Deciding at which social level to counter a social problem

Once groups of Americans agree that an issue in society needs to be addressed, they encounter an important question: at what social level should we target our efforts? There are numerous options for many important issues. For example, see an earlier post about how efforts to fight smog in Los Angeles did not seriously address driving but rather pushed Detroit to create more efficient vehicles.

Two social institutions regularly come to mind when I think about how many Americans want to address social problems: schools and the federal government. Even as different sides might not agree which problems they think schools or the federal government should, the country has regular debates about how these institutions should be doing something different.

Start with schools. Because attendance is compulsory, children spend so much time there, learning may be the universally recognized need in a knowledge economy, and what is learned as a child can carry through a full lifetime, they seem like they are great places to address issues.

For similar reasons, it may appear prudent to operate at the level of the federal government Because it has broad oversight over the United States, it has the potential to shape numerous lives. Certain issues are so big and/or affect so many people that the federal government may seem to be the only way to adequately address a concern.

Both institutions are important in our society yet enacting change at these larger levels can be very difficult. Change brings a lot of attention. Politicians on all sides get involved. Those opposed to large-scale government action can be energized. Crafting one-size-fits-all policies is difficult.

What, then, are alternatives? Here are three common ways Americans go if they do not want to go large-scale:

Work through local or national voluntary associations. This can range from the local Rotary to religious congregations and a group of neighbors who get together to do something. With de Toqueville’s oft-repeated quote about the zeal with which Americans joined such groups, this option could offer hope (even as Americans are not participating in these like they did before – see Bowling Alone).

Voluntary associations benefit from the eagerness of their members to participate but Americans can also work through local governments which are always present. Americans tend to like smaller-scale government activity and oversight. Why get the federal government or the state involved when a city or community, township, or county could try to address the matter? For some issues, this social level may be too local – larger issues are hard to deal with one community at a time. At the same time, these smaller governments could try a variety of options and this can provide information on what might work at larger levels.

Finally, Americans can work through individual action. There is a reason that we celebrate certain notable individuals who worked tirelessly and successfully to fight for their convictions: it is rare to see such individual level success (and often, these famous figures benefited from organizations and support behind them). The actions of one person may typically not accomplish much but the aggregate actions of thousands or millions of people can add up or passionate individuals can help start movements.

All together, it is not easy to figure out which option might be the most effective in order to address important social problems. For many issues, it is likely that people are trying to find solutions at all of these levels: schools, the federal government, voluntary associations, local governments, and individual action. Actions at these various levels can occasionally intersect and enrich each other, helping provide energy for a broader movement or consensus. Indeed, truly finding solutions to social concerns likely requires broad action, even if the efforts began at just one of these social levels.

The best ASA talk I heard: Hampton and Wellman on moral panics and “persistent-pervasive” community

Internet and community scholars presented a paper on Sunday at the ASA meetings that addressed the widespread social concerns – or moral panic – over the loss of community and relationships due to smartphones, social media, and the Internet. They argue this particular argument is nothing new. For at least a century, Westerners and sociologists have argued various technological and social changes have harmed traditional notions of community. I’ll do my best to summarize the argument and they explained it should be in a published piece soon.

At the beginning of the discipline of sociology, leading figures lamented the loss of close-knit communities. Often based in villages or small cities, these societies were marked by close ties, shared cultural values, and limited interaction with the outside world. Tönnies called this gemeinscahft and Durkheim labeled it mechanical solidarity. The development of capitalism, industrialization, and megacities upended these traditional ways of life with increased mobility, moving away from relatives, and the fragmentation of collective values. Tönnies called this gesellschaft and Durkheim termed this organic solidarity. Marx also responded to these major social changes by arguing workers experienced alienation as they were now cogs in a capitalistic machine rather than free individuals. Writing specifically about cities, Simmel worried that dense population centers would lead to overstimulated minds and cause mental distress.

But, the changes kept coming. Urbanization took off – and is still happening at amazing rates in many parts of the world – and was later supplanted by suburbanization in the United States (and a few other countries). Critics also claimed suburbanization ruined community. Whereas urban residents interacted with numerous neighbors and often lived in ethnic enclaves, suburbs moved people to private single-family homes, encouraged individual interests, and produced conformity. Numerous critics inside and outside sociology argued suburbs limits civil society.

The Internet, smartphones, and social media then disrupted suburban communities with a move away from the limits of proximity and geography. Now, users could interact with other users unconstrained by time and space. Close ties could be abandoned in favor of ties based on common interests. Users had little reason to contribute to civil society based on geography. As Jean Twenge argued in The Atlantic, the introduction of the iPhone marks a turning point toward a host of negative individual and collective outcomes.

Hampton and Wellman make this point: all of these technological and social changes and their effects on communities afforded both new opportunities and limitations. In a shift from close-knit communities to post-industrial community to what they now call “persistent-pervasive community,” people gained things and lost others. The new form of community offers two primary strengths: the ability to engage in long-term relationships that in the past would have disappeared as people moved geographically and socially as well as a new awareness of information, people, and the world around them. Going back to earlier stages of community, a world of closer face-to-face bonds or geographically-bounded relationships, might lead to negative outcomes like repression, conformity, hierarchy, constraints, and a lack of awareness of important causes like social justice and equality.

In the end, should a moral panic push Americans back toward an earlier form of community or should we recognize that the persistent-pervasive community of today contains both opportunities and threats?

(Three reasons why I resonated with this talk. First, it combines two areas of research in which I engage: suburban communities and social network site use. Both are communities and institutions yet they are typically treated as separate spheres. Additionally, both are relatively ignored by mainstream sociology even as more than 50% of Americans live in suburbs and the vast majority of Americans are affected by the Internet and social media. Second, a balanced approach where social change is recognized as having both positive and negative consequences fits my personality as well as my research findings. Sometimes, the negative consequences of social change are easy to identify but often the change happens because groups and institutions believe there is something to be gained by changes. Third, while there is always a danger in simplified explanations of large-scale social change, I think sociologists can contribute much by explaining broad changes over time.)

How a 9-year-old estimated that Americans use 500 million plastic straws a day

Statistics are often vital to public campaigns to fight social problems. The problem of plastic straws is no exception. Here is how 9-year-old Milo Cress developed the oft-cited statistic:

But as Cress began to dig into research on plastics and the environment, he noticed there wasn’t much data: “I couldn’t find anything on our use of straws in the United States,” he said.

So he called straw manufacturers himself, asking what they estimated to be the straw market in the United States per day. Some gave him a yearly estimate, which he divided by 365.

“Others gave an estimate of around 500 million straws,” Cress said. “That was the number that I stuck to, because it seemed to be around the middle of what they were saying.”…

“Why I use this statistic is because it illustrates that we use too many straws,” he said. “I think if it were another number, it still illustrates the fact that there is room for reduction. That’s really my message.”

Sociologist Joel Best, who has written about the social construction of statistics, could have a field day with this.

With all of the debate regarding this figure, couldn’t someone with expertise in this field offer a number that has some more rigor? Even if the number changes a bit, say it goes down to 200 million straws day, it would not matter much as either figure is huge. And this is the whole point (and this is often the case for advocates against a particular social problem): the big number is intended to shock and spur action.

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)?