Cities are hubs of human activity, supercharging the exchange of ideas and interactions. Scaling theory has established that, as cities grow larger, they tend to produce more of pretty much everything from pollution and crime to patents and wealth. On average, people in larger cities are better off economically. But a new study published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface builds on previous research that says, that’s not necessarily true for the individual city-dweller. It turns out, bigger cities also produce more income inequality.
“Previous literature has looked at [urban scaling] through a lens of homogeneity,” says Santa Fe Institute (SFI) Omidyar Fellow Vicky Chuqiao Yang, an author on the study. These studies have shown a per-capita increase in wealth as cities grow. “But we know from other literature, especially in economics, that many societies are unequal and economic outputs are not distributed evenly.”
Using data from municipal areas across the U.S., the authors took another look at urban wealth through a lens of heterogeneity. Breaking the income in their dataset into deciles, the team found that, as cities grow larger, the top ten percent of income earners gain an increasingly large portion of the wealth.
“For a long time, what has often been thought about in urban scaling is the whole system,” says co-author Chris Kempes, also of the Santa Fe Institute along with co-author Geoffrey West. Kempes and West have worked closely together to study scaling relationships in systems from cities to biological organisms.
But it’s not just wealth that tends to increase as cities grow; the cost of living also increases. So, the authors factored in an adjustment for housing prices. With that adjustment, their analysis showed that, as cities get bigger, the housing costs increase at a faster rate than lower-decile income.
“For the lower decile, there is no proportional increase in wealth. So, the city is not increasing economic benefit, but it’s not decreasing it either,” says Kempes. “However, since costs do go up, the experience of the poorest individuals gets worse.”
Across the world, civilization is undergoing rapid urbanization. More than half the world’s humans currently live in urban settings, and in the coming decade, researchers predict the number of megacities — those with 10 million people or more — will quadruple. “There is an urgent need for a quantitative and predictive theory for how larger urban areas affect a wide variety of city features, dynamics, and outcomes,” write the authors.
The questions in this study were initially raised by co-authors Cate Heine, Elisa Heinrich Mora, and Jacob J. Jackson, who together spanned two cohorts of Undergraduate Complexity Researchers at the Santa Fe Institute.
According to West, the new results emphasize that inequality is primarily an urban phenomenon, arising from underlying social dynamics “that desperately need to be addressed.” He speculates that poorer city dwellers are missing out on the increased social interactions that are credited with driving innovation and wealth creation in large metropolises.
“What was a huge surprise in this research was that, as the city grows, there’s no advantage to people in the bottom 10-20th percentiles. As you go down the income deciles, the value-added for city-dwellers got less and less in a systematic way… so much so that, in the bottom decile you get nothing at all. There’s even evidence that you’re losing quality of life,” says West. “Here we found that rich are getting even richer than we thought and the poor are getting even poorer than we thought.”
Read the paper, “Scaling of urban income inequality in the USA,” in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface (August 2021)
The Jon Gruden Case and Why the NFL Still Isn’t Serious About Social Justice
On October 11th, the National Football League (NFL) community was shocked when news surfaced that Las Vegas Raiders Head Coach Jon Gruden announced his resignation just five weeks into the season. Gruden was one of the most high-profile figures in the NFL over the last 20 years, serving both as a Super Bowl-winning Head Coach and Monday Night Football Commentator. His resignation came after a slew of emails sent by him were made public that included a racial trope, antigay language, and a generally wide range of hurtful and insensitive rhetoric. The news was groundbreaking and hard to fathom for many who had beloved Gruden over the years, but there’s more to the story. The focus has rightfully been exclusively on Gruden and his fall-from-grace. Still, the lens of judgment has failed to focus on the multi-billion-dollar organization that has facilitated such behavior for far too long: the NFL. In the following, we’ll break down the necessary details of the Gruden case and why his resignation was essential. But we’ll also take a look into the NFL and what this case means for an organization that has a lousy track record of failing to support social justice issues, its players, and what’s morally right.
Details of the Case
As tends to be the norm in situations like this, there are many moving parts and details that are perhaps too complex to cover for this piece. With that being said, we must understand the chain of events here to better comprehend the whole picture.
From a public perspective, the Gruden ordeal began on October 8th, just a few days before his resignation. That Friday, The Wall Street Journal published a story revealing that the NFL was investigating Gruden for using a racial trope in a 2011 email to describe the NFLPA Chief DeMaurice Smith. Additionally, WSJ also reported that the NFL had been analyzing over 650,000 emails as part of their investigation that had begun back in June of 2021. The NFL’s investigation was spawned from a separate investigation on the Washington Football Team for workplace misconduct – a perhaps even more disturbing case if you’re unfamiliar.
