Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Useful NYT "Class Matters" Graphics

Useful New York Times “Class Matters” Graphics            
In my high school Economy and Government class, we frequently read short articles from The New York Times’ 2005 “Class Matters” special section. While the data is six years old, this is nonetheless a very useful and relevant compilation of graphics. There are a few interactive graphics that lay bare the class and mobility statistics which, often used in academic texts and tossed around in politics, can be difficult to comprehend. Looking at some of these graphics really helped me make sense of our class discussion of the vanishing middle class and unequal wealth distribution.
            I was particularly interested in how a couple of the graphics related to Wayne Craven’s “The Legacy of John Calvin” and Joseph Stiglitz’s “Inequality of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%.” Craven’s historical examination of the Calvinist doctrine of prosperity and its association with virtues such as hard work and thrift made for an interesting companion piece with Stiglitz’s demonstration of the ever-consolidating wealth into few hands; the two New York Times graphics I will share here further challenge the deeply embedded American doctrine, or perhaps mythos, of hard work leading directly and invariably to prosperity.
            This graphic is an interactive breakdown called “How Class Works.” It’s interesting to plug in your own data, or perhaps that of your parents, to see where you fall in terms of what The New York Times considers prestige and influence. But even without inserting any actual information, the graphic is quite telling. The four categories of the graph, which The New York Times assures us are “commonly used criteria for gauging class,” are occupation, education, income (as in money earned), and wealth (as in assets and property).
If these are indeed fairly reliable measurements of social class, I would argue that these categories on their own, even without supporting data, indicate how difficult social mobility truly is. Public education in the United States is frequently condemned as ineffective, especially in poor areas. Wealth is often passed down and difficult to accumulate if you are living paycheck to paycheck. And income and occupations are certainly suffering in the current economic crisis and job market. None of this bodes well for social mobility. 
Another of the “How Class Works” graphics is very telling. By hovering your mouse over variously colored fifths of the U.S. population, ranging from Top Fifth to Bottom Fifth, you can chart where people started in 1988 and where they ended up in 1998. Few of the dark brown squares in the Top Fifth continue to dominate the Top Fifth ten years later, and hardly appear in the bottom two fifths at all. Conversely, the off-white Bottom Fifth squares pretty much stay put, with a lone square making it to the Top Fifth. This graphic demonstrates quite a lack of social mobility, questioning the beloved Alger expression that one can pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

By Theresa Iker

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