Discussing President Trump’s comments about the suburbs, columnist Clarence Page cited evidence from the General Social Survey that American attitudes regarding housing discrimination have improved:
Still, Polikoff agreed with me that public attitudes have changed a lot since the 1960s — fortunately for the better.
For example, in 1973 the General Social Survey and The Washington Post found that 64% of white Americans said they would vote for a law allowing homeowners to discriminate in selling their house. In 2014, that portion shrunk to only 28% while 70% thought such discrimination should be legally barred.
That the attitudes of Americans has improved on this subject is good. Using GSS data through 2018 (variable racopen), the question about racial discrimination has improved even further: only 19.5% of respondents believe the owner decides regarding discriminating in housing. Indeed, multiple measures of attitudes on race have improved since the early 1970s.
Yet, the data is still disheartening in two ways:
1. Over a quarter of Americans in 2014 thought such discrimination should be legal. That may not seem like much but pockets of such people may continue to practice housing discrimination. Local groups, including in the Chicago suburbs, continue to encounter cases of housing discrimination.
2. Overt housing discrimination does not need to occur to keep people out of housing or communities. Several other methods are utilized. Zoning is where communities set guidelines regarding what can and cannot be built. Communities can make it possible only to build expensive housing or only single-family homes or that lots need to be of a certain size. These guidelines make housing more expensive by limiting the housing supply and encouraging builders to construct more expensive housing to make more profit. Those with fewer resources then cannot rent or purchase properties in a more expensive area. The paucity of cheaper housing can then be explained away by local preferences or the inability of people to have the resources needed to access the community. Zoning can also limit the abilities of religious groups to gather (examples here and here). A second method is to make others feel less welcome. This can happen in more active ways such as through negative interactions with local residents (see examples here from one suburb), arguments about sending which kids to which local schools (suburban examples here and here), or arguments about local policies (such as English-only documents and signs). This can also happen more passively: what groups and ways of life are celebrated? What kind of diversity is welcomed? What kind of language is used regarding the community (a suburban example here)?
All of this hints at a basic sociological point: racism does not need mean, overt racist individuals to exist. The reality of suburbs includes exclusion and both overt and covert means are used to discourage certain residents from living in certain suburbs.
“Traditionally one of the most stable measures” in the General Social Survey, the number of Americans who consider themselves middle-class has dropped in recent years across multiple surveys:
Since 2008, the number of people who call themselves middle class has fallen by nearly a fifth, according to a survey in January by the Pew Research Center, from 53 percent to 44 percent. Forty percent now identify as either lower-middle or lower class compared with just 25 percent in February 2008.
According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans who say they’re middle or upper-middle class fell 8 points between 2008 and 2012, to 55 percent.
And the most recent General Social Survey, conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago, found that the vast proportion of Americans who call themselves middle or working class, though still high at 88 percent, is the lowest in the survey’s 40-year history. It’s fallen 4 percentage points since the recession began in 2007…
Why do so many no longer regard themselves as middle class? A key reason is that the recession eliminated 8.7 million jobs. A disproportionate number were middle-income positions. Those losses left what economists describe as a “hollowed out” workforce, with more higher- and lower-paying and fewer middle-income jobs.
At this point, perhaps recession isn’t the best word to use. Rather, perhaps we should speak of a larger restructuring of the American economy that was in the works for quite a while but accelerated with the housing bubble burst. For example, certain job trends – like the loss of manufacturing jobs, the rise of service jobs, the increasing globalization of labor – have been present since the 1970s. But, a whole bunch of things converged in recent years including increased consumerism, bad loans and debt, and changing job trends.
Another part of this is harder to ascertain: just who are Americans comparing themselves to when they think about the middle-class? The top 1% or the top .01%? The celebrities and characters they see on TV? The median household income in the United States is around $50,000 so earning around there would make one middle-class. However, that yearly income doesn’t necessarily buy the sorts of amenities Americans might think they need to be securely in the middle-class. Put another way, the perceived needed standard of living may have increased even as average incomes have not changed much.
Recent data suggests fewer Americans trust “most other” Americans:
These days, only one-third of Americans say most people can be trusted. Half felt that way in 1972, when the General Social Survey first asked the question.
An AP-GfK poll conducted last month found that Americans are suspicious of each other in everyday encounters. Less than one-third expressed a lot of trust in clerks who swipe their credit cards, drivers on the road, or people they meet when traveling…
Does it matter than Americans are suspicious of one another? Yes, say worried political and social scientists.
What’s known as “social trust” brings good things…
The decline in the nation’s overall trust quotient was driven by changing attitudes among whites.
This is a well-written story about sociological findings and could serve as a model for others. It covers data over time, contrasts these findings with those showing Americans also trust major institutions less, highlights one of the best national surveys over the decades (the General Social Survey), discusses the consequences of this (possibly political gridlock), hints at important studies (Bowling Alone), brings up the issue that blacks have had less trust consistently since the 1970s but whites now also have less trust, and asks whether anything can be done (trust levels seem to be set at younger ages).
If average citizens don’t trust each other, what exactly might the consequences be? People like Robert Putnam and others have hinted at the big issues involved including a lack of political participation and trust in the political process. How long can you go without much trust before things seriously fracture? In other words, can stronger institutions – government or otherwise – put off the negative effects of less personal trust?
More Americans now identify as lower-class:
Roquemore is among the small but surging share of Americans who identify themselves as “lower class.” Last year, a record 8.4% of Americans put themselves in that category — more than at any other time in the four decades that the question has been asked on the General Social Survey, a project of the independent research organization Norc at the University of Chicago.
The rising numbers surprised some researchers and activists even in light of the bruising economy. For decades, the vast majority of Americans have seen themselves as “middle class” or “working class.” Even during earlier downturns, so few people called themselves lower class that scholars routinely lumped them with working class. Activists for the poor often avoid the term, deeming it an insult.
When people call themselves lower class, “we’ll say, ‘You’re not lower than someone else. You just have less money,'” said Michaelann Bewsee, co-founder of Arise for Social Justice, a Massachusetts low-income rights group. But many don’t consider it insulting today, Bewsee said…
Last year, less than 55% of Americans agreed that “people like me and my family have a good chance of improving our standard of living,” the lowest level since the General Social Survey first asked the question in 1987. An unusually high share of the unemployed — more than 4 million Americans as of August — have been out of work for six months or longer.
This isn’t a large group of Americans identifying as lower-class but it is noteworthy when it is at the highest level in the history of the GSS. It would appear then that the general American answer that we’re all middle-class still generally holds true even as changing economic conditions push more people to change their self identification.