In part of the NFL’s investigation, they came across the initial email in question, sent to then Washington Team President Bruce Allen. At this point, the NFL stated that the investigation had been launched under NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s direction. Goodell had then received a summary of the inquiry earlier in the week the story was published. The NFL also stated that it was sharing emails related to Gruden to the Las Vegas Raiders, who then employed him as their Head Coach.
The WSJ story broke headlines and sent a shockwave throughout the league. Many instantly began calling for Gruden’s resignation and action from the NFL. However, the NFL simply stated at the time that it was reviewing Gruden’s status for potential discipline. Gruden went on to coach his team’s game that Sunday, and it seemed as if a suspension, at best, was looming in the near future for Gruden. But then Monday came around.
On October 11th, The New York Times reported that Gruden was cited using anti-transgender, antigay, and much more offensive language in additional email correspondence with Bruce Allen for several years. Once again, the story shook up the league, and it seemed inevitable that Gruden would not escape this one. By the end of the day, Gruden met with the owner of the Las Vegas Raiders and would shortly thereafter announce his resignation as Head Coach.
A Word on Gruden
Before we look at this issue in a broader scope, we must be clear on Jon Gruden and his fate. Without question, his fall-from-grace was well-deserved, and he certainly doesn’t belong on an NFL sideline, now or ever again, for that matter. Gruden was a beloved coach and personality for many years, but no resume or persona outweigh actions. If we’re serious about shifting societal norms and scales of what’s accepted and not, then individuals who engage in such behavior must be dealt with in such a fashion. But with that being said, there’s a bigger issue at play here that hasn’t gotten enough press, and that’s the continued incompetency and lack of authenticity from the NFL to take social justice issues and questions of morality seriously in favor of the bottom line.
The NFL’s Culpability
Let’s start with the case in question. For starters, it’s a bit questionable that an investigation of emails, especially once the initial one was found, took nearly five months. According to the NFL, it took from June to the second week of October for a summary of the investigation’s findings to be presented to the Commissioner, the same one who supposedly launched the investigation in the first place. Even if this is true, it shows a severe lack of legitimate and effective protocols in place at the NFL to take matters like this as seriously as possible. Five months is far too long for a multi-billion-dollar organization that claims these issues are among their top priorities.
Then there’s the inaction after the initial story. Gruden faced no discipline, not even an indefinite leave of absence when the initial racist email was made public. For a league that has recently launched a massive social justice campaign that allows players to wear decals such as “End Racism,” “Stop Hate,” “It Takes All of Us,” and more, it’s highly problematic that they let Gruden go on to coach a game just a few days later. Plus, they hadn’t even met with and briefed the team that employed Gruden as their Head Coach: the Las Vegas Raiders.
The way this whole case played out and the lack of action from the NFL is concerning, to say the least. It begs the question, what happens if the second story never came out? Better yet, what about the first? It makes one seriously wonder if this issue would’ve ever seen the light of day. When it comes to racism or any form of hate for that matter, we all know by now that it takes more than just being opposed to the actions; you have to be anti-racist, anti-hate, and do more than just launch a multi-million-dollar PR campaign. I said before, and I’ll say it again, nothing outweighs actions here. And once again, the actions, or lack thereof, show that the NFL is still miles behind in taking social justice issues seriously.
It may seem as if the criticism of the NFL is perhaps too harsh for just this one incident, but the point is, it’s not just one incident. The way the NFL handled the Colin Kaepernick situation and players kneeling during the national anthem is a perfect example of a league that has failed to evolve and support its players above all. This is the same league that has banned multiple players for over a year for Marijuana usage, yet they hesitated with Jon Gruden. This is also the same league that has repeatedly shown that they don’t take domestic violence or sexual misconduct actions seriously either. The NFL has a bad track record when it comes to how they handle social justice issues, and if this case proves anything, it’s that they haven’t seemed to learn much of a lesson. A PR campaign might inspire some change, and we can all support that, but when your actions don’t reflect your words, then words mean nothing.
