

bonds, Ford reasoned that prescription drug abuse should be higher among adolescents who have weaker bonds to theirparents and also weaker bonds to their schools.

For his measure of parental bonds, Ford used several questions that asked adolescents about their relationship with theirparents, including whether parents feel proud of them and praise them for doing a good job, and whether their parentshelp them with their homework and limit their time out with friends on a school night. For his measure of school bonds,he used several questions that asked adolescents such things as whether they liked going to school and whether they foundtheir schooling meaningful and important. His measure of prescription drug abuse relied on the adolescents’ self-reportsof whether they had used any prescription drug for nonmedical purposes in the past year.

Controlling for gender, race, and other factors, Ford found support for his hypotheses: prescription drug abuse was higheramong adolescents with weaker bonds to their parents and also weaker bonds to their schools.

These results have important implications for efforts to reduce prescription drug abuse by adolescents. They suggest thatefforts by our society to strengthen families and to improve our schools may well have a significant, beneficial side-effect: lower prescription drug abuse by adolescents.

Source: Ford, 2009

Key Takeaways

• The distinction between legal drugs and illegal drugs has no logical basis; legal drugs cause much moreharm than illegal drugs.

• Alcohol and tobacco kill more than 500,000 Americans annually. Binge drinking on campuses results inaccidents and assaults involving several hundred thousand college students annually.

• Marijuana is by far the most commonly used illegal drug. The low prevalence of other illegal drugs stillamounts to millions of people using these drugs annually.

For Your Review

1. Do you agree or disagree that the distinction between legal drugs and illegal drugs is not logical? Explainyour answer.

2. Do you agree that binge drinking is a problem that campuses should address, or do you think that it’s arelatively harmless activity that lets students have some fun? Explain your answer.

References

Alateen. (2011). Am I a peacemaker or a creator of chaos. Alateen Talk. Retrieved from http[0]://www.al-

anon.org/alateen-talk.

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. (2006). Children of alcoholics. Retrieved October 4,

2011, from http://www.aacap.org/galleries/FactsForFamilies/17_children_of_alchoholics.pdf.

290 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

American Medical Association. (2004). Alcohol industry 101: Its structure & organization. Chicago, IL: Author.

Beckett, K., & Herbert, S. (2008). The consequences and costs of marijuana prohibition. Seattle, WA: American

Civil Liberties Union of Washington State.

Brandt, A. (2009). The cigarette century: The rise, fall, and deadly persistence of the product that defined

America. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Center for Science in the Public Interest. (2008). Binge drinking on college campuses. Retrieved September 20,

2011, from http://www.cspinet.org/booze/collfact1.htm.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2011). Economic facts about US tobacco production and use.

Retrieved September 20, 2011, from http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/economics/

econ_facts/.

Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. (2011). Economic contribution of alcohol beverage industry.

Retrieved September 19, 2011, from http://www.discus.org/pdf/ATT2_Economic_Contribution.pdf.

Drug Policy Alliance. (2011). Marijuana facts. Retrieved September 22, 2011, from http://www.drugpolicy.org/

facts/drug-facts/marijuana-facts.

Faupel, C. E., Horowitz, A. M., & Weaver., G. S. (2010). The sociology of American drug use. New York, NY:

Oxford University Press.

Felson, R. B., Teasdale, B., & Burchfield, K. B. (2008). The influence of being under the influence. Journal of

Research in Crime & Delinquency, 45(2), 119–141.

Ford, J. A. (2009). Nonmedical Prescription Drug Use Among Adolescents: The Influence of Bonds to Family

and School. Youth & Society, 40(3), 336–352.

Frech, E. J., & Go, M. F. (2009). Treatment and Chemoprevention of NSAID-associated Gastrointestinal

Complications. Therapeutics and Clinical Risk Management, 5, 65–73.

Gardner, A. (2010, May 3). Report: Alcohol Companies go online to lure young drinkers. USA Today. Retrieved

from http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/index.

Goode, E. (2008). Drugs in American society (7th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Hanson, G. R., Venturelli, P. J., & Fleckenstein, A. E. (2012). Drugs and society (11th ed.). Burlington, MA: Jones

& Bartlett.

Harvard School of Public Health. (2012). Alcohol: Balancing risks and benefits. Retrieved March 30, 2012, from

http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/alcohol-full-story/index.html.

James, S. D. (2008, September 10). Children of alcoholics forced into adulthood. abcnews.com. Retrieved from

http://abcnews.go.com/Health/story?id=5770753&page=5770751.

Jernigan, D. H. (2009). The global alcohol industry: An overview [Supplmental material]. Addiction, 104, 6–12.

7.2 Drugs and Drug Use Today 291

King, B., Dube, S., Kaufmann, R., Shaw, L., & Pechacek, T. (2011). Vital signs: Current cigarette smoking among

adults aged ≥18 years—United States, 2005–2010. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 60(35), 1207–1212.

Kleiman, M. A. R., Caulkins, J. P., & Hawken, A. (2011). Drugs and drug policy: What everyone needs to know.

New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Martin, T. W. (2011, September 6). Fewer Americans are smoking, and those who do puff less. The Wall

Street Journal. Retrieved from http://blogs.wsj.com/health/2011/2009/2006/fewer-americans-are-smoking-and-

those-who-do-puff-less/.

Mokdad, A. H., Marks, J. S., Stroup, D. F., & Gerberding, J. L. (2004). Actual causes of death in the United States,

2000. Journal of the American Medical Association, 291(10), 1238–1245.

National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. (2007). Wasting the best and the brightest: Substance abuse

at America’s colleges and universities. New York, NY: Author.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2005). Prescription drugs: Abuse and addiction. Washington, DC: Author.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2010). InfoFacts: Marijuana. Retrieved September 22, 2011, from

http://www.nida.nih.gov/infofacts/marijuana.html.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2011). Cocaine: Abuse and addiction. Retrieved September 27, 2011, from

http://www.nida.nih.gov/researchreports/cocaine/effects.html.

National Institutes of Health. (2011). NIH study finds hospitalizations increase for alcohol and drug overdoses.

Retrieved September 21, 2011, from http://www.nih.gov/news/health/sep2011/niaaa-20.htm.

Smith, A. (2011, June 9). Alcohol Sales Thrive in Hard Times. CNN. Retrieved from http://money.cnn.com.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2008). Underage alcohol use among full-time

college students. Retrieved September 20, 2011, from http://oas.samhsa.gov/2k6/college/collegeUnderage.htm.

US Department of Agriculture. (2011). Food CPI and expenditures: Table 1. Retrieved September 19, 2011, from

http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/CPIFoodAndExpenditures/Data/Expenditures_tables/table1.htm.

Zuger, A. (2011, June 14). A general in the drug war. New York Times. p. D1.

292 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

7.3 Social Patterning of Drug Use

Learning Objectives

1. Outline the nature of gender differences in drug use.

2. Understand whether racial and ethnic differences in drug use exist.

3. Explain whether education and religiosity are related to drug use.

It is a sociological truism that our sociodemographic backgrounds—gender, race and ethnicity, social class, and so

forth—influence many of our behaviors and attitudes. Drug use is no different. By examining the social patterning

of drug use, we can see which kinds of people, in terms of their sociodemographic backgrounds, are more or less

at risk for using drugs. And by understanding these sociodemographic differences, we begin to understand why

some people are more likely than others to use drugs. Our examination of these differences will rely heavily on

data from the SAMHSA survey discussed earlier and focus on past-month differences in alcohol, tobacco, and

illegal drug use (all illegal drugs combined).

Gender

In the study of crime and deviance, gender is an important predictor: Males are more likely than females to commit

the more serious forms of crime and deviance, such as homicide, robbery, and burglary. This pattern generally

holds true for drug use of various types. Figure 7.2 “Gender and Prevalence of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Illegal Drug

Use, Ages 26 and Older, 2010 (Percentage Using in Past Month)” shows that men are more likely than women

to use alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs. In related data, men are also more than twice as likely as women to

engage in binge drinking (30.7 percent compared to 13.8 percent) and heavy drinking (9.7 percent compared to

2.8 percent) as defined earlier.

Figure 7.2 Gender and Prevalence of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Illegal Drug Use, Ages 26 and Older, 2010 (Percentage Using in Past

Month)

Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2011). Results from the 2010 national survey on drug use and

health: Summary of national findings. Rockville, MD: Author.

Why do these gender differences exist? A common thread underlines gender differences in criminal behavior and

in drug use of various kinds, and that is masculinity (Lindsey, 2011). Compared to girls, boys are raised to be more

active, assertive, and daring, and to be less concerned about the effects of their behavior on others. As they grow

older, these traits make them more likely to use drugs and also to commit various types of crimes. Ironically, the

way that most parents raise their sons helps make their sons more likely than their daughters to drink, smoke, and

use illegal drugs once they reach adolescence and in the many decades of their adulthood.

On the average, males drink alcohol more often and more heavily than females, and they are also more likely to use other types of

drugs.

David, Bergin, Emmett, and Elliott – IMG_3110 – CC BY 2.0.

294 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

In an important exception to the general gender difference just discussed, females are more likely than males

to use prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons (Ford, 2009). The reasons for this counterintuitive finding are

unclear, but scholars speculate that because girls and women obtain more prescription drugs than do boys and

men, their greater nonmedical use of prescription drugs reflects the fact that they have more access to these drugs

in the first place.

Race and Ethnicity

Racial and ethnic differences in drug use of various types exist to some extent but are less clear-cut than the

gender differences we just examined (see Figure 7.3 “Race/Ethnicity and Prevalence of Alcohol, Tobacco, and

Illegal Drug Use, Ages 26 and Older, 2010 (Percentage Using in Past Month)”). For alcohol use, whites have the

highest rate of drinking, and Native Americans, despite the popular image that they have alcohol problems, have

the lowest rate. For tobacco use, Native Americans have the highest rate of use, and Asians have the lowest rate.

For illegal drugs, Native Americans again have the highest rate of use, and Hispanics have the lowest rate. Note

that African Americans have roughly the same illegal drug use rate as whites, and have lower rates of alcohol and

tobacco use than whites do. Although many people believe that African Americans are more likely than whites to

use drugs, research data show that this belief is a myth.

Figure 7.3 Race/Ethnicity and Prevalence of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Illegal Drug Use, Ages 26 and Older, 2010 (Percentage Using in

Past Month)

Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2011). Results from the 2010 national survey on drug use and

health: Summary of national findings. Rockville, MD: Author.

The illegal drugs category includes many types of drugs. We do not have space to illustrate racial/ethnic

differences in the use of each of these drugs, but we will examine differences in marijuana and cocaine (including

crack) use. Figure 7.4 “Race/Ethnicity and Prevalence of Marijuana and Cocaine Use, Ages 26 and Older, 2010

(Percentage Using in Lifetime)” shows these differences for lifetime use. Despite some minor differences, African

Americans, Native Americans, and whites have the highest lifetime use of marijuana, while Asians and Hispanics

have the lowest use. Turning to cocaine, Native Americans have the highest lifetime use, and Asians have the

lowest use. Note again that African Americans have a lower rate of lifetime use than whites; this racial difference

7.3 Social Patterning of Drug Use 295

will be relevant for our discussion toward the end of the chapter of the racial impact of the legal war on drugs

since the 1970s.

Figure 7.4 Race/Ethnicity and Prevalence of Marijuana and Cocaine Use, Ages 26 and Older, 2010 (Percentage Using in Lifetime)

Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2011). Results from the 2010 national survey on drug use and

health: Summary of national findings. Rockville, MD: Author.

Education

Education differences in drug use depend on the type of drug (see Figure 7.5 “Education and Prevalence of

Alcohol, Tobacco, and Illegal Drug Use, Ages 26 and Older, 2010 (Percentage Using in Past Month)”). For

alcohol, higher levels of education are associated with a higher likelihood of drinking. One possible reason for

this association is that people with lower levels of education are more likely to be religious, and people who

are religious are less likely to drink. For tobacco, higher levels of education are associated with lower levels of

tobacco use. In particular, college graduates are much less likely to use tobacco than people without a college

degree. For illegal drugs, there is no clear association between education and use of these drugs, although college

graduates report the lowest past-month use.

Figure 7.5 Education and Prevalence of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Illegal Drug Use, Ages 26 and Older, 2010 (Percentage Using in Past Month)

296 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2011). Results from the 2010 national survey on drug use and health: Summary of national findings.

Rockville, MD: Author.

Region of Country

The regions of the United States differ in many attitudes and behaviors, and one of these behaviors is drug use (see

Figure 7.6 “Region of Country and Prevalence of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Illegal Drug Use, Ages 26 and Older,

2010 (Percentage Using in Past Month)”). The regional differences are not large, but the South has lowest rate of

alcohol use, in part reflecting the fact that it is the most religious region in the nation. The South and Midwest

have the highest rates of tobacco use, while the West has the lowest rate, befitting its image as a “healthy” region.

However, the West also has the highest rate of illegal drug use, although its use is only slightly higher than the

other regions’ use.

Figure 7.6 Region of Country and Prevalence of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Illegal Drug Use, Ages 26 and Older, 2010 (Percentage Using

in Past Month)

Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2011). Results from the 2010 national survey on drug use and

health: Summary of national findings. Rockville, MD: Author.

Religiosity

A growing number of studies finds that religiosity—how religious someone is—affects how often people use

various drugs: The more religious people are, the lower their drug use; conversely, the less religious they are, the

higher their drug use (Desmond, Soper, & Purpura, 2009). We can see evidence of this relationship in Figure 7.7

“Religiosity and Drinking among Youths Ages 17–18 (Percentage Saying They Drank Alcohol on Only 0–2 Days

in the Past Year)”, which presents data for a nationwide sample of youths ages 17–18. Those who say religion is

important in their lives report less drinking (i.e., on only 0–2 days in the past year) than those who say religion is

unimportant in their lives.

Figure 7.7 Religiosity and Drinking among Youths Ages 17–18 (Percentage Saying They Drank Alcohol on Only 0–2 Days in the

Past Year)

7.3 Social Patterning of Drug Use 297

Source: National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, Wave I. (2012). Retrieved from http://www.icpsr.umich.edu/cgi-bin/

SDA/DSDR/hsda?dsdr+21600-0001.

Key Takeaways

• Drug use is socially patterned: Aspects of our sociodemographic backgrounds affect our likelihood of usingvarious drugs.

• Perhaps the clearest social pattern involves gender, with males more likely than females to use and abusealcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs.

• Despite common beliefs, the rate of illegal drug use is lower for African Americans than for whites.

For Your Review

1. The text discusses five social patterns of drug use: gender, race/ethnicity, education, region of country, andreligiosity. Taking into account these five sets of patterns, write a short essay in which you use thisinformation to understand your own level of use (or nonuse) of alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs.

2. Did it surprise you to read that illegal drug use is lower among African Americans than among whites? Whyor why not?

References

Desmond, S. A., Soper, S. E., & Purpura, D. J. (2009). Religiosity, moral beliefs, and delinquency: Does the effect

of religiosity on delinquency depend on moral beliefs? Sociological Spectrum, 29, 51–71.

Ford, J. A. (2009). Nonmedical prescription drug use among adolescents: The influence of bonds to family and

school. Youth & Society, 40(3), 336–352.

298 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Lindsey, L. L. (2011). Gender roles: A sociological perspective (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

7.3 Social Patterning of Drug Use 299

7.4 Explaining Drug Use

Learning Objectives

1. Understand the possible biological origins of drug addiction.

2. Explain why longitudinal research on personality traits and drug use is important.

3. Outline the aspects of the social environment that may influence drug use.

To know how to reduce drug use, we must first know what explains it. The major explanations for drug use come

from the fields of biology, psychology, and sociology.

Biological Explanations

In looking at drug use, the field of biology focuses on two related major questions. First, how and why do drugs

affect a person’s behavior, mood, perception, and other qualities? Second, what biological factors explain why

some people are more likely than others to use drugs?

Regarding the first question, the field of biology has an excellent understanding of how drugs work. The details

of this understanding are beyond the scope of this chapter, but they involve how drugs affect areas in the brain

and the neurotransmitters that cause a particular drug’s effects. For example, cocaine produces euphoria and other

positive emotions in part because it first produces an accumulation of dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked to

feelings of pleasure and enjoyment.

Research on identical twins suggests that alcoholism has a genetic basis.

Michael Dorausch – Identical Twins Jedward – CC BY-SA 2.0.

Regarding the second question, biological research is more speculative, but it assumes that some people are

particularly vulnerable to the effects of drugs. These people are more likely to experience very intense effects and

to become physiologically and/or psychologically addicted to a particular drug. To the extent this process occurs,

the people in question are assumed to have a biological predisposition for drug addiction that is thought to be a

genetic predisposition.

Most research on genetic predisposition has focused on alcohol and alcoholism (Hanson et al., 2012). Studies of

twins find that identical twins are more likely than fraternal twins (who are not genetically identical) to both have

alcohol problems or not to have them. In addition, studies of children of alcoholic parents who are adopted by

7.4 Explaining Drug Use 301

nonalcoholic parents find that these children are more likely than those born to nonalcoholic parents to develop

alcohol problems themselves. Although a genetic predisposition for alcoholism might exist for reasons not yet

well understood, there is not enough similar research on other types of drug addiction to assume that a genetic

predisposition exists for these types. Many nonbiological factors also explain the use of, and addiction to, alcohol

and other drugs. We now turn to these factors.

Psychological Explanations

Psychological explanations join biological explanations in focusing on why certain individuals are more likely

than others to use drugs and to be addicted to drugs (Hanson et al., 2012). Some popular psychological

explanations center on personality differences between drug users and nonusers. These explanations assume that

users have personality traits that predispose them to drug use. These traits include low self-esteem and low self-

confidence, low trust in others, and a need for thrills and stimulation. In effect, drug users have inadequate

personalities, or personality defects, that make them prone to drug use, and once they start using drugs, their

personality problems multiply.

One problem with research on personality explanations is methodological: If we find personality differences

between drug users and nonusers, should we conclude that personality problems cause drug use, or is it possible

that drug use causes personality problems? Most of the research on personality and drug use cannot answer this

question adequately, since it studies drug users and nonusers at one point in time (cross-sectional research). To

answer this question adequately, longitudinal research, which examines the same people over time, is necessary.

Among initial drug abstainers at Time 1, if those with the personality traits mentioned earlier turn out to be more

likely than those without the traits to be using drugs at Time 2, then we can infer that personality problems affect

drug use rather than the reverse. Longitudinal research on personality and drug use that studies adolescents and

college students does indeed find this causal sequence (Sher, Bartholow, & Wood, 2000). However, some scholars

still question the importance of personality factors for drug use and addiction (Goode, 2012). They say these

factors have only a small effect, if that, and they cite research questioning whether personality differences between

users and nonusers in fact exist (Feldman, Boyer, Kumar, & Prout, 2011).

Other psychological explanations are based on the classic concept from behavioral psychology of operant

conditioning—the idea that people and animals are more likely to engage in a behavior when they are rewarded,

or reinforced, for it. These explanations assume that people use drugs because drugs are positive reinforcers in two

respects. First, drugs provide pleasurable effects themselves and thus provide direct reinforcement. Second, drug

use often is communal: People frequently use drugs (alcohol is certainly a prime example, but so are many other

drugs) with other people, and they enjoy this type of social activity. In this manner, drug use provides indirect

reinforcement.

Sociological Explanations

Sociological explanations emphasize the importance of certain aspects of the social environment—social

structure, social bonds to family and school, social interaction, and culture—or drug use, depending on the type

302 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

of drug. For drugs like heroin and crack that tend to be used mostly in large urban areas, the social structure,

or, to be more precise, social inequality, certainly seems to matter. As sociologist Elliott Currie (1994, p. 3) has

observed, the use of these drugs by urban residents, most of them poor and of color, reflects the impact of poverty

and racial inequality: “Serious drug use is not evenly distributed: it runs ‘along the fault lines of our society.’ It is

concentrated among some groups and not others, and has been for at least half a century.” This fact helps explain

why heroin use grew in the inner cities during the 1960s, as these areas remained poor even as the US economy

was growing. Inner-city youths were attracted to heroin because its physiological effects helped them forget about

their situation and also because the heroin subculture—using an illegal drug with friends, buying the drug from

dealers, and so forth—was an exciting alternative to the bleakness of their daily lives. Crack became popular in

inner cities during the 1980s for the same reasons.

Social bonds to families and schools also make a difference. Adolescents with weak bonds to their families and

schools, as measured by such factors as the closeness they feel to their parents and teachers, are more likely to

use drugs of various types than adolescents with stronger bonds to their families and schools. Their weaker bonds

prompt them to be less likely to accept conventional norms and more likely to use drugs and engage in other

delinquent behavior.

Regarding social interaction, sociologists emphasize that peer influences greatly influence one’s likelihood of

using alcohol, tobacco, and a host of other drugs (Hanson et al., 2012). Much and probably most drug use begins

during adolescence, when peer influences are especially important. When our friends during this stage of life are

drinking, smoking, or using other drugs, many of us want to fit in with the crowd and thus use one of these drugs

ourselves. In a related explanation, sociologists also emphasize that society’s “drug culture” matters for drug use.

For example, because we have a culture that so favors alcohol, many people drink alcohol. And because we have

a drug culture in general, it is no surprise, sociologically speaking, that drug use of many types is so common.

To the extent that social inequality, social interaction, and a drug culture matter for drug use, sociologists say, it is

a mistake to view most drug use as stemming from an individual’s biological or psychological problems. Although

these problems do play a role for some individuals’ use of some drugs, drug use as a whole stems to a large degree

from the social environment and must be understood as a social problem, and not just as an individual problem.

Beyond these general explanations of why people use drugs, sociological discussions of drug use reflect the three

sociological perspectives introduced in Chapter 1 “Understanding Social Problems”—functionalism, conflict

theory, and symbolic interactionism—as we shall now discuss. Table 7.6 “Theory Snapshot” summarizes this

discussion.

Table 7.6 Theory Snapshot

7.4 Explaining Drug Use 303

Theoreticalperspective

Contributions to understanding of drug use

Functionalism

Drug use is functional for several parties in society. It provides drug users the various positivephysiological effects that drugs have; it provides the sellers of legal or illegal drugs a source of income;and it provides jobs for the criminal justice system and the various other parties that deal with drug use.At the same time, both legal drugs and illegal drugs contribute to dysfunctions in society.

Conflicttheory

Much drug use in poor urban areas results from the poverty, racial inequality, and other conditionsaffecting people in these locations. Racial and ethnic prejudice and inequality help determine why somedrugs are illegal as well as the legal penalties for these drugs. The large multinational corporations thatmarket and sell alcohol, tobacco, and other legal drugs play a powerful role in the popularity of thesedrugs and lobby Congress to minimize regulation of these drugs.

Symbolicinteractionism

Drug use arises from an individual’s interaction with people who engage in drug use. From this type ofsocial interaction, an individual learns how to use a drug and also learns various attitudes that justify druguse and define the effects of a drug as effects that are enjoyable.

Functionalism

Recall that functionalist theory emphasizes the need for social stability, the functions that different aspects of

society serve for society’s well-being, and the threats (or dysfunctions) to society’s well-being posed by certain

aspects of society. In line with this theory, sociologists emphasize that drug use may actually be functional for

several members of society. For the people who use legal or illegal drugs, drug use is functional because it

provides them the various positive physiological effects that drugs have. For the people who sell legal or illegal

drugs, drug use is functional because it provides them a major source of income. Illegal drug use is even functional

for the criminal justice system, as it helps provide jobs for the police, court officials, and prison workers who deal

with illegal drugs. Legal and illegal drugs also provide jobs for the social service agencies and other organizations

and individuals whose work focuses on helping people addicted to a drug. At the same time, drugs, whether legal

or illegal, have the many dysfunctions for society that this chapter discussed earlier, and this fact must not be

forgotten as we acknowledge the functions of drugs.

Conflict Theory

Conflict theory stresses the negative effects of social inequality and the efforts of the elites at the top of society’s

hierarchy to maintain their position. This theory helps us understand drugs and drug use in at least three respects.

First, and as noted just earlier, much drug use in poor urban areas results from the poverty, racial inequality, and

other conditions affecting people in these locations. They turn to illegal drugs partly to feel better about their

situation, and partly because the illegal drug market is a potentially great source of income that does not require

even a high school degree.

