The study of inequality lies at the heart of the sociology of social problems. No matter what the social problem might be, different forms of inequality influence the generation of the problem, the consequences of the problem for diverse groups, the societal reaction to the problem, and the solutions and social policies intended to address the problem. In each of these dimensions, social problems correlate with inequality. Analyzing the relationship between various forms of inequality and social problems is central to sociological theory and empirical research.
Among some of the strongest forms of inequality influencing social problems are social class, race, and gender. And, while these are some of the most significant influences on social problems, they are also problems in and of themselves. No understanding of social problems makes sense without attention to race, class, and gender. But race, class, and gender are not the only correlates of social inequality. Also influencing social problems are social factors such as age, national origin, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and family status, among others. Exactly how these different social factors of inequality relate to social problems and how they interrelate are the basis for much social problems theory and empirical research.
Inequality and the Generation of Social Problems
One way to think about how inequality relates to social problems is to ask how social problems are generated. Social stratification based on race, class, and gender forms the structural context from which social problems are created. Social inequality, structured into society, blocks opportunities for some groups, generating the conditions from which social problems emerge. The sociological literature offers countless examples of the consequences of blocked opportunity.
Research shows, for example, a strong correlation between unemployment and multiple social problems, including crime, violence, divorce, and substance abuse, to name a few. As one example, an extraordinarily large difference exists in the homicide rate of black Americans, Latinos, and whites—explained as the result of social structural conditions of both the class and race status of poor, minority men. Were non-Latino whites subjected to the same social structural conditions of inequality as are racial/ethnic minorities, white homicide rates would likely be equal to those of racial/ethnic minorities. Various measures of risk, including death by homicide, firearms, and automobile accidents, are also strongly influenced by gender. This is the result, most argue, of greater risk-taking behavior among men. The interactive mix of gender, race, and class can be a lethal combination.
Race, gender, and class also affect the likelihood of experiencing social problems other than crime and violence. For example, low-income and minority communities will more likely be sites for hazardous waste facilities and toxic dumping, not only degrading the neighborhood environment but also placing residents at greater risk for poor health. Although many such communities have organized an environmental justice movement to protest dumping in their neighborhoods, the relative lack of political power in low-income and minority communities makes environmental racism a persistent social problem.
Social problems stemming from structural inequality are also prevalent in education and work. Rates of educational attainment are higher among white Americans than among either African Americans or Latinos/as. School dropout rates, too, significantly relate to both race and income status. Hispanic students have, by far, the highest dropout rate, followed by African American students, but income matters too: Students from low-income families have twice the dropout rate of those from middle-income families and four times the dropout rate of those from high-income families. Family disadvantage also strongly relates to racial variations in math and reading comprehension for schoolchildren, and the higher the family income is, the higher are student test scores and rates of educational attainment.
At the root of educational attainment problems lie inequalities among schools themselves. Inner-city schools with large concentrations of minority and poor students suffer from inadequate facilities, poor funding, and understaffing. Furthering the problem of inequality in schooling is the resegregation of schools that is currently under way. Since 1980, segregation in U.S. schools has dramatically increased, resulting in increasing educational isolation of black and Latino/a students. School segregation partially follows from residential segregation but also results from the diminution of state-sponsored plans to challenge racial segregation in education.
Segregation is not just a matter of race, however. As inequality grows in the United States, schools are also becoming more stratified by social class. Residential and school segregation separate people not only by race but also by class. This creates disparities in school quality across neighborhoods and within schools. From ability groupings within schools to across-school differences in curricular offerings and facilities, social class, along with race, produces inequality across and within schools. Added to this is the gender inequality that continues to characterize education. Although much progress has been made in reducing educational disparities between girls and boys, a gender gap persists in what students learn and the work girls and boys are prepared to do.
Structured inequality is also present in the social problems associated with work. Where, how, and whether people work is fundamentally a matter of race, class, and gender. Much research shows that gender and race are good predictors of earning differentials; they also strongly influence occupational distribution. Indeed, the greater the concentration of women and minorities in an occupation, the more degraded is the pay. Gender and race affect not only the economic status of women and people of color but also the social and psychological consequences of persistent race and gender discrimination in the workplace.
