Evangelicals and sociology: problems

Yesterday, I discussed five patterns I’ve observed in how evangelicals interact with sociology. Here are some problems with these patterns:

  1. The patterns ignore significant areas of research that affect the lives of evangelicals and their organizations on a daily basis. This ranges from research on organizations (why do so many churches and organizations try to reinvent the wheel?) to social problems that evangelicals hope to address (such as development, poverty, health issues, etc.).
  2. Sociology could help evangelicals address certain blind spots. For example, numerous academics as well as evangelicals have written about the group’s problem with race and how an individualistic approach fails to appropriately grapple with structural realities. Sociology written by Christians and non-Christians could help evangelicals move forward in this area.
  3. Sociologists are also interested in the improvement of society. Thus, casting them as enemies may create unnecessary with people who could be helpful to evangelical causes. Evangelicals, more so than fundamentalists, want to engage society. In recent decades in the United States, this has involved taking more public roles and pushing for certain policies and behaviors (at a variety of levels from the federal government to non-profit organizations). Sociologists may have some different end goals than evangelicals but both want to engage society and not succumb to societal apathy and withdrawal. Are there areas in which sociologists and evangelicals could partner (outside of the typical culture war or conservative issues to which evangelicals devote much attention)?
  4. The suspicion of sociology tells evangelicals that is an area unworthy of study. This is odd given the group’s claims that God can work through everything (including non-Christians), there are concepts like common grace, and all truth is God’s truth.
  5. Conservative Protestants sometimes have a limited interest in seeing society as complex and difficult to understand. They can often be reductionistic about social ills, attributing the issues to sin (even as the various forms of sin as well as the consequences can be multifaceted) or bad individuals.

Tomorrow: possible solutions to these problems.

Note: these observations are based on years of interaction with conservative Protestant congregations, institutions, sermons, media, and individuals.

260,000 trees a year for mortgage documents

Mortgages are important documents given how much money they involve yet they also consume a lot of trees according to one estimate:

According to the report, those seeking a mortgage encounter scores of paperwork — in some cases, more than 50 loan documents — including everything from an appraisal report to the loan application, topping out at an estimated 252 pages. Add in another 28 pages, approximately, for documents borrowers must provide such as pay stubs and bank statements…

Multiply 280 pages per mortgage by an average of 7.8 million mortgages a year — a figure from a recent Federal Reserve Bulletin — and what have you got?

That’s right: almost 2.2 billion sheets of paper annually from mortgages alone. That equals more than 41,000 tons of wood and over 260,000 trees…

A FreeandClear survey conducted in February polled homeowners ages 22 to 49 who have a mortgage. In one question, on the most taxing part of the mortgage process, 56 percent of respondents pointed to excessive paperwork.

Several quick thoughts:

  1. Remember all those predictions that we would move away from the world of paper? Even with the disadvantages it may have, it is pretty useful to have paper documents in a number of situations.
  2. I assume “excessive paperwork” is relative to “typical” amounts of paperwork people have to fill out. Is it a bit unrealistic to expect that a mortgage – a significant contract for the average borrower – shouldn’t have little paperwork?
  3. The 260,000 trees figure is supposed to be shocking and help us think more about the social problem of tree removal. All those trees just for mortgages?!? But, how many trees are cut down each year for paper? One source from a few years suggests it is over 4 billion trees each year. Time says 15 billion trees – for all uses – are cut down each year but this is out of a base of roughly 4 trillion trees overall. How about a look at how many trees are used for newspapers each year in the United States? Is this a more acceptable use of paper?

In one decade, major suburban areas go from lowest drug overdose rates to highest

A new report details the rise of drug overdose deaths in suburbs:

Released Wednesday, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s 2017 County Health Rankings and an accompanying report analyze county-level data from all 50 states on more than 30 public health outcomes and behaviors. The report finds there’s been a clear flip in the geography of addiction: One decade ago, large suburban areas experienced the lowest rates of premature deaths due to drug overdoses. In 2015, they had the highest.