Second, conflict theory emphasizes that racial and ethnic prejudice and inequality help determine why some

drugs are illegal as well as the criminal penalties for these drugs. For example, the penalties for crack are much

harsher, gram for gram, than those for powder cocaine, even though the two drugs are pharmacologically identical.

Crack users are primarily poor African Americans in urban areas, while powder cocaine users are primarily

whites, many of them at least fairly wealthy. These facts prompt many observers to say that the harsher penalties

304 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

for crack are racially biased (Tonry, 2011). Other evidence for this argument of conflict theory is seen in the

history of the illegality of opium, cocaine, and marijuana. As we discussed earlier, racial and ethnic prejudice

played an important role in why these common drugs in the nineteenth century became illegal: prejudice against

Chinese immigrants for opium, prejudice against African Americans for cocaine, and prejudice against Mexican

Americans for marijuana.

Third, conflict theory emphasizes the huge influence that multinational corporations have in the marketing and

sale of the legal drugs—alcohol, tobacco, and many prescription drugs—that often have harmful individual and

societal consequences. To maximize their profits, these companies do their best, as noted earlier, to convince

Americans and people in other nations to use their products. They also spend billions of dollars to lobby Congress.

As also mentioned earlier, the tobacco industry hid for years evidence of the deadly effects of its products. All

these efforts illustrate conflict theory’s critical view of the role that corporations play in today’s society.

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism focuses on the interaction of individuals and on how they interpret their interaction.

Given this focus, symbolic interactionism views social problems as arising from the interaction of individuals.

As such, it understands drug use as a behavior arising from an individual’s interaction with people who engage

in drug use. From this type of social interaction, an individual learns how to use a drug and also learns various

attitudes that justify drug use and define the effects of a drug as effects that are enjoyable.

A study of drug use that reflects this approach is Howard S. Becker’s (1953) classic article, “Becoming a

Marihuana User.” Becker wrote that someone usually begins smoking marijuana in the presence of friends who

are experienced marijuana users. This social interaction, he argued, is critical for new users to wish to continue

using marijuana. To want to do so, they must learn three behaviors or perceptions from the experienced users who

are “turning them on” to marijuana use. First, new users must learn how to smoke a joint (marijuana cigarette)

by deeply inhaling marijuana smoke and holding in the smoke before exhaling. Second, they must perceive that

the effects they feel after smoking enough marijuana (spatial distortion, hunger pangs, short-term memory loss)

signify that they are stoned (under the influence of marijuana); their friends typically tell them that if they are

feeling these effects, they are indeed stoned. Third, they must learn to define these effects as pleasurable; if people

suddenly experience spatial distortion, intense hunger, and memory loss, they might very well worry they are

having huge problems! To prevent this from happening, their friends say things to them such as, “Doesn’t that

feel great!” This and similar comments help reassure the new users that the potentially worrisome effects they are

experiencing are not only bad ones but in fact very enjoyable ones.

Key Takeaways

• Biological theories assume that some people are especially vulnerable to drug addiction for genetic reasons.

• A popular set of psychological theories assumes that drug addiction results from certain personality traitsand problems.

• Sociological theories attribute drug use to various aspects of the social environment, including peer

7.4 Explaining Drug Use 305

influences, weak social bonds, and the larger drug culture.

For Your Review

1. When you think about the reasons for drug use and addiction, do you think biological factors, psychologicalfactors, or the social environment play the most important role? Explain you answer.

2. Write a brief essay in which you discuss a time when your friends influenced you, or someone else youknow, to use a legal or illegal drug.

References

Becker, H. S. (1953). Becoming a Marihuana User. American Journal of Sociology, 59, 235–242.

Currie, E. (1994). Reckoning: Drugs, the cities, and the American future. New York, NY: Hill and Wang.

Feldman, M., Boyer, B., Kumar, V. K., & Prout, M. (2011). Personality, drug preference, drug use, and drug

availability. Journal of Drug Education, 41(1), 45–63.

Goode, E. (2012). Drugs in American society (8th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Hanson, G. R., Venturelli, P. J., & Fleckenstein, A. E. (2012). Drugs and society (11th ed.). Burlington, MA: Jones

& Bartlett.

Sher, K. J., Bartholow, B. D., & Wood, M. D. (2000). Personality and substance use disorders: A prospective

study. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 68, 818–829.

Tonry, M. (2011). Punishing race: A continuing American dilemma. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

306 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

7.5 Drug Policy and the War on Illegal Drugs

Learning Objectives

1. Explain whether the DARE program is effective.

2. Outline the goals and examples of a harm reduction approach to drug use.

3. List the problems arising from the current legal war on illegal drugs.

For many decades, the United States has used several strategies to try to deal with drugs. These strategies

generally fall into four categories: treatment, prevention, harm reduction, and, for certain drugs, criminalization

and the use of the criminal justice system, or, as we will call it, the war on illegal drugs. We now turn to these

strategies.

Treatment

Treatment programs are intended for people who already are using drugs, perceive they have a drug problem, and

want to reduce or eliminate their drug use. This strategy is probably familiar to most readers, even if they have

not used drugs themselves or at least have not had the benefit of a treatment program. Treatment programs often

involve a group setting, but many drug users also receive individual treatment from a psychiatrist, psychologist, or

drug counselor. Perhaps the most famous treatment program is Alcoholics Anonymous, a program that involves

alcoholics meeting in a group setting, acknowledging their drinking problem and its effects on family members

and other loved ones, and listening to each other talk about their situations. Other group settings are residential

settings, sometimes called detox units. In these settings, people check themselves into an institution and stay there

for several weeks until they and the professionals who treat them are satisfied. Perhaps the most famous residential

treatment program is the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California; this center was established by and

named after an acknowledged alcoholic who was the wife of President Gerald Ford.

The Betty Ford Center is a residential detox unit for people with alcohol and other drug problems.

Image courtesy of Betty Ford Center, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BETTYFORD.jpg.

In addition to or in conjunction with group treatment programs, individual treatment for drug addiction may

involve the use of “good” drugs designed to help wean addicts off the drug to which they are addicted. For

example, nicotine gum, patches, and other products are designed to help cigarette smokers stop smoking.

The various forms of treatment can be very effective for some addicts and less effective or not effective at all

for other addicts; most treatment programs have a high failure rate (Goode, 2012). A sociological perspective

suggests that however effective treatment might be for some people, the origins of drug use ultimately lie in the

larger society—its social structure, social interaction, and the drug culture—and that these roots must be addressed

for serious reductions in drug use to occur.

Prevention

Because it is always best to try to prevent a problem before it begins, an important strategy to deal with drug use

involves prevention. The major prevention strategies involve drug education or drug testing (Faupel et al., 2010).

Many education-based prevention programs focus on children and adolescents. This focus reflects the fact that

use of most drugs begins during adolescence, and that if adolescents do not begin using drugs during this period

of their lives, they are much less likely to do so when they become adults. Some education strategies follow what

is called an informational model: they involve public-service advertising, the distribution of drug pamphlets in

308 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

medical offices, and other such efforts. Several studies question the effectiveness of strategies based on this model

(Faupel et al., 2010).

Other education programs take place in the secondary school system and on college campuses. The most famous

such program is almost certainly DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), which involves police officers

speaking to middle-school children. DARE programs have been carried out in more than 7,000 schools across the

nation. However, several studies find that DARE programs do not generally reduce subsequent drug use among

the children who attend them compared to children who do not attend them (Faupel et al., 2010).

Drug testing is very common in today’s society, and you may well have been required to have a drug test as part

of an application for a job, involvement in a school sport, or other activity. At least half of US workplaces now

perform required drug tests. Drug testing is expensive, and many critics say it is not cost-effective in view of the

low prevalence of illegal drug use in the United States (Faupel et al., 2010).

Harm Reduction

A third strategy involves harm reduction. As this term implies, this strategy attempts to minimize the harm caused

by drugs. It recognizes that many people will use drugs despite efforts to prevent or persuade them from doing

so and despite any punishment they might receive for using illegal drugs. Our nation is currently using a harm

reduction approach with regard to alcohol and tobacco. It recognizes that tens of millions of people use these

products, and designated-driving programs and other efforts try to minimize the considerable harm these two

drugs cause.

A specific harm reduction strategy with regard to illegal drugs is the provision of clean, sterile needles for people

who inject themselves with heroin, cocaine/crack, or other drugs. Many of these users share needles, and this

sharing spreads HIV, hepatitis, and other diseases. If they have a supply to sterile needles, the reasoning goes, the

transmission of these diseases will be reduced even if use of the drugs with the aid of the needles does not reduce.

Critics say the provision of sterile needles in effect says that drug use is OK and may even encourage drug use.

Proponents reply that needle-based drug use will occur whether or not sterile needles are provided, and that the

provision of sterile needles does more good than harm. Other nations have adopted this type of harm reduction

much more extensively than the United States.

Another harm reduction strategy involves the use of drug courts, which began in the 1990s and now number more

than 2,500 across the United States. In these courts, drug offenders who have been arrested and found guilty are

sentenced to drug treatment and counseling rather than to jail or prison. Evaluation studies show that the courts

save much money compared to imprisoning drug offenders and that they are more effective than imprisonment in

reducing the offenders’ drug habit (Stinchcomb, 2010).

People Making a Difference

Law Enforcement against Prohibition

7.5 Drug Policy and the War on Illegal Drugs 309

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) is an organization of current and former police and other criminal justiceprofessionals, including prosecutors, judges, and FBI agents, who advocate for the legalization of illegal drugs. Becausemany of these professionals were on the front lines in the war against drugs and often put their lives in danger, their viewsabout drug policy cannot be dismissed lightly.

One of their members is MacKenzie Allen, a 65-year-old deputy sheriff who worked in Los Angeles and Seattle,including time as an undercover agent who bought illegal drugs and made countless arrests for drug offenses. AlthoughAllen strongly disapproves of drug use, his many years in law enforcement led him to realize that the drug problem isbest understood as a public health problem, not a legal problem. He notes that the United States has lowered cigarette usethrough public education and without outlawing cigarettes. “Can you imagine the mayhem had we outlawed cigarettes?”he writes. “Can you envision the ‘cigarette cartels’ and the bloodbath that would follow? Yet, thanks to a public awarenesscampaign we’ve made a huge dent in tobacco use without arresting a single cigarette smoker.”

Allen adds that most of the problems associated with illegal drug use are actually the result of the laws against drugs.These laws create a huge illegal market, much of it involving violent cartels, he says, that promises strong profits for themanufacturers and sellers of illegal drugs. He is also critical of other aspects of the war on drugs:

If the colloquial definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result, what does thatsay about our “War on Drugs”? We’ve been pursuing this strategy for forty years. It has cost a trillion taxpayer dollars,thousands of lives (both law enforcement and civilians) and destroyed hundreds of thousands more by incarceration.Moreover, it undermines the safety of our communities by overcrowding our jails and prisons, forcing them to giveearly release to truly violent offenders.Another LEAP member is Joseph D. McNamara, the former police chief of San Jose, California. McNamara alsocriticizes the violence resulting from the laws against drugs. “Like an increasing number of law enforcers,” he writesspecifically about marijuana, “I have learned that most bad things about marijuana—especially the violence madeinevitable by an obscenely profitable black market—are caused by the prohibition, not by the plant.” He continues,“Al Capone and his rivals made machine-gun battles a staple of 1920s city street life when they fought to control theillegal alcohol market. No one today shoots up the local neighborhood to compete in the beer market…How muchdid the [Mexican] cartels make last year dealing in Budweiser, Corona or Dos Equis? Legalization would seriouslycripple their operations.”

As these statements indicate, the legal war on drugs has had many costs. It is difficult to know what to do about illegaldrugs, but in bringing these costs to the attention of elected officials and the American public, Law EnforcementAgainst Prohibition is making a difference. For further information about LEAP, visit copssaylegalizedrugs.com.

Sources: Allen, 2001; Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, 2011; McNamara, 2010

The War on Illegal Drugs

The most controversial drug strategy involves the criminalization of many drugs and the use of the police and the

rest of the criminal justice system to apprehend and punish the users, manufacturers, and sellers of illegal drugs.

As the brief history of drug use at the beginning of this chapter indicated, the United States has banned certain

drugs since the late nineteenth century, and it accelerated this effort during the 1970s and 1980s as concern grew

about heroin, crack, and other drugs.

In judging the war on illegal drugs, two considerations should be kept in mind (Meier & Geis, 2007). One

consideration is the philosophical question of the extent to which the government in a free society should outlaw

behaviors that may be harmful even if people (let’s assume we are talking about legal adults) want to engage in

them. Americans do all kinds of things that may harm themselves and that may directly or indirectly harm other

people. For example, many Americans eat high amounts of candy, ice cream, potato chips, hamburgers, and other

“fat food” that causes obesity, great harm to individual health, premature death and bereavement, and tens of

310 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

billions of dollars in health costs and lost productivity annually. Although obesity almost certainly causes more

harm overall than illegal drugs, no one is about to say that the use of “fat food” should be banned or restricted,

although some schools and workplaces have removed candy and soda machines. Americans also engage in many

other activities that can be very harmful, including downhill skiing, contact sports, skydiving, and any number

of other activities, but no one is about to say that we should be prohibited from engaging in these efforts. Where

is the logic, then, in allowing all these behaviors and in not allowing the use of certain drugs? A philosophical

argument can be made that all drug use should, in fact, be allowed in a free society (Husak, 2002), and perhaps

this is an issue that you and your classmates will want to discuss.

The second consideration is the social science question of whether laws against drugs do more good than harm,

or more harm than good. In a rational society, if a law or policy does more good than harm, then we should have

the law or policy. However, if it does more harm than good, however much good it might do, then we should not

have it, because the harm outweighs the good.

In considering this issue, critics of drug laws say they do much more harm than good, and they often cite

Prohibition as an example of this dynamic. Prohibition was repealed because our society decided it was doing

much more harm than good and was thus a “triumphant failure,” as one author has called this period of our history

(Okrent, 2011, p. 67). Prohibition caused several harms: (1) the rise of organized crime to earn illegal profits from

the manufacture, distribution, and sale of alcohol; (2) the violence and murder among organized crime gangs that

fought each other over drug “turf”; (3) the wounding and death of innocent bystanders from gunfights between

organized crime gangs; (4) the wounding and murder of police officers who enforced Prohibition; (5) rampant

corruption among police officers and political officials who took money from organized crime to ignore violations

of Prohibition; and (6) the expenditure of much time, money, and energy by the criminal justice system to enforce

Prohibition.

Prohibition did reduce drinking and the violence associated with drinking. But some scholars say that the

organized crime violence caused by Prohibition was so common and deadly that the homicide rate grew during

Prohibition rather than lessening (Jensen, 2000), though other scholars dispute this finding (Owens, 2011). In yet

another problem, many people during Prohibition became sick and/or died from drinking tainted liquor. Because

alcohol was no longer regulated, illegal alcohol often contained, by accident or design, dangerous substances.

As an example, 15,000 people in the Midwest became sick with a severe neurological problem after drinking an

illegal alcohol laced with a paint thinner chemical (Genzlinger, 2011).

Critics of today’s war on illegal drugs say that it has reproduced the same problems that Prohibition produced.

Among these problems are the following:

• Drug gangs and individual drug sellers engage in deadly fights with each other and also kill or wound

police officers and other law enforcement personnel who fight the war on drugs.

• Many innocent bystanders, including children, are wounded or killed by stray bullets.

• Many police officers take bribes to ignore drug law violations and/or sell drugs confiscated from

dealers.

• The criminal justice system and other agencies spend much time, money, and energy in the war against

illegal drugs, just as they did during Prohibition. Enforcing drug laws costs about $50 billion annually

(McVay, n.d.). Police and other law enforcement personnel make more than 1.6 million arrests for drug

7.5 Drug Policy and the War on Illegal Drugs 311

offenses annually, including about 850,000 arrests for marijuana possession (Federal Bureau of

Investigation, 2011). Some 500,000 people are in prison or jail for drug offenses.

• The drug war has focused disproportionately on African Americans and Latinos and greatly increased

their numbers who have gone to jail or prison. Even though illegal drug use is more common among

whites than among blacks, the arrest rate for drug offenses is ten times higher for African Americans

than the rate for whites (Blow, 2011). Partly because of the drug war, about one-third of young African

American men have prison records.

• Most of the 17,000 annual deaths from illegal drug use stem from the fact that the drugs are illegal.

Because they are illegal, they may contain dangerous substances that can be fatal, just as in

Prohibition. In addition, some illegal drug users overdose because they underestimate the purity of a

drug.

One of the harms associated with the war on drugs is that police officers die in the line of duty when they are killed by drug sellers or

users.

Greg Matthews – Riverside Police Officer Memorial Service – CC BY-ND 2.0.

Because of all these problems, drug law critics say, the United States should legalize marijuana, the most benign

illegal drug, and seriously consider legalizing some or all other illegal drugs.

Proponents of the drug war reply that if drugs were legalized or decriminalized (still against the law, but violations

would be treated like traffic offenses), many more people would use the newly legal drugs, and the problems these

drugs cause would increase. Responding to this argument, drug law critics say it is not at all certain that drug use

would increase if drugs were legalized. To support their view, they cite two pieces of evidence.

First, illegal drugs are relatively easy to obtain and use without fear of arrest. If people have decided not to use

illegal drugs now, it is unlikely they will use them if the drugs were legalized. Support for this argument comes

312 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

from national data on high school seniors (Johnston, O’Malley, Bachman, & Schulenberg, 2011). In 2010, 82

percent of seniors said they could easily obtain marijuana, and 35.5 percent said they could easily obtain cocaine.

Despite these numbers, only 35 percent had used marijuana in the past year, and only 3 percent had used cocaine

in the past year.

Second, marijuana use in the United States decreased in the 1970s and 1980s after several states decriminalized

it. As we noted earlier, marijuana use also declined in the Netherlands after they decriminalized the drug in

the 1970s. Moreover, even though use of marijuana is legal in the Netherlands, its rate of marijuana use is no

higher than the rate of marijuana use in the United States (Drug Policy Alliance, 2012). In another international

comparison, Portugal decriminalized possession of all drugs in 2001; after it did so, teenage drug use declined

(see Note 7.28 “Lessons from Other Societies”).

At this point, it is impossible to know how much, if at all, the use of illegal drugs would rise if they were legalized.

Critics of the drug war say that even if the use of drugs did rise, the benefits of legalizing or decriminalizing them

would still outweigh the disadvantages (Feiling, 2010).

Lessons from Other Societies

What Happened after the Netherlands and Portugal Decriminalized Drugs?

As the United States ponders its drug policy, the experience of the Netherlands and Portugal provides some provocativelessons.

The Netherlands decriminalized drugs in 1976. Under the Netherlands’ policy, although criminal penalties remain forpossessing hard drugs (cocaine, heroin, etc.) and large quantities of marijuana, drug users are not normally arrestedfor possessing drugs, but they must receive drug treatment if they are arrested for another reason. Drug sellers are notnormally arrested for selling small amounts of drugs, but they may be arrested for selling them in large. Marijuana usein the Netherlands dropped in the immediate years after it was decriminalized. Although it increased somewhat sincethen, as in some other nations, it remains much lower than the US rate. According to the Netherlands Ministry of ForeignAffairs, 23 percent of Dutch residents ages 15–64 have used cannabis at least once in their lives, compared to 40 percentof Americans ages 12 and older (2005 figures). Dutch use of cocaine and heroin also remains much lower than Americanuse. Reflecting the Netherlands’ experience, most of the nations in Western Europe have also decriminalized marijuanapossession and use, and their rates of marijuana use also remain lower than the US rate.

In 2001, Portugal became the first European nation to remove all criminal penalties for drug possession. Portugal tookthis step because it reasoned that fear of arrest keeps drug addicts from seeking help and because it recognized that drugtreatment costs far less than imprisonment. Anyone convicted of drug possession is sent for drug treatment, but the personmay refuse treatment without any penalty.

In the first five years after Portugal decriminalized all drug possession, teenaged illegal drug use declined, new HIVinfections from sharing needles declined, and the prison population also declined. Meanwhile, the number of drug addictsreceiving treatment increased by 41 percent. A researcher who reported these trends commented, “Judging by everymetric, decriminalization in Portugal has been a resounding success. It has enabled the Portuguese government to manageand control the drug problem far better than virtually every other Western country does.” A Portuguese drug officialagreed, “The impact [of drugs] in the life of families and our society is much lower than it was before decriminalization,”and noted that police are now freer to spend more time and energy on high-level dealers. Adult drug use in Portugal hasrisen slightly since 2001, but so has adult drug use in other European nations that did not decriminalize drugs. Portugal’sincrease has not been higher than these other nations’ increase.

Although the Netherlands, Portugal, and other Western European nations certainly differ from the United States in manyways, their experience strongly suggests that decriminalization of drugs may cause much more good than harm. If so, theUnited States has important lessons to learn from their experiences.

7.5 Drug Policy and the War on Illegal Drugs 313

Sources: Hughes & Stevens, 2010; Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2008; Reinarman & Hendrien, 2004;Szaalavitz, 2009; Tracey & Jahromi, 2010

Key Takeaways

• To deal with drugs, the United States has used several strategies, including treatment, prevention, harmreduction, and the legal war on illegal drugs.

• According to its critics, the war on illegal drugs has done much more harm than good and in this respect isrepeating the example of Prohibition.

For Your Review

1. Do you think the United States should make sterile needles and syringes freely available to people who areaddicted to drugs that are injected? Why or why not?

2. Do you agree or disagree that the war on illegal drugs is doing more harm than good? Explain your answer.

References

Allen, M. (2011, February 23). Why this cop asked the President about legalizing drugs. Huffington Post.

Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mackenzie-allen/why-this-cop-asked-the-pr_b_827338.html.

Blow, C. M. (2011, June 11). Drug bust. New York Times, p. A21.

Drug Policy Alliance. (2012). Drug policy around the world: The Netherlands. Retrieved from

http://www.drugpolicy.org/facts/drug-facts/marijuana-facts#medical.

Faupel, C. E., Horowitz, A. M., & Weaver., G. S. (2010). The sociology of American drug use. New York, NY:

Oxford University Press.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2011). Crime in the United States, 2010. Washington, DC: Author.

Genzlinger, N. (2011, October 1). Bellying up to the time when America went dry. New York Times, p. C1.

Goode, E. (2012). Drugs in American society (8th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Hughes, C. E., & Stevens, A. (2010). What can we learn from the Portuguese decriminalization of illicit drugs?

British Journal of Criminology, 50(6), 999–1022.

Husak, D. (2002). Legalize this! The case for decriminalizing drugs. New York, NY: Verso Books.

314 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Jensen, G. F. (2000). Prohibition, alcohol, and murder: Untangling counterveiling mechanisms. Homicide Studies,

4, 18–36.

Johnston, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., & Schulenberg, J. E. (2011). Monitoring the future. National

results on adolescent drug use: Overview of key findings, 2010 Ann Arbor, MI: Institute for Social Research.

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. (2011). Ending the Drug War: A Dream Deferred. Medford, MA: Author.

McNamara, J. D. (2010, July 25). Legalize pot, former San Jose police chief says. San Francisco Chronicle.

Retrieved from http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/07/25/IN1K1EGQRJ.DTL.

McVay, D. A. (n.d.). Drug War Facts (6th ed.). Retrieved from http://www.drugwarfacts.org/cms.

Meier, R. F., & Geis, G. (2007). Criminal justice and moral issues. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (2008). FAQ drugs: A guide to drug policy. Retrieved from

http://www.minbuza.nl.

Okrent, D. (2011). Last call: The rise and fall of prohibition. New York, NY: Scribner.

Owens, E. G. (2011, October 2). The (not so) roaring ‘20s. New York Times, p. SR12.

Reinarman, C., Cohen, P. D. A., & Hendrien, K. L. (2004). The limited relevance of drug policy: Cannabis in

Amsterdam and in San Francisco. American Journal of Public Health, 94, 836–842.

Stinchcomb, J. B. (2010). Drug courts: Conceptual foundation, empirical findings, and policy implications.

Drugs: Education, Prevention & Policy, 17(2), 148–167.

