by Jonathan J.B. Mijs, Harvard UniversityThe pandemic has had an uneven impact across the U.S. — exacerbating existing inequalities and creating new political challenges. The following are three American fault lines laid bare by the coronavirus, and one silver lining. 1. For millions of Americans, staying at home is a luxury they cannot afford. The comfort and well-being of all Americans depends on grocery clerks, delivery drivers and factory workers putting their own safety second. While the upper middle classes take their work with them, working and middle class Americans are tethered to their jobs: Bureau of Labor Statistics (2018) show that 52 percent of college-educated people can work from home, as compared to just 12 percent of workers with a high school degree, and 4 percent of those without. The same line cuts across race. White Americans are twice as likely as African Americans or Latinos to have the option to work remotely. The coronavirus highlights just one dimension of the increasingly polarized U.S. labor market that offers high compensation and autonomy to a lucky few, and precarious employment for the rest, marked by low-wages, little to no benefits, and a lack of control or security. 2. The government’s slow response to the coronavirus almost certainly cost lives, but arguably the most consequential government action dates back more than half a century. Since 1942, health care in the U.S. has been tied to employment. Across the developed world, losing your job means relying on unemployment benefits, subsidized housing, food banks. In America, it may mean losing your right to health care. As is, a fifth of Americans without a high school degree do not have health insurance, compared to just 3 percent of college graduates (US Census Bureau 2018). Lack of access to mental health care and addiction treatment are part of why those without a college degree are four times as likely to die a “death of despair,” by suicide, alcoholism or drug abuse (Case & Deaton 2020). While awaiting the final death count of this pandemic, epidemiologists report that past flu and tuberculosis epidemics especially hurt low-income communities that lacked access to health care. In low-income communities, rates of preexisting conditions are higher, the uninsured may delay or forgo care, and medical services, already stretched thin, may be unable to provide treatment. These are neighborhoods like Jackson Heights and Corona, Queens, which account for almost triple the rate of cases as nearby Manhattan. Economic deprivation leads to higher mortality and exacerbates rates of transmission, jeopardizing all members of society. 3. While the President blames the coronavirus on China, the Surgeon General hones in on communities of color, urging them to avoid alcohol, tobacco and drugs. Their words reveal a tendency to blame people instead of circumstances. Scapegoats help maintain Americans’ belief in a just world, where successful people pull themselves up by their bootstraps and poor people face hardship because of bad decisions. My research shows a growing number of Americans believe that hard work is all that stands between failure and success (Mijs 2019). The daily discrimination experienced by Asian Americans, sometimes singled out as culprits of the pandemic, is a reminder of the “probational nature” of immigrants’ existence. In normal times they face stereotypes, but in times of crisis they are to blame. As Mia Tuan (1999) puts it, it is a hard fall from model minority to “forever foreign” — one that American history shows is never too far away.
Frances Fox Piven, Winner of the 2019 Distinguished Career Award
What major political events have influenced your research agenda over the years?
As an undergraduate, I was attracted to the ideals of the planned community associated with the New Deal, although as I explored the practices associated with those ideals, I became skeptical, influenced at first by conservative critics like von Hayek who argued that the rationally planned community was impossible, and later, when I worked as a junior planner on the rezoning of New York City, for the more grounded reason that these ideals were corrupted in practice by the pervasive influence of the real estate industry, especially in New York City. However, it was the 1960s! And very soon the spectacular eruption, first of the anti-war movement, and then of the Black Freedom Movement, overshadowed for me at least these preoccupations. Indeed, I think it is not an exaggeration to say that the anti-poverty wing of the Black Freedom Movement has been the most important influence on my work.
How has political sociology changed throughout the course of your career, and where do you see it heading in the future?
It has become bolder and broader. I began my work as an academic in the 1960s, and political sociology was still crippled by the constraints of cold war fears. The movement of the 1960s changed that, people began to read Marx and Gramsci and the English social historians. But it took a while for these influences to transform the field.
How would you describe your research process? How has it changed over the years?
I study politics, especially the politics of the lower strata in American society, and the politics that affects lower strata groups. When I want to understand a political development, I try to find out as much as I can about the historical events in which that development was embedded. I also search for historical parallels that might cast light on those events. And although I am not a quantitative methodologist, I eagerly use quantitative data produced by others in this process of searching. I don’t think my approach has changed much over the years, but the data available has improved!
What is your favorite obscure sociological work?
My favorite obscure work is a public administration tract by Chester Barnard entitled The Functions of the Executive. Very informative, especially for organizers!
If you had one piece of advice for graduate students/early junior faculty what would it be?
Shorten your time horizons, not only because we don’t any of us know the future, but because life is better if you worry less and do more!
Back in 2011 Glen Beck went after you. Do you have any further thoughts on the experience or Beck in general?
It was bracing, and interesting. And I learned I had lots of friends!
Frances Fox Piven is Distinguished Professor Emerita at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is an internationally renowned social scientist, scholar, and activist.