Reverberations of Inequality Conference

September 20, 2019

Keynote: Raj Chetty

Panel 1, "Health and Inequality": Chloe Bird, Elaine Hernandez, Bruce Link

Panel 2, "Barriers to Social Mobility": Sam Friedman, Michael Kraus

Panel 3, "Policy Responses to Inequality": David Daley, Susan Dynarski, Brishen Rogers

Preying on the Poor: Criminal Justice as Revenue Racket (Joe Soss) October 17, 2019

IN MARCH 2015, AMERICANS LEARNED from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) that the city of Ferguson, Missouri had been operating a “predatory system of government.” Police officers were acting as street-level enforcers for a program — aggressively promoted by city officials — using fines and fees to  extract resources from poor communities of color and deliver them to municipal coffers. JOE SOSS argues that what the DOJ discovered in Ferguson is not an anomaly in U.S. history or of contemporary American governance. Based on an ongoing book project with Joshua Page, Soss offers a political analysis of the origins, operations, and consequences of revenue-centered criminal justice practices that have grown dramatically in the U.S. since the 1990s. Under this policy regime, governments and corporations draw revenue streams from fine-centered policing, court fees, bail systems, prison charges, civil asset forfeiture, and much more. These and related practices have a long pre-history in earlier uses of predatory governance to advance American state and nation building, order the political economy, and manage race, class, and gender inequalities. Connecting this history to the present, Soss explains the processes of institutional conversion that turned the criminal justice field into a highly regressive system of revenue extraction and clarify how financialized criminal justice practices matter for social inequalities in the United States today.

IN MANY SOCIETIES, BUT ESPECIALLY IN THE UNITED STATES, the reverberations of inequality are felt most profoundly by children growing up in poverty. Poverty increases the risk that they will not be ready for school by age 5, will not complete high school, and will be poor as adults. A lack of high-quality pre-schools, secondary schools that are poorly funded and ineffective, challenging neighborhoods, and limited parental resources, among other variables, contribute to these odds. These factors are compounded, however, by the ways that inequality literally gets under the skin, as the toxic stress produced by poverty affects brain and bodily development in early childhood. Combining the perspectives of neuroscience and sociology, brothers BRUCE MCEWEN, head of the Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology at The Rockefeller University, and CRAIG MCEWEN, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Bowdoin College, explore the feedback loops between social inequalities and biological responses to chronic stress, which create potentially life-long consequences for health and life trajectories. As much as neuroscience is key to understanding these effects, the sociological perspective cautions against too narrow a focus on biology. There is the risk of medicalization, which defines problems of adversity primarily as medical conditions requiring individual diagnosis and treatment. Sociological perspectives emphasize the social structures and practices that give rise to adversities and the resources that can protect against their potential impact on bodies and brains. This perspective turns attention to social policies to reduce adversities and to development of community resources to protect against them.

Inequality and Childhood Adversity: Toxic Stress and Its Epigenetic Effects (B. and C. McEwen) Nov. 21, 2019

A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions, The Punishment Continuum, and the Way Forward (Alexes Harris)
Dec. 12, 2019

OVER SEVEN MILLION AMERICANS are either incarcerated, on probation, or on parole, with their criminal records often following them for life and affecting access to higher education, jobs, and housing. Court-ordered monetary sanctions that compel criminal defendants to pay fines, fees, surcharges, and restitution further inhibit their ability to reenter society. Sociologist ALEXES HARRIS presents findings from her book, A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as  Punishment for the Poor, which draws from extensive sentencing data, legal documents, observations of court hearings, and interviews with defendants, judges, prosecutors, and other court officials. Highlighting variations in how monetary sanctions are imposed, she shows how judges and court clerks hold a considerable degree of discretion in sentencing and rely on individual values—such as personal responsibility, meritocracy, and paternalism—to determine how much and when offenders should pay. Harris finds that fiscal sentences, imposed disproportionately on low-income minorities, help create a permanent economic underclass of those too poor to make make regular payments towards this pernicious debt. Finally, Harris proposes ways to end a two-tiered legal system that imposes additional burdens on already-marginalized groups.