Researchers say half the world is middle class or higher

A new report suggests a majority of humans are middle class or above:

For the first time since agriculture-based civilization began 10,000 years ago, the majority of humankind is no longer poor or vulnerable to falling into poverty. By our calculations, as of this month, just over 50 percent of the world’s population, or some 3.8 billion people, live in households with enough discretionary expenditure to be considered “middle class” or “rich.” About the same number of people are living in households that are poor or vulnerable to poverty. So September 2018 marks a global tipping point. After this, for the first time ever, the poor and vulnerable will no longer be a majority in the world. Barring some unfortunate global economic setback, this marks the start of a new era of a middle-class majority.

We make these claims based on a classification of households into those in extreme poverty (households spending below $1.90 per person per day) and those in the middle class (households spending $11-110 per day per person in 2011 purchasing power parity, or PPP). Two other groups round out our classification: vulnerable households fall between those in poverty and the middle class; and those who are at the top of the distribution who are classified as “rich.”

The consequences could be interesting:

Why does it matter that a middle-class tipping point has been reached and that the middle class is the most rapidly growing segment of the global income distribution? Because the middle class drive demand in the global economy and because the middle class are far more demanding of their governments…

In most countries, there is a clear relationship between the fate of the middle class and the happiness of the population. According to the Gallup World Poll, new entrants into the middle class are noticeably happier than those stuck in poverty or in vulnerable households. Conversely, individuals in countries where the middle class is shrinking report greater degrees of personal stress. The middle class also puts pressure on governments to perform better. They look to their governments to provide affordable housing, education, and universal health care. They rely on public safety nets to help them in sickness, unemployment or old age. But they resist efforts of governments to impose taxes to pay the bills. This complicates the politics of middle-class societies, so they range from autocratic to liberal democracies. Many advanced and middle-income countries today are struggling to find a set of politics that can satisfy a broad middle-class majority.

There are multiple issues to consider here: how all of this is measured, whether the majority is relatively evenly spread across countries or is concentrated in certain areas, and what this might bring.

But, I will point to another feature of this study: it suggests relatively good news. For much of human history, larger-scale collectives – from kingdoms to empires to countries – have consisted of some elites, perhaps a limited middle class, and a larger poor and working-class population. If these figures are true, more people have access to resources and opportunities to do things.

This would fit nicely with some materials I have heard in recent years about a good amount of good news about the global system. On one hand, there are still major problems and sizable poor and vulnerable populations (the less well-off half in this study). On the other hand, global health is improving, economic conditions on the whole are improving, violence is down (in relative terms), and people around the world may be paying attention to the plight of others like never before.

Perhaps this is why even Google has ways of providing some of good news. Even if much news revolves around problems, there is plenty of good news to find.

Divorce down, marriage down, telling a full story

Recent sociological work highlights how looking past the initial findings – divorce rates are down in America – reveals a more complicated reality:

In the past 10 years, the percentage of American marriages that end in divorce has fallen, and in a new paper, the University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen quantified the drop-off: Between 2008 and 2016, the divorce rate declined by 18 percent overall…

The point he was making was that people with college degrees are now more likely to get married than those who have no more than a high-school education. And the key to understanding the declining divorce rate, Cherlin says, is that it is “going down some for everybody,” but “the decline has been steepest for the college graduates.”

The reason that’s the case is that college graduates tend to wait longer to get married as they focus on their career. And they tend to have the financial independence to postpone marriage until they’re more confident it will work. This has translated to lower rates of divorce: “If you’re older, you’re more mature … you probably have a better job, and those things make it less likely that you’ll get into arguments with your spouse,” Cherlin says…

Chen connects this trend to the decline of well-paying jobs for those without college degrees, which, he argues, makes it harder to form more stable relationships. Indeed, Cohen writes in his paper that marriage is “an increasingly central component of the structure of social inequality.” The state of it today is both a reflection of the opportunities unlocked by a college degree and a force that, by allowing couples to pool their incomes, itself widens economic gaps.

It would be interesting to see how many of those who might celebrate the finding that divorce rates are going down also discuss the reasons linked to financial stability, education levels, and inequality.

Take more conservative Christian churches as a possible example. Evangelical Protestants are often proudly in favor of marriage (between a man and a woman). They work hard to provide programs for families as well as classes and sermons about marriage and family life. They would generally be opposed to divorce or at least view it as less than ideal. But, having conversations about how marriage is less attainable for some Americans or the evolving idea that one needs to be financially independent before marrying might be less common. How often do topics of social class and inequality come up from the front in many congregations? Or, discussions could turn to why Americans do not make correct individual choices rather than focusing on social pressures and structures (financial independence, it is more acceptable to cohabit) that influence all Americans (including conservative Christians). Ultimately, the findings may not be that good for evangelicals: divorce is down because Americans are getting married less and cohabiting more. If they want to encourage more marriage, they would have to respond to these larger social forces at work.

