Structure, agency, and social welfare

Welcome to a sociology class

If you’re fighting the urge to break out in song in the classroom, what exactly is it telling you it may not be a great idea? Or maybe it is. Might it depend on the class (choir, perhaps, versus physics)? The number of students? The instructor, or even his/her particular mood that morning? Whether there are students in the class you know, are trying to impress, or who know your parents, or might just video the whole thing and have it uploaded to Facebook before the end of the hour? And anyway, whatever happened to free will, spontaneity, agency? Are we free to do as we please as individuals, or are our actions, perhaps even thoughts, shaped by forces large than us, forces that tend to retain their basic shape and structure over time, regardless of the individuals populating a given social world?

There are many ways to look at the social world. How much is our free will limited or shaped by culture, rules, laws, institutions (think of a prison, or a school, or a workplace, or a household)? To what extent are individuals’ actions constrained by various social, cultural, economic and political forces?  When trying to understand social phenomena–in this case we’re focused on poverty and inequality–what they are, how to identify them and how to analyze and understand them, a useful way of looking at the world is through structural and individual lenses. For instance, many of us grow up learning, from a variety of sources, that poverty is a problem of individuals who lack motivation, don’t want to work hard, etc. It’s an individual’s problem, a problem of character. And people who don’t want to work but can–the ‘able-bodied‘–deserve whatever hand they’re dealt by the economy. Framed in such a way, the solutions to poverty would tend toward addressing individuals and what they can do to make themselves “better.” In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed a welfare reform law, titled the ‘Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act’ (PRWORA). It basically increased work requirements for the poor to receive welfare, promoted publicly funded programs that encouraged marriage and abstinence, and set a five-year maximum time limit for receiving public assistance. The title–personal responsibility and work opportunity–hints pretty clearly at the approach taken.

PRWORA was not designed to address any possible structural causes of poverty, but to change welfare programs. ‘Reform’ them, the assumption being they were ‘broken.’ The solutions offered at the time suggested that the majority of members of Congress believed poverty to be caused by a lack of marriage, lack of work ethic and immorality. The message: Kids fare better when there are two (heterosexual) adults present; parents who work hard and play by the rules will be able to support their families (regardless of the minimum wage).

Okay, let’s ignore for now that some households have no children, that the elderly make up some of those people who are supposed to work hard according to the individualist ideology (not to mention those with physical or mental disabilities that make working to support themselves difficult and expensive). Let’s look at this from a more structural viewpoint. Wages have remained stagnant relative to cost-of-living increases (think housing, transportation costs, health care …). The federal minimum wage (from $5.15 in 2007 up to $7.25 after Summer 2009) even with a recent increase is at its lowest in terms of real dollar value since the 1970s. Minimum wage varies–the federal government has a ‘basement’ (with exceptions …), but many states have passed their own laws. Oregon and Washington have some of the highest rates, from $11.50/hr to $13.25/hr in Oregon (Oct 2020), in Washington from $13.50 to $15/hr (Seattle). But the federal rate of $7.25, accounting for inflation, pays workers at the same rate as 1960. In other words, people working minimum wage jobs haven’t seen any increase in their economic fortunes for over 50 years. The $15 an hour movement has gained traction in some areas, the Pacific Northwest being one of the most progressive.

Real value of minimum wage over time (adjusted in 2012 dollars)

source: Pew Research

Many of the well-paying manufacturing jobs of previous decades have been ‘outsourced’ to poor countries where people are willing to work for 1/20, even 1/100 the wage Americans were earning. That’s globalization of the economy, which will come up more than once in this course. Those better-paying (and at one time mostly union) jobs are replaced by low-wage jobs selling back to American consumers the cheap goods produced overseas that many of them can’t afford without credit cards (and personal debt). Poorly-funded K-12 school districts produce students who realistically are not prepared for college nor competitive with students coming from well-funded suburban schools with adequate property tax bases. Blacks with a college degree on average earn the same as whites with a high school degree. Consider the following (from Gorski 2008):

Are we willing, at the very least, to tackle the classism in our own schools and classrooms?

This classism is plentiful and well documented (Kozol, 1992). For example, compared with their wealthier peers, poor students are more likely to attend schools that have less funding (Carey, 2005); lower teacher salaries (Karoly, 2001); more limited computer and Internet access (Gorski, 2003); larger class sizes; higher student-to-teacher ratios; a less-rigorous curriculum; and fewer experienced teachers (Barton, 2004). The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (2004) also found that low-income schools were more likely to suffer from cockroach or rat infestation, dirty or inoperative student bathrooms, large numbers of teacher vacancies and substitute teachers, more teachers who are not licensed in their subject areas, insufficient or outdated classroom materials, and inadequate or nonexistent learning facilities, such as science labs.