In sum, extensive evidence shows the influence of social inequality on the generation of social problems, but are there actually more social problems among disadvantaged groups? This is the subject of debate. One answer is that social inequality produces an underclass of people who turn to crime for lack of other options. Blocked opportunity, in this argument, produces social problems—more likely among the poor and minority groups. Another answer is that, because social problems occur within disadvantaged strata of society, they are more subject to surveillance and, thus, more visible than are social problems that occur within the middle and upper classes. This area of research points to the hidden nature of social problems within more privileged communities, as well as to the increased rates of policing and other forms of surveillance, such as via social service agencies, that make social problems more likely to be detected among the poor and disadvantaged. Recognizing that identifying is part of how they are generated underscores the importance of understanding not just where problems occur but also how they are created through perceptions and judgments made in society.
Inequality and Societal Reactions
Inequality also strongly influences societal responses to social problems. Research consistently shows that victims of social problems are treated differently within various social institutions. This is especially apparent in studies of the criminal justice system, although this is not the only institutional site for seeing the influence of inequality on social problems. Yet, a multitude of studies show that the race of the accused produces differential rates of arrest, prosecution, and sentencing. Studies of rape, for example, show that not only are black perpetrators more likely to be arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced, but the rape itself is more likely to be reported when the perpetrator in black, regardless of the victim’s race. There is also an interactive effect between the race of the victim and the race of the alleged perpetrator in how justice—or perhaps better stated, injustice—is administered. Studies of the death penalty, as just one example, find strong evidence of racial discrimination in death penalty verdicts. And race of the victim, as well as race of the defendant, is an influence, with the death penalty more likely to result when the victim is a white woman. Throughout the criminal justice system, racial minorities experience disproportionate punitive treatment. They are more likely than whites to be arrested and convicted, and they are given longer sentences than whites, even when the crime is the same.
Empirical evidence of societal reactions to social problems is also evident in the influence of social class. Corporate crime, for example, if measured in terms of dollar value, is far more severe than street crime, but corporate criminals are not punished as harshly as street criminals. Furthermore, corporate crime is also less likely to be detected, and when corporate criminals are punished, they receive more lenient punishments. Gender matters, too: Together with race, gender is predictive of whether a defendant secures pretrial release.
The societal response to social problems can also be seen in the context of how clients are treated in other social institutions. The simple fact is that authorities, generally speaking, tend to treat people differently, depending on factors like class, race, and gender. Social stereotypes, even when unintentionally expressed, guide people’s judgments about one another in various realms of life. Thus, employers tend to typify black women as single mothers— regardless of the employees’ actual parental or marital status; drug offenders who most closely resemble stereotypes of dangerous drug users receive substantially more punitive sentences than those who do not conform to the stereotype; teachers’ perceptions of students’ race and ethnic status influence their judgments about the students’ likely academic success; and racial prejudice underlies public attitudes about punishment for crime with those likely to support the most punitive policies holding the racial prejudice. In each case, social judgments not only influence how people are perceived but also produce consequences for how people are treated.
This is the essential insight of labeling theory, especially when considered in the context of structural inequality. Labeling theory is the idea that, once given a “marker” (or “label”), the so-labeled identity tends to stick and others perceive that person accordingly, regardless of the person’s actual social behavior. The person so labeled may even adopt the so-designated identity, thus becoming what others perceive him or her to be. Labeling theory has been extensively applied in the study of deviant behavior, explaining how, once people are labeled as deviant, whether or not they engage in deviant behavior, they are treated as such.
Although used primarily in studies of social deviance and crime, labeling theory is also useful in thinking about other social problems. In schools, for example, who is perceived as “at risk,” and what are the consequences of this perception? Race, gender, and class strongly influence such judgments, with young black men especially vulnerable to such attributions.
Where do these social judgments originate? Although surely the mass media are not the only source of such learned assumptions, clearly media depictions of various groups and various social problems strongly influence social stereotypes. How the news portrays social problems, for example, can influence public understanding of social problems. On the one hand, the media, for example, tend to depict violence as if it were random, with anyone having an equal chance of being victimized—an assumption that directly contradicts sociological evidence of the patterned character of violence. At the same time, however, the media also portray social problems via strong class, race, and gender stereotypes. News reports on the state of the economy disproportionately discuss economic events as they affect economic elites and investors, much less often reporting on problems that affect the general workforce. The media’s depiction of welfare also shows an increased tendency to identify African American women with images of dependency. And, although media depictions of women have improved in some regard in recent years, women are still highly sexualized and degraded in popular culture. Exposure to sexualized imagery of women has an effect on men’s and women’s sexual relationships, making relationships more adversarial and making young people more accepting of interpersonal violence.