Szaalavitz, M. (2009, April 20). Drugs in Portugal: Did decriminalization work? Time. Retrieved from

http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1893946,1893900.html.

Tracey, M., & Jahromi, N. (2010, December 15). Importing the Portuguese model of drug reform. The Nation.

Retrieved from http://www.thenation.com/article/157124/importing-portuguese-model-drug-reform.

7.5 Drug Policy and the War on Illegal Drugs 315

7.6 Addressing the Drug Problem and Reducing Drug Use

Learning Objectives

1. Explain the problems associated with arresting hundreds of thousands of people for drug possession.

2. List any three specific measures that may help deal with the drug problem.

As you may have already noticed and will notice again, the other chapters in this book usually present a fairly

optimistic assessment when they discuss prospects for addressing the social problem discussed in each chapter.

They point to the experience of other nations that do a good job of addressing the social problem, they cite social

science evidence that points to solutions for addressing the problem, and they generally say that the United States

could address the problem if it had the wisdom to approach it appropriately and to spend sufficient sums of money.

This chapter will not end with an optimistic assessment for addressing the drug problem. The reason for this lack

of optimism is that what’s past is prologue: People have enthusiastically used drugs since prehistoric times and

show no signs of reducing their drug use. Many and perhaps most scholars think the legal war on drugs has had

little, if any, impact on drug use (Walker, 2011), and many scholars recognize that this war brought with it the

many disadvantages cited in the previous section. As Kleiman et al. (2011, p. xvi) observe, “Our current drug

policies allow avoidable harm by their ineffectiveness and create needless suffering by their excesses.”

A growing number of people in the political world agree. In 2011, the Global Commission on Drug Policy issued

a major report on the world’s antidrug efforts. The commission comprised nineteen members, including a former

United Nations secretary general, a former US secretary of state, a former chair of the US Federal Reserve, and

former presidents or prime ministers of Brazil, Colombia, Greece, Mexico, and Switzerland. The commission’s

report called for a drastic rethinking of current drug policy: “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating

consequences for individuals and societies around the world…Fundamental reforms in national and global drug

control policies are urgently needed” (Global Commission on Drug Policy, 2011, p. 3). Decriminalization and

even legalization of illegal drugs should be seriously considered, the report concluded.

Given this backdrop, many drug experts question whether our current drug policies make sense. They add that the

best approach our society could take would be to expand the prevention, treatment, and harm reduction approaches

discussed earlier; because drugs will always be with us, our society should do what it can to minimize the many

harms that drugs cause. Thus drug education prevention and drug treatment programs should be expanded, sterile

needles should be made available for drug addicts who inject their drugs, and drug courts should be used for a

greater number of drug offenders.

Beyond these approaches, some experts say marijuana use should be decriminalized and that decriminalization

of other drugs should be seriously considered. If marijuana were not only decriminalized but also legalized and

taxed, it is estimated that this new tax revenue would amount to $8.7 billion annually and that about $8.7 billion

annually would also be saved in reduced law enforcement costs, for a total of more than $17 billion in new funds

that could be used for drug prevention, drug treatment, and other needs (Kristof, 2010). Many Americans agree

with these experts: In a 2011 Gallup poll, 50 percent of the public favored legalizing marijuana, while 46 percent

opposed legalizing it (Graves, 2011).

More generally, these experts say, it makes little sense to arrest more than 1.3 million people each year for drug

possession and to put many of them in jail or prison. We do not arrest and imprison alcoholics and cigarette

smokers; instead we try to offer them various kinds of help, and we should do the same for people who are

addicted to other kinds of drugs. If arrest and imprisonment must continue, these measures should be reserved for

sellers of large quantities of illegal drugs, not for the people who use the drugs or for those who sell only small

quantities. When low-level drug dealers are imprisoned, they are simply replaced on the street by new dealers.

Providing low-level dealers with alternative sentencing would reduce the number of imprisoned dealers over time

by several hundred thousand annually without making illegal drugs more available.

In addition to all these measures, several other steps might well reduce certain kinds of drug use or at least reduce

the harm that both drugs and our current drug policies cause (Kleiman et al., 2011). These steps include the

following:

1. Providing legally prescribed heroin and/or substitute opiates, including methadone, for heroin

addicts. This provision has proven effective in several other nations.

2. Encouraging primary care physicians and other health-care providers to screen more carefully

for substance abuse.

3. Basing drug sentencing less on the quantity of illegal drugs sold and more on the level of violence

in which some drug sellers engage.

4. Abandoning DARE. According to Kleiman et al. (2011, p. 201), “the continued dominance in school-

based drug education of DARE—a program that has never been shown to actually reduce drug use—is

a scandal.” They instead recommend school-based programs that help children develop self-control

and prosocial behavior, as these programs have also been shown to reduce children’s subsequent drug

use.

5. Following the psychological principle of operant conditioning by providing drug addicts small

cash payments for clean drug tests, as these rewards have been shown to be effective.

6. Fully reintegrating former drug dealers and recovering drug addicts into society. They should

have full access to public housing, educational loans, and other benefits, and they should be allowed to

vote in states that now do not let them vote.

7. Raising alcohol taxes. According to Kleiman et al. (2011), tripling the alcohol tax would especially

reduce drinking by heavy drinkers and by minors, and it would reduce the number of homicides by

1,000 annually and the number of motor vehicle accidents by 2,000 annually. The new tax money

could also help fund alcohol treatment and prevention programs. “In the entire field of drug-abuse

control,” Kleiman et al. (2011, p. 204) write, “there is no bargain as attractive as a higher alcohol tax.”

8. Prohibiting alcohol sales to anyone who has engaged in drunk driving or who has committed

violence under the influence of alcohol. For this ban to work, everyone who wants to buy alcohol

would have to show an ID, and those prohibited from buying alcohol would have that indicated on

7.6 Addressing the Drug Problem and Reducing Drug Use 317

their ID. This ban would certainly be unpopular among the many drinkers who drink responsibly, but it

would reduce the great harm that alcohol causes.

9. Allowing marijuana users to grow their own cannabis or to buy it from small growers. This

would reduce the sales of cannabis, and thus its profits, from the organized crime groups and the

Mexican cartels that now provide much of the marijuana used in the United States.

10. Raising the cigarette tax. Some states already have high cigarette taxes, but several states have low

cigarette taxes. Raising the taxes in the low-tax states would reduce cigarette smoking in these states.

The new tax revenue could be used to fund treatment programs that help reduce smoking.

Key Takeaways

• Critics of the war on drugs say that people who use illegal drugs should be treated, not arrested, just aspeople who use alcohol and tobacco are treated, if they seek treatment, rather than arrested.

• Specific measures that could help address the drug problem include providing legally prescribed heroin orsubstitute opiates for heroin addicts and raising the alcohol tax.

For Your Review

1. Do you think that alcohol taxes should be raised? Why or why not?

2. Do you favor decriminalization of marijuana? Explain your answer.

References

Global Commission on Drug Policy. (2011). War on drugs: Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. Rio

de Janeiro, Brazil: Author.

Graves, L. (2011, October 18). Marijuana legalization receives 50 percent support in new poll. Huffington

Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/2010/2017/support-for-marijuana-legalization-at-all-

time-high_n_1016461.html?utm_source

=DailyBrief&utm_campaign=1101811&utm_medium=email&utm_content=NewsEntry

&utm_term=Daily%1016420Brief.

Kleiman, M. A. R., Caulkins, J. P., & Hawken, A. (2011). Drugs and drug policy: What everyone needs to know.

New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Kristof, N. D. (2010, October 28). End the war on pot. New York Times, p. A33.

318 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Walker, S. (2011). Sense and nonsense about crime, drugs, and communities: A Policy guide (7th ed.). Belmont,

CA: Wadsworth.

7.6 Addressing the Drug Problem and Reducing Drug Use 319

7.7 End-of-Chapter Material

Summary

1. Humans have used drugs of various types since prehistoric times. Alcohol has been a common drug in theUnited States since the colonial period, and opium, marijuana, and heroin were common legal drugs in thelate nineteenth century.

2. The distinction between legal and illegal drugs lacks a logical basis. Alcohol and tobacco kill many morepeople than all illegal drugs combined.

3. The use of several drugs is socially patterned. Males are more likely than females to use drugs, and religiouspeople are less likely to use them than those who are less religious. The differences that race/ethnicity,education, and region of country make for drug use depends on the type of drug.

4. Biological theories assume that drug addiction results from a genetic predisposition, while psychologicaltheories attribute drug use to certain personality traits and to positive reinforcement.

5. Sociological theories attribute drug use to peer and cultural influences. A sociological perspective suggeststhat the ultimate roots of drug use lie in the social environment rather than inside the individual.

6. Major approaches to dealing with drugs include treatment, prevention, harm reduction, and the use of thecriminal justice system for illegal drugs. Critics of the war on drugs say that it does more harm than good,and they urge that serious consideration be given to decriminalizing marijuana and perhaps other drugs.

Using What You Know

A college friend of yours seems to drink a lot most nights and even goes to class some mornings hung over. You’vebecome so concerned that you’ve suggested to your friend when you’ve been out for the evening to just have a coupledrinks. Your friend has just laughed you off. What, if anything, do you do?

What You Can Do

To help deal with the societal and individual problems caused by alcohol and other drugs, you may wish to do any of thefollowing:

1. Volunteer for a local agency that helps teenagers or adults who have a problem with alcohol or other drugs.

2. Start or join in efforts on your campus to encourage responsible drinking.

3. Start a group to encourage your state to raise taxes on alcohol and cigarettes.

Chapter 8: Crime and Criminal Justice

Social Problems in the News

“Wilson St. Residents Stunned by Shooting,” the headline said. A shooting of a toddler in Chattanooga, TN, left aneighbor afraid. At 9:45 p.m. on a Friday night, someone walked up to an apartment and fired a gun through a window.One bullet struck the toddler in the leg, and another bullet struck a 20-year-old male with him in the hand. A neighboracross the hallway heard the shots and later told a reporter, “It scared me, my heart was beating, my hands were shaking.I was nervous and scared, is the baby going to survive. I was stuck on my bed and I was like what am I supposed to do,go see who is at my door or if I open it I might get shot at. I’m worrying about the baby, that’s all I’m worrying about.”Because the 20-year-old victim was a known gang member, police suspected that the incident was related to a drive-bygang shooting that occurred earlier in the evening.

Source: Boatwright, 2011

As this poignant account reminds us, many people across the nation live in fear of crime, and you may know

several people, perhaps including yourself, who have been victims of a crime. The study of crime bears directly

on this book’s theme of continuity and change: Crime seems to have always been with us, yet sound social science

research points to many programs and policies with great promise for reducing crime if only our nation would

undertake them. We begin with some conceptual issues in understanding crime before turning to the types of

crime, explanations for crime, and some aspects of the criminal justice system.

References

Boatwright, M. (2011, March 5). Wilson St. residents stunned by shooting. WRCB-TV. Retrieved from

http://www.wrcbtv.com/Global/story.asp?S=14194540.

8.1 The Problem of Crime

Learning Objectives

1. Understand the extent of public concern about crime.

2. Explain how the news media contribute to myths about crime.

3. Describe how crime in the United States is measured.

Put most simply, crime is behavior that is prohibited by the criminal law because it is considered especially

harmful or offensive. This simple definition, however, raises many questions:

• Who decides what is offensive or harmful?

• Are some harmful behaviors not considered crimes, and are some crimes not that harmful?

• Are some people more likely than others to be considered criminals because of their gender, race and

ethnicity, social class, age, or other aspect of their social backgrounds?

These questions lie at the heart of the sociological study of deviance, of which crime is a special type. Deviance

is behavior that violates social norms and arouses strong social disapproval. This definition reflects the common

sociological view that deviance is not a quality of a behavior itself but rather the result of what other people think

about the behavior. This view is reflected in an often-cited quote from sociologist Howard S. Becker (1963, p.

9), who wrote several decades ago that “deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a

consequence of the application by others of rules or sanctions to an ‘offender.’ The deviant is one to whom that

label has been successfully applied; deviant behavior is behavior that people so label.”

This definition reminds us that some harmful behaviors, such as white-collar crime, may not be considered deviant

and fail to result in severe legal punishment, perhaps because wealthy individuals perform them. It also reminds us

that some less harmful behaviors, such as prostitution, may be considered very deviant because the public deems

the behavior immoral and because poor people engage in them. As these possibilities suggest, the application of a

criminal label to an offender is problematic: People arrested and/or convicted of a crime may not have engaged in

a very harmful behavior or even in the behavior of which they are suspected, and people with no criminal record

have in fact engaged in harmful and even criminal behavior.

Public Concern about Crime

The American public is clearly concerned about crime. Two-thirds of the public said in a 2011 Gallup poll that

crime had risen from the previous year. More than a third, 38 percent, said they would be “afraid to walk alone at

night” within one mile of their residence; this figure translates to more than 86 million adults. In the same poll,

47 percent (or about 114 million adults) said they worry about their homes being burglarized, and 44 percent said

they worry about thefts of or from their motor vehicles. Corresponding figures for other crimes were: experiencing

identity theft, 67 percent; getting mugged, 34 percent; getting attacked while driving your car, 19 percent; being

sexually assaulted, 22 percent (including 37 percent of women); and getting murdered, 20 percent (among the

lowest figures in this list, but one that still amounts to 42 million adults worrying about being murdered).

Although the public is concerned about crime, at least some of this concern might exceed what the facts about

crime would justify. For example, although most of the public, as we just noted, thinks the crime rate has been

rising, this rate has actually been declining since the early 1990s. And although one-fifth of the public worries

about getting murdered, homicides comprise less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all violent and property crime

(street crime); only about 7 of every 100,000 Americans, or 0.007 percent, are murdered every year; homicide

does not rank among the top ten causes of death (which include heart disease and cancer); and the number of

homicides is much lower than the number of deaths from harmful behavior by corporations (such as pollution or

unsafe products and workplaces). Crime is indeed a real problem, but public concern about crime may be higher

than the facts warrant.

Media Myths

To the extent this is true, news media coverage of crime may be partly responsible (Robinson, 2011). For example,

if the television news and newspapers suddenly have several stories about a few sensational crimes, public

concern about crime may jump, even though crime in general has not risen at all. Similarly, the news media have

increased their crime coverage even when crime is falling, as happened during the early 1990s when the major

US television networks more than doubled their nightly news stories about crime even though crime had been

declining (Freeman, 1994).

The news media, in fact, distort the amount and nature of crime in several ways (Surette, 2011). First, they

overdramatize crime by reporting it in many news stories. Crime dominates news coverage in many newspapers

and television newscasts, and, as just noted, the media may devote much coverage to a few sensational crimes and

create the false impression that a “crime wave” is occurring when the crime rate may even be declining.

Second, the media devote particularly heavy coverage to violent crime, reflecting the common saying that “if it

bleeds, it leads.” For example, more than 25 percent of the crime stories on evening newscasts and in newspapers

concern homicide, even though homicide comprises less than 1 percent of all crime (Feld, 2003). Similarly,

the vast majority of crime stories feature violent crime, even though violent crime comprises only about 12–14

percent of all street crimes combined. Media attention to violent crime thus gives the public the false impression

that most crime is violent when in fact most crime involves a theft of some sort (property crime).

8.1 The Problem of Crime 323

The news media feature violent crime, even though violent crime comprises only a small portion of all crime.

Darla Hueske – did not cross – CC BY-ND 2.0.

Third, the media tend to highlight crimes committed by African Americans or other people of color and crimes

with white victims. A greater percentage of crime stories involve people of color as offenders than is true in

arrest statistics. A greater percentage of crime stories also involve whites as victims than is actually true, and

newspaper stories of white-victim crimes are longer than those of black-victim crimes. Crimes in which African

Americans are the offenders and whites are the victims also receive disproportionate media coverage even though

most crimes involve offenders and victims of the same race. In all these ways, the news media exaggerate the

extent to which people of color commit crimes and the extent to which whites are victims of crimes.

Fourth, the media also tend to highlight crimes committed by youths. In one study of thousands of local newscast

stories, about two-thirds of the stories about violence depicted youthful offenders, even though teenagers commit

only about 14–16 percent of violent crime (Jackson, 1997). In a related problem, media stories involving teenagers

are much more likely to show them committing crime or other antisocial acts than committing good deeds or other

positive behavior. In these ways, the news media convey a false impression that leads the public to believe both

that youths commit much of our violent crime and that youth violence has been rising even though it has actually

declined since the early 1990s.

Measuring Crime

It is surprisingly difficult to know how much crime occurs. Crime is not like the weather, when we all can

see whether it is raining, snowing, or sunny. Usually when crime occurs, only the criminal and the victim, and

sometimes an occasional witness, know about it. We thus have an incomplete picture of the crime problem, but

324 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

because of various data sources we still have a pretty good understanding of how much crime exists and of who

is most likely to commit it and be victimized by it.

The government’s primary source of crime data is the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), published annually by the

Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI gathers its data from police departments around the country who tell the

FBI about crimes that have come to their attention. The police also tell the FBI whether someone is arrested for

the crime and, if so, the person’s age, gender, and race. The FBI gathers all these UCR data and reports them in

an annual volume called Crime in the United States (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2011).

Most UCR data concern the so-called Part I Crimes, eight felonies that the FBI considers the most serious.

Four of these are violent crimes—homicide, rape, aggravated assault, and robbery—and four are property

crimes—burglary, larceny (e.g., shoplifting, pick-pocketing, purse-snatching), motor vehicle theft, and arson.

According to the FBI, 1,246,248 violent crimes and 9,082,887 property crimes occurred in 2010, for a total of

about 10.3 million. This is the nation’s official crime count, and by any standard it is a lot of crime. However, this

number is much lower than it should be because more than half of all crime victims do not report their crimes to

the police, and the police thus do not know about them. These unreported crimes represent “hidden” crimes or, as

they are often called, the dark figure of crime. Thus the true crime problem is much greater than suggested by the

UCR.

This underreporting of crime represents a major problem for the UCR’s validity. Several other problems exist.

First, the UCR excludes white-collar crimes and thus diverts attention away from their harm. Second, police

practices affect the number of crimes listed in the UCR. For example, the police do not record every report they

hear from a citizen as a crime. Sometimes they do not have the time to do so, and sometimes they do not believe

the citizen. If they do not record the report, the FBI does not count it as a crime. If the police start recording

more reports or fail to record even more reports, the official crime rate will rise or fall, respectively, even though

the actual number of crimes has not changed. This fact has led to crime-reporting scandals during the past two

decades, as police departments in several major cities failed to record many crimes or downgraded others (e.g.,

calling a rape a simple assault) in an apparent effort to make it appear as if the crime rate were falling (Hart, 2004).

In a third problem, if crime victims become more or less likely to report their crimes to the police (e.g., the advent

of the 911 emergency number may have increased calls to the police), the official crime rate will again change,

even if the actual number of crimes has not.

To get a more accurate picture of crime, the federal government began in the early 1970s to administer a survey,

now called the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), to tens of thousands of randomly selected US

households. People in the households are asked whether they or their residence has been the victim of several

different types of crimes in the past half year. Their responses are then extrapolated to the entire US population to

yield fairly accurate estimates of the actual number of crimes occurring in the nation. These estimates are thought

to be more accurate than the UCR’s figures, even if it is true that victims sometimes might not want to tell NCVS

interviewers what happened to them (Catalano, 2006).

Table 8.1 “Number of Crimes: Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) and National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS),

2010” lists the number of street crimes as reported by the UCR and estimated by NCVS. Note that these two

crime sources do not measure exactly the crimes. For example, the NCVS excludes commercial crimes such as

shoplifting, while the UCR includes them. The NCVS also includes simple assaults (where someone receives only

8.1 The Problem of Crime 325

a minor injury), while the UCR excludes them. These differences notwithstanding, we can still see that the NCVS

estimates about 1.8 times as many crimes as the UCR reports to us. The dark figure of crime is large indeed.

Table 8.1 Number of Crimes: Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) and National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), 2010

UCR NCVS

Violent crime 1,246,248 3,817,380

Property crime 9,082,887 14,908,330

Total 10,329,135 18,725,710

Source: Maguire, K. (Ed.). (2011). Sourcebook of criminal justice statistics. Retrieved from http://www.albany.edu/sourcebook/toc_3.html.

A third source of crime information is the self-report survey. Here subjects, usually adolescents, indicate on

an anonymous questionnaire whether and how often they committed various offenses in, say, the past year.

Typically, they also answer questions about their family relationships, school performance, and other aspects of

their backgrounds. Self-report studies have yielded valuable information about delinquency and explanations of

crime. Like the NCVS, they underscore how much crime is committed that does not come to the attention of the

police.

Key Takeaways

• Much of the American public is concerned about crime, and many people worry about becoming a victim ofvarious types of crime.

• The news media overdramatize the nature and amount of crime, and they give more attention to crimesinvolving African Americans and Latinos as offenders and whites as victims.

• The nation’s major source of crime data is the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR). However, many people donot report their crimes to the police, and police practices affect the number of “official” crimes reported bythe UCR.

For Your Review

1. Why do you think so many Americans are afraid of crime even though the crime rate has greatly declinedsince the early 1990s?

2. Why is it difficult to measure crime accurately? Why is the measurement of crime by the FBI inaccurate?

References

Becker, H. S. (1963). Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance. New York, NY: Free Press.

326 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Catalano, S. M. (2006). The measurement of crime: Victim reporting and police recording. New York, NY: LFB

Scholarly.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2011). Crime in the United States, 2010. Washington, DC: Author.

Feld, B. C. (2003). The politics of race and juvenile justice: The “due process revolution” and the conservative

reaction. Justice Quarterly, 20, 765–800.

Freeman, M. (1994, March 14). Networks doubled crime coverage in ‘93, despite flat violence levels in US

society. Mediaweek, 4, p. 4.

Hart, A. (2004, February 21). Report finds Atlanta police cut figures on crimes. New York Times, p. A1.

Jackson, D. Z. (1997, September 10). No wonder we’re afraid of youths. The Boston Globe, p. A15.

Robinson, M. B. (2011). Media coverage of crime and criminal justice. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

Surette, R. (2011). Media, crime, and criminal justice: Images, realities, and policies (4th ed.). Belmont, CA:

Wadsworth.

8.1 The Problem of Crime 327

8.2 Types of Crime

Learning Objectives

1. Describe the major aspects of homicide.

2. Discuss evidence indicating that white-collar crime is more serious than street crime.

3. Explain the major issues raised by the concept of consensual crime.

Many types of crime exist. Criminologists commonly group crimes into several major categories: (1) violent

crime; (2) property crime; (3) white-collar crime; (4) organized crime; and (5) consensual or victimless crime.

Within each category, many more specific crimes exist. For example, violent crime includes homicide, aggravated

and simple assault, rape and sexual assault, and robbery, while property crime includes burglary, larceny, motor

vehicle theft, and arson. Because a full discussion of the many types of crime would take several chapters or even

an entire book or more, we highlight here the most important dimensions of the major categories of crime and the

issues they raise for public safety and crime control.

Violent Crime

Even if, as our earlier discussion indicated, the news media exaggerate the problem of violent crime, it remains

true that violent crime plagues many communities around the country and is the type of crime that most concerns

Americans. The news story that began this chapter reminds us that violent crime is all too real for too many

people; it traps some people inside their homes and makes others afraid to let their children play outside or even

to walk to school. Rape and sexual assault are a common concern for many women and leads them to be more

fearful of being victimized than men: In the 2011 Gallup poll mentioned earlier, 37 percent of women said they

worried about being sexually assaulted, compared to only 6 percent of men (see Figure 8.1 “Gender and Worry

about Being Sexually Assaulted (Percentage Saying They Worry “Frequently” or “Occasionally”)”).

Figure 8.1 Gender and Worry about Being Sexually Assaulted (Percentage Saying They Worry “Frequently” or “Occasionally”)

Source: Data from Maguire, K. (Ed.). (2011). Sourcebook of criminal justice statistics. Retrieved from http://www.albany.edu/

sourcebook.

Research on violent crime tends to focus on homicide and on rape and sexual assault. Homicide, of course, is

considered the most serious crime because it involves the taking of a human life. As well, homicide data are

considered more accurate than those for other crimes because most homicides come to the attention of the police

and are more likely than other crimes to lead to an arrest. For its part, the focus on rape and sexual assault

reflects the contemporary women’s movement’s interest in these related crimes beginning in the 1970s and the

corresponding interest of criminologists, both female and male, in the criminal victimization of women.

