Monday, December 3, 2012

Healthcare In America

The time has come to tackle a very controversial topic. Healthcare in America.

Healthcare is another area of America where our words do not line up with our actions. We espouse meritocracy and the American dream, but huge numbers of Americans have little to no access to healthcare and have been socialized to avoid doctors and hospitals like the plague (pun intended) because having to encounter modern medicine commonly leads to financial hardship or ruin. Without some guarantee for acceptable health care for all regardless of economic privilege, we can never have an equal opportunity society. 
Medicaid is the current system in place to try and keep the poor from going without healthcare, and it certainly does a lot of good. However, it is a very flawed system, and it only helps a little. It is far from effectively addressing the issue. The biggest flaw in Medicaid is that it creates a poverty trap system that severely penalizes success and forces many to remain poor. Medicaid is given based on income/assets only to adults who are extremely poor or have very little to no income. It is given to children below poverty level much more, but not their parents. So, making sure little Gracie can get her immunizations is important, but we don't really care if her dad becomes increasingly ill and unable to support her or dies of preventable illness. This means that many poor people who are below the poverty line still do not get Medicaid, but are no where near being able to afford insurance. They can be on Food Stamps and living in government housing but still not receive healthcare because they actually have a job, but only get paid just enough to keep off the street. So, if they get sick...... Well, they had better not get sick, and that is pretty much the gameplan for numerous Americans. Just don't get sick. Whatever you do don't get sick and don't see the doctor. If anything happens, work through it, ignore it, pray about it, do whatever it takes, but avoid going to the doctor at all costs (Again, pun intended). These working poor are left without health care and are punished because they are actually trying to work and accomplish more in their life. Sadly, without at least a modicum of support in areas like health care and education, their chances of achieving anything better are bleak.
On the other side of the system are those who are poor enough to receive Medicaid. They have virtually no income, and what happens if they try to get out of poverty by working and building their way up???  If they get a job and start bringing in even just part-time minimum wage this can be enough for them to completely lose Medicaid and have no health care at all. See the problem? This trap makes it clear that unless they want to be completely without any health care they only have two options. They can either somehow rocket into a lower middle class situation where they can afford good health insurance, OR they can just remain very poor and struggling to survive. Without some great windfall or magical opportunity to join the lower middle class, they can only stay poor in hopes of struggling by and at least being healthy or try to go it alone and give up their health care. Many of these poor work and try to make it even though they lose healthcare, but many also stay down because they know their chances of making it much higher in life are slim and this despair and fear cause them to cling to the little they have. So, there are many poor that Medicaid does nothing for, and for those it does help it does so at a great cost. It puts them in a poverty trap that undermines any possibility for success.
Everyone deserves to have good healthcare, so that they may have the opportunity to pursue happiness and a reasonable life. In a nation that is so affluent and advanced, providing great healthcare for all should be integral. Will ObamaCare help this??  I honestly don't know near enough about the bill to know if it will do more good than harm, and I am frustrated that so many of those who rushed the bill into action don't seem to know any more than I do about it. But, we must do something to address the massive health care inequality in the nation. Inaction is unacceptable.
D. Matthew Ray

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Lottery part 2: Understanding

This is  a continuation of the discussion in the last post, The Lottery part 1: Where's the source?
in which I responded to a Facebook post shared on the Sociological Life page, which was an article with the attention grabbing title, "Poor Households Earning $13K Per Year Spend Over $1K On Lottery Tickets."

In the last post, I gave my first response to this article, which was: Where's the source for this provocative statistic?

In this post I move on to my second response to the article, which is to say that we need to be careful not to make the "fundamental attribution error." We should carefully look at why the poor might spend money on the lottery, instead of just dismissing all poor lottery players as irrational, irresponsible, and wasteful. Homans suggested that all behavior was rational to the person acting it out, and I think that poor lottery players make rational decisions to play the lottery. The point is to try and understand their logic, even if we do not agree with it.

