Despite the decline in global poverty rates over the past five or six decades, the gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow ever wider, especially in the industrialized West. Three scholars—Michèle Lamont, Peter A. Hall, and Paul Pierson—discuss how housing and education can actually reinforce inequality, and who in our society is seen as “deserving” of getting help, or not, and how that has changed over time.
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Paul Pierson has studied “superstar cities,” such as San Francisco and New York, that have become places that concentrate wealth and opportunities for advancement but have exorbitant housing costs. He compares those cities to Paris or London, which have a different policy landscape for affordable housing. Peter Hall describes how middle and upper income families in the US hoard opportunities for their children, a process that actually begins in preschool. And he offers a method for making university admissions more equitable. Michèle Lamont describes the power of institutional or state narratives in shaping the collective understanding of who’s welcome and deserving of support.
Our guests represent three different disciplines—sociology, government, and political science—and they collaborated with other contributors for a special edition of the journal Dædalus, published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. This special issue focuses on various systems of inequality in the US and Europe with insightful historical and comparative context.
Lamont, Hall, and Pierson are all former directors of the Successful Societies Program at CIFAR, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, which studies the ways in which healthy societies work. Each is a current or former affiliate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University, where this podcast was produced.
Kathleen Molony, Director, Weatherhead Scholars Program.
Michèle Lamont, Weatherhead Center Director and Faculty Associate (on leave 2019–2020). Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies; Professor of Sociology and of African and African American Studies, Departments of Sociology and African and African American Studies, Harvard University.
Peter A. Hall, Weatherhead Center Faculty Associate. Krupp Foundation Professor of European Studies, Department of Government, Harvard University.
Paul Pierson, John Gross Professor of Political Science, University of California at Berkeley.
Michelle Nicholasen, Editor and Content Producer, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.
- Dædalus: Inequality as a Multidimensional Process (Summer 2019)
- "The Rise of Opportunity Markets: How Did It Happen & What Can We Do?" by David B. Grusky, Peter A. Hall, and Hazel Rose Markus (Dædalus, Summer 2019)
- “'Superstar Cities' & the Generation of Durable Inequality" by Patrick Le Galès and Paul Pierson (Dædalus, Summer 2019)
- "Membership without Social Citizenship? Deservingness & Redistribution as Grounds for Equality" by Irene Bloemraad, Will Kymlicka, Michèle Lamont, and Leanne S. Son Hing (Dædalus, Summer 2019)
- American Sociological Association
- Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR)
- American Academy of Arts and Sciences
- Getting Respect: Responding to Stigma and Discrimination in the United States, Brazil & Israel (Princeton Press, 2018)
- American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper (Simon & Schuster, 2016)
[00:00:00] Kathleen Molony: Welcome to the roundtable discussion from the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. We are a research institute that supports comparative, multidisciplinary research on complex social, international and global issues. I'm Kathleen Molony, director of the Weatherhead Scholars Program.
[00:00:22] Kathleen Molony: Today, our subject is inequality, or more specifically, the persistence of inequality. What are the inequality feedback loops that concentrate resources for the rich while shutting out opportunities for the less well-off? We've heard the back story before.
[00:00:43] Kathleen Molony: Despite the decline in global poverty rates over the past five or six decades, the gap between rich and poor continues to grow ever wider, especially in the industrialized West. Today, we're going to take a close look at a few familiar systems that actually reinforce inequalities while doing business as usual—namely, housing and education. And then we'll dive into the collective data to find out which groups in our society are seen as deserving of help to get ahead and which ones aren't. We're talking with two current and one former Weatherhead Faculty Associates, Michèle Lamont, Peter Hall, and Paul Pierson. Michèle Lamont is director of the Weatherhead Center. She's the Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies, professor of sociology and of African and African American studies at Harvard University. A past president of the American Sociological Association, she most recently coauthored the book Getting Respect: Responding to Stigma and Discrimination in the United States, Brazil and Israel. Peter A Hall is the Krupp Foundation Professor of European Studies in the Department of Government at Harvard University. Paul Pierson is the John Groves Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. He has authored and coauthored several books, most recently, American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper. Welcome, Michèle, Peter, and Paul.
[00:02:27] All guests: Thank you. Thank you.
