Inequality Courses: Some More Equal Than Others

(Editor’s note: This article is being posted today on both the Pope Center and Minding the Campus sites.)

A new movement is rising on American campuses, timed perfectly to feed the frenzy over the income gap that is Occupy Wall Street’s main complaint. But this movement isn’t street populism; it’s another way for leftist professors to mold student beliefs.

Charlotte Allen’s essay, “The Inequality Movement – A Campus Product,” examined the phenomenon of college courses and programs on inequality—that is, on income and other social differences among people. It prompted both of us to wonder if students taking those courses would hear any ideas inconsistent with the “liberal” orthodoxy that income inequality is unjust, has been principally caused by racism, sexism, and free enterprise, and must be combated with a variety of government laws, regulations, and aid programs.

To find out, we investigated the syllabi and readings for a dozen courses at well-known colleges and universities, public and private, around the United States. The courses are:

  • Introduction to Social Stratification–University of Washington (Sociology 360)
  • Politics of Poverty, Inequality and Social Policy–University of Wisconsin-Madison (Public Affairs 883)
  • Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy–University of Michigan (Social Work 876)
  • Segregation and Social Inequality—Johns Hopkins University (Sociology AS 230)
  • Seminar on Inequality and Public Policy—Columbia University (Sociology W3945)
  • Social Class and Inequality–Florida State University (SYO 3530)
  • Social Inequalities, American Cultures–University of California Berkeley (Sociology 130)
  • Social Inequality—Baruch College, City University of New York (Sociology 3156)
  • Social Inequality—Duke University (Sociology 111)
  • Social Inequality—Hunter College, City University of New York (Sociology 218)
  • Social Inequality–University of Oregon (Sociology 207)
  • Social Inequality Why/Effects—Fordham University (Sociology 3136)

In examining those courses, we found very few indications that students were introduced to ideas about the causes of inequality or policies to deal with it that reflect free-market or public-choice perspectives. (Public-choice theory proposes that the bureaucrats who administer social programs are motivated largely by their own self-interest.)

Overwhelmingly, the courses take an approach perfectly in keeping with left/progressive beliefs about the causes of and cures for inequality. The textbooks and assigned readings are almost invariably by leftist authors. Students almost never encounter well-known conservative critics of leftist conceptions about inequality such as Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Martin Anderson, or Charles Murray.

Consequently, students do not learn, for example, that the income gap between blacks and whites was steadily narrowing throughout the 1940s and 1950s. It began to widen again around 1970, after welfare programs meant to help the poor started to undermine work effort and the family.

Surveying these courses, we find that professors only rarely offer their students any voices that dissent from leftist ideas about the causes of and proper responses to inequality. Students in the “politics of poverty” course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are expected to read some work by Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation and Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute. That course is a rare exception, however. In most inequality courses, students get a steady diet of leftist writers.

One of the most popular books on the reading lists is Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich (2001). It is assigned in the inequality courses at Duke, Florida State, and the University of Washington (where it is paired with The Communist Manifesto). Nickel and Dimed isn’t an academic work at all, but, rather, the avowedly socialist author’s recounting of her experiments in working for a few weeks at several low-wage jobs.

A staunch foe of the 1996 welfare-reform laws, Ehrenreich declared that Americans should be ashamed for “sending the poor out to make it on their own on little more than a quarter of a living wage.” Ehrenreich, who lived by herself in relatively expensive motels throughout her odyssey, made little effort to get to know her co-workers or to understand the family support-structures that enable many working-poor people to share housing, save money, and even prosper over the long run.

Another workhorse of inequality-course reading lists is Regulating the Poor by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, two of the founders of the “welfare rights” movement. The book is quite dated (first published in 1966), but is still popular with professors teaching about inequality. Piven and Cloward blame the welfare explosion on capitalism, but as Irving Kristol observed in a 1971 review of the book,  the true explanation for the exponential growth of the welfare rolls starting in the late 1960s was the efforts of people like Piven and Cloward who wanted more government programs dispensing more generous benefits to more people. The welfare explosion, they thought, would break the system and lead to a more thorough income redistribution system.