And by the way, rodent infestations pervade public housing, and the problem isn’t just the animal, it’s the feces, which pulverize and cause high rates of respiratory distress. So who is going to fare well, career-wise, in that environment? People with less than a college degree? What are their aspirations, their expectations of social mobility? And . . . how are most public schools funded anyway?

Who do we blame? Individuals? Corporations? Systems?

Can the above problems and inequities of access to opportunity be attributed to individuals, or do they involve much deeper, structural, barriers to achieving the so-called ‘American Dream’ and escaping poverty? Is it an individual’s fault if his/her job, or even skill set, is ‘outsourced?’ Is it possible that a lack of marriage or motivation isn’t at the root of poverty, but that poverty may lead to decreases in marriage rates and … hope? This is a question we can ask, and address, scientifically.

Let’s take a seemingly trivial example: Why do we brush our teeth in the morning and evening? Because we as individuals choose to, right? Because we know that brushing our teeth prevents tooth decay. But how do we know this? Because of medical and dental research, because of certain scientific disciplines that study such things? Because of TV commercials telling us we’ll lose all our teeth if we don’t buy the latest high-tech product, like the smart toothbrush with a microchip?

Okay, forget the tooth decay argument. What would happen if we didn’t brush our teeth every day, besides possibly losing them (as the dentist says, ignore your teeth and they’ll go away)? We’d have lots of bacteria multiplying in our mouths, creating . . . . the dreaded halitosis. Halitosis is a term that was used by advertising geniuses at Listerine to make bad breath sound like some sort of awful disease. Even if we weren’t convinced by the dreaded halitosis, is there peer pressure to brush daily? How do we know that tongue-brushing is good for getting rid of bad breath? Who benefits from a society where unpleasant smells are stigmatized, and a vast array of products offered to prevent or mask them?

Now we’re talking structures, companies, industries, institutions, cultural and social norms, these things persist in societies–they don’t come and go as individuals do. They operate pretty much the same way no matter who works for them, who consumes their products or services, etc. People are born and die, and often experience these institutions in very similar ways–in other words, the people can be interchangeable in many cases, the structures are quite persistent. Yes, we all get to choose how to practice dental hygiene–although dental insurance is not available to everyone–but there are influences out there, often times influences we’re unaware of, and many times the messages we hear are that ‘poor people are lazy and unmotivated,’ or ‘the U.S. economy is fundamentally strong, the abuses of traders and the financial industry leading to the recession was just a typical case of few bad apples?’

As sociologist C. Wright Mills pointed out many decades ago, If one person in the country is unemployed, it might be because that person is unpleasant to work with, unproductive, and unwilling to learn on the job. NO one wants to hire him/her. But when 20 million are unemployed, then obviously something is going on in the economy that is of a more structural nature. Sure, some get hired before others, because they may have friends or a better network of contacts, more qualifications and formal education, more fluent interpersonal skills, etc. But maybe they also had more opportunities to acquire the kinds of things–like human capital–that make them more marketable? We’re back to understanding structure, class, social mobility, culture, etc.

Why were individual Arabs and Arab Americans being targeted by law enforcement in the U.S. post 9/11? Was an entire class of people being blamed and stigmatized for the actions of 19 hijackers, 15 of whom were from Saudi Arabia? Why don’t we target upper class white males because of the huge corporate scandals that precipitated a worldwide economic recession and left millions of workers without jobs or pensions? Do the structures of political power help explain this discrepancy? Who we blame for various social ills has a lot to do with who has the power to frame these issues, and access to the media to get their story told.

What is structure?

What do we mean by structure? Think of a building, a handshake, your daily routine. Most of us get up in the morning (oh! and brush our teeth!), eat breakfast, get dressed, wear pretty similar clothes as our roommates/spouses/significant others/friends, go to work/school in some sort of vehicle or mode of transportation, arrive on time for class, follow the rules laid down in the syllabi, raise our hands before speaking up in class, sit in chairs facing the front of the room, leave at the end of the class period for another class, etc. Pretty predictable critters. Why are we all so similar–because we as individuals choose to be? I’m not suggesting that we’re machines that do what we’re told, but that if, for instance, an alien were observing earthlings, it might not be able to understand very much by looking at individual explanations for our behavior. Consider this: If laziness and individual character flaw were the root causes of poverty, and tomorrow half these people living in poverty dedicated themselves to changing their lives, getting that job, and ‘making it,’ then poverty rates could be reduced by half overnight. Right??