[00:02:29] Kathleen Molony: It's important to mention what else our guests have in common. All three have directed the Successful Societies program at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, or CIFAR, a project that studies the conditions that lead to better health, well-being, and prosperity for individuals and communities. Finally, each is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which is featuring their papers along with those of other scholars in the current issue of Daedalus entitled Inequality as a Multidimensional Process. One interesting thing about this journal issue is that it brings together scholars from many different fields: sociology, political science, history, psychology, and more.
[00:03:14] Kathleen Molony: And I'm going to turn to you first, Peter Hall. We'd like to think that our country provides equal opportunity to everyone. In your paper, you and colleagues David Gursky and Hazel Markus focus on what you call opportunity markets in the United States, which implies that opportunity is for sale; you have to buy it. And you illustrate this in the case of education. It's becoming harder for low income students to take advantage of good quality education, while wealthier families seem to hoard all the opportunities. Can you explain how this cycle starts as early as preschool age?
[00:03:53] Peter Hall: Yes, I think the core background point is that in the world, the world in which my father grew up, for instance, where he went to high school in the 1920s, it was possible to get a very good middle class job with a high school education. And there was a good deal of uniformity in the quality of high school education across localities, across districts, within cities. Today, as a result of technological developments, economists would say, say skill, biased technological change, really access to the middle class turns very heavily on having a college education and having a college education—access to a college education—of course, depends to some degree on financial resources, but it really also depends on having the kind of resumé that selective colleges in particular are looking for. And it turns out that developing that resumé is a very expensive process and one that begins really in preschool between the ages of 1 and 4. You know, we're talking about test scores, we're talking about good grades, we're talking about leadership and extracurricular activities are the sorts of things that the Harvards, the Stanfords, the Berkeleys, the NYUs look for. And, you know, good test scores, of course, depend on effort, but they also depend on really a set of capacities that children begin to develop in the preschool years. This is now well-established by a number of scholars. And of course, you know, 50 years ago when my father was growing up, the preschool years took place largely inside the family. But since then, women have moved into the workforce in large numbers two-earner families are the norm rather than the exception. And so parents have to look outside for some kind of daycare or some kind of preschool. But of course, in this country, preschool is not publicly provided. It's something you have to purchase. And so you need money to get high quality daycare, high quality preschool. And that, in a sense, prepares your child for higher educational achievement and ultimately entry into the college education, which is the ticket, if you like, to a middle class life.
[00:06:27] Kathleen Molony: So, you know, they're just living in a middle class neighborhood already puts you at such an advantage for later in life. Besides access to good schools, what are the other benefits you get if you are fortunate enough to live in a middle class neighborhood?
[00:06:43] Peter Hall: Well, as we all know, and certainly every parent in America knows, access to good quality schools turns on the capacity to purchase a house in an area with good schools. And that has become increasingly important over recent decades as economic segregation has intensified. That is to say, again, 50 years ago, more districts were mixed, mixed with working class, middle class, wealthy families. Today, they're much more divided between affluent families, less affluent families. And so getting into a good high school which can prepare you for university is important. But you're quite right, Kathy, to point out that it's not just the quality of the schools that you're purchasing. Moving into a middle class neighborhood, you're also getting access to social networks. Your kids are mixing with other children, other adolescents who are oriented in many cases towards college, who have what my colleague Hazel Marcus calls "neoliberal selves," that is selves that are aspirational, that are oriented to expressing themselves, doing the best they can, articulate and therefore well-prepared to construct exactly the kind of resumé that gets you into a selective university.
[00:08:10] Kathleen Molony: In your article, Peter, you were describing the United States. Is it like this in other countries?
[00:08:17] Peter Hall: Well, it varies enormously by country. I think one of the key factors that we find in the US is that public education, primary and secondary education, is funded largely by local property taxes. And that, of course, is the driver for distinguishing between neighborhoods that are affluent and those that are less affluent. The affluent neighborhoods can afford to support high quality schools. In many other countries or in some other countries, especially in northern Europe, daycare, preschool, is publicly provided. That's been true in France, for instance, for more than 100 years. So in many other countries, the provision of what we might think of as public goods, especially bearing on education, running all the way from preschool right through college, which in some of these countries is also free, it really makes a big difference. Whereas in this country, partly because of this neoliberal set of ideas that have become so important in recent decades, the notion is that the market is more efficient. And of course, on markets, you have to buy goods. And in this case, people are ultimately purchasing access to higher education—and that in turn means that that's being rationed by their income.