Certain aspects of homicide are worth noting. First, although some homicides are premeditated, most in fact are

relatively spontaneous and the result of intense emotions like anger, hatred, or jealousy (Fox, Levin, & Quinet,

2012). Two people may begin arguing for any number of reasons, and things escalate. A fight may then ensue that

results in a fatal injury, but one of the antagonists may also pick up a weapon and use it. About 25–50 percent of

all homicides are victim-precipitated, meaning that the eventual victim is the one who starts the argument or the

first one to escalate it once it has begun.

Second, and related to the first aspect, most homicide offenders and victims knew each other before the

homicide occurred. Indeed, about three-fourths of all homicides involve nonstrangers, and only one-fourth involve

strangers. Intimate partners (spouses, ex-spouses, and current and former partners) and other relatives commit

almost 30 percent of all homicides (Messner, Deane, & Beaulieu, 2002). Thus although fear of a deadly attack

by a stranger dominates the American consciousness, we in fact are much more likely on average to be killed by

someone we know than by someone we do not know.

8.2 Types of Crime 329

About two-thirds of homicides involve firearms, and half involve a handgun.

Geoffery Fairchild – The Robbery – CC BY 2.0.

Third, about two-thirds of homicides involve firearms. To be a bit more precise, just over half involve a

handgun, and the remaining firearm-related homicides involve a shotgun, rifle, or another undetermined firearm.

Combining these first three aspects, then, the most typical homicide involves nonstrangers who have an argument

that escalates and then results in the use of deadly force when one of the antagonists uses a handgun.

Fourth, most homicides (as most violent crime in general) are intraracial, meaning that they occur within the

same race; the offender and victim are of the same race. For single offender/single victim homicides where the

race of both parties is known, about 90 percent of African American victims are killed by African American

offenders, and about 83 percent of white victims are killed by white offenders (Federal Bureau of Investigation,

2011). Although whites fear victimization by African Americans more than by whites, whites in fact are much

more likely to be killed by other whites than by African Americans. While African Americans do commit about

half of all homicides, most of their victims are also African American.

Fifth, males commit about 90 percent of all homicides and females commit only 10 percent. As we discuss in

Section 3.1 “Racial and Ethnic Inequality: A Historical Prelude”, males are much more likely than women to

commit most forms of crime, and this is especially true for homicide and other violent crime.

Sixth, the homicide rate is much higher in large cities than in small towns. In 2010, the homicide rate (number

of homicides per 100,000 population) in cities with a population at or over 250,000 was 10.0 percent, compared

to only 2.5 percent in towns with a population between 10,000 and 24,999 (see Figure 8.2 “Population Size and

Homicide Rate, 2010”). Thus the risk for homicide is four times greater in large cities than in small towns. While

most people in large cities certainly do not die from homicide, where we live still makes a difference in our

chances of being victimized by homicide and other crime.

Figure 8.2 Population Size and Homicide Rate, 2010

330 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Source: Data from Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2011). Crime in the United States, 2010. Washington, DC: Author.

Finally, the homicide rate rose in the late 1980s and peaked during the early 1990s before declining sharply

until the early 2000s and then leveling off and declining a bit further since then. Although debate continues over

why the homicide rate declined during the 1990s, many criminologists attribute the decline to a strong economy,

an ebbing of gang wars over drug trafficking, and a decline of people in the 15–25 age group that commits a

disproportionate amount of crime (Blumstein & Wallman, 2006). Some observers believe rising imprisonment

rates also made a difference, and we return to this issue later in this chapter.

Rape and sexual assault were included in Chapter 4 “Gender Inequality”’s discussion of violence against women

as a serious manifestation of gender inequality. As that chapter noted, it is estimated that one-third of women

on the planet have been raped or sexually assaulted, beaten, or physically abused in some other way (Heise,

Ellseberg, & Gottemoeller, 1999). While it is tempting to conclude that such violence is much more common

in poor nations than in a wealthy nation like the United States, we saw in Chapter 4 “Gender Inequality” that

violence against women is common in this nation as well. Like homicide, about three-fourths of all rapes and

sexual assaults involve individuals who know each other, not strangers.

Property Crime

As noted earlier, the major property crimes are burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft, and arson. These crimes

are quite common in the United States and other nations and, as Table 8.1 “Number of Crimes: Uniform Crime

Reports (UCR) and National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), 2010” indicated, millions occur annually in

this country. Many Americans have installed burglar alarms and other security measures in their homes and similar

devices in their cars and SUVs. While property crime by definition does not involve physical harm, it still makes

us concerned, in part because it touches so many of us. Although property crime has in fact declined along with

violent crime since the early 1990s, it still is considered a major component of the crime problem, because it is so

common and produces losses of billions of dollars annually.

Much property crime can be understood in terms of the roles and social networks of property criminals. In this

regard, many scholars distinguish between amateur theft and professional theft. Most property offenders are

amateur offenders: They are young and unskilled in the ways of crime, and the amount they gain from any single

8.2 Types of Crime 331

theft is relatively small. They also do not plan their crimes and instead commit them when they see an opportunity

for quick illegal gain. In contrast, professional property offenders tend to be older and quite skilled in the ways

of crime, and the amount they gain from any single theft is relatively large. Not surprisingly, they often plan their

crimes well in advance. The so-called cat burglar, someone who scales tall buildings to steal jewels, expensive

artwork, or large sums of money, is perhaps the prototypical example of the professional property criminals.

Many professional thieves learn how to do their crimes from other professional thieves, and in this sense they are

mentored by the latter just as students are mentored by professors, and young workers by older workers.

White-Collar Crime

If you were asked to picture a criminal in your mind, what image would you be likely to think of first: a scruffy

young male with a scowl or sneer on his face, or a handsome, middle-aged man dressed in a three-piece business

suit? No doubt the former image would come to mind first, if only because violent crime and property crime

dominate newspaper headlines and television newscasts and because many of us have been victims of violent

or property crime. Yet white-collar crime is arguably much more harmful than street crime, both in terms of

economic loss and of physical injury, illness, and even death.

What exactly is white-collar crime? The most famous definition comes from Edwin Sutherland (1949, p. 9), a

sociologist who coined the term in the 1940s and defined it as “a crime committed by a person of respectability

and high social status in the course of his occupation.” Sutherland examined the behavior of the seventy largest

US corporations and found that they had violated the law hundreds of times among them. Several had engaged in

crimes during either World War I or II; they provided defective weapons and spoiled food to US troops and even

sold weapons to Germany and other nations the United States was fighting.

Although white-collar crime as studied today includes auto shop repair fraud and employee theft by cashiers,

bookkeepers, and other employees of relatively low status, most research follows Sutherland’s definition in

focusing on crime committed by people of “respectability and high social status.” Thus much of the study of

white-collar crime today focuses on fraud by physicians, attorneys, and other professionals and on illegal behavior

by executives of corporations designed to protect or improve corporate profits (corporate crime).

In the study of professional fraud, health-care fraud stands out for its extent and cost (Rosoff, Pontell, & Tillman,

2010). Health-care fraud is thought to amount to more than $100 billion per year, compared to less than $20 billion

for all property crime combined. For example, some physicians bill Medicare and private insurance for services

that patients do not really need and may never receive. Medical supply companies sometimes furnish substandard

equipment. To compensate for the economic loss it incurs, health-care fraud drives up medical expenses and

insurance costs. In this sense, it steals from the public even though no one ever breaks into your house or robs you

at gunpoint.

Although health-care and other professional fraud are serious, corporate crime dwarfs all other forms of white-

collar crime in the economic loss it incurs and in the death, injury, and illness it causes. Corporate financial crime

involves such activities as fraud, price fixing, and false advertising. The Enron scandal in 2001 involved an energy

corporation whose chief executives exaggerated profits. After their fraud and Enron’s more dire financial state

were finally revealed, the company’s stock plummeted and it finally went bankrupt. Its thousands of workers lost

332 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

their jobs and pensions, and investors in its stock lost billions of dollars. Several other major corporations engaged

in (or strongly suspected of doing so) accounting fraud during the late 1990s and early 2000s, but Enron was

merely the most notorious example of widespread scandal that marked this period.

While corporate financial crime and corruption have cost the nation untold billions of dollars in this and earlier

decades, corporate violence—actions by corporations that kill or maim people or leave them ill—is even more

scandalous. The victims of corporate violence include corporate employees, consumers of corporate goods, and

the public as a whole. Annual deaths from corporate violence exceed the number of deaths from homicide, and

illness and injury from corporate violence affect an untold number of people every year.

The asbestos industry learned in the 1930s that asbestos was a major health hazard, but it kept this discovery a secret for more than

three decades.

Aaron Suggs – Asbestos – CC BY 2.0.

Employees of corporations suffer from unsafe workplaces in which workers are exposed to hazardous conditions

and chemicals because their companies fail to take adequate measures to reduce or eliminate this exposure. Such

exposure may result in illness, and exposure over many years can result in death. According to a recent estimate,

more than 50,000 people die each year from workplace exposure (American Federation of Labor and Congress

of Industrial Organizations [AFL-CIO], 2010), a figure about three times greater than the number of annual

homicides. About 1,500 coal miners die each year from black lung disease, which results from the breathing of

coal dust; many and perhaps most of these deaths would be preventable if coal mining companies took adequate

safety measures (G. Harris, 1998). In another example, the asbestos industry learned during the 1930s that

exposure to asbestos could cause fatal lung disease and cancer. Despite this knowledge, asbestos companies hid

evidence of this hazard for more than three decades: They allowed their workers to continue to work with asbestos

and marketed asbestos as a fire retardant that was widely installed in schools and other buildings. More than

8.2 Types of Crime 333

200,000 asbestos workers and members of the public either have already died or are expected to die from asbestos

exposure; most or all of these deaths could have been prevented if the asbestos industry had acted responsibly

when it first discovered it was manufacturing a dangerous product (Lilienfeld, 1991).

Unsafe products also kill or maim consumers. One of the most notorious examples of deaths from an unsafe

product involved the Ford Pinto, a car first sold in the early 1970s that was vulnerable to fire and explosion when

hit from behind in a minor rear-end collision (Cullen, Maakestad, & Cavender, 2006). Ford knew before the Pinto

went on the market that its gas tank was unusually vulnerable in a rear-end collision and determined it would take

about $11 per car to fix the problem. It then did a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether it would cost more

to fix the problem or instead to settle lawsuits after Pinto drivers and passengers died or were burned and injured

in rear-end collisions. This analysis indicated that Ford would save about $87 million if it did not fix the problem

and instead paid out compensation after Pinto drivers and passengers died or got burned. Because Ford made this

decision, about five hundred people eventually died in Pinto rear-end collisions and many others were burned.

The toll of white-collar crime, both financial and violent, is difficult to estimate, but by all accounts it exceeds

the economic loss and death and injury from all street crime combined. White-collar crime is thought to involve

an annual economic loss of more than $700 billion annually from corporate fraud, professional fraud, employee

theft, and tax evasion and an annual toll of at least 100,000 deaths from workplace-related illness or injury, unsafe

products, and preventable environmental pollution. These figures compare to an economic loss of less than $20

billion from property crime and a death toll of about 17,000 from homicide (Barkan, 2012). By any measure, the

toll of white-collar crime dwarfs the toll of street crime, even though the latter worries us much more than white-

collar crime. Despite the harm that white-collar crime causes, the typical corporate criminal receives much more

lenient punishment, if any, than the typical street criminal (Rosoff et al., 2010).

Organized Crime

Organized crime refers to criminal activity by groups or organizations whose major purpose for existing is to

commit such crime. When we hear the term “organized crime,” we almost automatically think of the so-called

Mafia, vividly portrayed in the Godfather movies and other films, that comprises several highly organized and

hierarchical Italian American “families.” Although Italian Americans have certainly been involved in organized

crime in the United States, so have Irish Americans, Jews, African Americans, and other ethnicities over the years.

The emphasis on Italian domination of organized crime overlooks these other involvements and diverts attention

from the actual roots of organized crime.

What are these roots? Simply put, organized crime exists and even thrives because it provides goods and/or

services that the public demands. Organized crime flourished during the 1920s because it was all too ready

and willing to provide an illegal product, alcohol, that the pubic continued to demand even after Prohibition

began. Today, organized crime earns its considerable money from products and services such as illegal drugs,

prostitution, pornography, loan sharking, and gambling. It also began long ago to branch out into legal activities

such as trash hauling and the vending industry.

Government efforts against organized crime since the 1920s have focused on arrest, prosecution, and other

law-enforcement strategies. Organized crime has certainly continued despite these efforts. This fact leads some

334 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

scholars to emphasize the need to reduce public demand for the goods and services that organized crime provides.

However, other scholars say that reducing this demand is probably a futile or mostly futile task, and they instead

urge consideration of legalizing at least some of the illegal products and services (e.g., drugs and prostitution) that

organized crime provides. Doing so, they argue, would weaken the influence of organized crime.

Consensual Crime

Consensual crime (also called victimless crime) refers to behaviors in which people engage voluntarily and

willingly even though these behaviors violate the law. Illegal drug use, discussed in Chapter 7 “Alcohol and

Other Drugs”, is a major form of consensual crime; other forms include prostitution, gambling, and pornography.

People who use illegal drugs, who hire themselves out as prostitutes or employ the services of a prostitute,

who gamble illegally, and who use pornography are all doing so because they want to. These behaviors are not

entirely victimless, as illegal drug users, for example, may harm themselves and others, and that is why the term

consensual crime is often preferred over victimless crime. As just discussed, organized crime provides some of

the illegal products and services that compose consensual crime, but these products and services certainly come

from sources other than organized crime.

This issue aside, the existence of consensual crime raises two related questions that we first encountered in

Chapter 7 “Alcohol and Other Drugs”. First, to what degree should the government ban behaviors that people

willingly commit and that generally do not have unwilling victims? Second, do government attempts to ban

such behaviors do more good than harm or more harm than good? Chapter 7 “Alcohol and Other Drugs”’s

discussion of these questions focused on illegal drugs, and in particular on the problems caused by laws against

certain drugs, but similar problems arise from laws against other types of consensual crime. For example, laws

against prostitution enable pimps to control prostitutes and help ensure the transmission of sexual diseases because

condoms are not regularly used.

Critics of consensual crime laws say we are now in a new prohibition and that our laws against illegal drugs,

prostitution, and certain forms of gambling are causing the same problems now that the ban on alcohol did during

the 1920s and, more generally, cause more harm than good. Proponents of these laws respond that the laws are still

necessary as an expression of society’s moral values and as a means, however imperfect, of reducing involvement

in harmful behaviors.

Key Takeaways

• Most homicides are committed for relatively emotional, spontaneous reasons and between people who kneweach other beforehand.

• White-collar crime involves more death, injury, and economic loss than street crime, but the punishment ofwhite-collar crime is relatively weak.

• Consensual crime raises two related issues: (a) To what extent should the government prohibit people fromengaging in behavior in which there are no unwilling victims, and (b) do laws against consensual crime domore good than harm or more harm than good?

8.2 Types of Crime 335

For Your Review

1. If homicide is a relatively emotional, spontaneous crime, what does that imply for efforts to use harsh legalpunishment, including the death penalty, to deter people from committing homicide?

2. Do you think consensual crimes should be made legal? Why or why not?

References

American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). (2010). Death on the job:

The toll of neglect. Washington, DC: Author.

Barkan, S. E. (2012). Criminology: A sociological understanding (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Blumstein, A., & Wallman, J. (Eds.). (2006). The crime drop in America (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2011). Crime in the United States, 2010. Washington, DC: Federal Author.

Fox, J. A., Levin, J., & Quinet, K. (2012). The will to kill: Making sense of senseless murder. Upper Saddle River,

NJ: Prentice Hall.

Harris, G. (1998, April 19). Despite laws, hundreds are killed by black lung. The Courier-Journal (Louisville,

KY), p. A1.

Heise, L., Ellseberg, M., & Gottemoeller, M. (1999). Ending violence against women. Population Reports, 27(4),

1–44.

Cullen, F. T., Maakestad, W. J., & Cavender, G. (2006). Corporate crime under attack: The fight to criminalize

business violence. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson.

Lilienfeld, D. E. (1991). The silence: The asbestos industry and early occupational cancer research—a case study.

American Journal of Public Health, 81, 791–800.

Messner, S. F., Deane, G., & Beaulieu, M. (2002). A log-multiplicative association model for allocating homicides

with unknown victim-offender relationships. Criminology, 40, 457–479.

Rosoff, S. M., Pontell, H. N., & Tillman, R. (2010). Profit without honor: White collar crime and the looting of

America (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Sutherland, E. H. (1949). White collar crime. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

336 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

8.3 Who Commits Crime?

Learning Objectives

1. Explain why males commit more crime than females.

2. Discuss whether social class differences exist in crime rates.

3. Discuss whether racial/ethnic differences exist in crime rates.

While people from all walks of life commit street crime, some people are still more likely than others to break the

law because of their social backgrounds. These social backgrounds include their gender, age, social class, urban/

rural residence, and race and ethnicity. Despite their inaccuracies, the three data sources discussed in the first

section of this chapter all provide a similar picture of what kinds of people, in terms of their social backgrounds,

are more or less likely to commit street crime. We briefly discuss each background in turn.

Gender

Simply put, males commit much more crime than females. In UCR data, men comprise about 81 percent of all

arrests for violent crime and about 63 percent of all arrests for property crime. (See Figure 8.3 “Gender and

Arrest (Percentage of All Arrests)”.) In the NCVS, victims report that males commit most of the violent crimes

they experienced, and self-report studies find that males far outpace females in the commission of serious street

offenses. When it comes to breaking the law, crime is a man’s world.

Figure 8.3 Gender and Arrest (Percentage of All Arrests)

Source: Data from Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2011). Crime in the United States, 2010. Washington, DC: Author.

The key question is why such a large gender difference exists. Some scholars attribute this difference to biological

differences between the sexes, but most criminologists attribute it to sociological factors. One of these is gender

role socialization: Despite greater recognition of gender roles, we continue to raise our boys to be assertive and

aggressive, while we raise our girls to be gentle and nurturing (Lindsey, 2011). Such gender socialization has

many effects, and one of these is a large gender difference in criminal behavior. A second factor is opportunity.

Studies find that parents watch their daughters more closely than they watch their sons, who are allowed to stay

out later at night and thus have more opportunity to break the law.

Males have higher crime rates than females. An important reason for this gender difference is that boys are socialized to be assertive

and aggressive, while girls are socialized to be gentle and nurturing.

Philippe Put – Fight – CC BY 2.0.

Age

Age also makes a difference in criminal behavior: Offending rates are highest in the late teens and early twenties

and decline thereafter. Accordingly, people in the 15–24 age range account for about 40 percent of all arrests even

though they comprise only about 14 percent of the population.

338 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Several factors again seem to account for this pattern (Shoemaker, 2010). First, peer relationships matter more

during this time of one’s life than later, and peers are also more likely during this period than later to be offenders

themselves. For both reasons, our peer relationships during our teens and early twenties are more likely than those

in our later years to draw us into crime. Second, adolescents and young adults are more likely than older adults

to lack full-time jobs; for this reason, they are more likely to need money and thus to commit offenses to obtain

money and other possessions. Third, as we age out of our early twenties, our ties to conventional society increase:

Many people marry, have children, and begin full-time employment, though not necessarily in that order. These

events and bonds increase our stakes in conformity, to use some social science jargon, and thus reduce our desire

to break the law (Laub, Sampson, & Sweeten, 2006).

Social Class

Findings on social class differences in crime are less clear than they are for gender or age differences. Arrests

statistics and much research indicate that poor people are much more likely than wealthier people to commit

street crime. However, some scholars attribute the greater arrests of poor people to social class bias against

them. Despite this possibility, most criminologists would probably agree that social class differences in criminal

offending are “unmistakable” (Harris & Shaw, 2000, p. 138). Reflecting this conclusion, one sociologist has even

noted, with tongue only partly in cheek, that social scientists know they should not “stroll the streets at night

in certain parts of town or even to park there” and that areas of cities that frighten them are “not upper-income

neighborhoods” (Stark, 1987, p. 894). Thus social class does seem to be associated with street crime, with poor

individuals doing more than their fair share.

Explanations of this relationship center on the effects of poverty, which, as the next section will discuss further, is

said to produce anger, frustration, and economic need and to be associated with a need for respect and with poor

parenting skills and other problems that make children more likely to commit antisocial behavior when they reach

adolescence and beyond. These effects combine to lead poor people to be more likely than wealthier people to

commit street crime, even if it is true that most poor people do not commit street crime at all.

Although the poor are more likely than the wealthy to commit street crime, it is also true that the wealthy are

much more likely than the poor to commit white-collar crime, which, as argued earlier, can be much more harmful

than street crime. If we consider both street crime and white-collar crime, then there does not appear to be a social

class-crime relationship, since the poor have higher rates of the former and the wealthy have higher rates of the

latter.

Urban versus Rural Residence

Where we live also makes a difference for our likelihood of committing crime. We saw earlier that big cities

have a much higher homicide rate than small towns. This trend exists for violent crime and property crime

more generally. Urban areas have high crime rates in part because they are poor, but poverty by itself does not

completely explain the urban-rural difference in crime, since many rural areas are poor as well. A key factor that

explains the higher crime rates of urban areas is their greater population density (Stark 1987). When many people

8.3 Who Commits Crime? 339

live close together, they come into contact with one another more often. This fact means that teenagers and young

adults have more peers to influence them to commit crime, and it also means that potential criminals have more

targets (people and homes) for their criminal activity. Urban areas also have many bars, convenience stores, and

other businesses that can become targets for potential criminals, and bars, taverns, and other settings for drinking

can obviously become settings where tempers flare and violence ensues.

Race and Ethnicity

In discussing who commits crime, any discussion of race and ethnicity is bound to arouse controversy because of

the possibility of racial and ethnic stereotyping. But if we can say that men and younger people have relatively

high crime rates without necessarily sounding biased against individuals who are male or younger, then it should

be possible to acknowledge that certain racial and ethnic groups have higher crime rates without sounding biased

against them.

Keeping this in mind, race and ethnicity do seem to be related to criminal offending. In particular, much research

finds that African Americans and Latinos have higher rates of street crime than non-Latino whites. For example,

although African Americans comprise about 13 percent of the US population, they account for about 39 percent of

all arrests for violent crime (see Figure 8.4 “Race and Arrest for Violent Crime (Percentage of All Violent Crime

Arrests)”).

Figure 8.4 Race and Arrest for Violent Crime (Percentage of All Violent Crime Arrests)

Source: Data from Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2011). Crime in the United States, 2010. Washington, DC: Author.

Latinos also have higher crime rates than non-Latino whites, but lower rates than those for African Americans.

Although racial and ethnic bias by the criminal justice system may account for some of these racial/ethnic

differences in offending, most criminologists agree that such differences do in fact exist for serious street crimes

(Walker, Spohn, & DeLone, 2012).

Why do these differences exist? A racist explanation would attribute them to biological inferiority of the groups,

African Americans and Latinos, with the relatively high rates of offending. Such explanations were popular

several generations ago but fortunately lost favor as time passed and attitudes changed. Today, scholars attribute

racial/ethnic differences in offending to several sociological factors (Unnever & Gabbidon, 2011). First, African

340 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Americans and Latinos are much poorer than whites on the average, and poverty contributes to higher crime rates.

Second, they are also more likely to live in urban areas, which, as we have seen, also contribute to higher crime

rates. Third, the racial and ethnic discrimination they experience leads to anger and frustration that in turn can

promote criminal behavior. Although there is less research on Native Americans’ criminality, they, too, appear to

have higher crime rates than whites because of their much greater poverty and experience of racial discrimination

(McCarthy & Hagan, 2003).

In appreciating racial/ethnic differences in street crime rates, it is important to keep in mind that whites commit

most white-collar crime, and especially corporate crime, as it is white people who lead and manage our many

corporations. Just as social class affects the type of crime that people do, so do race and ethnicity. Wealthy, white

people commit much crime, but it is white-collar crime they tend to commit, not street crime.

Key Takeaways

• Males commit more street crime than females, in part because of gender role socialization that helps makemales more assertive and aggressive.