Why Understanding Black Women’s Beliefs About Motherhood Can Help Improve Reproductive Health Care
Chanel, now a middle-class mother of one, is just one of many women who have used abortion to end a pregnancy. “In college,” she explained, “I had two abortions and I had them not because I didn’t want to be a mother but because I wasn’t ready. I wanted to finish school and I just felt like I was too young… [M]y mother really stayed on me about not having kids and I saw what it was like for her to have kids at such a young age and to be unmarried… I never wanted to do that.” Researchers can distill Chanel’s lived experience down to the briefest of statistics: Black woman, college-educated; three pregnancies, one child. But her candid testimony sheds needed light on the complexities of personal choices about pregnancies. When I interviewed her, Chanel made it clear that her abortions were her own decision. But such decisions are always made by women in the context of external forces that constrain their options.
Decades of previous research have illuminated the significant racial and economic disparities that affect women who seek access to reproductive health services. Black women, especially, bear the brunt of socioeconomic and political factors that impede their full autonomy in making reproductive choices. Much has been made of data from the Guttmacher Institute showing that abortion rates for Black women are almost three times higher than for white women, and that unintended pregnancies are nearly twice as frequent for Black women. Meanwhile, abortions are increasingly concentrated among poor women, who accounted for nearly half of all abortions according to the latest available 2014 data.
What might create more favorable and equal conditions for Black women dealing with reproductive health issues? Studies have suggested many possible solutions – including better sexual health education for young people; expanded health insurance coverage; and increased access to reproductive care, including all forms of contraception, abortion care without stigma, and quality pre- and post-partum care for mothers and children. Many scholars are now also probing the ways in which institutional racism undercuts good health care for Black women.
Effects of Wealth, Class on Black Women’s Ideas about Motherhood
Although a focus on collecting and analyzing systematic data contributes to our overall understanding of women’s reproductive decisions and consequences, my research using in-depth interviews seeks to fill gaps left by previous studies. Discussions about abortion and contraception for Black women, I find, are often influenced by Black communities’ understandings of the centrality of motherhood in the reproductive life course. A richer understanding of the importance of motherhood to the Black community may help researchers and policymakers provide resources and programs grounded in the realities of Black women’s reproductive lives.
My conversations with research participants highlight the role of class in Black women’s definitions of motherhood and interpretations of “choice.” For poor and lower-class women, womanhood is deeply imbued with the value of motherhood. These women largely approach motherhood as destiny rather than as one choice among many. In contrast, upper- and middle-class women grapple much more with the “hows” and “whens” and “with whoms” – with the mechanics of fitting motherhood into their lives. Kim, a young working-class mother of one, explained that her own mother controlled some of her early reproductive health choices: “When I was younger my mom put me on [birth control] and said it was for my periods.” In contrast, Mia, a 33-year old middle-class women with no children, described a more deliberate decision to avoid pregnancy: “Kids are expensive… It’s cheaper to take birth control than have the kid. [laughter] so um yeah I’ll just keep taking birth control until I hit the lottery.” Both women exercised reproductive autonomy by taking birth control, but only the higher-income woman expressed the feeling that preventing pregnancy was her own choice to make.
Including Understandings of Motherhood in Reproductive Health Policy
As they make reproductive decisions, Black women struggle with expectations and obligations about motherhood. Devising policies that take account of community expectations and constraints may help reduce unintended pregnancies, increase access to reproductive healthcare services, and improve health outcomes for Black women. Exploring the meaning of choices made by Black women can reveal how variously situated women make different decisions. This, in turn, will allow more equitable provision of reproductive services.
My work begins to paint a detailed picture of Black women’s reproductive health journeys. But more research remains to be done. To combat the obstacles Black women face, we must interrogate and supplement quantitative data with qualitative explorations of personal experiences and beliefs. Data and interviews so far suggest a number of useful steps to be taken by key stakeholders ranging from policymakers to doctors:
Increase access to insurance to reduce the financial burden of preventing pregnancies or bearing children.
Foster cooperation among researchers, clinicians and educators – to improve understandings of beliefs important to the Black community, including ideas about motherhood and the meaning of womanhood. Such understandings can help providers improve the dissemination and reception of reproductive health education and services in the Black community.
Earmark funding for more research about the ways Black women in various social positions understand their reproductive lives. And encourage studies that encourage community participation and place a central emphasis on hearing Black women’s voices.
Black women make all sorts of reproductive choices, from using birth control to having abortions to raising babies. As their stories reveal, every choice is influenced by social class and the expectations of their families and communities. Researchers and advocates who want to improve reproductive health outcomes for Black women would do well to listen to what Black women have to say and view individuals’ choices as profoundly shaped and limited by social circumstances and cultural ideas and expectations.