[00:09:39] Kathleen Molony: And it's interesting, Peter, when you talk about what's happening in other countries and the cost of college, the cost of college in this country is actually prohibitive in many cases for many people, as you suggest. When it comes to college, aren't there more entry ramps for kids with minimal resources? Don't they already offer help to low income students in the form of financial aid, government loans and priorities for diversity and first generation students? Does this make an impact?
[00:10:06] Peter Hall: Yes, I think it does have an impact, and it's very important. The expansion of financial aid in recent years, especially by selective universities, has been very important. There's no question about that. The emphasis on admitting first generation students, not to mention the emphasis on racial and ethnic diversity that many selective institutions now promote, those things are very important. But our argument would be that there are too little, too late. First of all, because our access to university doesn't depend simply on the capacity to pay for it, it depends on the capacity to get into it with a kind of merit projecting resumé, if you like. And as I've just been saying, those resumes are built up over the first 15 or 18 years of a child's life. So the problem begins even in daycare, even prior to entry to primary school. And it's there, of course, that these income differences make—are so important because there may be loans to allow you to enter a college. But there are no loans there, and indeed, probably very little take up if there were, that allow you to purchase high quality daycare.
[00:11:23] Kathleen Molony: Peter Hall, you propose a way to make access to higher ed more equitable—economic affirmative action. Can you explain how this would work?
[00:11:32] Peter Hall: Yes. You know, the alternative is out there. It involves probably a massive redistribution of resources and income towards those with lower incomes. And indeed, I'd be in favor of a good deal of that. Another alternative would be to provide more of these services as public goods in the way that many northern European countries do. So there are alternatives. But we worry that the political will to do that is at the moment weak in the US, although we'll see what happens after this presidential election. And so we suggest something that could be done immediately—which is admittedly radical, but not inordinately expensive for the country—and that is we suggest that beginning with some pathbreaking selective institution which wants to take the lead here, that universities consider admitting students according to the income tranches of their families. That is to say, students in the first income decile would be competing against other students from families in that decile for entry into college. Students in the fifth decile, again competing against students from families in that decile and and so on. Now, you wouldn't have to do it by deciles. You could do it in some even more finely-grained way. But the idea would be to render this competition a little more fair, to take family income out of the equation and admit students based on a competition—admittedly, a there might be one admissions officerwho looks at families in the 10 income decile, for instance, but still competition, which is more fair because family income is taken out of the equation. Now, this would—this is, in some ways a radical proposal. I don't think we're going to see it tomorrow in part because, of course, this would require more financial aid from the universities and it would require efforts to shift teaching in ways that support students whose background might not be the same as those from the top 1 percent. But the point here is that if you look at the most selective, highest ranked 38 universities in America, you find that they admit more students from families in the top 1 percent of the income distribution than families in the bottom 60 percent of the income distribution altogether. And we see that as a fundamental contradiction for the American dream, if you like, the notion that this country always has and should promote equality of opportunity.
[00:14:17] Kathleen Molony: Paul Pierson: Superstar cities—New York, San Francisco, London, and Paris. What are they and why are they so desirable?
[00:14:29] Paul Pierson: Well, I think the easiest way to summarize that is it actually builds on what Peter was talking about in his paper in some ways that the underlying cause of a lot of this is a tremendous economic transformation that these countries have been undergoing, which has to do with a shift from a primarily industrial economy to a knowledge economy. And that has profound effects on job markets, as Peter was describing, and on what the paths to opportunity are. And in our paper, we look at it rather than looking at the educational side of the story, we're looking at actually something that I think in a lot of ways is similar that plays out in where people are located and their access to opportunities based on where they're located. And with the rise of the knowledge economy—and we don't we don't write about Boston in our paper, but you could see the same thing here in Cambridge and Boston, if you just go down Mass Ave a little bit, or around MIT, and you see all of the glass and steel that's going up because that's a dynamics center for the economy, where knowledge is being turned into economic production. And so economic activity becomes much more concentrated in the knowledge economy, geographically concentrated, than was the case with the industrial economy. And so people are looking for opportunity, want to get into these spaces. But entry to the spaces is really tightly limited by whether or not you can afford to live in these places.