• Young people commit a disproportionate amount of street crime, in part because of the influence of theirpeers and their lack of stakes in conformity.

• The disproportionate involvement of African Americans and Latinos in street crime arises largely from theirpoverty and urban residence.

For Your Review

1. If we say that males commit more crime than females, does that imply that we are prejudiced against males?Why or why not?

2. Write a brief essay that outlines social class and racial/ethnic differences in street crime and explains thereasons for these differences.

References

Harris, A. R., & Shaw, J. A. W. (2000). Looking for patterns: Race, class, and crime. In J. F.Sheley (Ed.),

Criminology: A contemporary handbook (3rd ed., pp. 129–163). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Laub, J. H., Sampson, R. J., & Sweeten, G. A. (2006). Assessing Sampson and Laub’s life-course theory of crime.

In F. T. Cullen (Ed.), Taking stock: The status of criminological theory (Vol. 15, pp. 313–333). New Brunswick,

NJ: Transaction.

Lindsey, L. L. (2011). Gender roles: A sociological perspective (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

McCarthy, B., & Hagan, J. (2003). Sanction effects, violence, and native North American street youth. In D.

8.3 Who Commits Crime? 341

F. Hawkins (Ed.), Violent crime: Assessing race and ethnic differences (pp. 117–137). Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press.

Shoemaker, D. J. (2010). Theories of delinquency: An examination of explanations of delinquent behavior (6th

ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Stark, R. (1987). Deviant places: A theory of the ecology of crime. Criminology, 25, 893–911.

Unnever, J. D., & Gabbidon, S. L. (2011). A theory of African American offending: Race, racism, and crime. New

York, NY: Routledge.

Walker, S., Spohn, C., & DeLone, M. (2012). The color of justice: Race, ethnicity, and crime in America (5th ed.).

Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

342 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

8.4 Explaining Crime

Learning Objectives

1. Understand social structure theories of crime.

2. Explain the social bonding theory of crime.

3. Describe the general assumptions of conflict theories of crime.

If we want to be able to reduce crime, we must first understand why it occurs. Sociologists generally discount

explanations rooted in the individual biology or psychology of criminal offenders. While a few offenders may

suffer from biological defects or psychological problems that lead them to commit crime, most do not. Further,

biological and psychological explanations cannot adequately explain the social patterning of crime discussed

earlier: why higher crime rates are associated with certain locations and social backgrounds. For example, if

California has a higher crime rate than Maine, and the United States has a higher crime rate than Canada, it would

sound silly to say that Californians and Americans have more biological and psychological problems than Mainers

and Canadians, respectively. Biological and psychological explanations also cannot easily explain why crime rates

rise and fall, nor do they lend themselves to practical solutions for reducing crime.

California has a higher crime rate than many other states, but it is difficult to argue that Californians have more biological or

psychological problems than the residents of other states.

Ken Lund – Welcome to California, Nevada-California Border, U.S. 95 – CC BY-SA 2.0.

In contrast, sociological explanations do help understand the social patterning of crime and changes in crime rates,

and they also lend themselves to possible solutions for reducing crime. A brief discussion of these explanations

follows, and a summary appears in Table 8.2 “Sociological Explanations of Crime”.

Table 8.2 Sociological Explanations of Crime

Majorperspective

Relatedexplanation

Summary of explanation

Functional(socialstructuretheories)

Socialdisorganization

Certain social characteristics of urban neighborhoods contribute to high crime rates.These characteristics include poverty, dilapidation, population density, and populationturnover.

AnomieAccording to Robert Merton, crime by the poor results from a gap between the culturalemphasis on economic success and the inability to achieve such success through thelegitimate means of working.

Interactionist(socialprocesstheories)

Differentialassociation

Edwin H. Sutherland argued that criminal behavior is learned by interacting with closefriends who teach us how to commit various crimes and also the values, motives, andrationalizations we need to adopt in order to justify breaking the law.

Social bondingTravis Hirschi wrote that delinquency results from weak bonds to conventional socialinstitutions, such as families and schools.

LabelingDeviance and crime result from being officially labeled; arrest and imprisonmentincrease the likelihood of reoffending.

Conflict(conflicttheories)

Group conflictCriminal law is shaped by the conflict among the various social groups in society thatexist because of differences in race and ethnicity, social class, religion, and other factors.

RadicalThe wealthy try to use the law and criminal justice system to reinforce their power and tokeep the poor and people of color at the bottom of society.

Feminist

Gender plays an important role in the following areas: (1) the reasons girls and womencommit crime; (2) the reasons female crime is lower than male crime; (3) thevictimization of girls and women by rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence; and (4)the experience of women professionals and offenders in the criminal justice system.

The Functional Perspective: Social Structure Theories

Social structure theories all stress that crime results from the breakdown of society’s norms and social organization

and in this sense fall under the functional perspective outlined in Chapter 1 “Understanding Social Problems”.

They trace the roots of crime to problems in the society itself rather than to biological or psychological problems

inside individuals. By doing so, they suggest the need to address society’s social structure in order to reduce crime.

Several social structure theories exist.

344 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Social Disorganization Theory

A popular explanation is social disorganization theory. This approach originated primarily in the work of Clifford

R. Shaw and Henry D. McKay (1942), two social scientists at the University of Chicago who studied that city’s

delinquency rates during the first three decades of the twentieth century. During this time, the ethnic composition

of Chicago changed considerably, as the city’s inner zones were first occupied by English, German, and Irish

immigrants, and then by Eastern European immigrants, and then by African Americans who moved there from

southern states. Shaw and McKay found that the inner zones of Chicago consistently had the highest delinquency

rates regardless of which ethnic group lived there, and they also found that the ethnic groups’ delinquency rates

declined as they moved to outer areas of Chicago. To explain these related patterns, Shaw and McKay reasoned

that the inner zones of Chicago suffered from social disorganization: A weakening of social institutions such as

the family, school, and religion that in turn weakens the strength of social bonds and norms and the effectiveness

of socialization. Research today confirms that crime rates are highest in neighborhoods with several kinds of

structural problems, including high rates of residential mobility, population density, poverty, and single-parent

families (Mazerolle, Wickes, & McBroom, 2010).

Anomie Theory

Another popular explanation is anomie theory, first formulated by Robert K. Merton (1938) in a classic article.

Writing just after the Great Depression, Merton focused on the effects of poverty in a nation like the United

States that places so much emphasis on economic success. With this strong cultural value, wrote Merton, the

poor who do not achieve the American dream feel especially frustrated. They have several ways or adaptations of

responding to their situation (see Table 8.3 “Anomie Theory”).

Table 8.3 Anomie Theory

Goal of economic success

Accept Reject

Value of working

Accept Conformity Ritualism

Reject Innovation Retreatism

First, said Merton, they may continue to accept the goal of economic success and also the value of working at a job

to achieve such success; Merton labeled this adaptation conformity. Second, they may continue to favor economic

success but reject the value of working and instead use new, illegitimate means, for example theft, of gaining

money and possessions; Merton labeled this adaptation innovation. Third, they may abandon hope of economic

success but continue to work anyway because work has become a habit. Merton labeled this adaptation ritualism.

Finally, they may reject both the goal of economic success and the means of working to achieve such success

and withdraw from society either by turning to drugs or by becoming hobos; Merton labeled this adaptation

retreatism. He also listed a fifth adaptation, which he called rebellion, to characterize a response in which people

8.4 Explaining Crime 345

reject economic success and working and work to bring about a new society with new values and a new economic

system.

Merton’s theory was very influential for many years but eventually lost popularity, partly because many crimes,

such as assault and rape, are not committed for the economic motive that his theory assumed, and partly because

many people use drugs and alcohol without dropping out of society, as his retreatism category assumed. In recent

years, however, scholars have rediscovered and adapted his theory, and it has regained favor as new attention is

being paid to the frustration resulting from poverty and other strains in one’s life that in turn may produce criminal

behavior (Miller, Schreck, & Tewksbury, 2011).

The Interactionist Perspective: Social Process Theories

Social process theories all stress that crime results from the social interaction of individuals with other people,

particularly their friends and family, and thus fall under the interactionist perspective outlined in Chapter 1

“Understanding Social Problems”. They trace the roots of crime to the influence that our friends and family have

on us and to the meanings and perceptions we derive from their views and expectations. By doing so, they indicate

the need to address the peer and family context as a promising way to reduce crime.

Social process theories stress that crime results from social interaction. In particular, our friends influence our likelihood of

committing crime or not committing crime.

Sam.Weiss. – what happens in the guys bathroom, stays in the guys bathroom – CC BY-ND 2.0.

346 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Differential Association Theory

One of the most famous criminological theories is differential association theory, first formulated at about the

same time as Merton’s anomie theory by Edwin H. Sutherland and published in its final form in an edition of

a criminology text he wrote (Sutherland, 1947). Sutherland rejected the idea, fashionable at the time, that crime

had strong biological roots and instead said it grew out of interaction with others. Specifically, he wrote that

adolescents and other individuals learn that it is acceptable to commit crime and also how to commit crime

from their interaction with their close friends. Adolescents become delinquent if they acquire more and stronger

attitudes in favor of breaking the law than attitudes opposed to breaking the law. As Sutherland put it, “A

person becomes delinquent because of an excess of definitions favorable to the violation of law over definitions

unfavorable to the violation of law.” Crime and delinquency, then, result from a very normal social process, social

interaction. Adolescents are more or less at risk for delinquency partly depending on who their friends are and

what their friends do or don’t do.

Many scholars today consider peer influences to be among the most important contributors to delinquency and

other misbehavior (Akers & Sellers, 2009). One problem with differential association theory is that it does not

explain behavior, like rape, that is usually committed by a lone offender and that is generally the result of attitudes

learned from one’s close friends.

Social Bonding Theory

In a 1969 book, Causes of Delinquency, Travis Hirschi (1969) asked not what prompts people to commit crime,

but rather what keeps them from committing crime. This question was prompted by his view that human nature is

basically selfish and that it is society’s task to tame this selfishness. He wrote that an adolescent’s bonds to society,

and specifically the bonds to family and school, help keep the adolescent from breaking the law.

Hirschi identified several types of social bonds, but generally thought that the closer adolescents feel to their

family and teachers, the more they value their parents’ beliefs and school values, and the more time they spend

with their families and on school activities, the less likely they are to be delinquent. Turning that around, they are

more likely to be delinquent if they feel more distant from their parents and teachers, if they place less value on

their family’s and school’s values, and if they spend less time with these two very important social institutions in

their lives.

Hirschi’s social bonding theory attracted immediate attention and is one of the most popular and influential

theories in criminology today. It highlighted the importance of families and schools for delinquency and

stimulated much research on their influence. Much of this research has focused on the relationship between

parents and children. When this relationship is warm and harmonious and when children respect their parents’

values and parents treat their children firmly but fairly, children are less likely to commit antisocial behavior

during childhood and delinquency during adolescence. Schools also matter: Students who do well in school and

are very involved in extracurricular activities are less likely than other students to engage in delinquency (Bohm

& Vogel, 2011).

8.4 Explaining Crime 347

Children and Our Future

Saving Children from a Life of Crime

Millions of children around the nation live in circumstances that put them at risk for a childhood, adolescence, andadulthood filled with antisocial behavior, delinquency, and crime, respectively. Although most of these children in factwill not suffer this fate, many of their peers will experience these outcomes. These circumstances thus must be addressedto save these children from a life of crime. As social scientists Brandon C. Welsh and David P. Farrington observe,“Convincing research evidence exists to support a policy of saving children from a life of crime by intervening early inchildhood to tackle key risk factors.”

What are these risk factors? They include being born to a teenaged, single mother; living in poverty or near poverty;attending poor, dilapidated schools; and living in high-crime urban areas. As should be evident, these risk factors are allrelated, as most children born to teenaged, single mothers live in poverty or near poverty, and many such children live inhigh-crime urban areas.

What can be done to help save such children from a life of crime? Ideally, our nation would lift them and their familiesentirely out of poverty with employment and social payment policies. Although this sort of national policy will not occurin the foreseeable future, a growing amount of rigorous social science evaluation evidence points to several effectiveprograms and policies that can still help at-risk children. These include (1) at the individual level, certain types ofpreschool programs and social skills training programs; (2) at the family level, home visiting by trained professionals andparenting training programs; and (3) at the school and community levels, certain types of after-school and community-mentoring programs in which local adults spend time with children at risk for delinquency and other problems.

As Welsh and Farrington note, “Early prevention is by no means a panacea. But it does represent an integral part ofany plan to reduce the nation’s crime rate.” They add that several other Western democracies have national agenciesdevoted to improving behavioral and other outcomes among those nations’ children, and they call for the United States toestablish a similar national agency, the National Council on Early Prevention, as part of a nationwide strategy to preventdelinquency and other antisocial behaviors among American youth.

Sources: Piquero, Farrington, Welsh, Tremblay, & Jennings, 2009; Welsh & Farrington, 2007

Another social institution, religion, has also been the subject of research. An increasing number of studies

are finding that religious involvement seemingly helps keep adolescents from using alcohol and other drugs

(see Chapter 7 “Alcohol and Other Drugs”), from engaging in frequent sexual activity, and from engaging in

delinquency generally (Desmond, Soper, & Purpura, 2009). Fewer studies of religiosity and criminality during

adulthood exist, but one investigation found an association between greater religiosity and fewer sexual partners

among never-married adults (Barkan, 2006).

Labeling Theory

Our criminal justice system is based on the idea that the prospect of quick arrest and harsh punishment should

deter criminal behavior. Labeling theory has the opposite idea, as it assumes that labeling someone as a criminal

or deviant, which arrest and imprisonment certainly do, makes the person more likely to continue to offend. This

result occurs, argues the theory, because the labeling process gives someone a negative self-image, reduces the

potential for employment, and makes it difficult to have friendships with law-abiding individuals.

348 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

When this man is released from prison, he will probably face difficulties in finding a job and starting friendships with law-abiding

people. These difficulties will make him more likely to commit new crimes.

Derek Key – Jailbirds – CC BY 2.0.

Suppose, for example, that you were just released from prison after serving a five-year term for armed robbery.

When you apply for a job and list your prison term on the application, how likely are you to get hired? If you are

at a bar and meet someone who interests you and then tell the person where you were for the previous five years,

what are the chances that the conversation will continue? Faced with bleak job prospects and a dearth of people

who want to spend time with you, what are your alternatives? Might you not succumb to the temptation to hang

out with other offenders and even to commit new crime yourself?

Although research findings are not unanimous, several studies do find that arrest and imprisonment increase future

offending, as labeling theory assumes (Nagin, Cullen, & Jonson, 2009). To the extent this undesired consequence

occurs, efforts to stem juvenile and adult crime through harsher punishment may sometimes have the opposite

result from their intention.

The Conflict Perspective

Several related theories fall under the conflict perspective outlined in Chapter 1 “Understanding Social Problems”.

Although they all have something to say about why people commit crime, their major focus is on the use

and misuse of the criminal law and criminal justice system to deal with crime. Three branches of the conflict

perspective exist in the study of crime and criminal justice.

8.4 Explaining Crime 349

The first branch is called group conflict theory, which assumes that criminal law is shaped by the conflict among

the various social groups in society that exist because of differences in race and ethnicity, social class, religion,

and other factors. Given that these groups compete for power and influence, the groups with more power and

influence try to pass laws that ban behaviors in which subordinate groups tend to engage, and they try to use

the criminal justice system to suppress subordinate group members. A widely cited historical example of this

view is Prohibition, which was the result of years of effort by temperance advocates, most of them from white,

Anglo-Saxon, rural, and Protestant backgrounds, to ban the manufacture, sale, and use of alcohol. Although these

advocates thought alcohol use was a sin and incurred great social costs, their hostility toward alcohol was also

motivated by their hostility toward the types of people back then who tended to use alcohol: poor, urban, Catholic

immigrants. Temperance advocates’ use of legal means to ban alcohol was, in effect, a “symbolic crusade” against

people toward whom these advocates held prejudicial attitudes (Gusfield, 1963).

The second branch of the conflict perspective is called radical theory. Radical theory makes the same general

assumptions as group conflict theory about the use of criminal law and criminal justice, but with one key

difference: It highlights the importance of (economic) social class more than the importance of religion, ethnicity,

and other social group characteristics. In this way, radical theory evokes the basic views of Karl Marx on the

exploitation and oppression of the poor and working class by the ruling class (Lynch & Michalowski, 2006).

An early but still influential radical explanation of crime was presented by Dutch criminologist Willem Bonger

(1916). Bonger blamed the high US crime rate on its economic system, capitalism. As an economic system, he

said, capitalism emphasizes the pursuit of profit. Yet, if someone gains profit, someone else is losing it. This

emphasis on self-gain, he said, creates an egoistic culture in which people look out for themselves and are ready

and even willing to act in a way that disadvantages other people. Amid such a culture, he said, crime is an

inevitable outcome. Bonger thought crime would be lower in socialist societies because they place more emphasis

on the welfare of one’s group than on individual success.

Feminist approaches comprise the third branch of the conflict perspective on the study of crime and criminal

justice. Several such approaches exist, but they generally focus on at least one of four areas: (1) the reasons girls

and women commit crime; (2) the reasons female crime is lower than male crime; (3) the victimization of girls

and women by rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence; and (4) the experience of women professionals and

offenders in the criminal justice system.

Regarding the first area, the research generally finds that girls and women commit crime for the same reasons that

boys and men commit crime: poverty, parental upbringing, and so forth. But it also finds that both women and

men “do gender” when they commit crime. That is, they commit crime according to gender roles, at least to some

extent. Thus one study found that women robbers tend to rob other women and not to use a gun when they do so

(J. Miller & Brunson, 2000).

In addressing the second area, on why female crime is less common than male crime, scholars often cite two

reasons discussed earlier: gender role socialization and gender-based differences in parental supervision. One

additional reason derives from social bonding theory: Girls feel closer to their parents than boys do, and thus are

less delinquent (Lanctôt & Blanc, 2002).

350 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

One important area of feminist-inspired work on crime and criminal justice involves studies of women police officers.

Joery Bruijntjes – Polizia Locale – CC BY-NC 2.0.

We have already commented on the victimization of women from rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence, but

the study of this topic began with work by feminist criminologists during the 1970s. Since that time, innumerable

works have addressed this type of victimization, which is also thought to contribute to girls’ delinquency and,

more generally, female drug and alcohol abuse (Chesney-Lind & Jones, 2010).

The final area for feminist work addresses women professionals and offenders in the criminal justice system. This

body of research certainly goes beyond the scope of this book, but it documents the many blatant and subtle forms

of discrimination that women face as police, attorneys, judges, prison guards, and other professionals (Muraskin,

2012). A primary task of research on women offenders is to determine how they fare in the criminal justice system

compared to male offenders. Studies tend to find that females receive somewhat more lenient treatment than males

for serious offenses and somewhat harsher treatment for minor offenses, although some studies conclude that

gender does not make too much of a difference one way or the other (Chesney-Lind & Pasko, 2004).

Key Takeaways

• Social structure theories stress that crime results from economic and other problems in how society isstructured and from poverty and other problems in neighborhoods.

• Interactionist theories stress that crime results from our interaction with family members, peers, and otherpeople, and from labeling by the criminal justice system.

• Conflict theories stress that social groups with power and influence try to use the law and criminal justicesystem to maintain their power and to keep other groups at the bottom of society.

8.4 Explaining Crime 351

For Your Review

1. What are any two criminogenic (crime-causing) social or physical characteristics of urban neighborhoods?

2. According to labeling theory, why are arrest and imprisonment sometimes counterproductive?

References

Akers, R. L., & Sellers, C. S. (2009). Criminological theories: Introduction, evaluation, and application (5th ed.).

New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Barkan, S. E. (2006). Religiosity and premarital sex during adulthood. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion,

45, 407–417.

Bohm, R. M., & Vogel, B. (2011). A primer on crime and delinquency theory (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Bonger, W. (1916). Criminality and economic conditions (H. P. Horton, Trans.). Boston, MA: Little, Brown.

Chesney-Lind, M., & Jones, N. (Eds.). (2010). Fighting for girls: New perspectives on gender and violence.

Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Chesney-Lind, M., & Pasko, L. (2004). The female offender: Girls, women, and crime (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks,

CA: Sage Publications.

Desmond, S. A., Soper, S. E., & Purpura, D. J. (2009). Religiosity, moral beliefs, and delinquency: Does the effect

of religiosity on delinquency depend on moral beliefs? Sociological Spectrum, 29, 51–71.

Gusfield, J. R. (1963). Symbolic crusade: Status politics and the American temperance movement. Urbana, IL:

University of Illinois Press.

Hirschi, T. (1969). Causes of delinquency. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Lanctôt, N., & Blanc, M. L. (2002). Explaining deviance by adolescent females. Crime and Justice: A Review of

Research, 29, 113–202.

Lynch, M. J., & Michalowski, R. J. (2006). Primer in radical criminology: Critical perspectives on crime, power

and identity (4th ed.). Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press.

Mazerolle, L., Wickes, R., & McBroom, J. (2010). Community variations in violence: The role of social ties and

collective efficacy in comparative context. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 47(1), 3–30.

Merton, R. K. (1938). Social structure and anomie. American Sociological Review, 3, 672–682.

352 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Miller, J. M., Schreck, C. J., & Tewksbury, R. (2011). Criminological theory: A brief introduction (3rd ed.). Upper

Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Miller, J., & Brunson, R. K. (2000). Gender dynamics in youth gangs: A comparison of males’ and females’

accounts. Justice Quarterly, 17, 419–448.

Muraskin, R. (Ed.). (2012). Women and justice: It’s a crime (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Nagin, D. S., Cullen, F. T., & Jonson, C. L. (2009). Imprisonment and reoffending. Crime and Justice: A Review

of Research, 38, 115–200.

Piquero, A. R., Farrington, D. P., Welsh, B. C., Tremblay, R., & Jennings, W. (2009). Effects of early family/parent

training programs on antisocial behavior and delinquency. Journal of Experimental Criminology 5, 83–120.

Shaw, C. R., & McKay, H. D. (1942). Juvenile delinquency and urban areas. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago

Press.

Sutherland, E. H. (1947). Principles of criminology (4th ed.). Philadelphia, PA: J. P. Lippincott.

Welsh, B. C., & Farrington, D. P. (2007). Save children from a life of crime. Criminology & Public Policy, 6(4),

871–879.

8.4 Explaining Crime 353

8.5 The Criminal Justice System

Learning Objectives

1. Describe what is meant by the “working personality” of the police.

2. Discuss the quality of legal representation of criminal defendants.

3. Explain whether incarceration reduces crime in an effective and cost-efficient manner.

The criminal justice system in a democracy like the United States faces two major tasks: (1) keeping the

public safe by apprehending criminals and, ideally, reducing crime; and (2) doing so while protecting individual

freedom from the abuse of power by law enforcement agents and other government officials. Having a criminal

justice system that protects individual rights and liberties is a key feature that distinguishes a democracy from a

dictatorship.

How well does the US criminal justice system work in both respects? How well does it control and reduce crime,

and how well does it observe individual rights and not treat people differently based on their social class, race and

ethnicity, gender, and other social characteristics? What are other problems in our criminal justice system? Once

again, whole books have been written about these topics, and we have space here to discuss only some of this rich

literature.

Police

The police are our first line of defense against crime and criminals and for that reason are often called “the

thin blue line.” Police officers realize that their lives may be in danger at any time, and they also often interact

with suspects and other citizens whose hostility toward the police is quite evident. For these reasons, officers

typically develop a working personality that, in response to the danger and hostility police face, tends to be

authoritarian and suspicious (Skolnick, 1994). Indeed, it is not too far-fetched to say that police-citizen relations

are characterized by mutual hostility and suspicion (Dempsey & Forst, 2012).