There are couple of sources I came across that offer some insight into this question that I want to share:

The first is an academic paper that analyzes the issue sociologically, using a macro - quant approach:  "Why the Poor Play the Lottery: Sociological Approaches to Explaining Class-based Lottery Play"
The authors found that social networks played the strongest role in influencing this behavior, and a positive correlation was found between having feelings of futility in one's work or life and playing the lottery. There results help refute the idea of poor lottery players simply being dumb or wasteful. They suggest that social factors play an important role here.

The second source I want to share with you touches on this same social network idea. This is a much more informal online article at that discusses the issue anecdotally, and it is titled, "Poor people spend 9% of income on lottery tickets; here's why." (Notice that this article refers to the same statistic I went looking for). This is not an academic text, but the author makes some valid points that relate to the results found in the academic source above. I also find his points valid based upon my experience coming from a working class poor background.

There are both social and rational influences behind the decisions of the poor to "waste" money on the lottery. The experience attached to playing the lottery may be considered worth the price regardless of outcome. As the second source mentions, for some it has become a socialized ritual that may hold a place of high value in the family, much like dinner around the table or holiday rituals for many families. Also, for a lot of people whose overall life situation feels imprisoning and hopeless, buying a ticket inspires euphoric what-if daydreams about a life free from their current stress and limits, and these daydreams provide a much needed break from harsh realities. Seeing it from these perspectives highlights the complexity involved and the problem with dismissing this whole group as irresponsible and wasteful.

From this viewpoint we can see that poor people buying lotto tickets is not much different from the middle class spending money on Christmas decorations for their family holiday rituals or vacations for that much needed get away. The middle class might spend thousands or even tens of thousands to be a beach bum or a mountain recluse while the poor people shell out $2 a pop for a small taste of the escape they will likely never get.

Again, I certainly agree that the lottery has a negative financial impact on the poor, but who am I to say that it is all just wasteful spending that has no value and serves no purpose. To dismiss this as simple stupidity or irresponsibility seems at best inconsiderate and at worse ignorant. Instead, I find myself looking at the bigger picture and asking: In the land of opportunity, what causes so many people to feel so uninspired and doubtful about their future that they find their source of hope in a gamble with impossible odds???  ... Now, there is a discussion worth having. Maybe next time.

D. Matthew Ray

The Lottery Part 1: Where's the source?

 This post about the "lotto" was actually inspired by a facebook post shared on the Sociological Life FB page, which is (Check out the FB page and feel free to comment). The post was sharing an article by conservative media man Andrew Breitbart. The article is titled "Poor Households Earning $13K Per Year Spend Over $1K On Lottery Tickets"

Let me begin my response by saying Thank You to Brandon Patterson, who shared the post. This is a disheartening headline. Also, I want to be very clear that I agree with many of the critics out there that the lottery by and large is a tax on the poor. While the lottery is certainly voluntary and legal, and I do not know enough to say whether it intentionally preys on the poor, the reality is that it does effect them substantially. Much of the money collected in the lottery comes from those who can least afford it. Ironically, I receive lottery scholarship money to help pay for my education, but I still recognize the problem.

Back to the article: I have two responses to this article. I will discuss the first one on this post, and the second in a much shorter follow up post.

The first response is a simple question: Where is the source that supports this headline???  As a sociologist I am always curious about the data. I want to see the actual methods and results associated with claims, both because I enjoy understanding the research and because media claims are often hyperbolic or outright unfounded. Finding the answer to my question proved to be more difficult than I thought.

 The only link Breitbart gives seems to be arbitrarily tied to the random word "rely" in his piece. This link leads here, to article, "How the $500 million Powerball lottery is a tax on the poor." I don't understand why Breitbart would use a bold statistic in his headline and not even give an original source or explanation for that statistic. So, my journey began to find the source of this provocative statistic. The Week article quoted and linked to Natasha Lennard at Salon (another media site), and in this quote she mentioned a version of the statistic and gave the vague credit to a PBS report earlier this year.