[00:15:58] Kathleen Molony: You've shown a dynamic happening in these hotspots, as you just mentioned, where access to them is dependent on the money and wealth you have. You even declare if your parents don't already own property, that you will inherit it. You probably cannot afford to buy a home or even rent in these cities. So large numbers of working people are disqualified from living in places like New York, San Francisco, London, or even Boston. If they move far outside the city, how does this put them at a disadvantage? How does this become a vicious cycle?
[00:16:31] Paul Pierson: Well, it's worth unpacking a little about why it matters where you live. And one way to describe— so my coauthor in this paper, Patrick Le Galès from Sciences Po in Paris, describe this as their kind of escalator opportunities when you live in these cities. You get in on the ground floor, maybe above the ground floor, and you can you can move up because there are just tremendous economic opportunities in these places. You have you can access networks with other people who are highly skilled, there are dense job markets, because there are lots of dynamic firms that are located in or near these places. There are cultural amenities that pull people in, cities have become hip again. We talk about even marriage markets. People increasingly—a big part of inequality now is that you have two professional couples, so you have two high income people in one household. And one of the attractive things to a lot of young people with high skills about these cities is there are a lot of other young people with high skills and good economic opportunities. So if you can get onto the escalator that exists in these places, you really have a lot of opportunities to build on whatever economic advantages maybe you already have, following from some of the processes that Peter was talking about. So if you don't have easy access to that, there really are a couple of possibilities. One is that you sort of stay in that general area, but you drop down. And as housing becomes more unaffordable, that can mean you end—actually mean that you end up on the street. It can also mean for a lot of people that you end up commuting from very long distances in order to work at maybe not very good jobs in these superstar cities. And of course, that takes an enormous toll on one's psyche, on one's opportunities for other kinds of activities, on one's family. It's expensive to do that. So that's a very disadvantageous move to have to make. And then in many other cases, you can move not just to the outskirts of these agglomerations, but you end up moving to someplace else where it's more affordable to live. Or if you're—the other thing that's happening here is that people who might previously have moved to these cities are now are blocked from entry. And so they either stay where they are, and in fact, geographic mobility in the US is declining, or they move not to where the economic opportunities are the greatest to but where things are affordable. And either way, you know, whether you're moving to the margins of these cities or whether you're ending up in some other location altogether, opportunities that might have been available to you for economic advancement, for social advancement, are going to be cut off.
[00:19:30] Kathleen Molony: You mentioned, Paul, that some of these cities are becoming hip again. That suggests that they weren't always necessarily attractive to a number of people. And I'd like to look back in history. Has it always been like this?
[00:19:45] Paul Pierson: Well, no, it really hasn't been like this. This really is striking. And I think for many, an unexpected transformation. And we've seen it in my lifetime. I mean, when I was going to college visiting New York was seen—you know, it was a sketchy place in a lot of ways. And and I think that there was enormous concern about economic decline in urban areas in the US and and in other advanced industrial societies. So the shift, I think unexpected in many ways, is the—ramifications of the shift in the overall structure of the economy, away from manufacturing, towards a more knowledge based economy, has just had revolutionary effects on cities, and obviously for many cities, many of these effects are positive. It's been a sharp drop in crime in most major cities, and that's—sources of that are complicated. But the fact that there are better economic opportunities in those cities is clearly part of the story there. So a lot of these effects are positive, certainly positive for the cities. But there have been a lot of negative effects as well and a lot of unanticipated effects. And those often fall especially sharply on those who can't afford to play the game that's on offer in those cities.
[00:21:06] Kathleen Molony: Paul, are there cities that do a better job of providing low income housing, the cities you provide as examples have challenges, though you do mention Paris in your paper. Can you explain why this city has been more successful? Are there other examples?