Two aspects of police behavior are especially relevant for a textbook on social problems. The first is police

corruption. No one knows for sure how much police corruption occurs, but low-level corruption (e.g., accepting

small bribes and stealing things from stores while on patrol) is thought to be fairly common, while high-level

corruption (e.g., accepting large bribes and confiscating and then selling illegal drugs) is thought to be far from

rare. In one study involving trained researchers who rode around in police cars, more than one-fifth of the officers

being observed committed some corruption (Reiss, 1980). Several notorious police scandals have called attention

to rampant corruption amid some police forces. One scandal more than three decades ago involved New York City

officer Frank Serpico, whose story was later documented in a best-selling book (Maas, 1973) and in a tension-

filled film starring Al Pacino. After Serpico reported high-level corruption to his superiors, other officers plotted

to have him murdered and almost succeeded. A more recent scandal involved the so-called Rampart Division in

Los Angeles and involved dozens of officers who beat and shot suspects, stole drugs and money, and lied at the

trials of the people they arrested (Glover & Lait, 2000).

The other relevant behavior is police brutality or, to use a less provocative term, the use of undue (also called

unjustified or excessive) force by police. Police, of course, are permitted and even expected to use physical

force when necessary to subdue suspects. Given the context of police work noted earlier (feelings of danger and

suspicion) and the strong emotions at work in any encounter between police and suspects, it is inevitable that some

police will go beyond the bounds of appropriate force and commit brutality. An important question is how much

police brutality occurs. In a recent national survey, about 1 percent of US residents who had had an encounter

with the police in 2008 believed that excessive force was used against them (Eith & Durose, 2011). This is a low

figure in percentage terms, but still translates to 417,000 people who may have been victims of police brutality in

one year.

How well do the police prevent crime? To answer this question, let us be clear what it is asking. The relevant

question is not whether having the police we do have keeps us safer than having no police at all. Rather, the

relevant question is whether hiring more police or making some specific change in police practice would lower

the crime rate. The evidence on this issue is complex, but certain conclusions are in order.

In terms of crime reduction, the ways in which police are deployed matter more than the actual number of police.

Joery Bruijntjes – Polizia Locale – CC BY-NC 2.0.

First, simply adding more officers to a city’s existing police force will probably not reduce crime, or will reduce

it only to a very small degree and at great expense (Walker, 2011). Several reasons may explain why additional

police produce small or no reductions in crime. Much violence takes place indoors or in other locations far from

police purview, and practical increases in police numbers still would not yield numbers high enough to guarantee

8.5 The Criminal Justice System 355

a police presence in every public location where crime might happen. Because criminals typically think they can

commit a crime with impunity if no police are around, the hiring of additional police is not likely to deter them.

Additional police may not matter, but how police are deployed does matter. In this regard, a second conclusion

from the policing and crime literature is that directed patrol involving the consistent deployment of large numbers

of police in high-crime areas (“hot spots”) can reduce crime significantly (Mastrofski, Weisburd, & Braga, 2010).

Crackdowns—in which the police flood a high crime and drug neighborhood, make a lot of arrests, and then

leave—have at most a short-term effect, with crime and drug use eventually returning to their previous levels or

simply becoming displaced to other neighborhoods.

Criminal Courts

In the US legal system, suspects and defendants enjoy certain rights and protections guaranteed by the

Constitution and Bill of Rights and provided in various Supreme Court rulings since these documents were written

some 220 years ago. Although these rights and protections do exist and again help distinguish our democratic

government from authoritarian regimes, in reality the criminal courts often fail to achieve the high standards by

which they should be judged. Justice Denied (Downie, 1972) and Injustice for All (Strick, 1978) were the titles

of two popular critiques of the courts written about four decades ago, and these titles continue to apply to the

criminal courts today.

A basic problem is the lack of adequate counsel for the poor. Wealthy defendants can afford the best attorneys and

get what they pay for: excellent legal defense. An oft-cited example here is O. J. Simpson, the former football star

and television and film celebrity who was arrested and tried during the mid-1990s for allegedly killing his ex-wife

and one of her friends (Barkan, 1996). Simpson hired a “dream team” of nationally famous attorneys and other

experts, including private investigators, to defend him at an eventual cost of some $10 million. A jury acquitted

him, but a poor defendant in similar circumstances almost undoubtedly would have been found guilty and perhaps

received a death sentence.

Almost all criminal defendants are poor or near poor. Although they enjoy the right to free legal counsel, in

practice they receive ineffective counsel or virtually no counsel at all. The poor are defended by public defenders

or by court-appointed private counsel, and either type of attorney simply has far too many cases in any time period

to handle adequately. Many poor defendants see their attorneys for the first time just moments before a hearing

before the judge. Because of their heavy caseloads, the defense attorneys do not have the time to consider the

complexities of any one case, and most defendants end up pleading guilty.

A 2006 report by a New York state judicial commission reflected these problems (Hakim, 2006, p. B1). The

report concluded that “local governments were falling well short of constitutional requirements in providing legal

representation to the poor,” according to a news story. Some New York attorneys, the report found, had an average

yearly caseload of 1,000 misdemeanors and 175 felonies. The report also found that many poor defendants in

1,300 towns and villages throughout the state received no legal representation at all. The judge who headed the

commission called the situation “a serious crisis.”

Another problem is plea bargaining, in which a defendant agrees to plead guilty, usually in return for a reduced

sentence. Under our system of justice, criminal defendants are entitled to a trial by jury if they want one. In reality,

356 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

however, most defendants plead guilty, and criminal trials are very rare: Fewer than 3 percent of felony cases go to

trial. Prosecutors favor plea bargains because they help ensure convictions while saving the time and expense of

jury trials, while defendants favor plea bargains because they help ensure a lower sentence than they might receive

if they exercised their right to have a jury trial and then were found guilty. However, this practice in effect means

that defendants are punished if they do exercise their right to have a trial. Critics of this aspect say that defendants

are being coerced into pleading guilty even when they have a good chance of winning a not guilty verdict if their

case went to trial (Oppel, 2011).

The Problem of Prisons

The United States now houses more than 1.5 million people in state and federal prisons and more than 750,000

in local jails. This total of about 2.3 million people behind bars is about double the 1990 number and yields

an incarceration rate that is by far the highest rate of any Western democracy. This high rate is troubling, and

so is the racial composition of American prisoners. More than 60 percent of all state and federal prisoners are

African American or Latino, even though these two groups comprise only about 30 percent of the national

population. As Chapter 7 “Alcohol and Other Drugs” noted, African Americans and Latinos have been arrested

and imprisoned for drug offenses far out of proportion to their actual use of illegal drugs. This racial/ethnic

disparity has contributed to what law professor Michelle Alexander (2010) terms the “new Jim Crow” of

mass incarceration. Reflecting her concern, about one of every three young African American males are under

correctional supervision (in jail or prison or on probation or parole).

The corrections system costs the nation more than $75 billion annually. What does the expenditure of this huge

sum accomplish? It would be reassuring to know that the high US incarceration rate keeps the nation safe and

even helps reduce the crime rate, and it is certainly true that the crime rate would be much higher if we had no

prisons at all. However, many criminologists think the surge in imprisonment during the last few decades has not

helped reduce the crime rate at all or at least in a cost-efficient manner (Durlauf & Nagin, 2011). Greater crime

declines would be produced, many criminologists say, if equivalent funds were instead spent on crime prevention

programs instead of on incarceration (Welsh & Farrington, 2007), a point returned to in Section 8.6 “Reducing

Crime”.

Criminologists also worry that prison may be a breeding ground for crime because rehabilitation programs

such as vocational training and drug and alcohol counseling are lacking and because prison conditions are

substandard. They note that more than 700,000 inmates are released from prison every year and come back

into their communities ill equipped to resume a normal life. There they face a lack of job opportunities (how

many employers want to hire an ex-con?) and a lack of friendships with law-abiding individuals, as our earlier

discussion of labeling theory indicated. Partly for these reasons, imprisonment ironically may increase the

likelihood of future offending (Durlauf & Nagin, 2011).

Living conditions behind bars merit further discussion. A common belief of Americans is that many prisons and

jails are like country clubs, with exercise rooms and expensive video and audio equipment abounding. However,

this belief is a myth. Although some minimum-security federal prisons may have clean, adequate facilities, state

prisons and local jails are typically squalid places. As one critique summarized the situation, “Behind the walls,

prisoners are likely to find cramped living conditions, poor ventilation, poor plumbing, substandard heating

8.5 The Criminal Justice System 357

and cooling, unsanitary conditions, limited private possessions, restricted visitation rights, constant noise, and a

complete lack of privacy” (Kappeler & Potter, 2005, p. 293).

Some Americans probably feel that criminals deserve to live amid overcrowding and squalid living conditions,

while many Americans are probably at least not very bothered by this situation. But this situation increases

the odds that inmates will leave prison and jail as more of a threat to public safety than when they were first

incarcerated. Treating inmates humanely would be an important step toward successful reentry into mainstream

society.

People Making a Difference

Making a Difference in the Lives of Ex-Cons

The text notes that more than 600,000 inmates are released from prison every year. Many of them are burdened with drug,alcohol, and other problems and face bleak prospects for employment, friendships, and stable lives, in general. Since1967, The Fortune Society has been making a difference in the lives of ex-convicts in and near New York City.

The Fortune Society’s website (http://www.fortunesociety.org) describes the group’s mission: “The Fortune Society is anonprofit social service and advocacy, founded in 1967, whose mission is to support successful reentry from prison andpromote alternatives to incarceration, thus strengthening the fabric of our communities.” About 70 percent of its morethan 190 employees are ex-prisoners and/or have histories of substance abuse or homelessness. It is fair to say that TheFortune Society was working on prisoner reentry long before scholars discovered the problem in the late 1990s and early2000s.

The group’s president, JoAnne Page, described its halfway house where inmates stay for up to two months after theirrelease from prisons: “This is what we do. We bring people home safely. There’s a point when the crime happened. Thesentence was served, and the rehabilitation must begin. We look at a human being as much more than the worst they everdid.” Recalling that many of her relatives died in the Holocaust, Page added, “What my family experience did was tomake me want to be somebody who fights institutions that damage people and who makes the world a little safer. Prisonsare savage institutions.”

In addition to its halfway house, the Fortune Society provides many other services for inmates, ex-inmates, and offenderswho are put on probation in lieu of incarceration. It regularly offers drug and alcohol counseling, family services, adulteducation and career development programs, and classes in anger management, parenting skills, and health care. One ofits most novel programs is Miss Betty’s Practical Cooking and Nutrition Class, an eight-week course for ex-inmates whoare young fathers. While a first reaction might be to scoff at such a class, a Fortune counselor pointed to its benefits afterconceding her own immediate reaction. “When I found out about the cooking classes, I thought, ‘So they’re going tolearn to cook, so what?’ What’s that going to do? But it’s building self-esteem. For most of these guys, they’re in a city,they’ve grown up on Kool-Aid and a bag of chips. This is building structure. They’re at the point where they have reallyaccomplished something…They’re learning manners. You really can change patterns.”

One ex-convict that Fortune helped was 22-year-old Candice Ellison, who spent more than two years in prison for assault.After not finding a job despite applying to several dozen jobs over a six-month span, she turned in desperation to TheFortune Society for help. Fortune bought her interview clothes and advised her on how to talk about her prison recordwith potential employers. Commending the help she received, she noted, “Some of my high school friends say it’s notthat hard to get a job, but for people like me with a criminal background, it’s like 20 times harder.”

The Fortune Society has received national recognition for its efforts. Two federal agencies, the Department of Justice andthe Department of Housing and Urban Development, have featured The Fortune Society as a model program for helpingex-inmates. The Urban Institute featured this model in a video it developed about prisoner reentry programs. And in2005, the American Society of Criminology presented the Society its President’s Award for “Distinguished Contributionsto the Cause of Justice.” These and other examples of the national recognition won by The Fortune Society indicate thatfor more than four decades it has indeed been making a difference.

Sources: Bellafante, 2005; Greenhouse, 2011; Richardson, 2004

358 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Focus on the Death Penalty

The death penalty is perhaps the most controversial issue in the criminal justice system today. The United States

is the only Western democracy that sentences common criminals to death, as other democracies decided decades

ago that civilized nations should not execute anyone, even if the person took a human life. About two-thirds of

Americans in national surveys favor the death penalty, with their reasons including the need for retribution (“an

eye for an eye”), deterrence of potential murderers, and lower expenditure of public funds compared to a lifetime

sentence. Social science evidence is irrelevant to the retribution argument, which is a matter for philosophy and

theology, but it is relevant to many other aspects of the death debate. Taken together, the evidence on all these

aspects yields a powerful case against the death penalty (Death Penalty Information Center, 2011).

First, capital punishment does not deter homicide: Almost all studies on this issue fail to find a deterrent effect. An

important reason for this stems from the nature of homicide. As discussed earlier, it is a relatively spontaneous,

emotional crime. Most people who murder do not sit down beforehand to calculate their chances of being arrested,

convicted, and executed. Instead they lash out. Premeditated murders do exist, but the people who commit them

do not think they will get caught and so, once again, are not deterred by the potential for execution.

Second, the death penalty is racially discriminatory. While some studies find that African Americans are more

likely than whites who commit similar homicides to receive the death penalty, the clearest evidence for racial

discrimination involves the race of the victim: Homicides with white victims are more likely than those with

African American victims to result in a death sentence (Paternoster & Brame, 2008). Although this difference is

not intended, it suggests that the criminal justice system values white lives more than African American lives.

The death penalty is racially discriminatory and does not deter homicide.

Thomas Hawk – Miami Police – CC BY-NC 2.0.

8.5 The Criminal Justice System 359

Third, many people have been mistakenly convicted of capital offenses, raising the possibility of wrongful

executions. Sometimes defendants are convicted out of honest errors, and sometimes they are convicted because

the police and/or prosecution fabricated evidence or engaged in other legal misconduct. Whatever their source,

wrongful convictions of capital offenses raise the ugly possibility that a defendant will be executed even though he

was actually innocent of any capital crime. During the past four decades, more than 130 people have been released

from death row after DNA or other evidence cast serious doubt on their guilt. In March 2011, Illinois abolished

capital punishment, partly because of concern over the possibility of wrongful executions. As the Illinois governor

summarized his reasons for signing the legislative bill to abolish the death penalty, “Since our experience has

shown that there is no way to design a perfect death penalty system, free from the numerous flaws that can lead to

wrongful convictions or discriminatory treatment, I have concluded that the proper course of action is to abolish

it” (Schwartz & Fitzsimmons, 2011:A18).

Fourth, executions are expensive. Keeping a murderer in prison for life costs about $1 million in current dollars

(say 40 years at $25,000 per year), while the average death sentence costs the state about $2 million to $3 million

in legal expenses.

This diverse body of evidence leads most criminologists to oppose the death penalty. In 1989, the American

Society of Criminology adopted this official policy position on capital punishment: “Be it resolved that because

social science research has demonstrated the death penalty to be racist in application and social science research

has found no consistent evidence of crime deterrence through execution, The American Society of Criminology

publicly condemns this form of punishment, and urges its members to use their professional skills in legislatures

and courts to seek a speedy abolition of this form of punishment.”

Key Takeaways

• Partly because the police often fear for their lives, they tend to have a “working personality” that isauthoritarian and suspicious. Police corruption and use of undue force remain significant problems in manypolice departments.

• Although criminal defendants have the right to counsel, the legal representation of such defendants, most ofwhom are poor or near poor, is very inadequate.

• Prisons are squalid places, and incarceration has not been shown to reduce crime in an effective or cost-efficient manner.

• Most criminologists agree that capital punishment does not deter homicide, and they worry about racialdiscrimination in the use of the death penalty and about the possibility of wrongful executions.

For Your Review

1. Have you ever had an encounter with a police officer? If so, how would you describe the officer’spersonality? Was it similar to what is described in the text?

2. The text argues that improvement in prison conditions would help reduce the probability of reoffending afterinmates leave prison. Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Explain your answer.

360 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

References

Alexander, M. (2010). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York, NY: New

Press.

Barkan, S. E. (1996). The social science significance of the O. J. Simpson case. In G. Barak (Ed.), Representing

O. J.: Murder, criminal justice and mass culture (pp. 36–42). Albany, NY: Harrow and Heston.

Bellafante, G. (2005, March 9). Recipe for a second chance. New York Times, p. F1.

Death Penalty Information Center. (2011). Facts about the death penalty. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved

from http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/documents/FactSheet.pdf.

Dempsey, J. S., & Forst, L. S. (2012). An introduction to policing (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning.

Downie, L., Jr. (1972). Justice denied: The case for reform of the courts. Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books.

Durlauf, S. N., & Nagin, D. S. (2011). Imprisonment and crime: Can both be reduced? Criminology & Public

Policy, 10, 13–54.

Eith, C., & Durose, M. R. (2011). Contacts between police and the public, 2008. Washington, DC: Bureau of

Justice Statistics.

Glover, S., & Lait, M. (2000, February 10). Police in secret group broke law routinely, transcripts say. The Los

Angeles Times, p. A1.

Greenhouse, S. (2011, January 25). States help ex-inmates find jobs. New York Times, p. B1.

Hakim, D. (2006, June 29). Judge urges state control of legal aid for the poor. New York Times, p. B1.

Kappeler, V. E., & Potter, G. W. (2005). The mythology of crime and criminal justice (4th ed.). Prospect Heights,

IL: Waveland Press.

Maas, P. (1973). Serpico. New York, NY: Viking Press.

Mastrofski, S. D., Weisburd, D., & Braga, A. A. (2010). Rethinking policing: The policy implications of hot spots

of crime. In N. A. Frost, J. D. Freilich & T. R. Clear (Eds.), Contemporary issues in criminal justice policy (pp.

251–264). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Oppel, R. A., Jr. (2011, September 26). Sentencing shift gives new leverage to prosecutors. New York Times, p.

A1.

Paternoster, R., & Brame, R. (2008). Reassessing race disparities in Maryland capital cases. Criminology, 46,

971–1007.

Reiss, A. J., Jr. (1980). Officer violations of the law. In R. J. Lundman (Ed.), Police behavior: A sociological

perspective (pp. 253–272). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

8.5 The Criminal Justice System 361

Richardson, L. (2004, July 13). Defending the despised, and loving to do so. New York Times, p. B2.

Schwartz, J., & Fitzsimmons, E. G. (2011, March 10). Illinois governor signs capital punishment ban. New York

Times, p. A18.

Skolnick, J. H. (1994). Justice without trial: Law enforcement in democratic society (3rd ed.). New York, NY:

Macmillan.

Strick, A. (1978). Injustice for all. New York, NY: Penguin.

Walker, S. (2011). Sense and nonsense about crime, drugs, and communities: A policy guide (7th ed.). Belmont,

CA: Wadsworth.

Welsh, B. C., & Farrington, D. P. (Eds.). (2007). Preventing Crime: What works for children, offenders, victims

and places. New York, NY: Springer.

362 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

8.6 Reducing Crime

Learning Objective

1. Describe five strategies that criminologists have proposed to reduce crime.

During the last few decades, the United States has used a get-tough approach to fight crime. This approach has

involved longer prison terms and the building of many more prisons and jails. As noted earlier, scholars doubt

that this surge in imprisonment has achieved significant crime reduction at an affordable cost, and they worry that

it may be leading to greater problems in the future as hundreds of thousands of prison inmates are released back

into their communities every year.

Many of these scholars favor an approach to crime borrowed from the field of public health. In the areas of

health and medicine, a public health approach tries to treat people who are already ill, but it especially focuses

on preventing disease and illness before they begin. While physicians try to help people who already have cancer,

medical researchers constantly search for the causes of cancer so that they can try to prevent it before it affects

anyone. This model is increasingly being applied to criminal behavior, and criminologists have advanced several

ideas that, if implemented with sufficient funds and serious purpose, hold great potential for achieving significant,

cost-effective reductions in crime (Barlow & Decker, 2010; Frost, Freilich, & Clear, 2010; Lab, 2010). Many of

their strategies rest on the huge body of theory and research on the factors underlying crime in the United States,

which we had space only to touch on earlier, while other proposals call for criminal justice reforms. We highlight

some of these many strategies here.

Applying Social Research

“Three Strikes” Laws Strike Out

The get-tough approach highlighted in the text has involved, among other things, mandatory minimum sentencing, inwhich judges are required to give convicted offenders a minimum prison term, often several years long, rather than ashorter sentence or probation.

Beginning in the 1990s, one of the most publicized types of mandatory sentencing has been the “three strikes and you’reout” policy that mandates an extremely long sentence—at least twenty-five years—and sometimes life imprisonment foroffenders convicted of a third (or, in some states, a second) felony. The intent of these laws, enacted by about half thestates and the federal government, is to reduce crime by keeping dangerous offenders behind bars for many years andby deterring potential offenders from committing crime (general deterrence). Sufficient time since the first three strikeslaws were passed has elapsed to enable criminologists to assess whether they have, in fact, reduced crime.

Studies of this issue find that three strikes laws do not reduce serious crime and, in fact, may even increase the numberof homicides. Several studies have focused on California, where tens of thousands of offenders have been sentencedunder the state’s three strikes law passed in 1994. Almost all these studies conclude that California’s law did not reducesubsequent crime or did so by only a negligible amount. A few studies also have examined nationwide samples of city

and state crime rates in the states that adopted three strikes laws and in the states that did not do so. These studies also failto find that three strikes laws have reduced crime. As one of these studies, by three criminologists from the Universityof Alabama at Birmingham, concludes, “Consistent with other studies, ours finds no credible statistical evidence thatpassage of three strikes laws reduces crime by deterring potential criminals or incapacitating repeat offenders.” Thenational studies even find that three strikes laws have increased the number of homicides. This latter finding is certainlyan unintended consequence of these laws and may stem from decisions by felons facing a third strike to kill witnesses soas to avoid life imprisonment.

In retrospect, it is not very surprising that three strikes laws do not work as intended. Many criminals simply do not thinkthey will get caught and thus are not likely to be deterred by increased penalties. Many are also under the influence ofdrugs and/or alcohol at the time of their offense, making it even less likely they will worry about being caught. In addition,many three strikes offenders tend to be older (because they are being sentenced for their third felony, not just their first)and thus are already “aging out” beyond the high-crime age group, 15–25. Thus three strikes laws target offenders whosecriminality is already declining because they are getting older.

In addition to the increase in homicides, research has identified other problems produced by three strikes laws. Becausethree strikes defendants do not want a life term, some choose a jury trial instead of pleading guilty. Jury trials areexpensive and slow compared to guilty pleas and thus cost the prosecution both money and time. In another problem,the additional years that three strikes offenders spend in prison are costing the states millions of dollars in yearlyimprisonment costs and in health-care costs as these offenders reach their elderly years.

As should be clear, the body of three strikes research has important policy implications, as noted by the University ofAlabama at Birmingham scholars: “(P)olicy makers should reconsider the costs and benefits associated with three strikeslaws” (p. 235). Three strikes laws do not lower crime and in fact increase homicides, and they have forced the statesto spend large sums of money on courts and prisons. The three strikes research strongly suggests that three strikes lawsshould be eliminated.

Sources: Kovandzic, Sloan, & Vieraitis, 2004; Walker, 2011

A first strategy involves serious national efforts to reduce poverty and to improve neighborhood living conditions.

It is true that most poor people do not commit crime, but it is also true that most street crime is committed by

the poor or near poor for reasons discussed earlier. Efforts that create decent-paying jobs for the poor, enhance

their vocational and educational opportunities, and improve their neighborhood living conditions should all help

reduce poverty and its attendant problems and thus to reduce crime (Currie, 2011).

A second strategy involves changes in how American parents raise their boys. To the extent that the large gender

difference in serious crime stems from male socialization patterns, changes in male socialization should help

reduce crime (Collier, 2004). This will certainly not happen any time soon, but if American parents can begin

to raise their boys to be less aggressive and less dominating, they will help reduce the nation’s crime rate. As

two feminist criminologists have noted, “A large price is paid for structures of male domination and for the

very qualities that drive men to be successful, to control others, and to wield uncompromising power.…Gender

differences in crime suggest that crime may not be so normal after all. Such differences challenge us to see that in

the lives of women, men have a great deal more to learn” (Daly & Chesney-Lind, 1988, p. 527).

Lessons from Other Societies

Preventing Crime and Treating Prisoners in Western Europe

The text suggests the get-tough approach that the United States has been using to reduce crime has not worked in a cost-effective manner and has led to other problems, including a flood of inmates returning to their communities every year.