Therefore, I followed that link to Natasha's post, "Powerball's Dark Side."  There I saw Natasha's statement, which was actually the best supported yet in that it gave both credit and a link right there in the text for anyone to verify. Here is her statement:

"Meanwhile, a PBS report earlier this year showed that, for America’s very poorest, the lottery is a heavy expenditure: Households that earn at most $13,000 a year spend 9 percent of their money on lottery tickets." 

As you can see, she placed a helpful link to the PBS report directly in the statement. However, when I clicked on this link I found out that PBS is not the original source either. (((heavy sigh))). But, I was now very close. In the video of the PBS report (and the transcript provided below it), the reporter quotes the statistic and gives credit to the actual source: "Households earning under $13,000 per year spend about 9 percent of their income on lottery tickets, on average, according to a 2008 study from 'The Journal of Risk and Uncertainty.'"

Finally, the original source... well, at least the title of the journal where the original source came from. Unfortunately, PBS does not bother to provide any actual links or reference to the specific source. My long rabbit trail from Breitbart's grand title led me through 3 other sites in search of the source only to stop here. So, I had to google it in hopes of finding the data. This is where it gets surprising and frustrating.

I googled around and quickly found several sites espousing this statistic and referencing the same journal study, which turned out to be "Myopic risk-seeking: The impact of narrow decision bracketing on lottery play". This is the copiously alluded to source of this very provocative statistic.

Here comes the crazy part: I DO NOT SEE THIS STATISTIC IN HERE ANYWHERE. I kid you not. Numerous sites of varying degrees of credibility and prestige are parroting this same statistic, but I did not see it in the source at all! What is going on here? I am shocked. Now, I am very open to the possibility that I have somehow missed it. I did not scour the article. I did skim through all the results and even did a search by terms to try and find this statistic in case I missed it. Nothing. So, I also looked over the data to see if this statistic was derived from the data but not in the discussion. Nothing. However, I am still human and just a lowly student, so I may be wrong. In fact, I invite anyone to find what I have missed and point it out to me in the comments below or on the FB page. Honestly, I would rather be wrong on this one. I dare you! ... No, but seriously this is crazy. Where are they getting this statistic? Am I missing something?

Stay tuned for the next post to hear my second response: Understanding.

D. Matthew Ray

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Problem of Social Inequality

Social Inequality in America is a big issue. This video is a trailer for a new set of documentaries on the issue. I have to point out one flaw I saw in this clip, which is that there are multiple references to republican government officials being bought, but no specific references to democrats being bought. I find this laughably ridiculous because both sides of the aisle are chock full of purchased politicians. All of Capitol Hill is a corporate mistress in my opinion. While the republican party may be more ideally aligned with the rich, the corruption is very "bipartisan." In my opinion, the two party system is just a good puppet show that helps placate America and prevent any substantial change, but there I go getting all conspiracy theory-ish again. Hopefully, the full documentary is a little less biased.

That being said, this clip, and the website, seem to be on the right track in general. America is absurdly wealthy and developed as a nation, and yet inequality is getting worse. Why is that? Statistics show that the wealth continues to accumulate in the hands of the already wealthy. The cliche that the rich keep getting richer while the poor get poorer is in fact true. The issue here is not that some people are rich nor that some are poor. It is not about "class warfare" and despising the rich because they have and we do not. No, the problem is not about the rich having too much. Rather, it is about so many not having enough. Who cares if Richie Rich lives in a billion dollar mansion without having to work a day in his life, as long as the rest of us at least have the opportunity to work hard and afford a modest home and reasonable lifestyle that doesn't force us to beg or die young of stress-induced heart attacks from working 3 jobs to survive. Actually, some do care a lot about this dichotomy, but most Americans are okay with some inequality. Inequality is inherent and unavoidable in our society as it is, but gross levels of inequality are not unavoidable, and they are killing the American dream.