The Johnson Foundation’s analysis doesn’t pinpoint which counties experienced the most dramatic gains in drug-induced death. What it does is rank every county in the U.S., by state, using data that reflects local health conditions, such as diabetes and obesity, as well as measures that can predict health outcomes, including teen birth, smoking rates, and grocery store access…

Comparing those numbers to the Johnson Foundation report, I found startling disconnects between deadly drug problems and places that have an otherwise fairly “healthy” facade. For example, Essex County ranks sixth out of the 14 counties in the Bay State by the new report—middle-of-the-road when it comes to the chronic health conditions that normally wave red flags for public health researchers. Yet it’s increasingly afflicted by drug-related deaths.

On the fringes of Cincinnati, Boone County, Kentucky, ranks first out of 120 across its state on all other health rankings. As in Essex County, rates of diabetes, smoking, and teen births are relatively low; poverty is suppressed, and employment is solid. Yet a look at CDC data shows county saw its drug-related death rate leap from 26 in 2010 to nearly 46 in 2015. Ranked smack in the middle of Ohio’s 88 counties and also included in the Cincinnati metro area, Clermont County saw a similar leap. Another example: Clay County, part of the Jacksonville, Florida, metro area, is 11th of the Sunshine State’s 67 counties. But drug-related deaths increased from 14 in 2010 to 23 in 2015.

It has been interesting thus far and it will continue to be interesting to observe how this is treated by the media, government, and public. This would be a good case for studying how a social problem develops: American society is so large that not everything can receive the attention it deserves. For example, how do the reactions to suburban drugs differ to how Americans treat drug use in cities (or rural areas which rarely get any attention)? How is the drug use explained: as part of criminal activity, irresponsibility, broken down homes and/or neighborhoods, wealth, or addiction? Because these deaths are happening to suburbanites – who as this article notes, are supposed to be healthier and often are – the story will be different.

State of emergency over increasing homeless population in LA

The city of Los Angeles is trying to respond to a rise in homelessness:

Los Angeles recently declared a state of emergency over the city’s growing homeless population – up 12% in two years. Residents of the city’s main homeless encampment say a mix of drugs and rising rents are driving the problem…

At the last count there were 44,359 homeless people in Los Angeles County and 25,686 in the city itself, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), an agency set up in 1993 to find a solution to the problem…

“Affordable housing in LA is almost non-existent,” says Mr Smith who points to recent data that suggests that the average two-bedroom unit in the city now costs more than $2,600 (£1,700) per month to rent…

“We have become a city of shanties,” says Mr Bonin, noting that homelessness has not only increased by “a whopping 12%” over the past two years but is now spreading out across the city…

Declaring a state of emergency could make it easier to find homes for residents by easing some housing restrictions and fast-tracking permits for more affordable housing.

This is a consistent issue in many American cities though few present the contrast of a glittering city – skyline, money, Hollywood, attractive weather, beaches – quite like Los Angeles. Imagine the view from afar: the same place that is home to Hollywood can be so close to skid row?

The issues here seem to be one that tend to come up in discussions of homelessness: a lack of positive ways to deal with drug use and a lack of transitional or permanent housing. It is interesting to think how the particular issue of homelessness intersects with these two other issues. Does it take an increase in homelessness for people to seriously think about affordable housing in the Los Angeles region? And what exactly does it take for a city to declare a state of emergency in this area (a certain percent increase, a total number of homeless, a certain number of other residents irritated or inconvenienced)?

Majority of Americans wrong about the decline in global poverty

Nicholas Kristof discusses the role of the media in contributing to incorrect knowledge about global poverty:

One survey found that two-thirds of Americans believed that the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has almost doubled over the last 20 years. Another 29 percent believed that the proportion had remained roughly the same.

That’s 95 percent of Americans — who are utterly wrong. In fact, the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty hasn’t doubled or remained the same. It has fallen by more than half, from 35 percent in 1993 to 14 percent in 2011 (the most recent year for which figures are available from the World Bank).

When 95 percent of Americans are completely unaware of a transformation of this magnitude, that reflects a flaw in how we journalists cover the world — and I count myself among the guilty…

The world’s best-kept secret is that we live at a historic inflection point when extreme poverty is retreating. United Nations members have just adopted 17 new Global Goals, of which the centerpiece is the elimination of extreme poverty by 2030. Their goals are historic. There will still be poor people, of course, but very few who are too poor to eat or to send children to school. Young journalists or aid workers starting out today will in their careers see very little of the leprosy, illiteracy, elephantiasis and river blindness that I have seen routinely.