[00:21:23] Paul Pierson: Well, so one of the things that was really interesting to me in working on this paper and working on it with with the French sociologist and political scientist was a chance to explore, to think about, what's going on in the United States, but to put it in comparative perspective. And as Peter was pointing out before, that even though all these countries are experiencing this shift to the knowledge economy, things look quite different on the ground in different places. So in addition to looking at San Francisco, New York, we looked at London and Paris. London in many ways looks a lot like San Francisco and New York—there are always distinctions in each of these places, but the basic story is, is actually pretty similar, I think. Paris really looks quite different. It really, it faces many of the same pressures, but in a more muted form and in a form that has continued to provide some space in a very successful city for lower income and middle income households. And there are a number of things that have gone into that. And I'll just mention three. One is a huge investment in social housing or in more affordable housing. I mean, it's really stunning. In the in the core of Paris, more social housing is constructed every year than in the entire state of California. California has been struggling with this problem for years, but it can't marshal the financial resources for reasons that—I mean, the politics of this or would require some some unpacking—but it can't muster the financial resources that would allow that kind of construction of social housing. The second thing that they have done in France is that they don't let individual communities say we're not going to participate in addressing the housing affordability crisis. And there is a problem that you see in other instances is, it makes sense for each community and often whether it's a neighborhood or whether it's a municipality or whether it's a suburb to say, yes, there's a problem here, but we want to just leave, we just want to stay out of it. We want to—we've got a nice, comfortable neighborhood for our homeowners, and we're not going to do anything to address these problems. Social scientists would call this a collective action problem. And so in France, what they've done is they've come in and told all of the local jurisdictions, you are going to be fined if you don't participate actively in helping to produce a solution to this problem. And then the third thing that they've done in France is that they financed the kind of infrastructure that you need to make this development work, massive investments in subway systems, for example. And, you know, there really is you know, it's not all top down planning, but there's a really extensive effort to think, OK, if we're going to try to increase the supply of housing to make these areas more affordable, then we have to invest the resources that are going to make that work and keep life livable for people, for people in these cities. So, you know, just going through that description, you can probably guess that what's behind that is a stronger national state that is committed to investing in these kinds of issues and has the capacity to do that. So ultimately, we say the reason why parents is different is because France is different.
[00:24:51] Kathleen Molony: Do you see any possibility that something like this could happen in the United States or in the United Kingdom in London?
[00:25:00] Paul Pierson: Well, the politics are challenging. And I think that the first—if one wanted to be an optimist about this and I struggle to be an optimist about this, given some of the trends. But one thing to recognize is the fact that some countries have managed to wrestle more effectively with these challenges. That by itself suggests that these problems are not inevitable. It suggests that politics and the character of politics really matters. Obviously, in the US, it's a heavy lift to do some of the stuff that the French have done. It would require a commitment to raising resources on a national level and deploying them to address urban challenges that I think actually it's more plausible to imagine how that could be done in the UK. The UK I think is actually an interesting case because there you kind of have the political institutional arrangements that would allow you to do this. Local autonomy is actually pretty limited in a lot of ways. But there hasn't been the political will to make it happen. In the US, our political system is actually much more decentralized and so telling localities that they have to do things, that they have to participate in wrestling with this problem, that's a heavier lift in the US. Though I do see signs in this direction. So in California, for example, Sacramento has for the first time really started to get involved in housing issues. And much of that is directed towards trying to overcome these collective action problems and put tougher requirements on, you know, affluent suburbs, for example, but also municipalities that just, you know, are zoned to protect current homeowners and protect their their assets rather than build the kind of housing that people needed to make things affordable. You can see the state government in California, because it is such a clear crisis, becoming more involved in these issues. It's not enough yet, but they're just in the last—I would say in the last four or five years—the change in the mood in Sacramento, the sense that this is a crisis and the kinds of legislation that are being discussed actively there, there's been a really dramatic change.
[00:27:09] Kathleen Molony: So solutions, Paul, if they're going to come, will come on the local level rather than on the national level. You see localities making some improvements. You mentioned Sacramento, for example.
[00:27:22] Paul Pierson: Well, I think it has to come at multiple levels. And of course, one of the things that's been really exciting about the project in this group is that it combines a range of scholars, some of whom are more focused on different levels of what's going on in society. And so we've spent a lot of time trying to think about how really exploring these simultaneously can give you insights on where problems come from and how they might be addressed. And again, I think the paper that Peter and his coauthors produced is a great example of that. I actually think an important part of our paper is to suggest that localities on their own are very unlikely to deal effectively with these problems. They don't have the resources, and they don't really have the incentives to deal with these problems. They have the incentives to play this kind of beggar-thy-neighbor game. And it's only when you zoom out from the United States to other countries, I think that you can actually see clearly that this is not just a failure of the mayor of New York or the mayor of San Francisco or the mayor of Boston. It's a problem about the way authority and resources and incentives are allocated in the American system. And so I would say, I actually think you do need a strong role for the federal government in the long run, certainly if you want to build a fair amount of low income housing. But state governments—and there I think there is more reason for optimism in the short run—state governments actually do have the authority to tell localities that they can't have zoning rules, for example, that simply prevent the construction of housing that would help to deal with these problems. So, yes, what what mayors try to do is really important. But one of the really important things that mayors have to do is is to lobby their state governments and the national government.