The finding that Chicago suburbs pay more than get from the state feeds which narrative?

A new study looks at how much Illinois counties contribute to the state versus how much they receive. The results are lopsided:

For every dollar DuPage County taxpayers send to Springfield, the state returns 31 cents…

Cook County receives 80 cents for every dollar contributed, Lake County gets back 39 cents, Kane County sees 76 cents come back for every dollar, McHenry County sees 42 cents returned and Will County receives 68 cents for every dollar sent to Springfield.

“We have in this state a long-standing legend that downstate is supporting Cook County and Chicago. The farther south you drive, the more virulent that narrative becomes,” said John Jackson, one of the report’s two authors. “The biggest theme of this whole paper is that we make the case that facts are better than fiction in terms of public discourse on this topic.”…

“It’s just because geographic politics are powerful, so it’s in the interest of people running for office downstate to say we’re exporting money to fat cats in Chicago and the suburbs,” Martire said.

Finding evidence that counters one common narrative can be powerful. Narratives develop over time and take on a life of their own. The downstate versus Chicago narrative – probably more accurately given the realities of metropolitan economies, downstate versus the large Chicago region – has existed for a long time. Arguably, this goes back to the opening decades of the state where much of the population and power existed in the southern and central regions before the opening of the northern part of Illinois to settlement in the 1830s and 1840s.

At the same time, this data could be used to promote a different narrative: the Chicago counties are unfairly treated by the state. These counties generate a lot of wealth and are penalized by the state. Why are the good, hard-working taxpayers of these counties penalized for their success? Why can’t the state keep the money generated there to help address the numerous issues present in the Chicago region? Just based on the data, the situation looks pretty unequal. In the long run, this narrative (with evidence) with the sides switched better for Illinois?

More broadly, these kinds of analyses of geographic disparities in funding present some really thorny issues for larger governmental bodies such as states and the United States as a whole. Balancing urban versus rural interests also goes back to the founding of our country resulting in key ideas like the Senate being the more powerful chamber with two votes per state regardless of population and the electoral college as opposed to a popular vote.

The ongoing stark inequality of Chicago and other major cities

Alana Semuels discusses the inequality present in the global city of Chicago but it reminds me that (1)  sociologists have studied this for roughly 100 years even (2) as conditions have both changed and stayed the same.

The contrast between a seemingly prospering city and groups and individuals who cannot access this prosperity is an old theme in the Chicago School of urban sociology. In The Gold Coast and the Slum, Zorbaugh explains how some of the wealthiest and poorest Chicagoans can live in such proximity. Two neighborhoods that are geographically close are worlds apart socially. This is little different from descriptions of industrializing cities in England in the mid-1800s (which helped prompt the work of Marx and Engels) or examining today’s megacities in developing nations where a wealthy core is surrounded by slums and shantytowns.

The reasons for this disparity are both similar and different. Semuels sums up the two major issues:

Why are large swaths of Chicago’s population unable to get ahead? There are two main reasons. The first and most obvious is the legacy of segregation that has made it difficult for poor black families to gain access to the economic activity in other parts of the city. This segregation has meant that African Americans live near worse educational opportunities and fewer jobs than other people in Chicago. City leaders in Chicago have exacerbated this segregation over the years, according to Diamond, channeling money downtown and away from the poor neighborhoods. “Public policies played a huge role in reinforcing the walls around the ghetto,” he told me.

The second factor is the disappearance of industrial jobs in factories, steel plants, and logistics companies. Half a century ago, people with little education could find good jobs in the behemoths that dotted Chicago’s south and west sides. Now, most of those factories have moved overseas or to the suburbs, and there are fewer employment opportunities here for people without much education. Chicago underscores that it’s not just white, rural Americans who have been hard hit by the disappearance of manufacturing jobs.

The segregation of one hundred years ago is still with us, even if it has changed form (from overt discrimination to more covert means). The business district of Chicago was a thriving place 100 years ago as many of the poorer and less white neighborhoods languished. The job front has changed; yet, it is not as if the manufacturing jobs that started appearing in cities with the Industrial Revolution were all that helpful for the lower classes at the time (again think of Marx and Engels).

On the whole, it is helpful to regularly remind people of the complexities of cities. Cities should not be viewed solely as their impressive skylines or booming economies. Even the leading cities of the world are home to many less advantaged residents. Whether the gaps in cities themselves could go a long ways toward determining whether broader social inequalities can be successfully addressed.