In summary, although inequality has a strong influence on the generation of the likelihood of social problems, social problems may be more evenly distributed across the population than is commonly perceived, but societal judgments influence the perception and detection of social problems. Because disadvantaged groups are more likely to be overseen by official agencies and are more likely stereotyped in the dominant culture, the appearance is created that they are more prone to social problems.
Inequality and Its Consequences
Another way to think about the influence of inequality on social problems is to examine the consequences of social problems for different groups. This can be seen at different levels—for individuals, for families and communities, and for society as a whole.
At the individual level, experiencing one social problem can lead to others. For example, studies find that having contact with the criminal justice system has a significant effect on one’s lifetime earnings, thus exacerbating the initial effect of the problem of criminal labeling. Likewise, experiencing mental illness can decrease an individual’s annual income by several thousand dollars. Sexual abuse not only is a problem in and of itself but is also a factor in high rates of school dropout, substance abuse, later sexual violence, prostitution, and even violent offending. However, the consequences of social problems are not always so devastating; social networks can facilitate coping with social problems. At the same time, disruption of one’s support networks—influenced in turn by the strength of the network—can lead to further social and psychological distress.
The ripple effect of social problems occurs not just among individuals but also in families and communities. Among college students, for example, studies find that African American students from racially segregated neighborhoods experience higher levels of family stress than do other students—largely because of the social problems found in their home communities.
Finally, social problems have consequences for society as a whole, as is illustrated by considering the costs of maintaining people in prison versus the cost of investing in education. The government, including federal, state, and local direct costs, is currently spending over $185 billion per year on correctional facilities—a 423 percent increase since 1982. This amounts to $209 per person per year in the United States. And, while educational funding in total is still higher than spending levels for correctional facilities, many argue that the increase in incarceration witnessed in recent years comes at the expense of support for education, especially at the state level. Every social problem a society faces has costly consequences—measured in both economic and social terms. The total cost of teen pregnancy to society is estimated at $9.6 billion per year, measured by summing the costs of public assistance, child health and welfare, incarceration, and lost tax revenues.
There are costs other than economic ones that cannot be measured in quantitative terms. Rising rates of fear in society, high rates of imprisonment, more gated communities (prisons for the lower class, gated housing for elites), and, potentially, greater violence all amount to societal level consequences. Furthermore, economic inequality threatens the very stability of societies and leads to more coercive social control. Cross-national research findings, for instance, show a tendency for expansion of state-based social control when there is internal economic inequality in a given society.
Inequality and Solutions
The strong correlation between inequality and social problems begs the question of what needs to be done to solve some of the nation’s most difficult problems. Many analysts are now documenting the increasing inequality characterizing the nation in the early 21st century. Should inequality grow, it is predictable that social problems will increase.
Some policies for change may only exacerbate the problems of social inequality. In education, for example, new programs, such as vouchers, charter schools, and school choice, that are intended to improve educational quality, may only increase racial and class segregation in schooling. Welfare reform, legislated to encourage work and reduce the alleged dependency of women on welfare, has unintended consequences that reproduce inequality. Welfare rolls have been reduced, but poverty has increased; more women formerly on welfare have become employed but in low-wage jobs that have not improved their economic status. And without state support, many have also lost the related benefits—such as subsidized housing, food stamps, child care, and health care—that would otherwise serve them. Thus, while welfare “dependency” may be perceived as less of a problem, homelessness and the impoverishment of women and their children may be worse than ever.
Social changes addressing social problems can come from the “bottom up” through community organizing and grassroots mobilization. Change can also come from the “top down,” through state-based action, legal and policy reform, or the application of social services. Either way, thinking about the impact of change on different social groups is a fundamental part of addressing social problem reform. Comprehensive social change engages fundamental questions of national values and the collective commitment to serving all of a nation’s people. Where is the balance between values of individual freedom and collective social justice? How can a nation maintain individual freedom to pursue economic success while also supporting a social contract to support the nation’s citizenry? Although such value-laden questions are not typically those asked by sociologists researching social problems, they are nonetheless an important component of thinking about the connection between social problems and inequality. It is unlikely that this connection will be severed, but reducing its impact can become more of a national priority.
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