[00:29:13] Kathleen Molony: Is the solution simply building more low income housing or raising the inheritance tax? Or are there other possible ways to mitigate the high cost of housing?
[00:29:24] Paul Pierson: So I'm not a housing economist. I've read a lot of housing economics to try to work on this paper. I mean, first of all, so there is a peculiar problem, which is that which is a piece of what's going on, especially in a few cities like London and New York, to a lesser extent San Francisco, which is people parking money in real estate. And by people, I mean, a lot of it is international money. There is a lot of capital in the top tenth of one percent or one hundredth of one percent looking for a home and real estate becomes a place to park it. And so one thing that's driving prices in some of these places is, is that kind of dynamic. And so I think there are some things you could do to shift the financial incentives, including work on the inheritance tax that we talk about in the paper. But my basic view, drawing on the most persuasive housing economists that I read, is that the fundamental problem in a lot of these places is a lack of supply. Because of changes in the economy, demand has increased dramatically. And especially demand of people who have a lot of money and so they can bid up the prices of things to get housing right. So it's like a game of musical chairs, where the music is playing faster and faster. And so for those who are not fast enough and in this case that that means don't have enough money, they're going to they're going to fall behind. And so building housing, building housing, building housing, I think is really the overarching thing. And I would say why obviously, it's very helpful for maintaining the economic and social diversity of a community to do as much as one can with social housing, just building more housing, I think the evidence suggests, would be extremely useful—because you increase the overall stock and it is going to shift, it's going to shift the whole market. Now, that's controversial. But I think the weight of the evidence is pretty strongly in favor of that. So you often get arguments, and there are complex issues here, but you often get arguments that resist new developments because they're seen as high end developments. But if you don't build that kind of housing in the context of these agglomeration economies, what's going to happen is that the very—those with the most money are just going to bid up the price of the other available housing. So I do think you really would relieve pressure on house prices in the medium run if you did whatever you could to just allow people to build more housing.
[00:32:06] Kathleen Molony: So, Michèle, let's pick up on what we've just heard from Peter and from Paul and tie together with your piece that uses the term "deservingness." Can you describe what deservingness means?
[00:32:21] Michèle Lamont: Deservingness refers to shared understanding of who are the worthy citizens, people who are perceived as having lived by the rules, following what we may call, you know, scripts of cultural membership, demonstrating that they have achieved a high level of education, that they abide by the American dream, that they are interested in home ownership, that they're with the program, basically. And this notion is largely taken for granted in the American context. It is largely equated with being able to consume, which ties with what Paul was just telling us about the importance of homeownership. And this notion has been associated with the kind of hegemony or domination of the middle class lifestyle, which means that those who don't meet these standards are somewhat stigmatized. You have boundary that is thickening or hardening, separating those who can follow the scripts of living and those who can't. So it also means that, for instance, the poor low income people become more stigmatized, more excluded. And if we look at cross national survey data on perceptions of the poor, you see this quite clearly. The poor are more stigmatized in the US than they are in other advanced industrial societies, which also translates into less willingness for citizens to adopt policies or support policies for the redistribution of resources. There's a kind of feedback loop in discouraging or moving away from policies that would lead to greater distribution.
[00:34:16] Kathleen Molony: You suggest, Michèle, then, that there is a tension between more inclusiveness, but at the same time people are being stigmatized. Is that correct?
[00:34:26] Michèle Lamont: Well, the article that I coauthored with Irene Bloemraad who's an expert of social movements, Will Kymlicka, who is a political philosopher, and Leanne Son Hing who's a social psychologist, argues that we have witnessed the double movement, one where ascribed characteristics—by which we mean race, gender, ethnicity, the categories in which we're born—have become less salient when we think about who deserves having access to collective resources in the US. So we now have affirmative action policies for women, for people of color, with the goal of breaking down the traditional boundaries, lowering discrimination. And this suggests really a secular movement of growing inclusion for these groups, since World War II. And the paper argued that simultaneously, toward the poor, we have seen harsher deservingness attitudes, which means that the poor are viewed as less deserving today than they were a few decades ago. So that's a kind of internal contradiction, which we're trying to make sense of in our paper by juxtaposing the analytical tools from our respective field. And it's a very, in my humble opinion, an interesting paper, because you very rarely see an attempt by scholars to deploy different frameworks to make sense of an empirical phenomenon.