The most depressing aspect of those dozen courses is the instructors’ obsession with race, class, gender—and in some of the more avant-garde courses, sexuality—as the deterministic lens through which economic and social equality must always be viewed. Florida State instructor sociology instructor Patrick McGrady assigned only three books in a “Social Class and Inequality” course during the spring of 2010: Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed; Arlie Hochschild’s 1989 best-seller The Second Shift, which blames sexual stereotypes for the fact that household chores are regarded as women’s work; and Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods (2001), which blames race and class for children’s disparate performances in school. McGrady’s syllabus baldly asserted that race, class, gender, and sexuality were the chief forms of “inequality reproduction.”

Roderick Graham’s course “Social Inequality Why/Effects” at Fordham tracks McGrady’s course in its obsession with “inequalities structured along lines of race, class and gender.” Graham’s reading list is heavy on sentimental, sometimes purely journalistic narratives of people living on the economic margin. One of the assigned books is Missing Class: Portraits of the Near Poor in America (2007) by Katherine S. Newman and Victor Tan. Newman and Tan argue that a supposed rollback in New Deal-style government aid has led to the “erosion of the middle class,” as a review put it.

Another book on Graham’s list is New York Times reporter David Shipler’s The Working Poor: Invisible in America (2004). Another attack on workfare and broadside for bigger government, Shipler’s book argues for massive federal intervention in nearly every aspect of life: socialized health care, housing programs, and an extreme form of wealth redistribution via taxation and government-set wage levels.  A third book on the Fordham reading list, Low Wage America: How Employers are Reshaping Opportunity in the Workplace (2003), edited by Eileen Appelbaum, Annette D. Bernhardt, and Richard G. Murname (2003) is an anti-corporation, anti-globalization, and pro-union tract.

The reading list for “Social Inequality” at Duke includes The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting and the New Consumer (1998) by Boston University sociology professor Juliet Schor. Like David Shipler, Schor views income inequality as the source of nearly all of America’s social evils, including getting in over one’s head on credit cards.

All those works are studiously non-judgmental toward their impoverished subjects, avoiding such topics as, say, personal responsibility for one’s economic fate, the economic and psychological effects on children of being raised in a single-parent household, and the contribution of a union-dominated public school system to lack of mastery in the skills that would enable poor people to climb the economic ladder. And all those works argue, at least implicitly, that the remedy for social inequality is yet more government intervention. There are few serious discussions of, for example, the economic effects of setting unrealistically high minimum wages or the impact of regulations on businesses and job creation.

Although our survey of courses on inequality indicates that most are taught with heavy if not complete domination by progressive and egalitarian ideas, we discovered one course where that is not the case. Sociology professor Carl Bankston at Tulane University teaches a course, “Wealth, Poverty & Inequality” that gives students a remarkable range of views. Bankston has his students read many of the standard leftist writers, including Marx and John Rawls, but he balances them with readings from well-known opponents of the redistributive state, such as Robert Nozick, Tyler Cowen, and Harvey Mansfield.

Social and economic inequality (traditionally called “social stratification”) has been a preoccupation of the study of sociology since the days of Max Weber, explained Fred Lynch, a government professor at Claremont-McKenna College who teaches a course entitled Inequality, Politics and Public Policy. In the past, sociology was more rigorously quantitative, with emphasis on hard data. Recently, though, “sociology has been cut up into pieces like the sick man of Europe,” said Lynch–into such fields as women’s studies, black studies, and Latino studies that emphasize qualitative analysis. Theory, which ignores data and practical applications and ultimately shades into leftist ideology, has come to dominate the field.

And thus we have today’s “inequality” courses–mostly lopsided exercises in indoctrination. Inequality is a subject that can and should be approached in a fair and professional academic manner, but it isn’t at most universities.