Consider: Why are there so few women in the field of engineering? An individualist explanation might suggest that many women just aren’t cut out for the discipline. They can’t take the competition, and drop out at higher rates. Really ‘smart’ people who should know better, like former Harvard President and White House Economic Adviser Larry Summers have suggested similar things. A more structural explanation might talk about how we as a society learn about gender and gender roles (ever check out the pink toy aisles in WalMart or Toys ‘R’ Us?). How many women faculty are there in engineering to mentor women? Are boys and girls treated the same in public school settings with respect to advanced math placement? Why are there so many more women in the ‘helping’ professions, like education and nursing? Why are public school administrators predominantly male, while the teachers are overwhelmingly female? Why don’t more women become physicians (this is changing)?

An important point here is that structures persist. A building has a structure, one that is hard to change without considerable effort, and which influences the behavior of the people inside it. But in a classroom building, for instance, any given hour might look like any other–students facing the front of the room, arriving when class starts and leaving when it’s over, some hands going up, some discussion, note-taking, etc.

We all pretty much know how to use a building. Enter and exit through doorways. Pull the shads up or down to let in/block light. Use the stairways to go to another floor. Unless you can’t use stairs and need an elevator–now we’re talking about ways the structure might disadvantage, even if it wasn’t intentional.

Imagine, though that building as a metaphor for society. And let’s say this particular building represents socioeconomic status. Some people will because of their prior knowledge, their upbringing (spent more time in buildings like these …), their birthright, will have a better sense of how to use the building. Others may not ‘see’ the doors–they may be much harder to see than they are in a classroom (for instance, how does one go about applying to college? Getting into a talented and gifted program in grade school?). They may in fact try pretty hard to bust a hole in the wall, while others seem to effortlessly walk through a doorway they don’t know how to use (how to behave, even dress, in a roadside bar in rural Oklahoma, or an art gallery exhibit in Manhattan).

Poverty illustrates this example of structure. The number of people defined as poor has changed little since 1960 in the U.S., even though the U.S. economy has tripled in size during that time. Yes, the percent is less because our population has increased. But Census data show there are still close to 50 million people defined as poor, and another 1/3 of the population (over 90 million) hover close to the poverty line (at less than twice the poverty line income). In addition, most scholars believe that the definition currently in use vastly undercounts the real levels of socioeconomic hardship. Often times you’ll hear in the media people talking about how good the poor have it (the Wall Street Journal twice called them ‘lucky duckies’), laying around collecting welfare checks.

How many poor people choose poverty over affluence because it means they don’t have to work? Poverty is often times daily struggle, and receiving welfare benefits, no matter how meager, has become hard work. So what interest groups might promote the notion that poor people just need to get married and get jobs? Who would benefit if the public were to believe that people’s material failings are their own fault, and government is under no obligation to provide assistance, in fact makes things worse by creating dependency? Might low wage employers be near the top of the list of beneficiaries of such a widely held viewpoint? Would they have money to support political campaigns and lobby to influence Congress on legislation ranging from minimum wage laws to ‘pension reform?’ When the federal budget gets cut, who takes the hit? The military? Defense contractors? Or the ‘undeserving poor‘ who by golly just need to go out there and get jobs? Maybe even 2 or 3 of them?


  • Paul Gorsky. 2008. The myth of the culture of poverty. Poverty and Learning 65(7):32-36.
  • Barton, P. E. (2004). Why does the gap persist? Educational Leadership, 62(3), 8–13.
  • Carey, K. (2005). The funding gap 2004: Many states still shortchange low-income and minority students. Washington, DC: Education Trust.
  • Gorski, P. C. (2003). Privilege and repression in the digital era: Rethinking the sociopolitics of the digital divide. Race, Gender and Class, 10(4), 145–76.
  • Karoly, L. A. (2001). Investing in the future: Reducing poverty through human capital investments. In S. Danzinger & R. Haveman (Eds.), Understanding poverty (pp. 314–356). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
  • Kozol, J. (1992). Savage inequalities: Children in America’s schools. New York: Harper-Collins.
  • National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. (2004). Fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education: A two-tiered education system. Washington, DC: Author.