Kristof and a growing number of others have noted that certain aspects of life are getting better for many people – like decreasing violence around the world or lower crime rates in the United States – yet the general public is not aware of this. The media is certainly complicit but they are not the only social forces at work here.

Turning to my own discipline of sociology, several sociologists, including Ulrich Beck, Barry Glassner, and Harvey Molotch, have written books on the topic of fear. Yet, it doesn’t seem to get much attention from the discipline as a whole. Of course, sociologists are regularly pointing out social problems (critics may say even inventing social problems) and often trying to offer arguments for why people and those in power should do something.

If there is positive psychology, how about positive sociology? Here is a rumbling or two

The FBI doesn’t collect every piece of data about crime

The FBI released the 2014 Uniform Crime Report Monday but it doesn’t have every piece of information we might wish to have:

As I noted in May, much statistical information about the U.S. criminal-justice system simply isn’t collected. The number of people kept in solitary confinement in the U.S., for example, is unknown. (A recent estimate suggested that it might be as many as 80,000 and 100,000 people.) Basic data on prison conditions is rarely gathered; even federal statistics about prison rape are generally unreliable. Statistics from prosecutors’ offices on plea bargains, sentencing rates, or racial disparities, for example, are virtually nonexistent.

Without reliable data on crime and justice, anecdotal evidence dominates the conversation. There may be no better example than the so-called “Ferguson effect,” first proposed by the Manhattan Institute’s Heather MacDonald in May. She suggested a rise in urban violence in recent months could be attributed to the Black Lives Matter movement and police-reform advocates…

Gathering even this basic data on homicides—the least malleable crime statistic—in major U.S. cities was an uphill task. Bialik called police departments individually and combed local media reports to find the raw numbers because no reliable, centralized data was available. The UCR is released on a one-year delay, so official numbers on crime in 2015 won’t be available until most of 2016 is over.

These delays, gaps, and weaknesses seem exclusive to federal criminal-justice statistics. The U.S. Department of Labor produces monthly unemployment reports with relative ease. NASA has battalions of satellites devoted to tracking climate change and global temperature variations. The U.S. Department of Transportation even monitors how often airlines are on time. But if you want to know how many people were murdered in American cities last month, good luck.

There could be several issues at play including:

  1. A lack of measurement ability. Perhaps we have some major disagreements about how to count certain things.
  2. Local law enforcement jurisdictions want some flexibility in working with the data.
  3. A lack of political will to get all this information.

My guess is that the most important issue is #3. If we wanted this data we could get this data. Yet, it may require concerted efforts by individuals or groups to make the issues enough of a social problem to ask that we collect good data. This means that the government and/or public needs a compelling enough reason to get uniformity in measurement and consistency in reporting.

How about this reason: having consistent and timely reporting on such data would help cut down on anecdotes and instead correctly keep the American public up to date. They could then make more informed political and civic choices. Right now, many Americans don’t quite know what is happening with crime rates as their primary sources are anecdotes or mass media reports (which can be quite sensationalistic).

Chicago still leading the way for corruption

A new report finds Chicago is still at the top of American cities in corruption:

According to new research released today by University of Illinois at Chicago political science professor Dick Simpson, there were 45 convictions for public corruption in 2013 (the latest year available) in the U.S. court district that covers the Chicago area. That’s way, way above the 19 convictions in Los Angeles and 13 in the Southern District of New York (Manhattan). But Houston had far and away the most pols convicted on federal corruption charges in 2013, with 83.

Since the U.S. Department of Justice began to collect data in 1976, Chicago’s Northern District of Illinois, which includes Chicago, Cook County and 17 other counties, has had 1,642 convictions, according to Simpson. That compares with 1,316 in LA and 1,260 in the New York district, which includes Manhattan, the Bronx and six other counties…

If it makes you feel better, Simpson notes that on a per capita basis, Illinois is in seventh place. The District of Columbia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alaska, and North and South Dakota rank higher than Illinois.

In this case, I don’t know if the quantification helps at all. When scholars or activists produce such figures, they are often trying to draw attention to a particular cause by pointing out the large numbers. This is how social problems are made. On the other hand, Chicago has had a reputation for corruption for decades. Do these numbers mean anything if residents of the region already expect this? Perhaps the comparison of numbers with other cities and regions can help. Yet, it doesn’t look like knowing these figures changes very much.

And what is going with Houston – is the oil money flowing a little too freely?