364 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

In fighting crime, the United States has much to learn from Western Europe. In contrast to the US get-tough approach,Western European nations tend to use a public health model that comprises two components. The first is a focus on crimeprevention that uses early childhood intervention programs and other preventive measures to address the roots of crimeand other childhood and family problems. The second is a criminal justice policy that involves sentencing defendantsand treating prisoners in a manner more likely to rehabilitate offenders and reduce their repeat offending than the morepunitive approach in the United States.

The overall Western European approach to offenders is guided by the belief that imprisonment should be reserved forthe most dangerous violent offenders, and that probation, community service, and other forms of community correctionsshould be used for other offenders. Because violent offenders comprise only a small proportion of all offenders, theWestern European approach saves a great deal of money while still protecting public safety.

The experience of Denmark and the Netherlands is illustrative. Like the United States, Denmark had to deal with rapidlygrowing crime rates during the 1960s. Whereas the United States responded with the get-tough approach involving longerand more certain prison terms and the construction of more and more prisons, Denmark took the opposite approach: Itadopted shorter prison terms for violent offenders and used the funds saved from the reduced prison costs to expandcommunity corrections for property offenders. Finland and the Netherlands have also adopted a similar approach thatfavors community corrections and relatively short prison terms for violent offenders over the get-tough approach theUnited States adopted.

All these nations save great sums of money in prison costs and other criminal justice expenses because they chose not toadopt the US get-tough approach, yet their rates of serious violent crime lag behind the US rates. Although these nationsobviously differ from the United States, the advantages of their approach should be kept in mind as the United Statesevaluates its get-tough policies. There may be much to learn from their less punitive approach to crime: While the UnitedStates got tough, perhaps they got sensible.

Sources: Dammer & Albanese, 2011; Waller & Welsh, 2007

A third and very important strategy involves expansion of early childhood intervention (ECI) programs and

nutrition services for poor mothers and their children, as the Note 8.28 “Children and Our Future” box discussed

earlier. ECI programs generally involve visits by social workers, nurses, or other professionals to young, poor

mothers shortly after they give birth, as these mother’s children are often at high risk for later behavioral problems

(Welsh & Farrington, 2007). These visits may be daily or weekly and last for several months, and they involve

parenting instruction and training in other life skills. These programs have been shown to be very successful in

reducing childhood and adolescent misbehavior in a cost-effective manner (Greenwood, 2006). In the same vein,

nutrition services would also reduce the risk of neurological impairment among newborns and young children and

thus their likelihood of developing later behavioral problems.

A fourth strategy calls for a national effort to improve the nation’s schools and schooling. This effort would

involve replacing large, older, and dilapidated schoolhouses with smaller, nicer, and better equipped ones. For

many reasons, this effort should help improve student academic achievement and school commitment and thus

lower delinquent and later criminal behavior.

A final set of strategies involves changes in the criminal justice system that should help reduce repeat offending

and save much money that could be used to fund the ECI programs and other efforts just outlined. Placing

nonviolent property and drug offenders in community corrections (e.g., probation, daytime supervision) would

reduce the number of prison and jail inmates by hundreds of thousands annually without endangering Americans’

safety and save billions of dollars in prison costs (Jacobson, 2006). These funds could also be used to improve

prison and jail vocational and educational programming and drug and alcohol services, all of which are seriously

underfunded. If properly funded, such programs and services hold great promise for rehabilitating many inmates

8.6 Reducing Crime 365

(Cullen, 2007). Elimination of the death penalty would also save much money while also eliminating the

possibility of wrongful executions.

This is not a complete list of strategies, but it does suggest the kinds of efforts that would help address the roots

of crime and, in the long run, help to reduce it. Although the United States may not be interested in pursuing this

crime-prevention approach, strategies like the ones just mentioned would in the long run be more likely than our

current get-tough approach to create a safer society and at the same time save us billions of dollars annually.

Note that none of these proposals addresses white-collar crime, which should not be neglected in a discussion of

reducing the nation’s crime problem. One reason white-collar crime is so common is that the laws against it are

weakly enforced; more consistent enforcement of these laws should help reduce white-collar crime, as would the

greater use of imprisonment for convicted white-collar criminals (Rosoff et al., 2010).

Key Takeaways

• The get-tough approach has not been shown to reduce crime in an effective and cost-efficient manner. Asociological explanation of crime thus suggests the need to focus more resources on the social roots of crimein order to prevent crime from happening in the first place.

• Strategies suggested by criminologists to reduce crime include (a) reducing poverty and improvingneighborhood living conditions, (b) changing male socialization patterns, (c) expanding early childhoodintervention programs, (d) improving schools and schooling, and (e) reducing the use of incarceration fordrug and property offenders.

For Your Review

1. The text notes that social science research has not shown the get-tough approach to be effective or cost-efficient. If this is true, why do you think this approach has been so popular in the United States since the1970s?

2. Of the five strategies outlined in the text to reduce crime, which one strategy do you think would be mosteffective if it were implemented with adequate funding? Explain your answer.

References

Barlow, H. D., & Decker, S. H. (Eds.). (2010). Criminology and public policy: Putting theory to work.

Philadelphia, PA: Temple Univeristy Press.

Collier, R. (2004). Masculinities and crime: Rethinking the “man question”? In C. Sumner (Ed.), The Blackwell

companion to criminology (pp. 285–308). Oxford, United Kingdom: Blackwell.

Cullen, F. T. (2007). Make rehabilitation corrections’ guiding paradigm. Criminology & Public Policy, 6(4),

717–727.

366 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Currie, E. (2011). On the pitfalls of spurious prudence. Criminology & Public Policy, 10, 109–114.

Daly, K., & Chesney-Lind, M. (1988). Feminism and criminology. Justice Quarterly, 5, 497–538.

Dammer, H. R., & Albanese, J. S. (2011). Comparative criminal justice systems (4th ed.). Belmont, CA:

Wadsworth

Frost, N. A., Freilich, J. D., & Clear, T. R. (Eds.). (2010). Contemporary issues in criminal justice policy: Policy

proposals from the American society of criminology conference. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Greenwood, P. W. (2006). Changing lives: Delinquency prevention as crime-control policy. Chicago, IL:

University of Chicago Press.

Jacobson, M. (2006). Reversing the punitive turn: The Limits and promise of current research. Criminology &

Public Policy, 5, 277–284.

Kovandzic, T. V., Sloan, J. J., III, & Vieraitis, L. M. (2004). “Striking out” as crime reduction policy: The impact

of “three strikes” laws on crime rates in US cities. Justice Quarterly, 21, 207–239.

Lab, S. P. (2010). Crime prevention: Approaches, practices and evaluations (7th ed.). Cincinnati, OH: Anderson.

Rosoff, S. M., Pontell, H. N., & Tillman, R. (2010). Profit without honor: White collar crime and the looting of

America (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Walker, S. (2011). Sense and nonsense about crime, drugs, and communities: A policy guide (7th ed.). Belmont,

CA: Wadsworth.

Waller, I., & Welsh, B. C. (2007). Reducing crime by harnessing international best practices. In D. S. Eitzen (Ed.),

Solutions to social problems: Lessons from other societies (pp. 208–216). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Welsh, B. C., & Farrington, D. P. (2007). Save children from a life of crime. Criminology & Public Policy, 6(4),

871–879.

8.6 Reducing Crime 367

8.7 End-of-Chapter Material

Summary

1. Crime is a major concern for many Americans. More than one-third fear walking alone at night in theirneighborhoods, and even larger percentages worry about specific types of crimes. News media coverage ofcrime contributes to these fears. The media overdramatize crime by covering so much of it and by givingespecially heavy attention to violent crime even though most crime is not violent. In other problems, thenews media disproportionately depict young people and people of color as offenders and whites as victims.

2. The nation’s major source of crime statistics is the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports (UCR). Because manypeople do not tell the police about crimes they have experienced, the UCR underestimates the actual level ofcrime in the United States. It is also subject to changes in police reporting practices and in particular todeliberate efforts by police to downplay the amount of crime. To help correct these problems, the NationalCrime Victimization Survey (NCVS) measures crime every year in a national survey that asks residents toreport their criminal victimization. The NCVS is thought to yield a more accurate estimate of crime than theUCR, and it also provides much information on the circumstances under which victimization occurs. Self-report surveys, typically given to adolescents, are a final form of crime measurement and provide muchinformation on the adolescents’ social backgrounds and thus on the context of their offending.

3. The major categories of crime are violent crime, property crime, white-collar crime, and consensual crime.Much violent crime is relatively spontaneous and emotional, and a surprising amount involves victims andoffenders who knew each other before the violent act occurred. Despite popular perceptions, most violentcrime is also intraracial. A major distinction in the understanding of property crime is that betweenprofessional thieves, who are very skilled and steal valuable possessions or large sums of money, andamateur thieves, who are unskilled and whose theft is petty by comparison. Corporate crime and other kindsof white-collar crime arguably cost the nation more than street crime in economic loss, health problems, anddeath; corporate violence involves unsafe working conditions, unsafe products, and environmental pollution.Consensual crime, such as illegal drug use and prostitution, raises two important questions: (1) Whichconsensual but potentially harmful behaviors should the state ban and which should it not ban, and (2) doesbanning such behaviors do more harm than good or more good than harm?

4. Crime is socially patterned. Males commit more serious crimes than females. African Americans andLatinos have higher crime rates than whites, poor people have higher crime rates than the wealthy, andyouths in their teens and early twenties have higher crime rates than older people. In addition, crime ishigher in urban areas than in rural areas.

5. Many sociological theories of criminal behavior exist. Social structure theories highlight poverty andweakened social institutions as important factors underlying crime. Social process theories stress theimportance of peer relationships, social bonding, and social reaction. Conflict theories call attention to thepossible use of the legal system to punish behavior by subordinate groups, while feminist theories examinegender differences in criminality, the victimization of women by rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence,and the experiences of women professionals and offenders in the criminal justice system.

6. The criminal justice system costs tens of billions of dollars annually, yet scholars question the potential ofthis system to reduce crime. How police are deployed seems a more important factor regarding theirpotential for crime reduction than the actual numbers of police. The surge in imprisonment of the last fewdecades may have accounted for a relatively small drop in crime, but whatever reduction it has achieved hasnot been cost-effective, and hundreds of thousands of prison inmates are now returning every year to theircommunities. Several problems also exist in the criminal justice system itself. Police corruption andbrutality remain serious concerns, while indigent defendants receive inadequate legal representation or none

at all. Despite public perceptions, prisons and jails are squalid places, and rape and other violence are dailyconcerns.

7. The United States is the only Western democracy to use the death penalty for common criminals. Socialscience evidence finds that the death penalty does not deter homicide, is racially discriminatory, mayinvolve wrongful convictions, and costs considerably more than life imprisonment.

8. Many proposals for reducing crime derive from sociological evidence. These proposals aim to reducepoverty and improve neighborhood living conditions; to change male socialization patterns; to expand earlychildhood intervention programs and nutrition services; to improve the nation’s schools and schooling; andto reduce the number of prison inmates by placing nonviolent property and drug offenders in communitycorrections. The funds saved by this last proposal could be used to improve prison and jail rehabilitationprogramming.

Using What You Know

Suppose you are the Democratic Party Governor of a midsized state and that you are up for reelection in two years. Youwere a political science major in college but had a sociology minor with a focus in criminal justice. The crime rate in yourstate has risen slightly since you took office, and there is growing sentiment in the state’s major newspapers and fromthe Republican Party opposition in the state legislature to lengthen prison terms for serious crime and to build two moreprisons for the greater number of prisoners that will be expected. Because of your studies in college, you are skepticalthat this approach will reduce crime, and you recognize it will cost millions of dollars. But you also realize that youropponents and some members of the news media are beginning to say that you are soft on crime. What do you do?

What You Can Do

To help deal with the problem of crime, you may wish to do any of the following:

1. Volunteer at an agency that helps troubled teenagers.

2. Volunteer with an organization that helps ex-offenders.

3. Work for an organization that provides early childhood intervention services for at-risk children.

8.7 End-of-Chapter Material 369

Chapter 9: Sexual Behavior

Social Problems in the News

“More Texas Schools Teach Safe Sex with Abstinence,” the headline said. Across Texas, sex education in the publicschools typically emphasizes the need for abstinence and ignores the concept of safe sex. But in the western Texas townof Midland, school officials decided to include safe sex into the school district’s sex education curriculum for the seventhand eighth grades after several years of rising teen pregnancies, with 172 students pregnant in 2010. A school officialsaid, “These are girls as young as 13 that are pregnant; some of them are on their second pregnancies.”

In what is called an “abstinence-plus” approach, the new curriculum continues to urge students to wait to have sex, butit also teaches them about birth control and condoms. A consultant at the University of Texas who was advising theMidland school system scoffed at the idea that teaching teenagers about safe sex encourages them to have sex: “I canassure you kids aren’t getting aroused when they see a condom.” She added that teenagers hear about and see a lot of sexon television and the Internet and hear about it from their friends. Given this backdrop, she said, it is important that theyget accurate information about sex: “The more you know about your body, how to make better decisions and choices,the better decisions that adolescents make,” she said, adding, “The more we demystify it, the more we talk about it, thebetter.”

The school official was optimistic that the new curriculum would reduce teen pregnancies, but she was realistic about thedifficulty of the problem. “I would love to be able say [it is] going to be 100-percent effective, we’re going to turn thisthing around,” she said. “What we are going to do is impact children to make better choices in regard to sexual integrity.And that would potentially be delaying sexual activity. We’re not going to stop teenagers from having sex. I wish wecould, but we’re not going to.”

Source: Smith, 2011

This news story reminds us that sexual behavior is often cause for concern and the basis for certain social

problems. It should come as no surprise that social scientists study many aspects of sexual behavior and have

provided a good deal of insight on sexual issues. This chapter discusses the social scientific evidence for various

types of sexual behavior and issues relating to them: teenage sex and pregnancy, abortion, prostitution, and

pornography. Although people often have strong views about these issues, we will see that the social scientific

evidence sometimes challenges the views that many people hold.

References

Smith, M. (2011, September 16). More Texas schools teach safe sex with abstinence. The Texas Tribune. Retrieved

from http://www.texastribune.org/texas-education/public-education/condoms-safe-sex-appear-more-texas-sex-

education/.

9.6 End-of-Chapter Material

Summary

1. The sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s involved changes in Americans’ attitudes on certain sexualissues and an increase in premarital sex.

2. Although teenagers are more sexually active today than before the sexual revolution, teenage pregnancy andbirth rates have declined sharply since the early 1990s. Teenage pregnancy and birth cause several problemsfor the teenage mother and for society as a whole.

3. To reduce teenage pregnancy further, the United States should expand publically funded family planningprograms and increase the provision of contraceptives at little or no cost.

4. Abortion has been common since ancient times and remains one of the most controversial issues in theUnited States. Since the US Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalized all abortions during the firsttwo trimesters, subsequent court rulings and various state actions have made abortions more difficult toobtain. Abortion rates differ by region of the nation and reflect the presence or absence of abortionproviders.

5. Around the world, abortion rates do not depend on whether abortion is legal or illegal, and they occur ingreat numbers even when they are illegal. For abortions to be as safe as possible, they must be legal.

6. Prostitution has also been common since ancient times. Until the second decade of the twentieth century itwas legal in much of the United States in the form of legal brothels.

7. Streetwalkers comprise about one-fifth of all prostitutes. Compared to indoor prostitutes, they are morelikely to be victims of violence and to obtain and transmit sexual diseases.

8. When prostitution is legal, prostitutes fare much better than when prostitution is illegal. The problems thatstreetwalkers experience generally stem from the fact that their behavior is illegal.

9. Pornography has also been around since ancient times. It does not appear to cause sexual violence againstwomen, and efforts to ban it raise freedom of speech issues.

Using What You Know

A friend of yours has become pregnant after a casual sexual encounter. She is in the second semester of her junior yearand was planning to graduate in fifteen months and go on to get a master’s degree in a business school. She confides inyou that she is considering an abortion and wants your advice on what she should do. What do you tell her?

What You Can Do

To help deal with the sexual behavior problems discussed in this chapter, you may wish to do any of the following:

1. Volunteer for a local agency that helps pregnant teenagers.

2. Start or join in efforts on your campus to encourage safe sex.

3. Volunteer at a family planning agency.

372 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

9.1 An Overview of Heterosexuality

Learning Objectives

1. Explain what happened as a result of the sexual revolution.

2. Describe current views on sexual behavior.

3. Understand the prevalence of certain sexual behaviors today.

Because Chapter 5 “Sexual Orientation and Inequality” discussed sexual orientation and inequality, this chapter’s

discussion of sexual behavior focuses almost entirely on issues concerning heterosexual sex. To provide a

backdrop for these issues, we first provide an overview of heterosexual behavior and views about such behavior.

The Sexual Revolution: Changing Attitudes and Changing Behavior

The youth counterculture of the 1960s emphasized that sexual intercourse need not be delayed until marriage. Their views helped fuel

the so-called sexual revolution.

Wikimedia Commons – CC BY 3.0.

The 1960s were a time of major change in the United States. The Southern civil rights movement and Vietnam

antiwar movements shook the nation, and the women’s rights, gay rights, and environmental movements began.

Another major change was the sexual revolution, which saw a substantial change in many aspects of Americans’

sexual behavior and in how they thought about sex. Thanks in large part to the introduction of the birth control pill,

women became freer to have sex without fear of pregnancy. The hippies of the youth counterculture of the 1960s

emphasized free love, the idea that sexual intercourse and other forms of sex need not be delayed until marriage,

and a popular slogan heard during the Vietnam antiwar movement was “make love, not war.” A highlight (or

lowlight, depending on one’s view) of the era was the Summer of Love in 1967, when tens of thousands of young

people gathered in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco to do drugs, have sex, and engage in other

counterculture activities. The appearance of HIV and AIDS during the 1980s reversed some of the trends of the

sexual revolution, as people became more concerned about the consequences of unprotected sex, but the effects of

this revolution largely remain: Many more people now have sex before marriage than before the 1960s, and views

about certain sexual behaviors have become less conservative since the 1960s and 1970s (Harding & Jencks,

2003).

We can see evidence of changing views about sex in data from the General Social Survey (GSS), which has been

administered nationally since the early 1970s. One of the questions the GSS asks is about premarital sex: “There’s

been a lot of discussion about the way morals and attitudes about sex are changing in this country. If a man and

woman have sex relations before marriage, do you think it is always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only

sometimes, or not wrong at all?” In 1972, only 27.2 percent of the public replied it was “not wrong at all,” but

by 2010, this percentage almost doubled to 53.1 percent (see Figure 9.1 “Change in Views about Premarital Sex

(Percentage Saying Premarital Sex Is “Not Wrong at All”)”).

Figure 9.1 Change in Views about Premarital Sex (Percentage Saying Premarital Sex Is “Not Wrong at All”)

Source: Data from General Social Surveys. (1972 and 2010). Retrieved from http://sda.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/hsda?harcsda+gss10.

On two other issues, extramarital sex and sex between teenagers, views have not changed from a generation ago.

Very few Americans today, fewer than 5 percent, think that either type of sexual behavior is “not wrong at all,”

and very few thought they were not wrong a generation ago when the GSS asked about these two behaviors. As all

these trend data indicate, the sexual revolution changed certain sexual attitudes but did not affect other attitudes.

In this respect, then, the sexual revolution was only partly revolutionary.

Certain changes in sexual behavior also occurred as part of the sexual revolution. In particular, many more people

374 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

began having sex before age 18 during and after the 1960s than before the 1960s and, in a related trend, to have

more sexual partners before age 18 (Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, & Michaels, 1994). We can see evidence of the

former trend in national survey data reported in Table 9.1 “Percentage Who Had Heterosexual Sex before Age

18”, which shows the percentage of people born in different decades (birth cohorts) who had sex before age 18.

Among women, less than one-third of those in the 1933–1942 and 1943–1952 birth cohorts (who would all have

reached age 18 before the sexual revolution) had sex before age 18. These low figures jumped to 47.6 percent for

those in the 1953–1962 birth cohort (who became teenagers in the 1960s and 1970s, during the sexual revolution)

and then grew further to 58.2 percent in the next birth cohort. In a twenty-year span, then, women became 28.2

percent more likely (= 58.2 – 30.0) to have sex before age 18. Men, too, became more likely to have sex before

age 18, though at a slightly smaller rate of increase, 18.8 percent (= 61.3 – 42.5) over the thirty-year span shown

in the table. In related figures, only 30 percent of teenaged girls in 1972 were sexually experienced; by 1988, this

figure had jumped to 51 percent (Martinez, Copen, & Abma, 2011). The remarkable increase in teenage sex for

both females and males since the 1960s has had important repercussions down to the present, as we shall see in

the section on teenage sex and pregnancy later in this chapter.

Table 9.1 Percentage Who Had Heterosexual Sex before Age 18

Birth cohort 1933–1942 1943–1952 1953–1962 1963–1974

Women 32.2 30.0 47.6 58.2

Men 42.5 47.9 56.8 61.3

Source: Laumann, E. O., Gagnon, J. H., Michael, R. T., & Michaels, S. (1994). The social organization of sexuality. (p. 328) Chicago, IL:

University of Chicago Press.

Heterosexuality Today: Attitudes and Behavior

Americans’ attitudes today about heterosexual behavior are very diverse. On some issues, Americans are fairly

united, either in a more tolerant and accepting direction or in a less tolerant and unaccepting direction. On other

issues, Americans are fairly divided, with large numbers of people feeling one way and large numbers feeling

another way. The American public is probably even more diverse in its sexual behavior: Some people have a lot of

sex and engage in a variety of sexual activities, while other people have less sex and limit their sexual activity to

vaginal intercourse. To gain a sense of what Americans are thinking and doing in the area of heterosexual activity,

national surveys provide some important evidence.

Attitudes

As noted earlier, the GSS asks respondents to indicate their views on several types of heterosexual behavior and

issues related to this behavior. We’ll first look again at their views about sexual behavior that we examined earlier

in the discussion about the sexual revolution. This time we will focus on the percentage who say the behaviors

9.1 An Overview of Heterosexuality 375

are wrong (“always wrong,” “almost always wrong,” or “sometimes wrong”) (see Figure 9.2 “Views on Sexual

Behavior (Percentage Saying the Behavior Is Wrong)”).

Figure 9.2 Views on Sexual Behavior (Percentage Saying the Behavior Is Wrong)

Source: Data from General Social Survey. (2010). Retrieved from http://sda.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/hsda?harcsda+gss10.

Figure 9.2 “Views on Sexual Behavior (Percentage Saying the Behavior Is Wrong)” shows that Americans almost

unanimously think that adultery (extramarital sex) and teenage sex are wrong, but that they are fairly evenly split

on whether premarital sex is wrong, with 47 percent saying it is wrong and the remainder, 53 percent, saying it is

not wrong at all.

Certain aspects of our social backgrounds predict our views about premarital sex. In particular, women, older

people, and those who are more religious are more likely than their counterparts to disapprove of it. We see

evidence of these trends in Figure 9.3 “Correlates of Disapproval of Premarital Sex (Percentage Saying Premarital

Sex between a Woman and a Man Is Wrong)”, which focuses on the percentage of GSS respondents who say

that premarital sex is wrong (always wrong, almost always wrong, or sometimes wrong). Gender and age are

moderately related to views about premarital sex, while religiosity is strongly related to these views.

Figure 9.3 Correlates of Disapproval of Premarital Sex (Percentage Saying Premarital Sex between a Woman and a Man Is Wrong)

376 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Source: Data from General Social Survey. (2010). Retrieved from http://sda.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/hsda?harcsda+gss10.

Behavior

A good understanding of Americans’ sexual behaviors comes from the 2006–2008 National Survey of Family

Growth (NSFG), which was administered to 13,459 Americans ages 15–44 nationwide. Although this survey

9.1 An Overview of Heterosexuality 377

omits people older than 44, it still yields valuable information about people in their prime reproductive years.

Chapter 5 “Sexual Orientation and Inequality” on sexual orientation also used some NSFG data.

