Friday, October 17, 2014

New at The Nation: my review of a stunning book on economic inequality in America

The latest edition of the Nation's The Curve is up. I'm particularly proud of this one. The theme is college, and this time around the brilliant contributors include the excellent Anna Clark, who writes about student debt, as well as two of the most renowned feminist economists in America, Nancy Folbre and Susan Feiner. Feiner addresses the war on public higher education, especially the state university system where she teaches in Maine, which has been particularly hard hit. Folbre, noting that the job market no longer reliably rewards educational credentials, argues that the "golden age of human capital" is over.

My piece is a review of one of the most brilliant works I have ever read about class in America. The book, Paying for the Party, was published last year and it's by sociologists Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton. The authors followed about 50 incoming college women for five years, from their first year on the "party floor" of a dorm at a large, well-respected state university, to their graduation and beyond. After five years, fully half of the women were on a downward economic trajectory, and their fates sorted out almost perfectly according to their class backgrounds. The daughters of the upper class were working at glamorous jobs in the big city, while the working class strivers, who often had arrived with much stronger academic records than their wealthy counterparts, had often returned to the small towns they grew up in and were toiling away in low-wage retail jobs.

What happened? The authors indict both our government's defunding of higher education and the modern university, which has reconfigured itself to cater to the desires of the elites to turn college into a social, rather than an academic, experience. Fraternities and sororities and the party lifestyle they promote are heavily implicated. When a party culture is so prevalent, as it was at the university the authors studied, it's hard for students to resist it, because there's not much of an alternative if you want a social life.

But if you devote yourself to partying nearly 24/7, academics will suffer. The university provides a ready solution to that, in the form of bullshit majors like "fashion merchandising" and "sports communication," that don't build skills and are mostly useless on the job market. The rich women didn't suffer a whit from this; their family connections ensured that they'd land good jobs after graduation, regardless of their major or academic performance. But for the less privileged women, forsaking solid preprofessional majors in favor of the bogus ones proved disastrous. The ones that managed to graduate discovered that their degrees were virtually worthless.

There are so thick and fascinating observations in this book, from the class-tinged, frequently painful social interactions of the women on the floor (there's enough material for any number of sequels to Mean Girls), to the way that class intersects with sex. For example, the authors found that the working class women were significantly more likely to be the victims of sexual assault, and also more likely to be labeled as "sluts"in spite of having fewer sexual partners. Read all about it, and more at the linkincluding some bonus Ross Douthat bashing!

Better yet, read Armstong and Hamilton's stunning book. It belongs on the shelf next to Piketty as one of the great works about economic inequality in our time. Armstrong and Hamilton give you a vivid, startlingly personal look at what economic inequality looks like in America today. It's an unforgettable and at times heartbreaking portrait.


  1. I graduated from a second- or third-tier small liberal arts college (class of 1974), and it took six years before I got a (low-paying) job that had any connection to what I had majored in. I cleaned houses, worked summers in scout camps, sorted returnable bottles in a Pepsi factory, distributed advertising tear sheets for a newspaper, was a dishwasher, then "salad lady," finally assistant cook in various kitchens at the local university; when I was about to leave for a white-collar job, my big raise was a nickel over minimum wage.

    College educated, yup. Raised in a middle class home, yup. Liberal? Absolutely. Class conscious? You betcher ass. Even with the white collar job, I had to supplement with cleaning jobs to rent a very small three-room apartment in the part of town where most of the residents were welfare-poor or working-poor, and the streetlights flickered to life only intermittently.

    One difference was that I had no expectations of professional employment in my field immediately after college. Another factor was that both my parents came from poverty: one graduated from college thanks to the GI bill; the other never graduated but passed a civil service test and became the highest-ranked female civil servant at the military base where she worked.

    Are times different? yup. And so are attitudes, with the most prevalent one being "entitlement."