[00:35:59] Kathleen Molony: What struck me in particular, Michèle, was that you even break down what you describe or identify as "the poor." The poor can be the elderly poor or African Americans or immigrants. Are there different attitudes towards these particular groups?
[00:36:19] Michèle Lamont: Well, these groups are often distinguished in terms of how much are they responsible for their plights. So we know, for instance, that surveys on attitudes toward the poor, those for whom there's least sympathy, are the able bodied, middle aged white men who are supposed to be able to work, whereas mothers with dependent children, the elderly, people have much more compassionate feelings toward them. And groups that are perceived as mooching—you know, the sponges—I did a number of interviews with working class men for one of my previous books. And this question of, you know, with the workers attitude, if I work really hard all day and if there's one category of people that cannot stand is sponges, you know—that my hard work should allow other people to be lazy and sit on their couch and watch TV—and that that attitude is very, very powerful. Yet it's not universal. In France, for instance, when I did interviews there, that was far more the attitude that the nature of capitalism is that there will always be unemployed people and that workers will be unemployed sometimes even if they are hard working. But what we know over the last decades is that there is now a convergence in attitude toward the unemployed in France and the US, where in France they are equally asked to demonstrate self-reliance, which suggests that these models of deservingness, that our paper talks about, are historical models. They are not based in human nature. And this is very important because in the current literature you will hear—if you listen to NPR, for instance—often you will hear references to the pro social, which would presume that, you know, we have instinct almost to be generous toward people or not. Well these categories of deservingness are really central to how we think about who we're going to be pro social in relation to, and it's tied to the notion of individualism and meritocracy and the American dream, which are not eternal, which are scripts that help orient how we lead our lives. Our model for living. So a lot of what our special issue is concerned with is also how these models for recognition, these cultural scripts, are having an impact on inequality. And if I think about what Paul Pierson was just describing in terms of spatial segregation or Peter Hall was mentioning models for funding schools, well, what we know is that there's the frequency of inter-class contact has declined drastically in the United States. And this is affecting who people believe is deserving. As an upper middle class person who lives in a neighborhood where most people you encounter live in the top 20 percent of the population, it's very easy to have a very fuzzy view of who are these people or in the lower quintile and to be much less likely to want to give them a deservingness as well. So the spatial polarization of our society is really feeding models of deservingness that are becoming more narrow.
[00:39:38] Kathleen Molony: Michèle, you mentioned the United States and you mentioned France. How does this compare to other countries? Is this universal? You suggest that as well.
[00:39:48] Michèle Lamont: Well, there's a large literature on the Nordic countries as examples of countries where there is more solidarity towards the bottom half, and it is true for Canada as well; you also have diversity and national identity such as the Canadian identity, which celebrates multiculturalism. So it makes a very big difference, what messages are being diffused. You know, to have a prime minister like Justin Trudeau, who has been defining his brand as the celebration of multiculturalism, although he has not been entirely coherent in this. But such, you know, politicians are really spreading messages about who should be considered as deserving in our society. And I remember shortly after he was elected, he—there was a video on Facebook of him doing Bhangra dancing, and then he nominated several Sikhs to his cabinet. So this very much sends implicit messages about who is at the center of the society. And the argument of our special issue is that these are models of recognition of who belongs that truly makes a very big difference in who gets what. Because those who are not viewed as legitimate members of society end up more easily pushed at the margin. And it also affects what resources they may have access to.
[00:41:15] Kathleen Molony: How can one challenge biased perceptions of belonging in an environment like this?
[00:41:21] Michèle Lamont: Well, people have been discussing a lot recently meritocracy as a criteria for belonging. We've had not only the scandals with the parents trying to find ways to get their kids in the elite schools in illegal fashion and the denunciations of how meritocracy reinforces inequality, because people believe that people who get into elite schools are there simply due to their own achievement or merit. And the paper by Grusky, Hall, and Markus shows very much how, in fact this is fed by inequality. The helicopter parents who are obsessed with opportunity hoarding, with ensuring that their kids have all the advantages possible, really suggests more of a movement of accumulations of advantages. And students of inequality emphasize opportunity, hoarding, and closure as central mechanisms through which inequality is reproduced. So I think our special issue is very much concerned with meritocracy as an ideology that contributes to this monopolization.