Table 9.2 “Lifetime Prevalence of Sexual Behaviors, Ages 15–24*” reports some NSFG gender-based data on

several kinds of sexual behaviors for young people ages 15–24. Although many people think that males are much

more sexually active than females, the data in Table 9.2 “Lifetime Prevalence of Sexual Behaviors, Ages 15–24*”

show that the gender differences in heterosexual contact are practically nonexistent. Reflecting a conclusion from

Chapter 5 “Sexual Orientation and Inequality”’s discussion of sexual orientation, however, females are more

likely than males to have had same-sex sexual contact. In one other gender difference not reported in the table,

males (17.6 percent) are more likely than females (9.4 percent) to have at least two heterosexual partners in the

past year. In this specific sexual activity, then, males are indeed more active than females.

Table 9.2 Lifetime Prevalence of Sexual Behaviors, Ages 15–24*

Females Males

No sexual contact 28.6 27.2

Any opposite-sex contact 70.1 71.7

Any opposite-sex contact: vaginal intercourse 65.1 62.9

Any opposite-sex contact: gave or received oral sex 62.6 64.0

Any opposite-sex contact: anal sex 20.2 20.9

Any same-sex behavior 13.4 4.0

* Percentage engaging in behavior at least once

Source: Chandra, A., Mosher, W. D., Copen, C., & Sionean, C. (2011). Sexual behavior, sexual attraction, and sexual identity in the United

States: Data from the 2006–2008 national survey of family growth (National Health Statistics Reports: Number 36). Hyattsville, MD: National

Center for Health Statistics.

378 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Although women and men in the United States are equally sexually active, unmarried men tend to have more sexual partners than

unmarried women.

Steve C Et tant pis pour les jaloux ! – CC BY 2.0.

We saw earlier that higher degrees of religiosity are strongly associated with greater disapproval of premarital sex.

Does this mean that religiosity should also be associated with a lower likelihood of actually engaging in premarital

sex? The answer is clearly yes, as many studies of adolescents find that those who are more religious are more

likely to still be virgins and, if they have had sex, more likely to have had fewer sexual partners (Regenerus,

2007). Survey data on adults yield a similar finding: Among all never-married adults in the GSS, those who are

more religious are also more likely to have had fewer sexual partners (Barkan, 2006). We see evidence of this

relationship in Table 9.3 “Self-Rated Religiosity and Number of Sexual Partners in Past Five Years among Never-

Married Adults Ages 18–39 (%)”, which shows that among never-married adults ages 18–39, those who are very

9.1 An Overview of Heterosexuality 379

religious are more likely to have had no sexual partners in the past five years and, if they have had any partners,

to have had fewer partners. Although it is hypothetically possible that not having sexual partners leads someone

to become more religious, it is much more likely that being very religious reduces the number of sexual partners

that never-married adults have.

Table 9.3 Self-Rated Religiosity and Number of Sexual Partners in Past Five Years among Never-Married Adults Ages 18–39 (%)

Number of sexual partners Very religious Moderately religious Slightly religious or not at all religious

0 31.1 7.6 9.2

1 29.5 29.6 21.6

2 or more 39.4 62.8 69.2

Source: Data from General Social Surveys. (2006–2010). Retrieved from http://sda.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/hsda?harcsda+gss10.

Key Takeaways

• The sexual revolution liberalized some views about sexual behavior and increased participation in someforms of sexual behavior, particularly premarital sex.

• Gender, age, and religiosity predict attitudes about premarital sex.

• There are little or no gender differences today in the prevalence of various heterosexual behaviors, but menare more likely than women to have had at least two sex partners in the past year.

For Your Review

1. Do you think the sexual revolution was a good thing or a bad thing? Explain your answer.

2. Did it surprise you to learn that women and men are equally sexually active today? Why or why not?

References

Barkan, S. E. (2006). Religiosity and premarital sex during adulthood. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion,

45, 407–417.

Harding, D. J., & Jencks, C. (2003). Changing attitudes toward premarital sex. Public Opinion Quarterly, 67(2),

211–226.

Laumann, E. O., Gagnon, J. H., Michael, R. T., & Michaels, S. (1994). The social organization of sexuality.

Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

380 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Martinez, G., Copen, C. E., & Abma, J. C. (2011). Teenagers in the United States: Sexual activity, contraceptive

use, and childbearing, 2006–2010 national survey of family growth. Vital and Health Statistics, 23(31), 1–35.

Regenerus, M. D. (2007). Forbidden fruit: Sex & religion in the lives of American teenagers. New York, NY:

Oxford Univeristy Press.

9.1 An Overview of Heterosexuality 381

9.2 Teenage Sex and Pregnancy

Learning Objectives

1. Describe how many teenagers have had sex.

2. List several problems associated with teenage pregnancy and birth.

3. Discuss how to reduce teenage pregnancy and help teenage mothers.

We saw earlier that the percentage of teenagers who have sex greatly increased during the 1960s and 1970s.

Regardless of what one thinks about premarital sex, this increase had at least two important practical

consequences: It greatly increased the risk of teenage pregnancy, and it greatly increased the risk of getting HIV

and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). For these and other reasons, teenage sex rightly arouses much

concern. This section examines trends in teenage sex and pregnancy, the reasons for these trends, and possible

measures for reducing teenage pregnancy. As part of this examination, it also discusses sexually transmitted

disease, which affects sexually active teens but also sexually active people beyond their teen years.

Teenage Sexual Activity

As noted earlier, teenagers are much more sexually active today than they were before the sexual revolution.

About 43 percent of never-married teens ages 15–19 of both sexes have had sexual intercourse (Martinez et al.,

2011); this percentage represents a drop from its highest point, in 1988, of 51 percent for females and of 60

percent for males. About three-fourths of girls in today’s sexually experienced group and 85 percent of boys in this

group use contraception, most often a condom, the first time they ever have sex. In their most recent act of sexual

intercourse, almost 86 percent of girls and 93 percent of boys used contraception, again most often a condom.

The birth rate for females aged 15–19 in 2009 was 39.1 births per 1,000 females. This rate represented a

substantial decline from the early 1990s, when the rate reached a peak of almost 60. However, it was still twice as

high as Canada’s rate and much higher yet than other Western democracies (see Figure 9.4 “Teenage Birth Rates

in Selected Western Democracies (Number of Annual Births per 1,000 Women Aged 15–19)”).

Figure 9.4 Teenage Birth Rates in Selected Western Democracies (Number of Annual Births per 1,000 Women Aged 15–19)

Source: Data from Martinez, G., Copen, C. E., & Abma, J. C. (2011). Teenagers in the United States: Sexual activity, contraceptive

use, and childbearing, 2006–2010 national survey of family growth. Vital and Health Statistics, 23(31), 1–35.

If 43 percent of teens have had sexual intercourse, that means the majority of teens, 57 percent, have never had

intercourse. It is interesting to examine their reasons for still being virgins. Table 9.4 “Main Reason Given for

Never Having Sexual Intercourse, Ages 15–19 (%)” shows the relevant data. The top reason for both sexes is

religion and morals, followed by concern about a possible pregnancy and not having found the right person with

whom to have sex.

Table 9.4 Main Reason Given for Never Having Sexual Intercourse, Ages 15–19 (%)

Females Males

Against religion or morals 38 31

Don’t want to get (a female) pregnant 19 25

Haven’t found the right person yet 17 21

Don’t want to get an STD 7 10

In a relationship, but waiting for the right time 7 5

Other reason 12 8

Source: Martinez, G., Copen, C. E., & Abma, J. C. (2011). Teenagers in the United States: Sexual activity, contraceptive use, and childbearing,

2006–2010 national survey of family growth. Vital and Health Statistics, 23(31), 1–35.

The Problem of Teenage Pregnancy

Most teenage pregnancies and births are unplanned and are part of a more general problem for all women in their

childbearing years. About one-half of all pregnancies in the United States, or more than 3 million pregnancies

annually, are unplanned. Approximately 40 percent of these unplanned pregnancies end in abortion, and about 10

percent end by miscarriage. Putting all these numbers together, about 1.6 million live births happen each year as a

result of unplanned pregnancies (National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 2011). The cost

9.2 Teenage Sex and Pregnancy 383

of medical services for unplanned pregnancies and for the infants that are born from many of them cost the nation

more than $11 billion annually (Gold, 2011).

About one-fifth of all unplanned pregnancies, or almost 700,000 annually, occur to teenagers; another 50,000

teenage pregnancies are planned. These two figures add to 750,000 teenage pregnancies annually, with some

400,000 births resulting from these pregnancies (Kost, Henshaw, & Carlin, 2010). Altogether, about 18 percent of

women, or one of every six females, become teen mothers, and in several southern and southwestern states this

percentage is as high as 25–30 percent (Perper & Manlove, 2009).

About 18 percent of teenaged girls become mothers. In several southern and southwestern states, this percentage is as high as 25–30

percent.

bradfordst219 – CC BY 2.0.

Although teenaged pregnancies (and births from these pregnancies) are far from the majority of all pregnancies,

unplanned or planned, they pose special problems (American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, 2011;

Anderson, 2011). On the individual level, pregnant teenagers are more at risk than older pregnant women for high

blood pressure and anemia, and they are also more likely to experience early labor, premature birth, and low birth

weight. In addition, because teenagers are more likely than adults to have STDs, pregnant teenagers are more

likely than older pregnant women to have an STD while they are pregnant, either because they already had an

STD when they conceived or because they contract an STD from having sex during pregnancy.

Many pregnant teenagers decide to drop out of school. If they stay in school, they often must deal with

the embarrassment of being pregnant, and the physical and emotional difficulties accompanying their teenage

pregnancy can affect their school performance. Once the baby is born, child care typically becomes an enormous

384 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

problem, whether or not the new mother is in school. Because pregnant teenagers disproportionately come from

families that are poor or near poor, they have few financial resources and often have weak social support networks,

either before or after the baby is born (Andrews & Moore, 2011).

At the societal level, teenage pregnancy and motherhood are very costly in at least two important respects. First,

because pregnancy and childbirth complications are more common among teenagers, their health-care expenses

during and after pregnancy and childbirth are often higher than the expenses incurred by older women. Medicaid,

the federal government’s national health plan for poor families, often covers much of these expenses, and the

premiums that private health insurance companies charge are higher than otherwise because of their expenses

when they insure the families of pregnant teenagers.

Second, the children of teenage mothers are at risk for several kinds of behavioral and developmental problems.

The Note 9.7 “Children and Our Future” box discusses these problems further.

Children and Our Future

Kids Having Kids: The Children of Teenage Mothers

Teenage mothers (ages 15–19) are often unprepared emotionally or practically to raise a child. They often have poorparenting skills and, for example, do not take the time to read daily to their children and otherwise stimulate theircognitive development. They are also less likely than older mothers to provide proper emotional support for theirchildren. In addition, the stress they experience as very young mothers puts them at risk for neglecting or abusing theirchildren. The fact that teenage mothers tend to come from low-income families and continue to live in poverty or nearpoverty after they become mothers compounds all these problems.

For all these reasons, the children of teenage mothers are at greater risk for several kinds of problems. These problemsinclude impaired neurological development, behavioral problems, and poor school performance.

In particular, when compared to children born to older mothers, the children of teen mothers have lower cognitive scoreson the average when they start kindergarten, and they continue to have lower math, reading, and vocabulary test scores asthey grow older. These problems persist into their own adolescence, as they are less likely than children of older mothersto graduate from high school. Children of teen mothers are also somewhat more likely to have chronic health problemsduring childhood and adolescence. When the children of teenage mothers become adolescents, they are also more at riskfor delinquency and drug use and to have a prison record by the time they reach young adulthood.

The teenage pregnancy and birth rates in the United States are by far the highest of all Western democracies. Theproblems that children of teen mothers experience underscore the need for our nation to do everything possible to preventteenage pregnancy.

Sources: Andrews & Moore, 2011; Hoffman & Maynard, 2008

Trends in Teenage Pregnancy

The bad news is that there are far too many teenage pregnancies. The good news is that the rate of teenage

pregnancy has declined rather dramatically since the early 1990s.

The teenage pregnancy rate is commonly expressed as the annual number of pregnancies per 1,000 women aged

15–19. In 2006, this rate was 71.5, equal to 7.15 percent of all women in this age bracket (Kost et al., 2010).

Because many women in this age group either have never had sex or have not had sex in the past year, it is

9.2 Teenage Sex and Pregnancy 385

instructive to consider the pregnancy rate among women ages 15–19 who are sexually active. In 2006, this rate

was 152.8 per 1,000, equal to 15.28 percent of all sexually active women in this age group.

As high as these rates are, and they are much higher than the rates in other Western democracies, the US

teenage pregnancy rate is much lower now than it was in the early 1990s. Figure 9.5 “Pregnancy Rates for US

Women Aged 15–19, 1972–2006 (Number of Pregnancies per 1,000 Women Aged 15–19)” displays this dramatic

trend. Teenage pregnancy reached a peak rate of 116.9 in 1990 before falling rather steadily to its 2006 rate

of 71.5, a much lower rate than existed during the early 1970s. Reflecting the decline in teenage pregnancy,

teenage births, as noted earlier, also reached a record low of 39.1 births per 1,000 women ages 15–19 in 2009,

as compared to its peak rate of 61.8 in 1991. Despite this dramatic decline, the US teenage birth rate remains

the highest of all Western democracies. Experts attribute the decline in teenage pregnancy and birth mostly

to increased contraceptive use (stemming from a combination of increased sex education in the schools and

increased provision of contraceptives to teenagers) and, to a smaller extent, to reduced sexual activity among some

teenagers (Kost et al., 2010).

Figure 9.5 Pregnancy Rates for US Women Aged 15–19, 1972–2006 (Number of Pregnancies per 1,000 Women Aged 15–19)

Source: Data from Kost, K., Henshaw, S., & Carlin, L. (2010). US teenage pregnancies, births and abortions: National and state

trends and trends by race and ethnicity, 2010. New York, NY: Guttmacher Institute.

Correlates of Teenage Pregnancy

We have already noted that teenagers from poor or near-poor families are at greater risk for becoming pregnant.

In addition to social class, two other important correlates of teenage pregnancy are race/ethnicity and geography.

Figure 9.6 “Race/Ethnicity and Teenage Pregnancy, 2006 (Number of Pregnancies per 1,000 Women Aged

15–19)” displays the racial/ethnic differences for teenage pregnancy, which are rather large. The pregnancy rates

for black and Hispanic teenagers are almost three times greater than the rates for non-Hispanic whites.

Figure 9.6 Race/Ethnicity and Teenage Pregnancy, 2006 (Number of Pregnancies per 1,000 Women Aged 15–19)

386 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

Source: Data from Kost, K., Henshaw, S., & Carlin, L. (2010). US teenage pregnancies, births and abortions: National and state

trends and trends by race and ethnicity, 2010. New York, NY: Guttmacher Institute.

Large differences also exist in teenage pregnancy rates by state and the regions of the country into which the

states fall. In general, the South has a higher teenage pregnancy rate than the rest of the nation (see Figure 9.7

“Teenage Pregnancy Rates in the United States, 2005 (Number of Pregnancies per 1,000 Women Aged 15–19)”),

although there are individual differences by state. The South’s generally higher rate stems largely from its higher

poverty rate and racial/ethnic composition. As the opening news story on Texas indicates, sex education programs

emphasizing safe sex are also less common in Southern states than in many other states. The same difference

holds for the provision of contraceptives by Planned Parenthood and other agencies and organizations. The lack

of these two important pregnancy-prevention measures probably also contributes to the South’s higher teenage

pregnancy rate.

Figure 9.7 Teenage Pregnancy Rates in the United States, 2005 (Number of Pregnancies per 1,000 Women Aged 15–19)

Source: Data from Kost, K., Henshaw, S., & Carlin, L. (2010). US teenage pregnancies, births and abortions: National and state

trends and trends by race and ethnicity, 2010. New York, NY: Guttmacher Institute.

9.2 Teenage Sex and Pregnancy 387

Sexually Transmitted Diseases

In addition to pregnancy and birth, another problem associated with teenage sexual activity is the transmission of

sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). This is a problem during the teenage years, but it is even more of a problem

during young adulthood, when sexual activity is greater than during adolescence (Wildsmith, Schelar, Peterson, &

Manlove, 2010). The STD rate in the United States is higher than in most other Western democracies. Almost 19

million new cases of STDs are diagnosed annually, and more than 65 million Americans have an incurable STD

such as herpes. Although teens and young adults ages 15–24 compose only one-fourth of sexually active people,

they account for one-half of all new STDs. Despite this fact, most young adults who test positive for an STD did

not believe they were at risk for getting an STD (Wildsmith et al., 2010).

Teens and young adults ages 15–24 compose one-fourth of all sexually active people, but they account for one-half of new sexually

transmitted diseases.

Brian Rosner – New Friends at CU – CC BY 2.0.

In any one year, 15 percent of young adults ages 18 and 26 have an STD. This figure masks a significant gender

difference: 20 percent of young women have had an STD in the past year, compared to 10 percent of young men.

It also masks important racial/ethnic differences: 34 percent of young African Americans have had an STD in the

past year, compared to 10 percent of Asians, 15 percent of Hispanics, and 10 percent of whites.

Three types of sexual behaviors increase the risk of transmitting or contracting an STD: having sex with at least

three partners during the past year, having a sex partner with a known STD, and not using a condom regularly.

About 17 percent of sexually active young adults have had at least three partners during the past year, and 8

percent have had a partner with a known STD. Three-fourths of unmarried sexually active young adults do not

388 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

use a condom regularly. Combining all these risk factors, 39 percent have engaged in one risk factor in the past

year, 14 percent have engaged in at least two risk factors, and the remainder, 48 percent, have engaged in no risk

factors (Wildsmith et al., 2010).

Reducing Teenage Pregnancy and Helping Teenage Mothers

Teenage pregnancies cannot occur in either of these two situations: (1) Teenagers do not have sex, or (2) they use

effective contraception if they do have sex. If we could wave a magic wand or turn the clock back to before the

1960s, it might be possible to greatly reduce the number of teenagers who have sex, but that day is long past.

Teenage sex increased during the 1960s and 1970s and, despite some slight declines after HIV and AIDS became

a worldwide problem during the 1980s and 1990s, remains much more frequent than before the sexual revolution.

Most sexual behavior researchers believe that pleas for abstinence, as well as sex education programs that focus

solely or almost entirely on abstinence, do not help to reduce teen sex and pregnancy (Ball & Moore, 2008).

If this is true, they say, then the best strategy is to use a harm reduction approach. We first encountered this term

in Chapter 7 “Alcohol and Other Drugs”’s discussion of illegal drugs. A harm reduction approach recognizes that

because certain types of harmful behavior are inevitable, our society should do its best to minimize the various

kinds of harm that these various behaviors generate. In regard to teenage sex and pregnancy, a harm reduction

approach has two goals: (1) to help reduce the risk for pregnancy among sexually active teens and (2) to help

teenage mothers and their children.

Reducing Pregnancy

To achieve the first goal, parents, sex education classes, family planning clinics, youth development programs,

and other parties must continue to emphasize the importance of waiting to have sex but also the need for teenagers

to use contraception if they are sexually active. In addition, effective contraception (birth control pills, other

hormonal control, and also condoms, which protect against STDs) must be made available for teenagers at little

or no cost. Studies indicate that these two contraception strategies do not lead to more teenage sex, and they

also indicate that consistent contraceptive use greatly reduces the risk of teenage pregnancy. As one writer has

summarized these studies’ conclusions, “Contraceptives no more cause sex than umbrellas cause rain…When

contraception is unavailable, the likely consequences is not less sex, but more pregnancy” (Kristof, 2011, p. A31).

People Making a Difference

Helping Teenagers Reduce the Risk of Pregnancy

The Metro Council for Teen Potential (MCTP) is a membership coalition in Rochester, New York, that “promotes acomprehensive community-wide approach to foster youth assets and youth health,” according to its website. To do so,MCTP provides various kinds of information to its member agencies and organizations, including the latest data onpregnancy and other problems facing teens and the latest information on the “best practices” to use to help teens. Ithas also developed a youth curriculum and media campaign aimed at informing youths about risky behaviors, sexuality,

9.2 Teenage Sex and Pregnancy 389

and other aspects of their lives. Its member groups include the Rochester School District and youth developmentorganizations throughout Rochester.

An important focus of MCTP’s efforts is teen pregnancy, and MCTP has received substantial funding from the USCenters for Disease Control and Prevention to formulate and implement strategies to prevent teen pregnancies. Its websiteincludes results from a random survey of Rochester-area teens about their sexual behavior, views about teen pregnancy,substance use, and other behaviors and attitudes. The website also includes some basic data on Rochester teens’ sexualexperiences. For example, the 2006 teen birth rate in Rochester was 76 births per 1,000 girls ages 15–19; this rate wasmuch higher than the US rate of 42 and the New York state rate of 26.

MCTP supports several initiatives in Rochester that focus on teenage sexuality and pregnancy. One set of programs calledCONECTS provides a variety of teenage pregnancy prevention strategies through such subcontractors as the YWCA.Another program, In-Control, provides reproductive health care and education through Planned Parenthood. A thirdprogram, Family Talk, involves workshops that aim to help parents of teens talk more effectively with their children aboutsexuality and substance abuse.

For these and other efforts, MCTP has won the Organizational Award from the Youth Services Quality Council for thehigh quality of its work for youths and their families. In helping to reduce teen pregnancy and address other problemsfacing teenagers in Rochester, the Metro Council for Teen Potential is making a difference. For further information, visitits website at http://www.metrocouncil.us.

In this regard, a recent report of the Guttmacher Institute called contraception a “proven, cost-effective strategy”

(Gold, 2011, p. 7). It added, “Contraception is almost universally accepted as a way to reduce the risk of

unintended pregnancy…Contraceptive use reduces the risk of unintended pregnancy significantly, and consistent

contraceptive use virtually eliminates it.” The report noted that government-funded family planning agencies

prevent 2 million unintended pregnancies annually by providing contraception to 9 million young and low-

income women each year. Because most of the women who would have these prevented pregnancies would be

eligible for Medicaid, the Medicaid savings from these prevented pregnancies amount to about $7 billion annually.

An expansion of family planning services would almost certainly be an effective strategy for reducing teenage

pregnancies as well as unplanned pregnancies among older women.

Another strategy to prevent teenage pregnancy involves the use of early childhood intervention (ECI) programs.

Many such programs exist, but they generally involve visits by social workers, nurses, and other professionals to

the homes of children who are at risk for neurological, emotional, and/or behavioral problems during their first

several years and also as they grow into adolescents and young adults (Kahn & Moore, 2010). It might sound

like a stereotype, but these children are disproportionately born to single, teenage mothers and/or to slightly older

parents who live in poverty or near poverty. Long-term evaluation studies show that the best of these programs

reduce the likelihood that the very young children they help will become pregnant or have children of their own

after they become teenagers (Ball & Moore, 2008). In effect, helping young children today helps prevent teenage

pregnancy tomorrow.

Helping Teen Mothers

Because teen pregnancies occur despite the best prevention efforts, the second goal of a harm reduction approach

is to help teens during their pregnancy and after childbirth. This strategy has the immediate aim of providing

practical and emotional support for these very young mothers; it also has the longer-term aims of reducing repeat

pregnancies and births and of preventing developmental and behavior problems among their children.

390 Social Problems: Continuity and Change

To achieve these aims, ECI programs have again been shown to be helpful (Ball & Moore, 2008). Another type

of program to help teen mothers involves the use of second-chance homes, which are maternity group homes for

unmarried teen mothers (Andrews & Moore, 2011). One of the many sad facts of teenage motherhood is that teen

mothers often have nowhere to live. A teen mother’s parent(s) may refuse to let her and her infant live with them,

either because they are angry at her pregnancy or because they simply do not have the room or financial means to

house and take care of a baby. Or a pregnant teen may decide to leave her parents’ home because of the parents’

anger or because they refuse to let her continue seeing the child’s father. In another possibility, a teen mother may

begin living with the father, but these unions are typically unstable and often end, again leaving her and her child

without a home. As well, many teen mothers were runaways from home before they became pregnant or were

living in foster care. Because of all these situations, many teen mothers find themselves without a place to live.

Second-chance homes provide many kinds of services for pregnant teenagers and teen

mothers, many of whom are unable to continue living with their own parents.

Teresa Rodríguez – cynthea y kabeer jr – CC BY-ND 2.0.

In second-chance homes (which, depending on the program, are in reality one large house, a set of apartments, or a

network of houses), mothers and children (as well as pregnant teens) receive shelter and food, but they also receive

important services, such as