The American dream is based on meritocracy, the idea that success is based upon personal merit. If you work hard enough and play by the rules, you can and will achieve success, which is usually pictured as a middle class life that includes the picket fence and all. Is this true or did someone just make this up? Well.. It was true at one point for some people. For the great immigrant masses coming to America up until the 20th century, this idea was plausible, if not probable. This idea remained fairly accurate into the 20th century for SOME (think of the path for African-Americans or women other than picturesque married housewives). But, is it true today?  Not really. If the heart of the dream were that some people who work really hard might possibly achieve a middle class life, then it would be absolutely true. However, the idea that anyone who works hard enough and plays by the rules can achieve a middle class life (or even a noticeably better life), is simply not true. Everyone does not have this opportunity. So many are never given near enough social capital to attain this dream. For them, the American dream is a myth that haunts them daily. This is the problem of gross inequality. When conditions become such that success is primarily a matter of ascribed luck rather than merit, then the American dream dies and takes with it the hopes and futures of generations of people unlucky enough to be born outside of the privileged classes of society.

D. Matthew Ray

**Update:  Thank you to Amy Reynolds from Black, White, and Gray for pointing out this great Economist article on the issue. Especially good is the section under the heading "A long ladder is fine but it must have rungs."

Monday, November 26, 2012

Gender Socialization

Recently, in my digital rhetoric writing class an interesting thing happened. We were discussing political tweets, and about halfway through the discussion the professor stated an observation. She pointed out that the class was divided cleanly in half with all those actively participating in the discussion on one side, and all those remaining fairly quiet on the other. As it turns out one half was entirely men and the other women. It was brought up that girls are often socialized to not speak up and engage in conversations, especially about politics.

Yet, I have noticed that in general, the males dominate the conversations in the class. There is a clear gender divide. It seems to be a clear example of how boys and girls are socialized differently. Males are taught to be commanding and to take charge, whereas females are often taught to shy away from being too outspoken. The difference is very clear in my class. 

At first glance, this divide may seem harmless enough. We hear that women tend to be more driven by relationships and men by missions or goals. So, it would make sense that women would learn to be less aggressive in these conversations for the sake of maintaining good relationships right?  Perhaps. But the problem is that if women are not engaging in these conversations as much as men, then the thoughts, ideas, and overall progress of society is still being dominated by men, causing change to favor males over females. In order to achieve a truly egalitarian future, all voices need to be heard equally, and if my writing class is any indicator, we still have a ways to go.

D. Matthew Ray 

Christmas Light Show

Okay. After the last post on Black Friday I decided I needed something good to talk about. This post is pure entertainment. No profound thoughts here. Just a great Christmas light show. Whether you officially celebrate Christmas or not, there is a lot of fun to be had during this season. Case in point is this video showcasing a pretty impressive Christmas light show. Enjoy!

I can't believe it is time to say those words again already.

Merry Christmas

D. Matthew Ray

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Black Friday

Tis' the season for animalistic consumer fights! That's right. Black Friday has come again. I find it ironic that we take a special day out of each year to remember what we are thankful for and focus on valuing family and friends, and then the very next day we erupt into a capitalistic frenzy and are ready to fight anyone necessary in the name of consumerism. Black Friday is a dark day indeed.

The videos and stories are ridiculous. People get trampled and injured and are anything but grateful and kind to each other, and all for what? So that the corporate moguls can sit back and watch Americans flood the aisles like hordes of mice or roaches, trained as if by Pavlov himself to run and shove at the sight of 50% off! They laugh all the way to the bank. Meanwhile, people get injured and act atrocious.

I say do away with Black Friday!!! How awful to trivialize and demean the spirit of Thanksgiving by following it with this insidious ritual of consumerism. I have no problem with great sales, but the corporations are perfectly capable of offering great sales and driving sales without creating these terrible conditions. A great example of this is what has come to be called Cyber Monday. This allows for a similar sales hype to give good deals and boost sales, but from the safety of one's own computer where no one will get steamrolled in their quest for the latest i-gadget.

D. Matthew Ray

P.S. How do you feel about Black Friday?  Is it really worth it?