[00:42:42] Kathleen Molony: All of you describe the age we are living in, at least in Western industrialized countries, as the neoliberal age where people are focused on their own personal gains and achievements and are less and less inclined to see others as deserving of help, where everything has a price and must be purchased on the market, even opportunity. As you each have pointed out, our country has no stomach for monetary redistribution. So what's the next best strategy for evening the playing field for the groups who can't afford access to the opportunities and services that could help propel them forward?
[00:43:18] Peter Hall: I might make two points about that. The first, and I think it's a very important point, is that we shouldn't feel that the challenge lies entirely in the hands of government. It also lies in the hands of the other institutions that are so central to our lives. Universities would be one example, and I've already mentioned some ways in which elite institutions could even the opportunity to reign, if you like, companies, firms, are another, you know, to the extent that they are attentive to the needs of their stakeholders and indeed there are many kinds of employees as opposed to simply their shareholders, then we can get progress on these fronts. The second point I'd make is that when we think about redistribution, we usually think about increasing taxes on the rich and giving more money to the poor. And that would probably be a good idea in this country. But I think it might be even more useful, and certainly politically useful, to think think in terms of expanding the ambit of public services. You know, we can think about libraries, at least in an earlier age, which are being closed at a rapid rate because there is no funding for them. But in the 21st century, we should also think about digital infrastructure. It's striking how many people in this country do not have access to high speed Internet and all that that brings. We could think about adequate health care, access to adequate health care as a kind of public service. We can talk about daycare as a kind of public service. And although providing public services isn't necessarily targeted on the less affluent or the poor, it's something from which all citizens can benefit. Nonetheless, it's often those with the fewest personal or household resources who benefit the most from them. And I think that's something we should think about.
[00:45:19] Paul Pierson: So I think I would actually challenge the premise that there is no stomach for redistribution in the US. I—if you ask people what's your biggest complaint about the tax system, the answer that you will get is that the rich don't pay their share. And that's true even of Republican voters. So there are clearly huge political obstacles, but that really calls out for a political strategy to address it. And I think especially given how unequal economic rewards have become in the US, that also opens up opportunities, because it actually is the case—it hasn't always been the case, but it actually is the case now—that if you raise taxes on those in the very top income brackets, you know, very top income brackets, just, you know, somewhat back to where they were a generation and a half ago, you would produce a lot of revenue that could do a lot of the things that Peter is talking about. So—and I think that there is a real prospect for a kind of virtuous political circle, in which you start to restore people's faith a little bit that government could actually do something that might help them make their lives better. And that creates that that that shifts things in a direction. And combined with political reforms that open up the democratic process more than is the case in the US, would open up the possibility for doing more. And I guess I would just close with again, I think it's a really important reminder of the arguments that have been made in this program, is that the US is really a very striking and in many ways an unusual case. You can see elements of this in other countries, but it's by far the most pronounced in the United States. And what that suggests to me is that there are alternative possibilities and that the problems that we face are fundamentally political problems, that you could actually—it's not it's not that these problems are intractable. It's that the politics in the US, as it is currently configured, makes it difficult to address them.
[00:47:31] Michèle Lamont: Yes, I very much agree with what Peter and Paul have said. I'd like to gesture toward a third approach, which would be more at the level of thinking about the implicit messages that are associated with the policies that are adopted. An example would be a when 32 states adopted same sex marriage laws, you had immediately a decline in number of LGBTQ youth who attempted suicide across these states. So we have to keep in mind that institutional messages are very important and signaling who belongs and who does not. And if we were to ask policymakers to systematically think about all policies that are being adopted, not only in terms of their impact on economic redistribution, but also on the cultural messages that these policies are sending in terms of who's in an out, that would be already an enormous step. So that points to the virtue of a multidimensional and multidisciplinary approach. Inequality is a multidimensional phenomenon, and it has to be attacked simultaneously from many angles.
[00:48:52] Kathleen Molony: This has been a really fascinating discussion and gives us a lot to think about when it comes to the dimensions of inequality. I want to thank our speakers, Michèle Lamont, Peter Hall, and Paul Pierson. I'm Kathleen Molony, director of the Scholars Program at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, a research center at Harvard University that supports interdisciplinary conversations just like this.
Photo credit: Martha Stewart