"What do you mean poor people aren't lazy?"
February 24, 2007 1:41 PM   Subscribe

Point me toward some interesting statistics, graphics, videos, or other materials about the causes and extent of social inequality in the world or in the US.

I'm teaching a class on the social dimensions of technology, and the idea that the roots of social inequality might be structural rather than individual is turning out to be very difficult for the students to get. They seem to hear things I say, but the idea that anyone who is sufficiently motivated will be successful, and that lack of success is a personal failing is very entrenched. I've found things like the quiz here and this page but are there any others that people have used with success?
posted by mariokrat to Education (15 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
The Economist recently printed surveys and articles on talent, perceptions about inequality, how inequality threatens globalization, and helping those who lose out.

Some of those articles may be for subscribers only.

There has also been some recent discussion about inequality on a website I run: 1, 2, 3.
posted by sindark at 2:04 PM on February 24, 2007

I'm taking an Anthropology of Race and Ethnicity course right now, and a few interesting pieces from it that might be worth passing on...and that will put a distinctly ethnic/racial spin on this question...

In America it is only in the last 50-100 years that Italians, Jews and Irish people have come to be considered "white," and thus eligible for all of the benefits of "white" status.

There are many factors that affect how a (minority) group/member of a (minority) group will be treated when they arrive in the dominant/host society. If the group arrives in a time when there are more jobs than people to fill them, the group may be welcomed if they are qualified for the jobs. If the group arrives at a time when financial resources/land happen to be limited, the group might be seen as "competition" and viewed negatively.

In America we very much hold the idea that poor people are deserving of their poverty. This comes from ideas of the Protestant work ethic, which is in contradiction to mores brought by Italians and Jews, who are more likely to believe that families/churches/culture groups should take care of members and that members have an obligation to the group. America also maintains ideas about "predestination" that seem archaic when discussed, but are just ingrained in people.

Another interesting point is that there is a difference between predjudice and discrimination, so people may have prejudice without discriminating against people of another group.

We also discussed in class how minority groups might come into a country and be accepted as people with great knowledge that the country needs to advance technologically, but once the country has succeeded in doing that (which may take generations) feelings that it's time for the "guest" group to go home may crop up and be communicated. But, if it has been generations the guest group may feel no connection to the old homeland. Then trouble might start and they may become unwelcome where they were once treated very well.

If any of this seems relevant to the class you are teaching, feel free to email me.
posted by bilabial at 2:15 PM on February 24, 2007

Oh, and this is all from our lectures, our exams will include material from the lectures and from the readings, but the lectures are not on the readings, so if anyone wants citations for this stuff, I can look the ideas up via google, because he's not naming names where this stuff comes from a large part of the time.
posted by bilabial at 2:17 PM on February 24, 2007

This NYT graphic is about earnings, class structure and class mobility in the US.
posted by penguinliz at 2:27 PM on February 24, 2007

Quite a few documentaries make the argument you are looking for about the structural basis for poverty. Life and Debt is reasonably well-made and is fairly widely available; there are plenty of others.
posted by Forktine at 3:09 PM on February 24, 2007

Guns, Germs and Steel provides an interesting perspective on the historical reasons for these inequalities.

The essential premise is that geography and luck played an enormous influence in certain groups' abilities to develop technologies and resistance to diseases. For example: of the "big eight" domesticated animals that pre-civilized man used for power harnessing (oxen, llamas, horses, buffalo... I forget the others), the people in South America had exposure to just one (the llama). If you have to furrow your own land, you don't have much spare time to work out things like writing, money... civilization. If you're spending all your time doing the work that pack animals are doing for other societies, that also means you're probably only generating just enough food to survive, so you're not going to be as big and strong as other groups. Not to mention, groups with larger livestock diversity get better immunity to some of the nastier viruses like smallpox.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:24 PM on February 24, 2007

To show the extent graphically, maybe try Worldmapper? I'm thinking some of the maps in the Poverty, Wealth, Education, Income, etc. categories might be helpful.
posted by clavicle at 4:40 PM on February 24, 2007

The United Nations' Human Development Index reports have some interesting statistics (see the charts).

I've also look up GINI data on the CIA Factbook, which is also a great source to derail any accusations of liberal bias in your sources - no one can claim that the CIA is left-wing, at least not with a straight face. One thing you could do is have your students look up the GINI index for a variety of countries and see how the US compares to other nations. (Of course, discussing what the GINI means). You can also get stats on the GINI index in the US over time (in the past I've just googled "US" and "GINI").
posted by jb at 5:33 PM on February 24, 2007

(To look up stats on the CIA factbook, just look on the country page and search/scan down for the stat you want, whether GINI or population or literacy or whatever. It's a great resource.)
posted by jb at 5:34 PM on February 24, 2007

posted by euphorb at 7:24 PM on February 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

I always thought that the primary cause of this in the US was as a natural corollary from the American Dream. If every individual has the opportunity to become rich and famous, anyone who's unable to do so must just not be trying hard enough. And without any help from society, this individual has even less chance of breaking the poverty cycle.
posted by quiet at 2:33 AM on February 25, 2007

I've never understood why there has to be any explanation at all. Obviously, even if everyone worked as hard as they could for as many hours as humanly possible from age 18 to 65, we'd still have to have people to sweep the street, run the cash registers, pick the crops, etc. There will never be an economic system that allows everyone to be promoted to middle management at the same time. The system demands that there always be ten (or twenty or fifty) peons for every supervisor or professional. The only question is, how much will the working class people get paid? If they're paid poverty level wages, then they'll be poor.
posted by Clay201 at 1:14 PM on February 25, 2007 [2 favorites]

The harrowing documentary Darwin's Nightmare should answer their concerns. It addresses issues of inequality as they manifest with increasing urgency through the effects of globalization.
posted by itstheclamsname at 2:11 PM on February 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

Calling Darwin's Nightmare a documentary is a stretch – it is full of subjectivity, inaccuracies, and its main points have been disproven. Don't bother watching it.
posted by stereo at 7:46 PM on February 26, 2007

A link to that critique of the documentary would be very interesting.
posted by itstheclamsname at 6:09 PM on March 6, 2007

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