Comparing “Trickle-Down America” (urban) and “Stagnant America” (rural)

Recent comments from Hillary Clinton praising American “places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward” leads to this comparison between “trickle-down” and “stagnant” Americas:

Over the past 40 or so years, the U.S. has been fragmenting into two parallel societies, which I’ll call Trickle-Down America and Stagnant America. Each one looks upon the other with suspicion and hostility. Trickle-Down America is the America of our biggest metropolitan areas, and it is defined by comparatively high levels of density, diversity, and economic inequality. Importantly, the richest people in Trickle-Down America are typically white, while the service-sector workers who enable them to work longer hours are disproportionately brown and black. Stagnant America can be found in rural regions, small cities and towns, and outer suburbs across the country. This America is largely white and relatively equal, though it too is scarred by poverty, particularly among Hispanics and blacks. America’s most and least educated workers are concentrated in Trickle-Down America, while Stagnant America is home to most of America’s working- and middle-class white voters.

Is Trickle-Down America morally superior to Stagnant America? A good starting point is to reflect on the sources of Trickle-Down America’s wealth. In New York City, my hometown, the local economy has long been dominated by the financial-services sector, which has grown mightily in recent decades. Has the financialization of the U.S. economy been an unadulterated good for the country as a whole? There are many thoughtful people who’d argue otherwise. Indeed, some argue that rents flowing to the financial sector have badly distorted the U.S. economy, and have contributed to the devastation of tradeable sector employment in Stagnant America. Corporations headquartered in America’s cosmopolitan cities have profited immensely from the emergence of a globalized division of labor. Yet many of these same multinationals have pioneered tax-avoidance strategies that have made it harder for the federal government to compensate those who’ve lost out with globalization, all while deploying their considerable influence to get the U.S. government to pressure other countries to adopt intellectual-property protections that serve their interests. And then there is the federal government itself, and its vast, growing army of private administrative proxies—contractors, non-profits dependent on public subsidies, and the like—that has helped make Washington, D.C., and its environs one of the country’s most affluent and educated regions. It’s hard to disentangle exactly how much of Trickle-Down America’s success relative to Stagnant America is a product of straightforward rent-seeking. I certainly doubt that it accounts for all of it, or even most. But surely it accounts for some, and that should give Trickle-Down America’s champions pause.

One important thing to keep in mind is that Trickle-Down America is, overall, characterized by more stringent land-use limits than Stagnant America. These limits have raised housing costs in affluent coastal regions, which has redounded to the benefit of incumbent homeowners. Yet high housing costs have deterred inward domestic migration while driving out large numbers of working-and middle-class residents…

For now, though, Trickle-Down America’s affluent professionals find themselves in a sweet spot, which surely accounts for some of Clinton’s triumphalism. The food is better. Beautiful old houses are being renovated everywhere you turn. An abundance of low-wage immigrant labor adds diversity and dynamism to cosmopolitan cities, yet the noncitizen working class isn’t in a position to press for a more egalitarian social order—one that could prove discomfiting for local elites. Best of all, opposition to Trump is helping to obscure simmering discontent over Trickle-Down America’s business model.

This is a different way of categorizing the stark urban and rural political divides of recent years. Yet, it also highlights a key issue simmering within the leading cities and metropolitan areas that are so important to American life: who really benefits in the major cities? Are the high levels of innovation, growth, development, and cultural excitement accessible to all urban residents or do the spoils disproportionately go to the top?Inequality cuts across multiple strata of society. Certainly there are stark differences within cities as well as between urban and rural areas. I’ll add a third area that complicates the story above (though these are likely lumped in with the Trickle-Down America segment): the inequality present in American suburbs. Even as the majority of Americans live in suburbs and seem to have achieved the American Dream of suburban life, life outcomes can differ dramatically across suburban communities.

What makes this suburban inequality more interesting for the realm of politics is how is affects voting: areas generally closer to the big city or with demographics more like the big city vote Democrat and wealthier communities and areas further out in regions vote Republicans. Will these same sort of voting cleavages arise in rural areas in cities as various inequalities receive more attention?