How Focusing on Teen Pregnancy as a Personal Moral Failing Deepens Social Inequality
In the 1980s and 1990s, concerns about teen pregnancy voiced by policymakers and pundits helped garner support for welfare reform – as the public reached a consensus that teen pregnancy contributes to poverty and was encouraged by overly lenient welfare programs. Resulting welfare changes in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 imposed strict lifetime limits on the number of months a poor family can receive assistance while making it harder for impoverished families to qualify and remain eligible for aid. This policy was supposed to reduce welfare dependency by promoting work, reducing out-of-wedlock and adolescent pregnancies, and promoting marriage.
However, studies show that the age at which a person gives birth is not causally related to poverty or negative health outcomes for the parent or child. Teen pregnancy is a symptom of poverty, rather than its cause. While the 1996 law is credited with reducing the welfare rolls, experts argue that it has also increased the number of Americans living in at the deepest level of poverty. Declines in adolescent pregnancy cannot be attributed to that policy shift. If anything, welfare reform may have increased the rate of adolescent pregnancies among welfare recipients.
Welfare Reform and Shifting Perspectives on Teen Pregnancy
After the 1996 passage of welfare reform, conversations about teen pregnancy that had previously included attention to urban conditions, unemployment, inadequate health care, and the shortcomings of public education turned to an almost-exclusive focus on adolescent sex and the personal and moral failings it supposedly represents. My research examines political discourse, popular culture, and national and local efforts to prevent teen pregnancies to better understand why teen sex and childbearing remain central to popular culture and policy debates, despite research showing that teen pregnancy is a symptom of poverty and not a cause. I further examine why there has not been a reevaluation of welfare policy despite the documented shortfalls of earlier reforms. And I also probe how these two phenomena may be related.
Moral arguments have featured prominently in debate about adolescent sex since the 1970s, when teen pregnancy was first named as a special problem. Before the 1996 welfare legislation, however, the moral aspect was one of many. Only since then have the personal moral responsibilities of teen parents become the only lens through which responses are discussed.
Who Shapes Images of Teen Pregnancy and Why?
Some of the same voices that narrowed the discussion of welfare reform in the 1990s still shape discussions today. In 1996, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy (recently renamed Power to Decide) was founded as a counterpart to welfare reform. Power to Decide remains influential and is guided by leaders who helped popularize the overly-narrow view that teen pregnancy is largely a moral issue. In addition to helping enact welfare reform, these politicians and social scientists changed the debate about teen pregnancy. But to what end?
By studying shifts in public portrayals of teen pregnancy as a problem in national debates and in the activities, social media output, and television contributions of Power to Decide, I discovered that the moralized focus has specific effects:
- It removes teen pregnancy from the context of welfare. Whereas the issue was almost exclusively part of political debates about the welfare system in the 1980s and 1990s, in subsequent decades it is discussed primarily within debates about sex education and abortion.
- It paints the issue as an equal-opportunity problem. No longer is teen pregnancy represented as primarily plaguing Black and Latina communities. In shows like 16 and Pregnant, which has a mostly white cast, as well as in online games with multicultural characters and public service announcements with high-profile celebrities such as Bristol Palin, teen pregnancy is now publicly portrayed as equally affecting all races and classes.
- It depicts burdens of teen pregnancy as primarily physical and emotional. Stress on the pains of childbirth and the strains of parenthood for young relationships displaces earlier discussions of the potential impacts of teen pregnancy on a young person’s economic self-sufficiency and educational attainment.
Such shifts in public discussion fail to account for race, class, and the importance of social institutions in shaping the rate and experience of adolescent pregnancy. If U.S. systems of education, welfare, taxation, criminal justice, and health care are not portrayed as contributing to this problem, they will be left out of proposed solutions. The current focus on personal morality avoids addressing any societal roots or remedies. Instead, politicians and advocates informed by the rhetoric of the 1996 welfare reform offer attractively packaged information about sex and morality – often safely conveyed on the Internet – as their response to teen pregnancy. Questions of racism, inequality, and the inadequacies of the social safety net do not arise. In effect, public framings of teen pregnancy as a personal and moral problem blink at systematic racial disparities and leave low-income Americans vulnerable as inequalities widen.
Focusing on teen pregnancy as a moral failing distracts citizens, policymakers, and advocates from addressing the real problems in young people’s lives. Instead, the priorities should be:
- Reducing discrimination against pregnant young women and young parents in schools.
- Providing comprehensive sex education and reproductive health care to all young people, not in the name of stigmatizing certain pregnancies but to equip adolescents with the knowledge and tools to make informed choices about sex and reproduction.
- Replacing earlier failed welfare programs with economically redistributive measures to help people in difficult life circumstances – and boost the resources of marginalized communities.
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