Fighting harder against gentrification

Activists in Los Angeles and a few other cities are ramping up their efforts to fend off gentrification:

That’s because it was organized by Defend Boyle Heights, a coalition of scorched-earth young activists from the surrounding neighborhood — the heart of Mexican-American L.A. — who have rejected the old, peaceful forms of resistance (discussion, dialogue, policy proposals) and decided that the only sensible response is to attack and hopefully frighten off the sorts of art galleries, craft breweries and single-origin coffee shops that tend to pave the way for more powerful invaders: the real estate agents, developers and bankers whose arrival typically mark a neighborhood’s point of no return…

By “making s*** crack” — by boycotting, protesting, disrupting, threatening and shouting in the streets — Defend Boyle Heights and its allies have notched a series of surprising victories over the past two and a half years, even as the forces of gentrification continue to make inroads in the neighborhood. A gallery closed its doors after its “staff and artists were routinely trolled online and harassed in person.” An experimental street opera was shut down after members of the Roosevelt High School band — egged on by a group of activists — used saxophones, trombones and trumpets to drown it out. A real estate bike tour promising clients access to a “charming, historic, walkable and bikeable neighborhood” was scrapped after the agent reported threats of violence. “I can’t help but hope that your 60-minute bike ride is a total disaster and that everyone who eats your artisanal treats pukes immediately,” said one message. The national (and international) media descended, with many outlets flocking to Weird Wave Coffee, a hip new shop that was immediately targeted by activists after opening last summer….

These harsh realities aren’t lost on millennials of color — especially young men and women from gentrifying neighborhoods, where such inequities tend to be on vivid, daily display. To that end, a 2016 Harvard Institute of Politics poll found that only 42 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds now support capitalism; a third now identify as socialists. Among those who backed Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy, the number was even higher — a full 54 percent — and minorities and people without a college degree were more likely to support socialism as well…

“We are devoting our time to building a national movement against gentrification,” they wrote in a February blog post titled “Defending Boyle Heights and f***ing s*** up: A 2017 summation and report back from our Hood Solidarity tour.” “Boyle Heights has … become a beacon of hope for other communities facing similar threats. … We are hopeful that in the coming years, with the effort necessary to sustain a movement, poor and working-class people can escalate the class war against gentrification and actually hinder and possibly reverse its effects.”

As the article notes, gentrification is not new but reactions to it have changed over time. Most major cities are beholden to development and have been for decades: development and growth is good, particularly when it is taking place in neighborhoods that have seen better days (think of older urban renewal programs), and politicians and developers can have a symbiotic relationship. Yet, this development often does not help poorer residents who even if they are not pushed out of the neighborhood do benefit in the same ways as developers and politicians.

A few ongoing questions about these efforts:

  1. Do more strident responses to gentrification then allow more negotiation to take place about the future of neighborhoods?
  2. At what point do cities, developers, and business owners push back harder against such protests?
  3. Can protests like these slow or stop gentrification? Can they prompt a larger spirit against gentrification in the community?

Something to keep watching.

Defining a social problem: “transit gaps” or “transit deserts”

One skeptic of the concept of transit gaps explains his concerns:

The Chicago-based nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technology recently unveiled its AllTransit Gap Finder—an online mapping tool designed to point out areas with “inadequate” transit service. It’s a good effort, and it’s certainly good that we have more tools for understanding transit demand…

A transit gap is some kind of difference between transit service and transit need or demand. But need and demand are different things. A need means that there are people whose lives would be better if they had transit. A demand is an indication that transit service, if it were provided, would achieve high ridership.

These terms correspond to the two opposing goals of transit service. If the goal of service is ridership, then it should provide excellent service where there is demand. On the other hand, many people who need transit wouldn’t be served if transit agencies ran only high-ridership service. So transit agencies run a certain amount of service for the non-ridership goal of coverage, which responds to need. In other words, they spread service out so that everyone has a little bit, even though low ridership is the predictable outcome. This critical distinction is explained more fully here. It’s a difficult budgetary choice about dividing resources between competing goals, one that local governments need to think about…

Although AllTransit’s claims are framed in misleading terms, the idea of being able to accurately see exactly how well any given neighborhood is served by transit is a laudable one. Over the years I’ve written about other efforts to get this right. An especially important idea, buried deep in the overly complex methodology, is that a transit quality index should be about where you can get to in a given amount of time, rather than what transit is available. In my own work I routinely use this measure to describe the human benefits of transit service changes, because getting to destinations, and having a choice of more destinations, is what makes for a great life.

There seems to be two issues here: separating community values from possibilities as well as how to best measure transportation options. No city has an endless pot of money with which to fund mass transit. Yet, I imagine proponents of transit deserts would note that the general American orientation is toward driving and roads while mass transit has to regularly scrap for money. The measurement issue is hopefully an ongoing conversation as researchers with different decisions and aims work to find measures that both reflect the social realities as well as provide helpful information for residents and local governments.

But, I also suspect that this is critique is missing a key concern of some of those working in the food/transit/grocery stores/parks/medical care desert literature: the key is which groups are most affected by these deserts or have less access to these necessities. Many of the deserts – however defined and regardless of the goals of the community – seem to affect lower class and non-white residents. One could argue that a community might not have the resources or vision to extend mass transit to a particular area but this does not necessarily address the issue of residential segregation that is alive and well in the United States.